Handles: Metal or Wood

We make broad forks, and many of them each year. Sometimes a client will ask if we can make the handles out of metal instead of wood, in the hopes that they can avoid breaking a handle if too much force is applied to the tool. Some believe that a breakable handle is a design flaw, but our decision to use wooden handles for all of our tools is a deliberate feature. Today I’m going to share our reasoning for that decision.

Wooden handles are lighter.

An average 4′ ash handle with 1.5″ diameter comes in at about 1.5 pounds in weight. The same length of schedule 40 black pipe with an outside diameter of about 1″ weighs 4.5 lbs! Two handles per broad fork means we’ve just added an extra 6 lbs of weight to a 12 lb tool, increasing its weight by 50%. Heavy tools are harder to use and bring on exhaustion that much faster.

Wooden handles are more comfortable.

Ever held a piece of metal pipe or rod in the cold? It’s not pleasant. The conductivity of heat in steel is a lot higher than compared to wood. That means cold, stiff hands when working in inclement weather. The inverse is true when working in the sun. Steel soaks up all that heat, again making the handle comfortable. Metal handles feel awful in wet, cold, sunny or hot weather which pretty much means all the time. No thanks!

Wooden handles are easily replaced.

There’s a reason why hardware stores stock wooden handles. They break with age, but more often break from misuse. Thankfully, a broken handle is not especially difficult to fix. Almost anyone with simple tools can replace a handle at home. As a matter of deliberate choice, we’ve designed our broad forks to use standard 4′ Garant brand shovel handles. These are stocked in many hardware stores and they take about ten or fifteen minutes to adapt to the fork’s steel socket.

This quality is the main argument for metal handles: they never break and never need to be replaced! But this must be weighed against the considerations above and against this last consideration which is that

Wooden handles reduce the chance of breaking the tool.

I’m not sure why it happens to be the case, and perhaps it’s always been this way, but it seems that it’s ok to push a tool to its breaking point time and time again until it finally breaks. Our modern throwaway culture certainly encourages a wasteful attitude, even when it comes to tools that could last many long years if they are treated with respect. In any case, when a tool is pushed beyond its limits a wooden handle, being the “weakest” part of the tool, means that it’s also the most likely part to break. This is a good thing.

Imagine a broad fork with metal handles. The tines are now the weakest part of the tool, and since the attitude of pushing a tool until it breaks is still firmly in place, that means it’s very likely that a tine will bend or snap off. Which is easier to repair: a wooden handle that can be picked up at the hardware store, or a piece of steel that needs welding equipment and expertise?

I hope that sharing our design considerations helps future customers, gardeners and tool enthusiasts alike realize that there are advantages when it comes to using wooden handles rather than their metal counterparts. A gentler attitude towards tool use, and perhaps work in general, may be of benefit as well. Hand tools speak to us through our use of them. It takes a sensitive “ear” to hear that communication, when we’re starting to push a tool too far. Next time you’re out in the garden or the workshop, slow down a little and see if you can “hear” what your hand tool is trying to tell you. It just might save you a trip to the hardware store.

The Crucible of 2021

The world has seen dramatic and seismic shifts in almost every manner this past year, and it’s helped many people reflect on their circumstances (especially with the nature of work) and whether something better could be conceived. For Lorinda and me, it’s given us ample time to consider how we structure our daily lives and in what ways we can better align ourselves with our ideals of meaningful work, work-life balance, peace and quiet, and resiliency.

This year we’re trying a different approach to ‘smithing. We’ve been in business for six years now and we have a fairly good sense of where to spend our production time. The plan is to create, in advance, a good number of products that we’re quite sure will earn us a solid income. Building up an inventory isn’t really a radical idea; most businesses have to operate on that model in order to keep up with demand. For us, however, it’s always been a “wait and see” approach. We put up an item for sale and wait and see if it sells. It keeps us very agile, but it doesn’t allow much room for branching into new products or processes since we’re always trying to catch up to demand.

That process of “just in time” production and shipping for online markets is very common these days, but the sense I get is that we, as a society, are shifting away from that. I see a future of more localized demand and supply, and part of getting on board with that system is to be able to put our product out there in the stores of local merchants. It’s precisely the opposite of online commerce, which has seen explosive growth over the past two years, but I think this last year has revealed its limits. Lorinda and I have done well enough for ourselves by moving in contrarian ways to that of society around us, and so we want to pivot to more local sales, less reliance on e-commerce, and establishing a market closer to where we live.

Hand axe forged from a reclaimed farrier’s rasp.

This mode of production will also free up time for us to stretch our artistic and ‘smithing abilities by trying new things. I aim to create more knives and axes (especially for woodworking) and Lorinda has already seen success with her creative blending of ironwork and locally scavenged driftwood. Blacksmithing is an interesting mix of creative and manufacturing pursuits. We’re shifting the balance in our forge with an eye towards a future that’s more local and more resilient. We hope you’ll join us.

