By Tiffany Eng

A few weeks ago, the Books and Library Materials department got the chance to go down to the forge and work on some conservation or bookbinding tools. Which was pretty cool.

On the Sunday night before the two days full days we were going to spend in the forge, our tutor Andrew Smith gave us a safety briefing, and a short first lesson in sword mending.

Just kidding, that wasn't until the second day. After the safety talk, and learning to control the fires, we were all given a long piece of mild (softer) steel and allowed to play around with it, just to get a feel for things. By putting the metal into the forge until it turned orange then using a hammer and anvil we turned long pieces of metal rods into random twisty bits.

I learned that if you heat a piece of steel past an orange, to a vibrant yellow colour, it becomes a beautiful sparkler. Which is lovely for a few moments, then results in deep pitting in your steel. (An effect of the carbon burning out of the metal, resulting in losses.) So we worked on keeping the colour between red and orange, by moving the steel around the right areas of the forge.

Forges with steel heating

The next day we applied the same techniques to practice making tools. This time we had the opportunity to try using the power hammer, which we would eventually use to flatten the harder tool steel. The power hammer takes some of the work out of flattening the steel by doing it in the machine, instead of by hand on an anvil.

The power hammer looks like this :

Andrew demonstrating how to set up power hammer

And acts like this:

Power-hammer-flattened steel

Plasticine practice spatula and a metal one

After all this practicing we were basically professionals, and we started making either a double-sided spatula or lifting knife from tool steel. This steel was harder (and thus was a bit more difficult to shape), but everyone did their best, and by the end of the day, the roughly shaped tools were buried under a pile of coals for the night to slowly cool down. This annealing process left the metal soft, so it would be easier to work the next day.

By the second full day, most people were ready to refine the tools.

Lifting knife flattened with an angle grinder

We used an angle grinder to first create a flat surface, or whatever shape needed on the steel then went on to a file, and then oiled sandpaper to make sure there were no uneven surfaces. A slight bevel was put on the edges of the lifting knives.

Sanding down one side very very flat

Once the tool was shaped correctly, it was time to put it back into the fire for hardening and tempering.

"Isildur! Cast it into the fire!"

To harden, the tools were heated up slowly, over the course of about 15-30 minutes until they reached an orange colour, and then were dropped (gently!) into a big vat of oil. The oil cooled the tools down at the correct rate for the metal to be hardened.

After a ten to twenty minute cooling period, the tools were pulled out of the oil, wiped down, and tempered with a big torch.

Tempering the metal with a torch

As the metal was heated to the correct temperature, a rainbow of colours appeared, indicating when to stop the heat, and to plunge the tool into a bucket of water.

Tempering colour spectrum. Heating to different colours gives different metal characteristics.

After that, all that was left was to sand off all the black oxide from the hardening and tempering, and to sharpen the tool!

A lifting knife in need of a final sanding and sharpening

All in all, it was a really good time in the forge learning about something entirely different than the norm. It was nice to be able to experience the process of making simple tools, which opens up some possibilities for making or customizing some tools in our future practices.

Some finished results!:

Lifting knife and spatula

Double-ended microspatula