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Common Basic Mistakes That Beginners Should Avoid

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As you get started in blacksmithing, you will be tempted to make at least some of the following basic mistakes. Resist that temptation! 

Mistake #1: NEGLECTING SAFETY. You only have one set each of eyes, ears, and lungs. Protect them from dust, sparks, flying scale, etc. A two-dollar pair of safety glasses or a twenty-dollar respirator can save you thousands in medical bills.

Mistake #2: GOING IT ALONE. You are a beginner, a novice, a newby -- you are, by definition, inexperienced and ignorant. There is no shame in that; that's simply where you are right now. However, trying to learn on your own is incredibly slow. In order to get better, you will need information and help. Information can come from books, this forum, good online videos (see below), and especially from actually spending time with other smiths, whether in a class, a smithing association's meetings (local, national, or international), or just getting together with smithing friends to smack some metal with a hammer. Just remember that to work from descriptions, you need the background and jargon to understand them (for example, "cherry red" is a bright orange color, based on the old pie cherries and not the "modern" Bing cherries).  Help comes from submitting yourself and your work to the critique of more experienced smiths -- whether online or in person -- so that you can learn what you're doing wrong. Just spending an afternoon with a smith that knows what they are doing can cut 6 months off your learning curve! Get help whenever you can. This leads us to:

Mistake #3: NOT TAKING CRITICISM. No smith is perfect; no-one is so good that they can't improve. (Indeed, the very best smiths are often those who are never satisfied with the quality of their work and are always trying to get better.) We learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes, but only if we are willing to look at those mistakes with clear eyes and a commitment to do better next time. Listen to the voices of people with more experience than you, because they can help you understand what you did wrong or what you can do to improve or what's holding you back. Don't get offended if the criticism can seem a bit harsh at times; the general assumption here is that if you post your work for critique, you actually want people's honest opinions.

Mistake #4: WORKING TIRED AND THIRSTY. Fatigue and dehydration cloud your judgment, weaken your grip on your hammer and your workpiece, and destroy your hammer control. Stopping to rest is almost never a bad idea. Take a drink of water while you're at it. If you have limited time for forging, ask yourself this: would you rather take a little extra time to get it right, or spend a lot of time fixing the mistakes you made because you were tired? STOP before you make an unrecoverable mistake or hurt yourself! (See Mistake #1.)

Mistake #5: GETTING ALL YOUR INFORMATION FROM YOUTUBE. There is some excellent information on YouTube (some of which is linked HERE), but there is a LOT that is questionable, inefficient, or downright dangerous. Look with a critical eye: don't take someone with barely more experience than you filming their own learning process as an authority or a model to be copied. (See Mistake #1.) Until you have the experience and background to be able to evaluate if the person actually knows what they are doing, it's just the blind leading the blind. (Also, video cameras and the human eye sense the color of glowing steel very differently, and YouTube is NOT the place to learn how to judge your workpiece's temperature!)

Mistake #6: NOT PLANNING AHEAD. Always think about what's next. Where's the next hammer blow going and why? What tool(s) do I need right now? What's the next book I'm going to read, class I'm going to take, skill I'm going to learn, project I'm going to try? Do I have the skill/tools/strength/materials to do X, and if not, how do I get them? What kind of budget do I have for this, and am I using it wisely? Not planning ahead -- whether you're talking about the most immediate decisions or the longest term -- wastes fuel, money, effort, and (the most precious and irreplaceable resource of all) time.

Mistake #7: GRINDING OR MILLING THE FACE OF AN ANVIL.  The hardened face is quite thin  and many an anvil has been destroyed by folks trying to improve it *before* they know what makes an anvil good! (Sharp edges are generally a BAD thing for instance). Use your anvil for a year (2000 hours) before you make any changes that can not be undone. That flaw may very well be a feature that you can use. 

Mistake #8: USING A HAMMER THAT'S TOO HEAVY. It takes time to build up the strength, control, and hand-eye coordination necessary for swinging a big hammer. Start small. You'll get more done with less risk of injury. (See Mistake #1.)

Mistake #9: USING PORTLAND CEMENT OR PLASTER OF PARIS IN A FORGE. It doesn't matter what you saw on YouTube; that stuff will degrade -- sometimes explosively; see Mistake #1 -- at forging temperatures. It's ineffective and a waste of time and money. 

Mistake #10: TRYING TO HARDEN MILD STEEL. It's a frustrating exercise in how to waste time and fuel, and at the end of the day, it'll still be soft. If you want it to harden, use a hardenable material.

Mistake #11: TRYING TO MAKE A SWORD FOR YOUR FIRST PROJECT. Unless you're working under the close supervision of a qualified instructor, a sword -- any blade, really -- is way beyond your skill level as a beginner, and any sharp object that you make is very likely to be a hazard to you and others. (See Mistake #1.)

Mistake #12: USING REBAR. Everyone starting out wants to make things from rebar, probably because it's readily available and cheap. Don't. There are other materials that just as inexpensive, that handle better, and that don't have rebar's drawbacks. Use those.

