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UK-US blacksmithing differences

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I’ve been only at this blacksmithing game a few months so this post may be nonsense.   I’m a Brit but love the US and have worked there a lot.  It intrigues me that in some aspects there are different approaches to certain blacksmithing techniques and equipment. Some examples I’ve noticed so far:

1. A lot more use of coke forges in UK. Seems to be the standard. Coke is pretty easy to obtain in most parts over here. Charcoal less so. Most US pals seems to use gas mostly.

2. Most solid fuel forges over here seem to be side blown, water cooled.  Compared to bottom blown in the US.  From my fairly limited understanding, it seems that you can Manage the oxygen presence in a vertical “stack” of burning fuel a little easier, with a side blower. But maybe Im doing a disservice to my Amercan pals with bottom  blowers who have a different skill set. Im not expert at using gas forges and dont really undertsand how oxygen is managed in them. Im not expert at any forge but Im learning quickly on my side blower.

3. Perhaps related to that I never come across people in the UK using Borax or any other flux here when forge welding. On the few occasions I see forge welding being done, its just get it to the right temp, perhaps in a low oxygen part of the forge then bang away.  I‘m yet expert enough to judge. What I see of US forge welding is a ton of Borax. Not criticising, just noticing.

4. Some tools are different. Old fashioned pillar drills are common in the US but rare here, where bench drills seem to have been the norm.

5. It feels harder to get a range of different carbon steels over here in the UK compared to the US and our nomenclature for carbon steel is much less standardised, from what I can work out here. Maybe I’m just slow. 

6. Not many railway spikes over here, as a commonly available and useful source of steel for little projects. 

7. I love your big, flexible 2 x 72 belt sanders.  Impossible to get in the UK, where the standard “linisher” is much smaller. 


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I have used coal (coke is hard to find) and just recently started using a propane forge that came in a package deal I made.

To me , the side blast has advantages over the bottom blast for coal use - clinkers don't plug up the air as easily. If I was to build a forge it would be a side blast.

The forge welding you saw done,was it with real wrought iron?

I have a couple of pillar drills, but they live in a storage bin. No interest in actually using them for drilling when I have electric drills.

The new alloys confuse me Cm15Vblah,blah,blah. I know 1018, 4140, etc..

Spikes can be tough to get here too.

You can always make a 2x72 ;)

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I don't believe very man folks here use coke regularly, it's not that easy to find most places. When the casters demo a cupola melter they have to have petroleum coke shipped up. I've gotten to play with it in my rivet forge and it's okay, just a little different kind of fire not at all hard to adjust to. And heck I rarely burn solid fuel. 

If the demand was higher I'm sure  coke would become more available. We live in a supply and demand society, nobody is going to supply something if nobody uses it. The steel industry uses it by the trainload and get a break on the price. 

Side blast or bottom blast. I don't know why bottom blast forges are so much more common here. Maybe because bottom blast is smaller so easier to make portable and takes up less space in a shop? They're certainly harder to use.

Why is a bottom blast harder to use than a side blast? You can't see into the burning coal / coke to read what the fire is doing, it takes more knowledge and practice to read a bottom blast fire. A side blast fire is laid out in front of you horizontally in a trench so you can see exactly what's happening where. 

The principle is exactly the same whichever you use. The closer to the air supply the more oxidizing the fire. You have the same 3 zones: Oxidizing, neutral and carburizing (reducing.) In a bottom blast you have to know how to maintain your fire and position your stock to keep it in the sweet spot, heart, etc. In a side blast you can see the zones and place your stock accordingly.

Say you're working a number of pieces of moderately heavy stock, say 5/8" sq. If you put them in the fire one at a time you're waiting for the next one to heat maybe while you're working on the previous one but it takes experience to get right. In a side blast you can lay them in graduated preheat positions in the reducing zone, bring it all to close to working temp and only use the heart for the final before forging. 

You can do the same thing in either type fire one is just trickier than the other and takes up a lot less space in the shop.

A gas fire is managed just like a solid fuel forge, balance fuel and air. Again it takes experience to get it right or hardware designed to maintain a neutral flame at any output. It's trickier than burning solid fuel forges but it's just another kind of fire and not hard to learn to use. 

The biggest real difference, assuming you have a tuned fire is heat zones. You can shrink a solid fuel fire to a really small area say under 2" across. A propane forge on the other hand heats everything you put in it or gets near the door. This is why I light my torch when hot riveting. 

