On Saturday March 3rd 2012 Dick Snow, Blacksmith and member of the Alamance Makers Guild graciously invited several members from the Guild to his home in Efland NC for a lesson in blacksmithing. The topic was nail making and I have to say I doubt I’ll have a more educational, entertaining, or humbling day for quite a while!
Nails… we take them for granted and in many ways they are probably the simplest fastener devised by man. Today they are mass produced by computer controlled machines far from the view of most people but there was a time not that long ago in human history that if you needed a nail, you’d either need to make one yourself, or go to the local blacksmith. In reality the actual act of nail making was beneath a skilled blacksmith and instead the production of nails was work for women or children. Looking at how simple a nail is, and knowing that it was children’s work its easy to think “sure I can make a nail, easy!” But you would be very wrong! (at least for your first many times)
Nail Making is often an introductory lesson in the art of the blacksmith because it illustrates several of the tasks of a blacksmith; forging (or hammering), drawing out, cutting, and upsetting (heading). It is also a relatively economical task for learning hammer control. Dick was a great teacher. First he demonstrated the task at hand a few times, the first time he just gave a general overview, and the second time he demonstrated the less-than-a-minute task over a 20 minute talk that leveraged his knowledge and emphasized the fact that our first nails would not be quite what we might hope or expect. He repeated that only time and practice would improve our technique. In addition to the knowledge behind blacksmithing (which was often passed down not as scientific theory and mathematics but rather a word-of-mouth tradition) there is a great deal of technique and body kinesthetics that are required. In some ways learning about hammer control reminded me of a tennis lesson!
Most of the folks who took part agreed that even though the process seems straight forward, the first time is fairly intimidating (even for folks used to working with their hands and being around potentially dangerous equipment.) As in any work, there are always things to be aware of and to respect. At first the thought of 1800 degree hot metal seemed daunting but then I learned that since iron and steel are such poor conductors of heat, that its possible to heat one end of an 18 inch rod to 1800 degrees while the other end remains at room temperature. By far the biggest danger for a novice is probably just awareness of surroundings and being safe around others who are working. After a time the fear gave way to a focus on all of the things I should be doing in a different or better controlled way! As I say, its a very humbling experience!
To make a cut nail:
First a small diameter rod (around 1/4” in diameter) of low carbon steel is heated in a forge to a orange to yellow heat (around 1800 to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. Blacksmiths don’t generally measure temperature by exact number, but rather rely upon the color of the metal to determine the working temperature. The forge can be a more modern propane gas forge for an even regulated heat. We used, a charcoal burning forced air forge. Its possible to use real hardwood charcoal as fuel, but in our case we used a metallurgical grade of bituminous coal. To regulate the temperature of the fire its necessary to operate a bellows or in our case a hand-cranked air blower. More oxygen to the fire means more fire and more heat.
Cut nails are square and taper to a point. To achieve this, the hot rod is removed from the fire and brought to the anvil where it is carefully hammered to draw it out to a point. It is important not to hammer too far up the rod and also to make sure to rotate the rod by 90 degrees as you hammer. The hammer flattens and draws out one side while the dead mass of the anvil underneath flattens and draws out the opposite side. Hammering can be done so long as the metal is hot enough, but once it cools down to a “red hot” then it must be re-heated in the fire in order to continue working. Dick, thanks to years of practice can make a nail (including all the following steps) in one heating and he says that some really serious blacksmiths can make multiple nails from one rod in one heating! For our efforts it took several trips to the fire to complete our nails.
Interesting fact that I learned: Every time you heat steel in a fire some of the carbon inside the steel is burned away. At the same time, every time the steel is removed from the fire and exposed to oxygen the surface of the metal rapidly oxidizes (or rusts) and produces “slag.” As you hammer the metal this slag chips off the surface and the net result is that the overall diameter and mass of the workpiece is reduced. Its also possible to over-heat a piece of steel and remove enough carbon and other material that the workpiece becomes pitted just like my first nail!
Once the taper of the nail has been established the next step is to partially cut the nail from the rod. Every anvil has a square hole called a “Hardy Hole” that can be used to hold “Hardy Tools.” The most common Hardy Tool is a Hardy Cutter, a wedge shaped cutter that pinches a workpiece when it is hammered from above and separates metal into a V-shaped cut. The heated rod is placed over the cutter and hammered over the cutter until a cut is made at least 2/3 of the way through the piece. If you hammer too many times you’ll cut through the complete rod and send a hot piece of shrapnel flying through the workshop!