Driftwood from Kootenay Lake mounted on hand forged brackets.

How about a little more Viking in your life?

We’ve been a supplier for Ragnar the Trader, a traveling Viking merchant, for a few years now and we wanted to share a few pictures of what some of that product looks like.

It’s an interesting process creating large batches of items (my wife and ‘smithing partner was practically dancing when we finished the 50th horn stand) when we forge everything by hand with hammer and anvil. Creating items wholesale requires patience, diligence and being ok with a degree of monotony. There are upsides to wholesale (though my wife may disagree), however : it requires a focus on shop economics and streamlining production, and it provides plenty of practice in the fundamental skills of blacksmithing.

The first blacksmith I studied with, Ontario Artist Blacksmith David Robertson, suggests that new ‘smiths focus on wholesale production for the advantages it provides. It may also be a form of self-selection, for only those truly dedicated to the craft would be ok with cutting, forging, polishing and oiling the same thing 50 times or more.

We’re proud of our wares and happy to have Ragnar sell them across the land! Be sure to visit his website, Etsy store or see him in person if you happen to be in Lethbridge or Edmonton this December.

A selection of items custom made for Ragnar the Trader.
Penannular brooches made in the style of the ancient Celts.
Hand forged cutlery ready for a meal of mutton and dumpling stew.
Mjolnir / Thor’s Hammer pendants with handmade rings.

Our Etsy Shop

Our Etsy shop: https://reforgedironworks.etsy.com

Etsy is an online commerce website that caters specifically to customers who want to find custom, vintage or handmade items. The worldwide web is a big place and it’s easy for a small site like ours to be overlooked by search engines, so having an online presence where customers are already looking for a business like ours (small, independent, family-run and focused on the highest quality) is a boon to us.

The focus of our website, Reforged Ironworks, is the hand forged, heirloom quality hand tools that we create. This space allows to share an in depth view of our process which gives our customers an understanding of what goes into every one of our handmade tools.

Ornamental ironwork, jewelry, and fire tools are among some of the other items we make, and these are featured on our Etsy page. We invite you to have a look to see what else we create.

As always, we welcome custom requests and projects. Contact us at info-at-reforgedironworks-dot-com.

Preparing for Yaki-ire: Study and Practice

What is Yaki-ire

Yaki-ire, or clay tempering, is a style of steel hardening. It isolates the hardening to the places the bladesmith wants hard (such as the edge), while keeping the rest of the piece tough (the body and spine). If the style is perfected, it results in blades that combine the best qualities of steel: hardness and durability at the edge, and toughness as the foundation to prevent breaking from brittleness in the blade. The transition zone between the two qualities of steel is called hamon. I’m curious to see if a hamon, a sort of frosty, wavy line that delineates the transition, is visible on the blades I treated using yaki-ire.

Preparing the Clay

I took the sister blades I featured in my last post and applied a clay mask to each of them using the recipe I found on the Crossed Heart Forge website (a wealth of information, by the way). The basic recipe is:

  • 1 part clay (binds the mix)
  • 1 part crushed sand/grog (prevents cracking and shrinkage)
  • 1 part crushed charcoal (prevents flaking off in the fire due to heat expansion)

The goal is to crush these materials as fine as possible, for the smallest size grain determines the minimum thickness of the clay slip or mask that can be applied. This post covers how I prepared the clay mixture.

The swage block from Crossed Heart Forge brought back into grinding service.

Sand before crushing (left) and after (right). The sand’s from a local beach and was already very fine.

Firescale from around the anvil. It serves a similar purpose to sand/grog in clay.

Firescale ground into powder

Charcoal dust from sifting pieces for the forge. Nothing goes to waste!

The dust crushed into a very fine powder. It had a tendency to float everywhere when crushing it.

I mixed some clay I got from an art class with water to make it very thin and spread it out on a sheet.

After baking in the oven at 200 deg. F for a couple of hours.

The clay is ready to be crushed into a fine powder. This is the binding agent for the mixture.

Crushed clay!

Bringing it all together

Now that I had my three (four technically) constituent parts, I was ready to mix them in equal proportion (by volume) and add water. The consistency to aim for the mask that goes on the body of the blade is pancake batter. It seemed to me to be like the texture of mortar when laying down tiles.

The materials ready to be mixed. It took about a tablespoon of each material to make enough for both blades.

The dry mixture. Add water and apply!

My next post will feature a video where I mix and apply the clay mask to the hori hori. Stay tuned!

