The case against the brake drum forge

[Home] [Back to Jump page]

Brake drum forge from Reader's Digest book - Back To BasicsA brake drum forge is the poorest and most awkward and impractical design. I do not recommend brake drum forges to anyone. More convenient and effective is to throw the brake drum away and simply dig a hole in the ground with a 2 inch pipe angled into the side of the hole to supply air. Anything would work better than a brake drum- a box filled with dirt or clay with a hollow depression for the fire, a flat surface made of stone or steel with a pile of cinders creating a depression for the fire. Anything but a brake drum. Brake drums were meant for use on cars and trucks- not in a blacksmith's forge.

Latest update: 25 December, 2013. Under construction. Beginning to reformat and reduce redundant content, making it easier to read.

 

Who recommends brake drum forges and why?

Many blacksmith websites are run by (and for) hobby smiths posing as masters or experienced blacksmiths. Most 'experienced' hobby smiths on the internet forums are unanimous in pushing the beginner to start with a brake drum forge. The brake drum people always claim to have years of experience using brake drum forges on a daily basis and making lots of money doing the best work using their brake drum forges. They would have the beginner believe that a 'brake drum' forge and a cheap hair dryer are a good substitute for a real blacksmiths bottom blast forge and blower. Many of these hobby websites have a slick 'professional' web design appearance that causes the newbie to think he or she is getting the best advice. Any newcomer that dares to question the use of a brake drums in forge design, is immediately and brutally attacked and humiliated until he/she submits or goes away.

The brake drum masters don't have anywhere near as much experience as they claim using brake drum forges. They get very little money for anything they produce with a brake drum forge and they produce very little ironwork anyway. Take a look at photos of their work (if they even provide any). The work done with a brake drum forge is always of the simplest design and lowest quality - usually 'S' hooks and railroad spike knives, lots and lots of knives. The problem with knives is that over 90% of the work to make a knife involves grinding and sanding and polishing. So if the brake drum pusher actually has photos, look for photos of their favorite sander or grinder. The sanders and grinders take up a very prominent place in the knife grinder's shop. Grinding and sanding equipment plays a huge role in the knife grinder's work, but not in the blacksmith's work. Also take a quick look at some of the date stamps on these peoples' posts, and it will be apparent that most of these people are on the internet day and night - not working in their shops as blacksmiths. These wannabe experts are in fact, inexperienced and unskilled, and they are giving the newcomer advice on how to build the most important tool in the blacksmith's shop! Do you see a problem here? Real working blacksmiths don't tell newcomers to build brake drum forges! They tell the newbie to learn how the best forges work and to build something that functions much like the professional blacksmith's forge. Think about it.

The brake drum pushers refuse to use brake drums in their own forges. That's right! Despite their own advice urging beginners to use brake drum forges, the owners of those slick hobby smith websites, along with their forum participants, have chosen to use gas forges or coal forges with homemade or commercially made firepots. Beginners should question this contradictory philosophy. Why do these 'experienced' smiths choose not to use brake drum forges themselves? Do you see a problem here? No professional smith would ever use a brake drum forge - it is easier to build a high quality forge from wood, steel, brick, concrete, clay, dirt, stone, etc. But now we discover that even the brake drum pushers refuse to use their own brake drum forges. Why? If the brake drum forge is so great, then why do these alleged experts refuse to use them?

What are the typical reasons for pushing beginners into a brake drum forge? They usually go something like this:

  1. Because the beginner just wants to try his/her hand at the blacksmith's craft to find if they want to pursue the craft further, and
  2. because the beginner doesn't a lot of money to buy a lot of expensive tools to start blacksmithing,

To the beginner or non-smith, their concerns might at first appear well intentioned, but their argument for using a brake drum forge are poorly thought out and are often abusive and condescending towards the new smith - almost as though the 'experienced' smith might actually be trying to force the beginner to use a brake drum forge as if it were some kind of hazing or occult initiation. The central theme of their arguments pretends to focus on cost of building a forge. They often point to a beginner's ability to obtain a brake drum for 'free'. But as I would argue, a 'free' object that is ill-suited for a task (such as using a brake drum instead of a properly designed firepot), usually ends up costing more to work with than if one were to simply pay full cost of a homemade or commercially made object that was made specifically for the blacksmith. In other words, that free brake drum will end end up costing more time and money than a commercially made cast iron firepot or homemade fabricated steel firepot.

