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I Forge Iron

Carving Letters in Steel.

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Since there seems to be so much interest in how I carve the letters and runes in the various pieces I make, I thought I’d take some time to layout exactly how it’s done.


Firstly, we need to get our tools sorted out.


I use a light hammer that weighs just shy of a pound.  A light hammer doesn’t fatigue you and maximizes your control.  Remember, while we are technically cutting through the steel, we want to do it in a controlled matter that gives us the results we’re looking for.  A big whallop with a ten-pound sledge will certainly make a dent in the metal, but maybe it’s not the best option.

For chisels, I prefer to keep things simple.  Aside from my center punch, I use three chisels to carve the letters -- including curved lines like you see in the hearts and latin characters.  You don’t need a curved chisel to make curved lines, odd as that might sound.

My big chisel started life as a roller bearing.  I left the heat treat as-is and simply ground it to an angle that’s somewhere under 90º.  It’s a fat angle and you’ll find that a light tap with the hammer doesn’t make much of a mark in the steel.  This is exactly what we want.


Chisel Numero Two was a ⅜” cold chisel that I ground down to a fat ¼” and gave a sharper angle to the bevel grind.

The Third Chisel started out as a carpenter’s nail set and has the finest grind of the three.  The edge is also slightly rounded.


The key to remember is that you don’t want a long edge on the chisels because that distributes the force of the hammer strike over a greater surface area and diminishes the penetration you get.  It seems reasonable to have chisel edges that are as long as the letter you want to carve, but doing that means you need a heavier hammer, harder strike and have less control over the process.

With the chisels ground to shape, look at your work bench.

If you have a lightweight wood bench or a metal layout table with a top that’s less than an inch thick -- pull a chair up to your anvil and use that instead.  I’ve made many a pendant while sitting at the anvil and it’s quite comfortable.  A few welding magnets will help contain the tools so they don’t bounce all over while you’re working.

Okay, now for the hard stuff…..

Step 1:  Scribe a line on your practice piece.  In this case I’m using ⅛” mild steel that I’ve coated with magic marker to help with the photographing.  I don’t usually bother with coloring the metal since I’m right there up close and personal with it.



Step 2:  Start with your ½” chisel and lightly tap it into the metal.  All you’re trying to do is deepen the scribed line so you can better feel it with your chisels.


One tap, then move down an edge-length.....


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Step 3:  Here’s where we go over the line again, establishing it as a solid line rather than a bunch of individual chisel cuts.  If you have a line that’s a bit off from the rest, it’s easy to fix by simply bridging the two cuts with your chisel.  




Now we do the same basic process all over again, but this time using the mid-sized chisel with the fat ¼” edge.


Because the bevel on this chisel is sharper than on the previous chisel, it sits down deeper in the cut you’ve already made.  With less surfact contact and edge length, a light blow of the hammer really sinks the edge deep.  Go along the line with light taps.  Make a second or third pass if you feel like it.  The work goes quickly now that you're to this stage.


Step 4:  You’d think we’re done, but there’s still one more chisel to use.  I really like using the small chisel because the short, sharp edge gives you extra depth and creates a nice shadow line.  Plus if you give the piece a coat of wax, the depth gets filled to some degree and having a bit extra keeps the finished piece looking good.




Just like with the other two chisels, you’re doing a single tap and moving down one edge length.  On the second pass, you can bridge the two cuts and even everything out.


Step 5:  The Clean Up.  No matter how hard you try, the cut isn’t going to be perfect.  This is when you use the two larger chisels to go back over the line, evening things out.


If you want to add a bit of "something special" to the ends of the line, there are a lot of ways to go about it.  Two of my favorites.....


Start just a hair past the end of your cut and drive the chisel in at an angle.


This adds just a hit of a flair to the end of the line.  


Or, do likewise with your center punch to create a ball end.





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Glad folks are finding it of value.


To give a sense of what's happening in the metal, I tried my hand at a poor-man's computer modeling... :D


When you start with the big chisel, you make a shallow cut that matches the grind of the bevel - basically a wide-mouthed valley.


Switching to the mid-size chisel with a more acute grind, you end up missing a good bit of the sides of the cut.  This allows you to apply all of the force of your hammer blow to the valley of the cut, increasing the depth without spreading the top and creating a wider overall line.


