Friday, November 21, 2014

The artistic soul of a railroad spike

Have you ever known one of those people who has a luminous artistic soul.   You can see it under the soul crushing upbringing and layers of equally soul crushing life choices.  Each encounter makes you wish there were a way to free that inner force.  Perform an existential transformation.  With people that isn't possible.  The artistic soul is trapped.  Even a Disney marathon can't free it.  This is not to say that one can never break free of these constraints, it just takes self awareness and courage, and maybe a soupcon of confidence.  Not something that comes from without.  So the sad crushed artistic soul ends up searching desperately for an external salve for that internal yearning, and we look away...
...because there are things that we can transform.  Railroad spikes for instance.  Yeah, I know.  You wondered where I was going with that.  Listen, I try to give a little insight into the human condition with my tips and techniques.  Heavy on the human condition.  Light on tips and techniques.

Anyway, railroad spikes have an artistic soul.  This is in spite of the crushing they have endured at the hands (wheels) of trains.  At this point I must remind you that all railroad spikes no matter where you find them are the property of the rail companies.  So don't go running out to gather them like asparagus in the spring just so you can free their inner beauty.  That my friend is a crime.  Also, no pennies on the tracks.  THAT IS NOT FUNNY.

Can you see the inner beauty?
I had some spikes that came from a railroad on Mars I'm pretty sure.  Because Union Pacific doesn't own those.  They were given to me by a spiky haired Martian.  His name was Buck.  Anyway, they were begging me to free them.  So I did.

Martian spikes from Buck

There are, I suppose, a couple of things that you should know about railroad spikes.  First they are a very low carbon high carbon steel.  They are tool steel generally.  Particularly if they have a HC stamp, but you can do a spark test and tell if they are high carbon.   The other thing is that they all belong to the railroad companies.
The reason the carbon content matters is that the higher the carbon content to a point, the longer the edge will last when properly heat treated.  Lower carbon tool steel won't hold an edge for very long, but railroad spikes are so darn romantic that nobody cares that they actually make crappy knives.  Until you move in together and find out how dull they can be.  Also they never clean up after themselves.  What is that?

Mid process
Bringing out the beauty of a spike is fun.  It is one of those pleasures that is hard to articulate. You need raw power to hammer out the blade and if you let your hammer sing, the blade takes on a life of its own.    It forms itself.  It reveals its luminous artistic soul.  The handle hints at its desires as well.  The spike will guide you and reward you for your effort.  It naturally finds its form.  Truthfully, it is an easy blade to polish as well, because it is just barely tool steel.  With most blades, heat treating is somewhat complicated and, if you do it in a forge, fraught.  Railroad spikes are relatively easy to temper and don't need a lot of annealing.   

I wonder about the pictures I take sometimes.

Fun and satisfying.  
What more could you want.  
Ya know, except for maybe longevity.

A slightly more prettier picture.

Back to work


Sunday, November 9, 2014

Timeless love and other conundrums

This is the note I received in my in box.

I was curious if you might be able to help me with something…

I’m looking to get a simple iron ring custom made, with a small catch: the goal is to use only metalworking/blacksmithing processes available during the Roman Empire (to the greatest extent possible). I would imagine this takes things like machining off the table, but I’d like to maintain that clean/precise shape. I was thinking something along the lines of a non-brass-brushed, narrower version of this.

If context is of any use… the ring is for my girlfriend (and likely fiancĂ©-to-be). She was a classics major and thus Roman history buff. It was an early Roman tradition to give a pair of engagement rings: one iron, to be worn in private, and another gold, to be worn in public. Since we’re currently working on opposite sides of the country, I figured it would be a sweet gesture to bridge the gap until we’re back under one roof and I go for the gold… ring, that is.

Let me know if it sounds like a project you’d be interested in!


Apparently I like a challenge, and am willing to leap wholeheartedly into love projects without thinking about whether I even have the knowledge necessary to make an informed choice.  So, of course, I took this project.  The problem is, it probably really required more research than it was worth.  So rather than be pedantic, I decided to go for the spirit of the idea.  Because, my hunch is, they didn't have oxy/acetylene torches or propane forges during the early Roman Empire.  And I wasn't about to go dig up bog iron or hunt down a meteorite.  I'm pretty sure we don't have those around here anyway.  Also coal is heavy and smelly and there are only certain things the coal forge gets fired up for.  A lot like me, now that I think about it.  So as the song says, I did it my way.  

Do you ever think about how we got here as a species.  this is probably what makes people major in classics and be Roman history buffs.  I understand that historically all technological advances come from trying to develop better weapons, but how did someone decide to smelt swamp debris to make a weapon?  Also bread.  Did you ever think about that.  Who figured out how to put yeast in it so it was less like a rock and more like something you can't stop eating.  And since I'm totally off the subject, I do not think the greatest invention was the water wheel or the trebuchet. (Did you see how I did that.  Clever no?  I used the trebuchet font on trebuchet.  And yes, I do know what one is.)  Well maybe the water wheel.  I think the greatest invention was the washing machine.  Go ahead, imagine your life without one. 

Anyway back to the subject of .... can you hear me screaming...endlessly

I was going to be a smart ass there, but instead I am going to learn you about the ring I ended up making.  I make different things using different techniques.  I think I've said this before.  I'm really  not a purist, but for this I needed to be more a purist than usual. 

I have some chunks of pure iron.  I picked them up at a conference.  They are salvage from some old building in the Midwest, I guess.  The company that sells it gives away bars at the conferences.  I have only had success forging pure iron in a coal forge.  So this ring would be made of regular old low carbon steel.  I have tons of that piled around.  Seriously there are tons.

End of pure iron bar

I decided to use the oxy/acetylene torch.  Propane forge would have been overkill. 

I heated the end and smoothed with a rasp.  Then I used a cutoff hardy to nip a little chunk of the bar off for the ring.   As you can imagine it's a little tricky for me to take pictures while I am working. In order to cut with the hardy, you heat the bar where you want to cut it to orange and use the hammer to drive the stock into the hardy.  For this piece, because it was so small I flipped it and drove it onto the cutter from both sides.  When I could see the line of the cut I used the vice to hold the little end and tongs to work it back and forth and off.  

Bar end hot in vice

Small bit still hot after cutting

The next step was to forge the nib into an oval disc. 
Heated and formed into a disc

 I then used a chisel to slit it in the middle the long way.  
I want there to be the same amount of metal on all sided of the slit.

Next I used a drift to make the hole round.  
First the hole is rounded

Next the metal is stretched to make the ring

I then used the tip of the horn to stretch it to size and clean up the edges.  I also used a file to remove a small burr.

Smoothing the edges on the horn - this is done hot

Finally I brushed and waxed it.
Ring on the mandrel - not a great picture

Overall, I think I was true to the original request.  I used some modern tools but only ancient techniques.  The end result was a really nice looking ring.  Of course, good work and good intentions are no guarantee of  getting the gold or ending up under one roof for that matter.  I did my part.  The rest is out of my control.

c'est la vie

Better go make something.  Next I believe I will be taking you through the making of a weapon.