The usual target of a brake drum forge is the person that 'doesn't want to spend a lot of money'. But cheapskates generally have few tools of any real quality and these people generally have no skills with which to use them. To make a brake drum fit into a forge hearth and work well, requires a substantial cash outlay to purchase the necessary tools and materials. And these people don't have the necessary skills with which to do the work. Trying to install an incompatible piece of junk like a brake drum fit into a forge, is difficult even for the experienced craftsman. Would it not also be easier AND cheaper for an unskilled workman to fashion a forge from wood and clay and dirt and stone, instead of trying to make a brake drum conform to shape? Aren't those materials 'free' too? The gently sloping sides of the ducks nest (the hollow area that supports the actual fire) are easily formed in clay or fire cement. This is done without a brake drum. Using alternative construction materials such as clay or fire cement would not require welding skills, screws and hardware, or expensive electric tools. So why not these other materials to build the beginner's first forge? These alternate materials would produce a much better forge for the blacksmith, so why do these supposed experts insist on pushing the beginner towards a poorly thought out brake drum forge - knowing that the brake drum forge performs so poorly, that the beginner will soon be forced to build a better forge soon afterwards? Why not save the effort and just do it properly the first time?

 

What's wrong with the picture at right?

Scan from Readers Digest book - Back To BasicsThe fire is not depicted in a realistic manner. The sides of this forge (Reader's Digest illustration at right) would be roughly 3 inches tall and similar in size to the rim of a brake drum. This picture shows two iron bars roasting over the fire and everything is comfortably maintained in the tiny little hearth. It looks like the smith is simply bar-b-queuing the iron over a low bed of charcoal.

In reality the typical blacksmith's fire is roughly 7 inches or more in depth and fuel would tower over the sides of this little forge. And every time the smith adjusted the fire or moved the iron into or out of the fire, fuel would spill all over the floor to be wasted.

Most pictures (like the illustration at right) fail to show proper use of the blacksmith's fire because they were not drawn by blacksmiths, they were instead drawn by a book illustrator. It's a beautiful illustration but it just isn't accurate. The depiction should have shown the iron thrust into the heart of a deeper fire, not roasting above a low bed of coals.

Fuel spills off the brake drum and all over the ground (wasting valuable time and fuel) whenever long tools or iron bars are placed on the brake drum forge. This is annoying and unsafe. When coal is added to the fire on a brake drum, the beginner must be careful to add only a little at a time and place it slowly for fear that much of it will fall off the forge if he puts it on the fire too quickly. Fire tools cannot be placed conveniently nearby the fire because there is nowhere to put them on a brake drum forge hearth, that they won't fall off. Some hobby smiths like to claim that they make a tool rack to hang their fire tools from, but this is awkward- almost like having to pick them up off the ground.

Tongs and other tools cannot be hung from the horn of an anvil like the illustration above depicts, because tongs get very hot and the smith must bend down to grasp the handles of the tongs to avoid getting burned- using valuable time while the iron is wasting away in the fire or cooling in the air. The brake drum forge hearth offers no convenient location to lay hot tools when they are not in use - thus the reason that the artist depicts tongs hung from the anvil horn.

Note that the forge depicted (in the illustration) is a small 'riveters' forge. We can use this depiction to discuss the brake drum forge because the riveter's forge is identical in size and shape to a brake drum forge.

Fire depth. Now immediately the hobby smiths on the forums are going to attack the idea that a blacksmith's fire must be at least 7 inches (180 mm.) or more in depth. So let's look at some proof in photos of forges in blacksmith's shop. Click on the photos below to enlarge them.

One of the firepots in the photo below is the Centaur Vulcan that this author has used in 3 different forges since 1981. The coal is piled on top of the firebrick to a depth of about 1-1/2 inches (40 mm.). The brick is roughly 2-3/4 inches (72 mm.) tall. The depth of the firepot below the brick is roughly 3 inches (80 mm.). Total fire depth is 7 to 8 inches (180-200 mm.). This is a typical fire for general blacksmithing work.