(NOTE: This is not an exhaustive list, as the human capacity to make mistakes is practically infinite. Suggestions for additions are welcome. There are some other good IFI threads on basic mistakes, especially https://www.iforgeiron.com/topic/28858-common-beginner-mistakes/; take some time to read those too.) 

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Mistake #13:

Underestimate the space required and the noise and smoke pollution you will invariably create ... and ... overestimate the support from friends and family. 

 

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Mistake #14:

Believing your layout table is for layout and not actually a flat space needing to be filled.  ;)

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Mistake #15:  Focusing more on collecting all the ideal smithing tools and equipment rather than actually getting out and forging (power hammer, hydraulic press, fly press, treadle hammer, 2 x 72 grinder, MIG welder, London pattern anvil, must-have hammer of the week...)

Mistake 16: Forgetting just how long it takes a chunk of steel to fully cool down to direct handling heat

Mistake 17: Missing out on opportunities for direct instruction or demonstration from local smiths.  Find your local ABANA chapters or smithing clubs, go to hammer-ins, take classes.  You don't have to reinvent the wheel

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Mistake #18:

The metal is not showing color, it is black so how could it be hot?

Metal objects can not be THAT heavy. Swage blocks come to mind. 

Place the heavy object as close to the tailgate as possible so it will be easy to remove later. Laying an object on the bed liner of the truck is all that is needed, it is not going anywhere cause it is heavy. A piece of bailing or binding twine is all that is needed to secure it in place. 

Thinking the object you just found will be there when you return. Thinking the price will be lower if you just wait a little longer. If there are two of something, only take one as that is all you need. 

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Well done John!

1 hour ago, Glenn said:

Place the heavy object as close to the tailgate as possible so it will be easy to remove later. Laying an object on the bed liner of the truck is all that is needed, it is not going anywhere cause it is heavy. A piece of bailing or binding twine is all that is needed to secure it in place.

I beg to differ Glenn. If you get run into a ditch at even a modest speed, say 25 mph. your: swage block, anvil, leg vise, bucket of tools, stock, etc. WILL keep going till it hits something strong enough to stop it. The cab of the pickup or back of your seat in your SUV isn't much barrier. Nylon ratchet straps are easy to use and cheap insurance.

HEY! For once there is an opportunity to use the term MASSIVE correctly, iron and steel are MASSIVE, not just heavy. Using massive to describe BIG is a real pet peeve of mine. <grrrr>

I know I live where it's easy to end up in a ditch even if you're up to safely driving on ice and snow, lots of folks aren't and tend to go random directions at stupid speed and no telling when a moose will decide to cross the road. I'm sure commercial drivers know what securing a load means and what kind of fines you can earn for not doing it right.

Frosty The Lucky.

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I'll bite with one---not practicing patience.   In tooling up, you can't let the fever of getting something *now*  lead you to buying junk because quality takes longer to find.  Tooling up is a long process and no one fills their shop in a month or 10.  Have the patience to buy smart, not fast.

In forging the same rule applies in several areas--

Not letting a big piece sit in the forge long enough to get the core to temp

Getting a few more licks in with the hammer after you know the part has become a bit too cold (admit it...we all do this once in a while :))

Grabbing mystery metal for something critical rather than waiting a day to get the right material  (and the side corollary of grabbing a large hunk of scrap to make a small piece...just because it's what you currently have.  You'll often hammer for more time that it would take to chase down a more appropriate starting piece in the first place)

etc...

In my book, patience is one of the most important tools in the box.  Lack of patience (we'll call it "extreme zeal" for a positive spin) is a critical and understandable newbie mistake. 

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#20  Not taking time to plan out your forging project, tools and set-up.  You should have the tools you need for the project you plan to do all laid-out on a table or a bench or somewhere before you even light your forge.  Doing this saves an incredible amount of time that you'd be wasting looking for that pair of tongs or that hammer and having to lose heats because of it.  Drawing out your project with a soapstone pen or chalk on a piece of metal also allows you to compare your forged piece to the final desired project without worrying you will burn or melt something.  I do all my measurements before hand and draw it out or at least have markings for length.  

#21 Overpaying for an anvil or tools.  Don't be in a hurry to fill up a shop full of tools.  You think you need 18 pairs of tongs so you buy any pair you see and pay top dollar or you pay $9 a pound for an anvil.  This just drives the price of said equipment higher and higher.  Be wise with investing your money, and if you have a ton of money use some restraint knowing that every time you pay top dollar or over top dollar that the next tool you purchase will just be even more.  

#22  Thinking you have to buy brand new tools.  New anvils will always be way more than an old used anvil.  You do not need crisp edges and a perfectly unblemished face on the anvil to forge great things.  You don't need to spend $40 or more on a pair of anvils when you can buy used pairs for under $10 each.  This is an expensive craft to start into, but if you are patient you can accumulate the basics for less than the price of a brand new anvil alone.  Then get to work learning how to use the old tools and you will be making your own tools like chisels, punches, and hardy tools.  Each tool you make is just saving you the amount of money you would have paid if bought new.  

