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Cost to become a metalsmith?

Three man forging a large shaped pommel with sledge and form.

Here is a question we are often asked-

How much does it cost to get started as a metalsmith?

As little as you like or as much as you want. Don’t worry about going over how much you can spend if you are flush with funds, as that is usually not an issue. If you are on a shoestring you can do great work with limited funds.

Metalsmithing is considered one of the base crafts throughout history. This means once you have a hammer and something to hit against, the rest of your tools can be made by you. Don’t worry about doing things perfectly from the start, just start making things as best you can and then make a better one. Do your homework before you build anything and be thankful you live in the age of Youtube. There are many great how-to posts out there and a bunch of beginner videos to watch.

The Basic Entry to the Craft

The first thing you need to do is find some basic tools. There are fancy kits of blacksmithing hammers and tongs available on the internet, but they can be quite expensive, skip those. Luckily there are literally tons of old tools in basements, garages, and barns in every community in the country.

Find someone who has some tools they no longer want or use. Friends, parents, grandparents, and neighbors can be a great supply of basic tools for cheap or free. They may well have a hammer and tongs laying around picking up dust. Let people you know you are looking for old tools. You don't have to find tools originally designed for the type of metalworking you might be interested in. Especially when you are just getting started there are a wide range of hammers and tongs that can be made to serve your purposes. Even if what you find isn't exactly what you envisioned, practice and learn to use it well and you can always swap it with someone later.

 Hammer heads from the Dublin Archeology museum, viking period tools.

Early Medieval Hammer heads from Ireland. The white numbers are about a quarter inch high. PIcture taken in Archeology Museum Dublin 2018. Some of the best displays of craft from the past I have ever seen.

Things to Do

Always check the tool and junk section at second hand and thrift stores. We have found some amazing old tools in these stores for pocket change. Always check garage sales (again especially in rural areas), they will have some stuff that is no longer wanted or recognized by the owners, but is treasured by smiths.

 Forging tools on display in the Dublin Archeology Museum.

Hammer heads with a large tongs. Dublin Archeology Museum.

The anvil surface you use is the challenge most folks face to really get started. You do not need a good anvil to start. If you get into the art and go long term you will end up with more anvils then you need. It's part of the disease of being a smith :-)  Large chunks of hard or soft steel will can usually suffice. You should try to find a surface that's got about a 4x4 inch flat surface and weighs at least 4 or 5 pounds. That will do. Today most people use a farriers anvil, but that is not required. If you study the craft of blacksmithing you will soon see that smiths used different shapes and sizes of anvils to amazing advantage from the beginning of the art. Historically speaking, many medieval smiths did most of their work on small stump anvils (an anvil on a post that can be jammed in a tapered hole in a stump).

 Square stump anvil working face approximately 4 by 4 inches.

Stump anvil in our shop 

Celtic smithing tools.

Ancient celtic smiths tools.

 

The absolute basics you need to begin

A hammer, something around 1 pound with one flat and one rounded face is best. A tongs to hold your work. An Anvil, some surface to strike against. A large ball-peen hammer, a pair of used vice-grips, and a flat chunk of steel is really all you need to get started. Will these tools last forever? No but it will get you started. Plus it helps to have a mustache or beard if that's possible for you. :-) Just kidding.  There are many examples of female smiths from the medieval period and some of the better smiths I know today are women. Craft is all inclusive.

Image of smith in forge. Women working forge.

Smiths come in all types :-)

Fire!

Next you need to get your metal red hot. Look through youtube for inexpensive forge solutions.  Even some old fire brick, a bag of cowboy charcoal and an air mattress  pump can get your steel into workable temperature ranges.  You can of course go old school and build a bellows, it's a very approachable do it yourself project.

Now this is all pretty bare bones, but it will get you hitting hot metal. Wear eye protection and heavy clothes or an apron.  Don't burn down your garage.  Always have a fire extinguisher handy.  Safety is something to focus on. Folks who might want to watch you work should also wear safety glasses and stand out of the way.

You should also look for any local group that practices the art. A little instruction will allow you to teach yourself a lot with practice, a community of craftspeople will be invaluable to improve your skills.  They may well have tools, classes and support you can draw on. I know here in Minnesota we have a great metalsmith community.

 Guild of Metalsmiths visit to A&A 2005

Guild of Metalsmiths visit Arms & armor Inc. 

If you desire to get into this art, learn as much as you can when in contact with folks already doing it. Use the best part of the internet - the how-to videos out there- you don’t have to think they are right to learn from watching them. Also there are many ways to do most processes. Most are not better or worse just the one you are most comfortable with. This is a craft that reached some of its greatest achievements in a time when the workers could not read and the concepts of degrees of temperature and seconds or minutes as measurable data where not known. They dealt with observable detail, color, feel, sound, the straightness or curve of your eye. They used a straightedge and a compass to layout their work, no fancy patterns or exact measurements for most items.

two sided medieval forge image.

Medieval double forge

As an aside I once saw a demonstration with some Hmong smiths from Vietnam. They created very decent tools and objects using a claw hammer and a rock. Pretty impressive. I would probably not recommend this due to some of the safety issues with such tools but don’t let not having the perfect stuff get in your way.

 Resources:

Guild of Metalsmiths

Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center

History of Smithing.

Good How to get started article.

Buyers guides for smiths.

Wmoan blacksmith medieval image.

Medieval woman smithing on a stump anvil

 

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