Getting Started: Forge SelectionTimothy
If you are new to forging – and I can assure you we all were at one time – just getting set up may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. You’ll see all kinds of fantastic industrial setups, or ones that people like you and me have worked on over the years to improve their work practices and equipment levels, but that all comes with time.
For this article, let’s start with your heat source. Depending on what you are making, you may decide that one is better than another for your purposes, so let’s have a look at the most commonly available. We’ll divide them into solid fuel and gas. Other types of burners such as waste oil and diesel are also used, but these types of burners are more complex and not easily available.
Charcoal is easy to find these days as people re-discover the joys of charcoal BBQs. It lights easily, burns very clean and leaves none of the ‘clinkers’ – big sticky blobs of slag – you get from coal and coke. All that is left when it burns is ash. It is possible to forge weld with charcoal (ask any Japanese swordsmith) and it is potentially much cleaner, but you’ll need plenty of it. The drawbacks with charcoal are that you will use a lot of it in a hurry and, especially at start-up, you’ll generate a lot of smoke. These drawbacks are also the case with coal and coke, except that you will generate even more toxic fumes and will need the right kind of extraction system to deal with it.
Coal and coke
Coal and coke have fuelled most forges until recent years because they were plentiful and did the job well, but they take some getting used to.
Both coke and coal are more difficult to light than charcoal and require more fire maintenance to get the best results, but they do offer the benefit of burning a lot hotter and longer.
When using coal, the idea is to burn out everything but the carbon – making coke – before introducing the workpiece. If you can buy readymade coke, you are already there. For general forging of things like decorative ironwork, coal or coke forges are a good option – not so much because of the fuel itself, but the designs of the forges made to use them. You don’t have the tight space constrictions of a typical gas forge and if you need a short heat or have a large scroll to make, the open surface of a solid fuel forge is a lot more versatile.
One further drawback with coke and coal is the formation of clinkers. These are sticky molten blobs of impurities that form in the bottom of your fire which can block your air inlet (tuyere) causing your fire to burn cold. Bits of slag can also to stick to your work. This is more crucial if you are forge welding because it is easy for that slag to become incorporated into your work – not as big a deal if you are making gates but disastrous if you are making Damascus. Sometimes a slag inclusion doesn’t show itself until you have started the final finish of your knife some hours or even days later.
Temperature control is also a challenge with solid fuels, and it is very easy to get the fire hot enough to melt your steel! We’ve all done it, and when you’ve destroyed a couple of hours worth of work in a fountain of yellow sparks, you’ll get the picture. Of course, it’s all doable and smiths have been doing it for centuries, but don’t be too hard on yourself if you have a few disasters in the beginning. The greatest drawback these days is that it can be very hard to find coal or coke, and the few sources around are very expensive.
This brings us to gas – LPG. Gas is available at just about any service station as BBQ gas and an 8kg bottle swap is typically about $30. Depending on your forge setup and the type of work you’re doing, one bottle might last all day. With the right equipment, gas is easily regulated and super clean for forge welding and Damascus or pattern welded steel. You can also quite easily maintain the exact temperature you need, particularly if you use a thermocouple. Slag is virtually eliminated, setup is relatively cheap, and with the right skills, tools and instruction it is mostly DIY.
In terms of fuel efficiency, it is difficult to compare the two, but gas can be shut off while working the steel and then started again with minimal heat-loss when returning the workpiece to the forge. It can also get your forge heated up and ready to use in a matter of minutes very easily.
Check out our gas forge kits here. You’ll find everything you need to get started and a comprehensive range to suit your needs. If you’re not sure exactly what you need for your forge project, we can advise you on the right equipment for you. With the right forge design, there isn’t much you can’t do that a traditional solid fuel forge can, and the many benefits such as availability of fuel, minimal fire maintenance and reliable temperature control make it a good choice for knife makers. If you dont have the means or desire to make your own forge send us an email at [email protected] and we will put you in contact with someone that can help you out!
So for general forgework, I find it useful to have both types of forge. Purely for knife work: gas wins every time.
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