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I've seen a pair of anvils at an auction that I wouldn't have paid $40 for. They both went to the same gentleman for $385 each. They were around 35-50 pounds, and we're in real bad shape. I figured I was better off hammering on my RR tracks than either of those chunks of metal. I don't remember the brands, but they were definitely abused. 

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I've seen a bunch of people tell me that "Since these mint condition top of the line anvils went for high dollars, my bottom of the line/ASOs must be worth the same."   I once used to try to explain to them that asking Maserati prices for a Yugo is kind of perplexing to folks who know the difference; but they seemed quite happy to try to gouge the folks they share this planet with.

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#23: proper setup, proper tools, proper job. 

Clean all the boogers and traps from your workspace, then figure out what stock, rivets, collars, detail,samples, tooling, full size drawings etc you need.

Then make any needed tools and make sure all needed are functional and ready for the job.

An example of the latter is say nuts and bolts. In my shop, these are not consumables. They are used as tools to hold my work together then each are replaced by a rivet. So, it's a real xxxxx to start assembly and have the nut or bolt hang on bad threads, so I always run a tap/die over the threads to clean them up, and make sure they are straight.

Edited by Mod34
Edited for inappropriate language

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#24 Starting with stock that's way too big or too small for the project, the forge, the tooling, or the smith

#25 Starting with high alloy steels that make everything harder to do.

#25(a) using high alloy steels because salvage makes them "free" .

#26 Use the right connecting means for your application.  Bolts and glue might not seem "old timey"  but there are applications where they're better for the project, the shop, and the smith.

#27 Use the right cutting method for your application.  Lots of projects end up in the humble pile because it seemed more "authentic" to punch, and drift a hole in a precision application.  Same thing goes for sawing.  Lots of nearly complete work gets ruined by trying to hot-cut something that needed the precision of sawing.

#28 Beautiful and entertaining demonstration videos are usually edited for time, to cut out mistakes, and to conceal rest breaks.  There's one very popular video about making hammer eye tongs by hand where it seems like it took roughly an hour.  In the comments below the video, the smith wrote that the whole process took 8 hours!  Most of what was shown was only one half of the tongs, and the drawing out sequence was edited to make it look incredibly fast.

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Start learning to hammer on an old beat up anvil or thick plate of steel. You're going to miss a lot and leave dents until you get the hang of it. The learning curve in this art is endless. The quality of what you make will improve over time so don't be disappointed when it doesn't turn out just like the one in the video. If you don't like how it turns out, start over. 

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I LOVE #3!  Although I am relatively new to smithing I have been a craftsman in training since I was old enough to pick up a tool.  I have learned and improved in every discipline I have attempted because of my love for and willingness to hear constructive criticism.  

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Nice post, John. I think we can all think back to our early efforts and identify with the points you raised there.

Nothing much to add, but I have seen more than one beginner who likes to hammer hard on the anvil with his head hovering directly above the workpiece. Maybe they just like to get a good look at what they're doing, but a missed hit or a slip with the steel can produce a savage rebound. Busted noses and black eyes are not part of the fun. Might be OK on a soggy cast iron ASO, but a lively anvil can really cause you some grief.

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On 12/19/2018 at 7:21 AM, Latticino said:

Mistake 16: Forgetting just how long it takes a chunk of steel to fully cool down to direct handling heat

 

On 12/19/2018 at 7:25 AM, Glenn said:

Mistake #18:

The metal is not showing color, it is black so how could it be hot?

 

Mistake #16b (or #18b) - For those doing 2-4 fire brick forges, myself included: attempting to handle HOT fire bricks which don't show their color either (i.e. picking one up that got knocked onto the ground, but with your bare hands). Trust me...I know.

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Use the back of your hand to sense if something is hot. Much more sensitive than the front of the hand that does all the work. 

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One of my "special" tools I don't see a lot of at other smithies is my set of "hot brick tongs"  Sized to pick up and maneuver hot firebricks rather than using off sized tongs that tend to drop bricks.

Mine started out as a set of extremely poorly made nippers or pull offs with wide bits and a large curve and fairly short handles so you can't get much squeeze on the end of the bits.  Well they were cheap and were steeled and followed me home from the fleamarket and sat around for a couple of years until I reforged them as hot firebrick tongs---still ugly but they work a treat!

Once you get used to always using the tongs the incidence of burnt fingers goes way down.

I'll try to post a picture of them, ugly as they are, if I can get home in daylight sometime before the weekend.

 

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On 1/6/2019 at 11:20 PM, Glenn said:

Use the back of your hand to sense if something is hot.

I think this is one of the most important safety features there is.

One more.

Dont wear gloves. If your hand gets hot,stick your hand in the slack tub when headed from forge to anvil.

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Mistake #29? impatience impatience impatience.

 

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Impatience generates patients?

Frosty The Lucky.

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