Welding is largely about clean. When I was studying to earn my pressure vessel certification as a welder meant hours with a tig torch in hand. The secret and #1 rule to get passing welds was Clean. Heck the three rules were Clean, Clean CLEAN! I've never had trouble forge(fire) welding if I cleaned the joint surfaces. My only real use for flux is as a barrier keeping oxygen off the hot steel. I don't wait till the steel is at rapid oxidizing orange heat and sprinkle a bunch of flux on the outside of the joint. Traditional or how the pros do it or not, it's never made sense to me. If everything is clean and in an oxygen free place you don't need a viscous fluid to strip off and carry out scale. What scale?

By pillar drill are you referring to hand crank or modern electric drill press? I have both and almost never use the muscle powered drill. Heck I haven't set one up in the current shop though I haven't done much work on the shop since the accident.

RR spikes are good stock for marketable products. Folks like to SEE the transition made by forging and almost everybody over here knows what a RR spike looks like. With a little care you can leave enough spike (usually the head) on the finished product to make it attractive for sale. If a person just needs that size stock buy a stick of 5/8" sq. mild steel. It's not expensive and it's a LOT of steel. Heck, make a header to mimic a RR spike if it's a good selling point. One of the guys here made a REAL RR spike knife bu welding up a damascus billet of blade steel and forging a RR spike head as the pomel.

Ahhhhh, 2" x 72" belt grinder. <sigh> Even a cheap one is too expensive for my fixed income budget but our club held a grinder workshop and we built 13 of them. Not counting the motor, the stock and wheels ran just under $100. each. I just recently found a 1 1/2 hp motor so I can put my old Black and Decker 2" x 48" belt x 7" wheel grinder back together. I LOVE my 2" x 72" belt grinder, it's as sweet as it gets.

Frosty The Lucky.

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Thomas, sure you can buy new, I was talking more along the lines of picking them up as scrap. Around here they come through with a magnet and load them up for distant scrapyards. L.A. is just 240 miles away and pays better scrap prices. Althooooooogh , driving to work in Las Vegas I saw piles of new ties along the rails. Looks like there is going to be some work done soon, so I will have to keep an eye out if the crews get close to where I can pull over to talk with them. I would love to get a few dump trucks of the tie plates. I flip them upside down and use them as metal floor tiles where I forge. Wouldn't mind doing my whole driveway with them, but if I can get a bucket or two of spikes they would last me a long time.

One big difference I see between the States and the UK is the price of anvils. Far less expensive than here, and very large ones seem to be more common. Don't know if Robin Sharples Waterfoot is on IFI, I know him through Facebook, but he has hundreds of anvils and quite a few over 400# on up to his 1,354# Wilkinson.

Another difference is that I believe that in the UK there are still blacksmithing guilds, and you can get formal training as a smith. Here , any yahoo  can hang a shingle out after watching a Youtube video,  and call himself a smith. Apprenticeship programs have pretty much disappeared over here. It wasn't until a few years ago that I learned what Journeyman originally referred to. I briefly met three German ladies during a First Friday art event  in Las Vegas who were doing their Journeyman tour,  and one did metal working..  They stood out because they were wearing the traditional Journeyman outfit.

Found a picture of the big Wilkinson just after it was forged C1895image.png.792db8e7acea12f5a0063947a2a3db19.png

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Up to the 70's, coal was the predominant fuel used, then came the "Clean air act" and Mrs Thatchers vendetta against Mr Scargill and the coal miners leading to the closure of many of the pits producing the preferred forging coal.

To continue forging, many switched to industrial coke, this was classed as smokeless and was used in poewr stations to produce electricity, and so became easily available, now due to the global warming reaction, the power stations are switching to alternative sources, gas and oil, and  there is  little demand for the coke, power stations taking up to 200,000 tonnes a year, blacksmiths only using a fraction of that amount, hence the closure of the coke supplies.

Side blast forges are common in the UK probably becaue most forges certainly the industrial ones were water powered and had water readily available, there were many industrial bottom blast forges in use also but most seemed to have fallen into decline. They seem to be making a revival as most shops hobbiests use are relatively small, so the  bonus is the footprint in the workshop when space is at a premium, They can also be easily transported to be used at local craft fairs and events. They are simpler to make than the side blast ones too.

Considering the vastness of the US, it makes sense to have the bottom blast forges, lighter and easier to transport to new regions before railways were available across the continent, no need for water to be used when it could be in short supply, easy to sustain and repair.

By and large we don't use borax for welding, it is an option, It used to be easily available at the local chemist, or other shops, now it is removed from those shelves due to legislation apparently.