The Blacksmith’s Art – A Poem

Hammer, anvil, forge and steel

 Coercing metal into a new deal

Fire hot and coals alight

 Turning metal burning bright

Pounding, shaping, heat and repeat

 Until new form and strength come neat

Once the shape appears to view

 Working on preciseness and details due

Every piece a unique work of art

 Formed and forged from hand and heart

Written by Lorinda Peel-Wickstrom, my wife, who wrote it for my birthday.

One Blade Becomes Two

Sister Blades

Working on some new tool designs, I took an old lawn mower blade and recycled it to use as stock for a kusakezuri (Japanese hand hoe) and a hori hori. In my continuing study of Japanese agricultural tools made with reclaimed steel, I’ve created these as prototypes. The fact that the two blades are sisters really speaks to me, and I plan to let whoever becomes the owner of these tools know it.

The kusakezuri blade, ferrule and handle unassembled. The blade needs hardening at this point.

The hori hori blade with tape measure to capture the scale.

Heat Treatment Process

The hand hoe is ready for heat treatment. The process involves annealing (which I did already), then normalizing the blade for two or three cycles depending on if the blade warps as it cools. Finally, the blade will be hardened by quenching. For this particular steel from the reclaimed lawn mower blade, I took a piece of it and tested it. It hardened very well at a cherry red heat quenched in room temperature water. For longer pieces like a blade, however, quenching it in a medium like that could cause it to warp excessively or even crack from the stress of cooling so quickly.

I next tried hardening the test piece in warm vegetable oil (came out soft), and then cold vegetable oil. The second result had ok hardness (a file barely scratched it). I decided to quench the hori hori blade in the cold vegetable oil. This is the result:

A slight curve can be seen along the blade’s edge. This needs to be corrected.

The blade warped slightly, curving upwards, and the edges were a little soft for my liking, with the file biting a bit. The ideal is a file skating on the surface of the hardened steel. I’m going to harden the hori hori again, but this time using yaki-ire to harden the edges. I will use the same process for the hand hoe as well.

Yaki-ire is a style of edge hardening that is accomplished by applying a clay mask to all surfaces of the blade except for the edge. When the 1-2 mm clay layer is dry, the blade is heated to the correct temperature and then quenched in water. Water quenches faster than oil, so I believe this will give the hardness that I want while maintaining some toughness in the rest of the blade.

Blade Anatomy

A slight concave is forged into the back of the hoe blade to ease in sharpening.

Tang detail: note the sharp shoulder where the tang meets the ferrule.

The back side of a single bevel blade is called ura in Japanese, and in the picture above I forged a slight concave on the ura to make sharpening easier. This is a traditional method for forging single bevel blades. The blade will fit into a slot cut into a hardwood handle. An iron ferrule is used to support the tang and blade; for the support to work correctly the ferrule must fit snugly with both the tang and the wood. It takes a bit of work to ensure all the pieces fit properly.

Next update will show the completed pieces.

Making a Hori Hori, Part Two

Part One can be found here: http://reforgedironworks.com/2018/03/28/making-a-hori-hori-part-1/

In this video I show the steps I take to finish the forged and tempered hori hori. It’s broken down into four essential steps:

  1. Grind bevels to final shape – using files and/or a bench grinder with various grits of belts, I take the edges down on both sides of the blade to their final shape. The finished angle of the bevel is about 30 degrees, to ensure a robust edge since the knife is used primarily for digging
  2. File serrations into one edge – using a round file, I file in serrations into one edge. This helps with sawing through fibrous roots and woody stems.
  3. Wrap the handle – The handle is wrapped with brightly coloured paracord so that if the knife happens to be left in the garden, it’s easy to spot.
  4. Sharpen the edges – Finally, I use a sharpening stone to get the edges to their final sharpness. I don’t go as far as making the edges razor sharp because they would lose that edge pretty quickly digging in soil anyways. The knife is still sharp enough to cut paper, and it chops through wood readily.

Harvesting with a Kama (Japanese Sickle)

Lorinda demonstrates how the kama is an ideal tool for selective harvesting and cutting of green plants and herbs. Here she is specifically harvesting leaves and flower buds from a comfrey patch.

The kama can be used for many other applications such as harvesting garden greens, squash, and cutting grasses and weeds around trees and other sensitive perennials. To find out more about the kama and how it’s made, visit this page.

Lorinda and I love using this tool around the garden for pretty much any cutting job for herbaceous plants.

Harvesting Garlic with a Broadfork

It’s harvesting time once again, and here we’re showing you how we get our garlic out of the ground. The broadfork is an indispensable tool for harvesting because it 1) digs up the plant we want and 2) loosens and aerates the soil at the same time and thus prepping the bed for spring all in one go.

Lorinda and the hens are the stars of this video. No music this time as I wanted to highlight how quiet it is working with hand tools as opposed to machinery.

Find out more about the broadfork here.