After heating the rod again, the next step is to remove the partially cut nail from the rod. To do this the square tapered end of the nail is placed into a nail heading tool and then the nail is broken off by twisting back and forth. The metal is hot and in a plastic state so this action is kind of like breaking off a piece of licorice candy (if the licorice was around 1800 degrees Fahrenheit at the time!)
Immediately after breaking off the nail in the nail heading tool, the nail is brought over the “Pritchel Hole” on the anvil and before it has a chance to cool the head of the nail is formed by “upsetting.” To do this you have to land a heavy, square blow to the top of the nail. There is time for maybe four hits to the nail before it cools too much to continue. (An experienced nail maker can make a faceted head with four offset blows after the main blow, we were not experience nail makers!) Once this is done the nail (still in the nail setting tool) is dipped into water to quench it. This causes the nail to rapidly cool and in so doing it contracts so that it can be removed from the nail setting tool. All that is left is to bring it to the anvil, tap it to release it from the nail setting tool, and then re-quench it in the water to take care of remaining heat underneath the nail head. Then you’ve got a finished nail!
Another interesting fact that I learned: Blacksmiths may make horse shoes and nails, but in general they do not shoe horses. The job of shoeing a horse is left to the Farrier. Farriers have specialized training in anatomy and know how to properly, safely, and healthily shoe a horse.
Stemming from that interesting fact comes the story of horse shoes and good luck. Have you ever wondered why Horse Shoes are supposed to bring good luck? There has long been a tradition that iron was somehow magical and mystical, but the tradition that horse shoes bring good luck comes from around the 10th century in England. It was said that the patron saint of blacksmiths “Dunstan” was visited by the devil because he needed a new shoe for one of his split hooves. Dunstan, being a good smith recognized who this customer was, grabbed him with his hot tongs, and tied him to the wall. He then applied the horse shoes with such force and causing such pain that the devil promised to never again enter a building that displayed a horseshoe! It was also said that the ringing of a blacksmith’s anvil kept away demons and witches and so at closing time on Saturday evenings the blacksmith would traditionally hit his anvil a final three times to keep evil away from his shop while he was away on Sunday.
The trade of the blacksmith is just as much art as it is science. As metal heats and cools it expands and contracts, and in most cases its not possible to exactly measure lengths or angles as metal is being worked. Each hammer blow changes the shape and size of the material and so making something like you want is very much a question of experience and a good eye. Dick explained that if you want to make two items (like a candlestick for instance) that are alike, its an easy task… just make 100 candle sticks and then find the two from the bunch that are most alike! Alternately, if two objects are separated by enough distance then they will look more alike than they really are!
I’ve seen nails being made by blacksmiths at Colonial Williamsburg in Virgina and at the North Carolina State Fair in the past but I’d never had the chance to try my own hand at the skill of nail making. Something as simple as a nail requires a lot of thought, planning, and skill. And all of that comes after the fact that someone worked out all of the science and technology, made the anvil, built the forge, made the hammers and other tools, and created a supply of steel rod after someone else mined the iron ore! We truly stand on the shoulders of giants! In our world of high speed communications, smart phones, and throw-away technology that just 100 years ago would have seemed like magic its easy to get out of touch with how, where, and why things are made. Personally I think every high school student should spend at least one hour of their comprehensive educational career making a few nails. Its very interesting to see how such a fundamental building block of our world is made, and very humbling to see the skill and thought process that goes into it. I’m even more impressed with the products of a highly skilled blacksmith’s work now that I’ve had a chance to try my own hand at something that would be considered child’s work!
I’m very thankful for Dick Snow, and for opportunities for learning that come out of Maker Spaces and Maker Groups like the Alamance Makers Guild!
I’ve put an annotated photo gallery up from my day making nails at the Alamance Makers Guild’s page on Facebook at this link.
Also, Eric Hart, talented prop maker and fellow Alamance Makers Guild member was also one of the participants at Dick’s tutorial on nail making. He’s written a blog about his experience that can be found here.
Learn More and Get Involved:
- The North Carolina Artist-Blacksmiths Association: http://www.ncabana.org/
- A list of Blacksmiths in North Carolina: http://uscity.net/north-carolina/Blacksmith/
- A list of ABANA Chapters throughout the US: http://www.abana-chapter.com/
Thanks for Reading!