The smallest chisel with the knife-like edge, bypasses the majority of the side and goes straight into the bottom of the cut.  With almost no edge length or sidewall contact, you get deep penetration with a light tap.  This leaves you room for any wax buildup when you coat the metal, leaving the visible carving plenty deep and looking sharp.


Because we're not removing metal like with engraving, the metal has to go somewhere.   This generally means that you'll have ridges that stand proud of the parent metal.  This adds to the depth of the cut and gives the piece a nice tactile feel to it.  I'm generally not interested in getting rid of these ridges because I'm carving on textured steel and it only adds to the overall look.  If you were working on smooth steel and wanted to keep it smooth, you'll need to plan on sanding and filing this part down.


Next installments......

Curved Lines

Textured Fields

Copper Inlay

Working on a pendant.....

As you can see, I'm up close and personal with the metal.  My bench has a top that's 1.25" thick and the whole thing has to weigh about a gazillion pounds, so it's almost as good as working on the anvil.  The anvil, however, has solidity and isn't nearly as noisy so I often use it.

That's a mighty tight curve, and in high-carbon steel, too!  Took a few minutes and a few curse words, but it was worth it in the end.


Carving and texturing adds to the possibilities.



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The Curved Line:

Picking up where we left off, let's talk about making a nice curve with nothing but a straight chisel.

In this case, I put my circle close to the line I've already carved.  A lot of designs will require close proximity and you want to be sure that you don't move metal over into the line you've already finished.  When the lines are close, I like to start at the nearest point so I can judge how the metal is moving.



If you look at the chisel in relation to the scribed line, you'll see that the chisel does pretty good at matching the arc of the radius that it's setting on.  Makes it easy to envision how the rest of the process is going to work.

Just like the straight line, we make a light tap on the chisel and move down one edge length.  The only difference is that this time we are careful to rotate the chisel just a hair so the edge matches the curve of the arc.




Once you have the line well established, you can go over it several times to deepen the line and smooth it out.  If you want a wider mouth to the cut, you need do some finish work with a chisel that has a more obtuse angle to the grind.  Start with the fine edge, establish your line, deepen it.... then widen the whole thing with a second chisel so it better matches the straight lines in your design.

As long as the length of the edge is around 1/8", you're golden.  The short edge is what allows you to turn a tight curve



How tight a curve can you make?  Well, this Kokopelli has a head that's about a quarter-inch across. 




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As I mentioned earlier, it you want a broader curve, you need to work with a short-edged chisel that has a more obtuse angle.  

In the images, you can see that the line grows in apparent width, better matching the straight line, and gets a bit more smooth in the curve.



At the 8 o'clock position, you can see the transition between the thicker line and thinner.  If you like, you can clean up the transition, smoothing it out, and add that to your repertoire.  There are a lot of times when changing the line thickness can add a lot to a design.


Taken all the way around, the thicker line provides a nice visual match for the straight line.  It's just a matter of going over it several times, from both directions, to smooth everything out.



The Textured Field.........


Here, we start with selecting our tools.  I use whatever comes to hand.  It really is that simple.  You're trying to create a texture that's random, so tools that have random shapes on the working end help towards that end.

In this case, I'm starting with my center punch.  It's controllable, and the sharp point punches through any mill scale or other crud on the metal's surface.  


The first pass leaves you looking rather cheesy and unattractive, but this is just the start.  Light taps, rapidly like a tattoo gun, makes quick work of it.

From there, I switch to round nose, flat nose, and the oddball shape that started life as some kind of airgun chisel.  We're just going over the field randomly, putting dots and dents wherever it pleases.  Be sure to cover the area evenly with each tool, and don't be afraid of overlapping previous dings.  Random is your friend.


For the grand finale, we take the piece over to the wire wheel and give it a thorough scrubbing.  The bristles on the wire wheel will strip off the sharp corners and ridges, smoothing and blending everything out.   Now it looks good and feels good to the fingers.


With a few chisels and your center punch, you can do a lot to dress up the steel.  Experiment.  Try different grinds on your chisels.  Enjoy, and as the wise Mr. Coke would say, "Make beautiful things."


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8 hours ago, VaughnT said:

Thank you.  I'm glad you're finding value in it and look forward to seeing examples of designs you try.

Have you ever tried printing something off and gluing it to the steel to use as a stencil? I suck at drawing anything that isn't a squiggle.

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