Anvils are available but again stupid prices are being asked for them, they went through a phase of avidly being purchased and shipped out to third world countries, then they were in vogue as garden ornaments, and now due to You Tube and popular raising of awareness, prices are ridiculous again .

One thing that does stand out, and I may be wrong is the amount of powered hammers and other machinery that seem readily available and in use in the US workshops.

The space available and equipment some of the US contributors have is enviable.

A lot of us in the UK have old tools around, drills etc, but we also have more modern units too, if you want to be commercially viable you have to,

Belt grinders and linishers are hard to source in the UK, but easy enough to make if you really want one, belts can be sourced relatively easily as there are suppliers who make them to your specs. I would not class them as a blackmiths tool, but more specific to bladesmithing, which in the UK  was and should be a specific skills area.

As for metal supplies, there are a number of suppliers in the UK who have a good range of carbon and other alloy steels, but some used in bladesmithing and patternwelding are more difficult to source, they are available but not particularly well known. The other thing is cost, most are expensive and have a delivery charge too.

Training is available in the UK with colleges being mainly responsible as a starting position, usually these are supported by the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths, they then go forth to develop their skills and hopefully a career in the various smithing related industries.

For those who are not able to attend or enrol at one of the colleges there are other ways to develop and learn skills at your own pace, age and ability is no barrier, they just need the will and determination to succeed, and patience helps too.

At Westpoint we take students with an age range from 7 to 90, and have some success with attendees going on to make a business from what they have learnt in our forging facility..

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  • 1 month later...

Coming from Scotland I say that -

 I see more gas forges than coke or coal,

almost all coal or coke forges ive seen have been bottom blown,

I use and know others to use borax,

Old fashioned pillar drills are far more common

various carbon steels are extremely easy to find,

it took me all of five minutes to find myself a 2x72 and belts, but I ended up with a homemade one due to costs.

Railroad spikes are hard to get though so agree on that part

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I don't know how much shipping would be to get across the pond but if anyone wants any rail spikes I've got a basically unlimited source of them (and it's not off the tracks). I'd be willing to ship some if someone covered the cost of shipping though, to me they are just free practice material.

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On 3/9/2019 at 12:18 PM, Stew1803 said:

Coming from Scotland I say that - I see more gas forges than coke or coal, almost all coal or coke forges ive seen have been bottom blown,  I use and know others to use borax,

Interesting differences. Im in the costwolds and its not my experience round these parts, but I admit to having limited experience. Or I’m mixing with the wrong bunch of sassenachs. ;- )

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Oh that is a good bit past the border there, not easy to send raiding parties over so I don't go down that far ;) though I must take a trip down there, ive been told its a great part of the world.

I guess most of the people around here are farriers that do smithing on the side so that explains the gas, and there are few people that do it otherwise in my are bar me haha

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On 1/18/2019 at 11:48 PM, RogerrogerD said:

6. Not many railway spikes over here, as a commonly available and useful source of steel for little projects. 

They use bent sections of round bar to hold the tracks to the sleepers in the UK, you never see them kicking about although they look like they would be handy bits of steel for practicing with.

I was thinking of making my own railroad spikes out of knives:)

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If the sleepers are concrete, they're probably using Pandrol "Fastclips", which were redesigned about twenty years ago for easier mechanical insertion and removal. The old style E-clip is now called the "PR clip".

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 pandrol clips are shaped like an s. They are easy to identify.    I just looked up pandrol clips and they are different than what a railroad worker showed me  just a couple weeks ago. I guess he was telling me bad info or this is another difference between u.s. and u.k. terminology. I'm going to post a pic of what he showed me as soon as I can find it. 

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They were close to this just s shaped.



Glenn ,  the pic you posted is the one I found when I looked it up. The clips I posted are what I was shown by a R R maintenance crew who were staying at the hotel where I work. When I asked about pandrol clips that is what he showed me. Guess you gotta watch who you listen to.    Sorry for the confusion.

Pnut (Mike) 

I also think I seen one lying on top of the other and thought it was s shaped. Oops. 

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Thanks for the info. I looked em up. I don't know why the guy told me they were pandrol clips. He was friendly enough. I started taking to him to see if he had any old stock on his truck. He didn't have anything old  but he gave me a couple new spikes.  They were leaving one morning when I was heading in to start work. They had one of those trucks with the hydraulic wheels for the tracks so I kinda lingered a bit hoping to score some scrap. .

 I wish I would have looked it up BEFORE I posted but I didn't see any reason to since the guy works for the RR. 

Oh well lesson learned. 

Thanks for letting me know. And sorry for the confusion 

Pnut (Mike) 

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