Or On How to Build a Forge in Your Driveway
Tell me: how does one forge virtually?
Yeah, you know: forging. Blacksmithing. Lighting things on fire, heating metal to aggressive temperatures and then hitting it with a hammer as hard as you can. That type of forging. How do you do it online?
Short answer: you don’t. Not that you couldn’t avatar your way through metal-molding techniques in Minecraft. But in real life, you can’t just wait beside two iron ingots and a stick on a table and expect a sword to appear.
Blacksmithing as a trade is intrinsically reliant on manipulating the physical properties of hard materials, and I’d waited four years to have enough free time in my course schedule to take a class to master this art.
And it was everything I wanted. I pounded. I hammered. I molded. I melted. I molded again.
But then the pandemic hit. Creative approaches to virtual learning aside, one does not simply forge without a physical forge. So, when the official call came through in late March that my school, Drake University, like so many others, was moving its classes online for the rest of my senior year, my—and my forging professor’s—worst fears were realized.
Needless to say, the course rerouted. Our final? Make cardboard sculptures.
It’s not the same.
For two glorious winter months, I had unparalleled access to historic coke forges, three anvils, oxyacetylene and MIG welders and a seemingly unlimited supply of steel alloy rods. I’d felt the metal and hammer in my hands, trained my eyes to recognize the colors of malleable steel, tweaked the torques and forces necessary to fulfill my artistic goals. It’s an experience not easily, if at all, replicated with a computer mouse. The fires of my soul were lit, and I refused to let COVID-19 quench them.
I bought a forge.
Coping with Covid with Fire
It wasn’t an impulsive decision, but it wasn’t exactly premeditated on pure logic. I’d found a $190 propane forge on eBay, big enough to fire a sword but small enough to fit in my parent’s shed. I knew exactly what tools I needed, and I’d been trained on using a forge safely and effectively. Couple that education with a restlessness fueled by the potential prospect of spending the next four to six months in quarantine, and you have ideal conditions for semi-pyromania-fueled decisions.
Self-sufficiency is exhilarating, especially in times of crisis.
To some degree, my situation is similar to that which spawned the Victory Garden movements of World Wars I and II. American communities came together, both to cope with the stress associated with war and to alleviate collective anxieties around food supply since most resources were diverted to the front lines.
New York psychologist Dr. Sharon Asher says that much like the Victory Gardens, self-sufficiency has arisen as both a logistical adaptation and a coping mechanism at the epicenter of this Covid-19 crisis.
“There’s the logistical front: things that society had been providing, or the gears of everybody working together in closer contact that had been running in a way that was more predictable,” Dr. Asher says. “I think with all of this we realized how fragile it is. There’s been a reevaluation of what can you trust in terms of these broader systems staying afloat.”
But on the symbolic level, she says the coronavirus crisis is an “ongoing trauma.” And in order to treat an ongoing trauma, we develop coping mechanisms to give us some degree of control or input over our situation.
“I always think of babies when they learn to press a button and something lights up,” Dr. Asher says. “We love causality. Causality is really comforting for us. Right now, that’s really important.”
Building a Driveway Forge
The forge was ready to light up pretty much as soon as it was removed from the box.
All in all, it’s not a very complicated machine. Similar to a grill in structure, the forge is a small rectangular prism of pure steel, lined by an inch-thick layer of ceramic fiber insulation. Fire stones rest on the bottom, and two burners sprout from the top, their pipeage conjoined by a pressure-regulated hose attached to a propane tank. You light it as you would a grill: release the propane and light your match. The forge is advertised to reach 2700 °F in two minutes.
But I needed more than a forge to blacksmith. I need an anvil, notably: not an easy find, especially if you’re on a budget. Anvils cost anywhere from $450 to $900, and as a student, that’s not money I have. My friend Dan offered to let me borrow his railroad tie, but it was too small and unbalanced to withstand the hundred thousand blows that anvils are ere to.
I decided to postpone that purchase and look into alternatives while collecting other blacksmithing essentials.
My search led me to violate social distancing norms and head to my grandmother’s house. Last Christmas, she mentioned her intentions to get rid of all the power tools piling up in her house, and I sensed an opportunity. Heavily armed with N-95 masks, gloves and an invisible six-foot buffer radius, she gladly let me raid her garage.
By a stroke of luck, I found all the essentials therein: a few hammers, clamps of various sizes, some chisels, a propane torch. (That last one’s not really an essential, but the pyromaniac wasn’t going to say no). My grandma also gave me her old grill, which I promptly disassembled and turned into a heat-resistant, transportable stand for my forge.
But the icing on the cake sat hidden in a box under the abandoned tool table—a fifty-pound vise, equipped with a 16-square-inch iron platform: a more than suitable anvil alternative! Not to mention, the vise is ideal for clamping and twisting molten steel.
I waved goodbye to my grandmother, and with my makeshift blacksmith shop in tow, I giddily zoomed home to my driveway and began assembling.
You want your anvil about waist height to keep your arms and back straight as you hammer the metal. I mounted the vise to plank of wood and clamped it to a stack of three cinder blocks I’d found beside my house. I hooked up the forge to a Home Depot propane tank, placed her on the reassembled grill perpendicular to the anvil structure, and lit her up…
First of all, getting the propane to catch fire in the forge was a challenge. The spouts sputtered about for five minutes, making me question if there was a leak. Also, it was a windy day, so whatever propane actually caught flame blew out almost immediately. I placed a fire brick at one end of the forge to inhibit air flow. Even so, the forge took far more than two minutes to stammer to life.
But as soon as it did, I was awestruck. My blacksmithing setup worked flawlessly, minus a few tweaks here and there. In no time at all, I made a wall hook to accompany the one I made in class. Just yesterday, I started shaping a dragon ladle I designed.
I felt powerful, watching the sparks fly in slow motion at the collapse of the metal under my hammer, bending and twisting to my will. (I’m a total dom). Even just tapering and curling of the metal, a gradual, soft incline engraved in rough material, deprived the steel of its most obvious physical property: high density. What a badass I’d made of myself.
More importantly, I’d restored what Covid-19 had deprived of me. The obstacles I faced were no match for my resolve. I’d figured out how make a blacksmith of myself with minimal training, and it was exhilarating.
The good thing about a forge is that the extreme heat and loud hammering makes for great social distancing—no one wants to be around me. Bonus: It’s something you can do alone on a leisurely quarantine afternoon.
Not to mention, there’s scrap metal everywhere. Buttons off old jeans, bent silverware, nuts and bolts and hinges from my parent’s unconsummated DIY projects—cleaning out my garage, I found numerous trinkets to melt down and turn into a sword.
But most importantly, forging set afire a confidence in my capabilities. As long as I had a vague idea of how to attack a physical project, the correct tools to do it and the common sense to approach the problem safely and intelligently, then I’d figure the rest out along the way.
Try learning that online.