Blacksmiths today mostly work a material called mild steel. The 'mild' stands for mild carbon, the relative amount of carbon added to molten iron at the foundry, which defines the characteristics of the steel. Just like that stupid statistic about most life forms sharing like 97 percent of the same DNA, most steels are something like 99 percent iron, and it is the composition of that remaining 1 percent that defines the personality of the steel. A dash of zinc and chrome and you get stainless steel. Up the carbon to about 4 percent and throw in some impurities and you get tasty, hip cast iron pans. Mild carbon steel has a nice balance of strength and workability and that’s why we use it. Think of it like Goldilocks' porridge.
Unlike people, when metal gets hot, it begins to glow. First a dull, then brilliant red. Then an orange and yellow, and as it begins to burn (yes, metal can burn) a blinding white. When I first began in blacksmithery, I struggled to see what I was doing when working the metal because of the glow given off by the metal. You learn to interpret shadows and variations within the glow.
This beautiful spectrum is best observed in lower lighting - direct sunlight could make even white hot metal loose its glow. Because of this, blacksmith shops usually have minimal overhead lights. It's important to have proper ventilation however — ideally, a cross breeze set up by two open doors or a roofed structure with no walls, as the gases from the forge, from welding, and from grinding are all poisonous.
If you are going to burn yourself, it's actually best to do so when the metal is on the top end of the spectrum. White hot metal glows like a light saber, and also like a light saber, disintegrates skin. It's so hot you don't even feel it. At first.
Red hot metal will instantly cauterize your skin. This, again, is not so bad. Heck, back in the olden times before Neosporin, if you had a bad cut or got shot, they'd have to do that for you anyways to clean the wound.
The real bitch is when the metal looses its color. Metal without a glow can still be hundreds of degrees. But this steel won't cauterize your skin. Instead, it sticks to it. That's when you really get into trouble.
The left hand holds the end of the hot metal if it's more than a foot long, or it holds tongs which grab the metal if it is a smaller length. The right hand works the hammer. As such, you usually wear a glove on your left hand. And the left hand usually gets burned the most. Leather is a sink for heat. It will protect you from an instant burn, but once it takes on too much heat, it will toast you through the glove. Over time, the heat shrinks the leather and your left glove becomes smaller and smaller until it becomes like an OJ glove and you need to retire it. The pointer finger takes the most heat, being closest to the flame, and is the first point to blow out. Unfortunately, you can't just buy left-handed gloves, so you end up with a lot of extra righty gloves.
The color of the metal is what tells you when and how to work the material. Each time you take the metal out of the forge, you have anywhere from 10 seconds to a few minutes to work the material before it looses its heat, depending on the thickness and, therefore, the heat mass of the piece. Each cycle of taking the metal out of the forge is called a heat. A piece might take anywhere from one to dozens of heats to work and shape.
A common question for a blacksmith is 'how hot does the forge get.' I usually lie and say somewhere around 1500 degrees. I've looked it up before but I can't remember. The truth is I don't know and it doesn't matter. You don't work the metal based on temperature, but based on color. And even then it doesn't really matter except for that a very scientific scale exists of easier to work when hotter, harder to work when not hot. You could make the same piece working metal at room temperature for the most part, you'd just have to be a lot stronger than me to do it.
Speaking of scale: when the metal is put in the forge, the surface reacts with the flame and oxidizes. A thin bluish black 'scale' will form on the outside of the piece. As you begin to hammer, pieces of this scale will flake off and begin to litter the floor like snow, except hundreds of degrees hotter. This blackish scale is how blacksmiths got their name.
To cut and grind the steel, you use an angle grinder. A fiberglass disk is used to cut the metal and flap disks are used to smooth it. As you cut the metal, the disks break down, releasing fiberglass into the air. Fiberglass particles are wicked small and will pass right through a normal dust mask, entering your lungs where they do lord knows what. It tastes kind of alkaline.
When you cut the metal, you have to get a good line of sight so you can cut it straight. This usually means holding the grinder slightly off-center and to the right of your body. The trade-off is that your lower right half is in the path of the shower of sparks. One spark won't light you on fire, but over time, millions of them will wear out a few "hot spots" on your pants until the threads turn into tinder. The first place to go is the lower right groin region. Don't worry, unless your hung like a moose, the boys are safe.
That's not to say that the sparks won't light you on fire if you get a particularly heavy dose during a long cut. When I was apprenticing, I had never used an angle grinder before. Wanting to look cool — a theme of my life — I told my boss I knew what I was doing. I began the cut and sparks were nailing my leg something fierce. Fear of humiliation kept my eyes on the prize. I was cutting the shit out of that metal! About halfway through my boss said something but I couldn't hear him because of the noise of the grinder. It was probably something like "nice cutting Nicky boy!" Among the smells of Fiberglass and metal, a new aroma caught my nose. It smelt like burning plastic. It was the polyester in my pants. My boss was telling me my pants were on fire. That's what you get for lying about your skills.
Nick Moreau is an artist blacksmith and big fan of hand-pulled noodles. For recreation, he enjoys putzing around and watching 'Star Trek.' His business is Wicks Forge.