advice to new smiths
This page is meant as a FAQ for the new smith. I will try to cover the basic fundamentals for getting started as a smith that tend to be road blocks.
The most important thing is to get a smithy together and get working. Too many people try for the perfect shop right at the start and waste years that could be spend swinging a hammer. "Don't let the best be the enemy of the good" is a motto of mine. Find your local ABANA group and attend meetings and conferences. ABANA affiliates are an awesome way to learn the fundamentals and pick up tools.
Asking For Training and Help
As a new smith you will be inclined to ask to apprentice or ask for someone to teach you there are people who are willing to do this but don't take it personally if someone says no. Every hour I spend teaching a new smith is 60-100$ out of my pocket where I could be making product or spending time with my family. I personally set aside time every other month to teach fundamentals to people at the public meetings and public demos. When asking for help it always best to show that you have tried to learn on your own. I will always ask do you have a forge and anvil? If the answer is no then I have to assume you are really not that interested. Blacksmithing is very much an activity that requires regular access to a forge. Going to someone's shop once or twice a month will do you almost no good unless you build yourself a basic rig so you can practice for a few hours a week. I will always try to help a new smith get over a hurdle once they have started trying.
Coal needs to be bituminous. Bituminous coal has a dull sheen and is the coal for blacksmiths. Anthracite is more commonly sold and is next to useless in a forge unless you have a strong blast of air. Coal will allow you more focused and more intense heats than propane but you need to keep moving or the steel will burn. I find that coal allows for very flexible heating based on how I build the fire. Working the fire to maintain a healthy air flow through the fire is essential and you will need to contend with clinkers which are non-combustibles that clump in the forge.
Coke is roasted coal that has had many of the impurities driven off. This provides a clean hot fire which needs a continuous strong blast of air to maintain. Many smiths have told me that they start their coke forges with an oxy acetylene torch since coke is so notoriously hard to get lit. Coke is more expensive than coal since it has to be roasted which requires energy and processing. I heard of a smith who made his own coker but that was largely due to him having access to free cheap coal.
Charcoal burns clean and hot and is very kind to the steel. There are some caveats though. Putting charcoal in a bottom blast forge will burn through a lot of charcoal. My little side blast forge would consume an 8$ bag of cowboy charcoal in about 8 hours. While this seems to work well it put out a lot of sparks and I had to be careful to keep the ash bed in the fire from insulating my stock. I found myself using a poker to fluff the fire and shake the ash down periodically and lifting larger pieces into the center of the fire.
Propane has the lovely perk that you can turn it on and 5-10 minutes later you are working and you can turn it off and walk away. I tell people to always have a fire in the forge when you start the gas (burning twist of paper works or a blowtorch). Your burner needs to be sized for the internal volume of the forge or you will never get a good heat. It is harder to weld unless you have a multi burner forge but multi burners means more fuel costs. You will save a lot of money by using 30 lb tanks (less prone to tank freeze) and taking your tank to someone who charges by the gallon to refill. I can fill a 20lb an run it for about 16-20 hours even more with a very well tuned forge and breaks to let the tank warm up every few hours.
Gas forges are the easiest to use as a beginner since you can see the steel heat up however there are gotchas. A gas forge will have what we call the dragon's breath that needs to be dealt with. This is a blast of hot flame that comes out of the openings of the forge and will then start to rise. I find that I often need to bring my tongs in under the blast if I am working without gloves. Working around the dragon's breath becomes instinctive fast. Localized heats and forge welding can be harder in a gas forge but can be worked around. Neighbours will never complain about a gas forge smoke and fuel is readily available.
Bottom blast coal forges can be made out of a break drum and some pipe. A common configuration is to convert a grill so that you can close it when not in use. This way you have a ready made stand and are simply getting it working. Here's a youtube video showing just how easy it can be, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xIM3tG1ZNM You will need to clean the trap and clinkers out periodically from this type of forge. Avoid galvanized steel in areas that will get hot. This will save you from zinc poisoning.
Side blasts were used throughout most of history and are still common in Europe. The air comes in the side. These are arguably easier to build than a bottom blast since you just need a bellows shield some pipe and some dirt. Here is a very simple side blast. Side blasts have the perk of not getting clogged by clinkers. Here is a dead simple side blast forge.
http://www.bladesmithsforum.com/index.php?showtopic=10057 Avoid galvanized steel in areas that will get hot. This will save you from zinc poisoning.
The top of the anvil should be level with you knuckles if you are standing with you hands at your side. This is general rule where if you are using a sledge people tend to drop it a bit lower and if you are doing jewelry some people mount the anvil a bit higher. Placing a layer of caulk or conveyor belt under the anvil and securely bolting the anvil down will reduce noise and make for a more secure anvil.
Anvils are any block of material you can beat hot steel against. I know a few people who have done stone anvils but they can send off shards and you have to work the metal hot.
Steel anvil selection:
I keep a large (1 - 1.5 inch diameter) ball bearing in my car. I drop it from 10 inches on any prospective anvil. If I get a 5 inch or better bounce I can use that piece of steel as a good anvil. I have anvils that range from 1-135 lbs. My rule of thumb is to try and not use a hammer that weighs more than 1/10 the anvil weight. As a new smith you want a nice flat face with slightly rounded corners to beat against. Finding that perfect anvil you will cherish may take you a while and using a piece of scrap metal or rail road track will get you up and running.