“It’s time to change hats, this is our blacksmithing program!”
Roy’s forge is rarely seen on the show, so this episode is a real treat as Roy, with the help of Judy Hammond’s tireless bellows pumping, is giving us a lesson in “heating iron, making it into a plastic medium and shaping it to suit our own needs.” Blacksmithing for the woodworker? Yes indeedy! As Roy explains, what a woodworker needs isn’t always available, especially within the era that he works. “Quite often we have to make it ourselves, and of course this is the whole point of what we’re doing here (on the show)… putting the means of production in the hands of the workers.”
With his backward railroad engineer’s cap and mustache that appears to grow longer with each episode, he introduces us to his first principal of blacksmithing: “upsetting… using the mass of the metal to shape” a bend. But you can’t strike before the iron is hot, so he kills the time by explaining his giant set of bellows hanging from the shop rafters. It’s really a beautiful thing, and certainly not a common feature in modern workshops. So Roy shares his uncommon knowledge of its inner workings, how the dual chambers produce a constant airflow, and before we know it the iron is glowing and the smithing has begun.
He starts to shape his “upset” bend, banging it on the anvil. The idea is to take a simple bend in the bar stock and give it a sharp, square shoulder. The anvil itself is wrought iron with a steel top, a “London pattern”, and Roy takes a moment while his iron reheats to give us the grand tour of this important tool’s features from the table to the horn to the hardy holes, even the nearby blacksmith’s post vise. Retreiving his iron, he works it with an impressive amount of skill. In a later episode Roy visits the Blacksmith shop at Williamsburg and appears entirely ignorant of the craft. But this episode exposes his ruse, he knows a lot more than he lets on! In fact Roy very often asks questions of visiting experts as if he truly doesn’t know the simple answers. Some mistake it for ignorance, but the truth is far more complex. You see, Roy is making this show as a teaching tool. He’s not trying to show off what he knows, he wants to introduce the viewers to the craft. So he asks the silly questions in our behalf, from our perspective. It’s just another way that he always keeps the audience in mind.
After a careful explanation of hammers and how different strikes using different heads produce different results, it’s time to reheat the stock again and we’re treated to a look at some other things he’s made at the forge. Many of these items are very impressive. He’s taken old farm implements and discarded bits of iron and transformed them into useful woodworking tools. A tap and thread box, a bowl adze, an ax, various planes and shaves, all well-made and regularly used in his shop. Remember this stuff later on when he’s with the blacksmiths in Williamsburg asking “What do they call that again? Fire?”
His “upset” bend complete, he begins to “draw out” the point of his spike dog. But it’s not long before it’s back in the forge and our lesson in iron tools continues. A pair of old chisels provides an opportunity to show how tool steel was often forge welded to wrought iron, producing a durable edge and an affordable tool. But enough of that, his bar is ready again so he continues hammering away, drawing the iron thinner and thinner until he concludes, “I’ve made my point”. It’s like sharpening an iron pencil, and his homemade spike dog is ready to use.
Now comes a real treat, he takes us around the shop to show some of the blacksmithing tools he started out with, reminding the viewers that you don’t need a lot of fancy tools to begin with. First is his hand crank blower, which he says can be found for as little as five dollars. Man, I wish I lived in 1970’s North Carolina, because around my place and time one of those runs at least $200- IF you can find one. A better solution is his forge fashioned from an old car break drum and heater blower. As for an anvil, all you need is something hard and heavy. He has a large coffee can sizeed chunk of steel he scrounged from a junk yard. (In a future episode he visits just such a place and we get to see his scrounging skills in action!) “If you’re into this sort of stuff you’ll not let anything hold you back just because you haven’t got the perfect, ideal stuff… You’ll find that these others will come along to you later on.”
One thing that came along to him later on is his old Wilkinson anvil, marked with the ancient English stone weight system. The first number represents the hundredweight (a multiple of 112 lbs), the second number is the additional quarter hundredweights (multiple of 28 lbs) and the last number indicates any additional pounds. So his anvil, marked 1-0-7, weighs 119 pounds. You can do the math for yourself, but Roy and I have both confirmed it with our fingers and toes. At this point he lifts another anvil up like it’s nothing, leaving me rather impressed and slightly emasculated. But when he puts it back down again we see that his back is as fragile as ours. My masculinity survives another day.
As if we haven’t learned enough he prepares to pack our skulls to the limit with a lesson in heat treating. A red hot chisel comes out of the forge and together we watch the color of the steel change as he does play by play on color vs. hardness. When it changes to the color you want, you quench it in the water to freeze it there. By the end of the show he’s got half the audience thinking of quitting their jobs and becoming blacksmiths, which often happens when you watch The Woodwright’s Shop!
The following article is a commentary written by Stumpy Nubs which includes his description of the episode and thoughts as he watched it. Only the phrases within quotation marks are the exact words of Roy Underhill.
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