The finished forge in use.Firepot installed in new steel forgeCommercially made firepotsPhoto (near right) shows a selection of firepots - note the Centaur Vulcan firepot second from left.

Photo (at middle right) shows the Centaur Vulcan pot installed in a new steel forge.

Photo (far right) shows the new steel forge from the middle photo, in use. Coal and coke are seen piled over the height of the firebrick near the firepot. The fire can be seen to be around 7 inches (180 mm.) depth.

The Beautiful Iron blacksmith website contains literally hundreds of photos of blacksmiths working with properly designed forges. I encourage newbies to take a look at the fires on the Coal Forge pages and see for themselves how blacksmiths maintain their fires. All professional and semi-pro (amateur) blacksmiths handle their coal forge fires in the same way. In fact, fire tending skills are so important in the blacksmiths' work that we can actually determine whether a blacksmith is a professional/amateur, or just a hobbyist, simply by watching the way they maintain and use their fires. Take a look at the blacksmiths at the Harvey Yellin Memorial gate smithing workshop on this YouTube video- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_IUu0t9su0  and here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTmq0y8UZNE and here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0viHnqB0wW4 .

 

The case against the brake drum forge.

 

Advantages of a ready-made cast iron firepot in a bottom blast forge:

The advantages below apply only to coal forges with a bottom blast design. This does not suggest that side blast forges are in any way, inferior to bottom blast forges- they aren't. This is simply a comparison of two bottom blast style forges; the brake drum forge vs. the properly designed firepot and tuyere.

 

How can I try blacksmithing without spending a lot of money?

  1. Enroll in a blacksmith class for beginners. (this section to be updated and corrected for grammar soon)You will have access to forges that have already been set up and in use. You will have a teacher helping you begin forging some simple items, and you will have exposure and access to many of the tools of the blacksmith. The classes will offer you the chance to see if you really want to continue with blacksmithing without the need to spend large amounts of money up front to purchase the expensive tools yourself. Many Living History or open air style museums offer blacksmithing classes in addition to their museum demonstrations. Check with a museum near you. Many craft schools offer blacksmithing classes. I have placed links to some of these crafts schools under the heading 'Schools and Seminars Teaching Blacksmithing' on my Links page at: http://www.beautifuliron.com/links.htm
  2. Visit a museum to watch a blacksmith demonstrating the old crafts. Living History museums and other open air museums offer live blacksmithing demonstrations as part of their display. Some of these smiths are little more than paid beginners. At the same time many are experts that are involved in training an entire new generation just like the master smiths did more than a century ago. I have placed links to some larger Living History museums at http://www.beautifuliron.com/links.htm and many more can be found by looking up the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums at: http://www.alhfam.org/.
  3. Visit an ornamental iron business that forges their own ironwork. Many of these shops use some blacksmithing techniques to build ironwork and some shops in larger cities specialize in forged ironwork. Many professional shops will allow you a short visit to watch some of their work and some will even have suggestions to help you get started. Search key words: Ornamental Iron, Ironwork, Gates or Railings, Stairways or similar listings.
  4. Attend a blacksmith's meet or convention to watch other smiths demonstrating their work. There are a large number of blacksmith clubs or 'chapters' throughout the United States and in England and Europe. In the US try looking up the local chapters listed on the A.B.A.N.A. website here: http://www.abana.org/affiliates/affiliate_map.shtml . These association chapters often have meetings and weekend demonstrations during which they give live working demonstrations and instruction and trade blacksmith tools.

The blacksmith's trade is very expensive and will remain expensive for a very long time. Building 'cheap' equipment will actually cost more money in the long run compared with paying for the best equipment in the beginning. Remember that if you invest in cheap junk equipment then you will be purchasing equipment twice- once when you bought the cheap lower quality stuff, and again when you purchase the higher quality tools because the cheaper stuff didn't perform well enough.

 

My own advice to beginning blacksmiths:

The first thing visitors notice about the Beautiful Iron website, is that there are no 'brake drum forges' anywhere in the coal forge pages.

Enroll in a blacksmithing class near you. The blacksmithing class must be taught by an experienced blacksmith.  Avoid learning from other beginners (the blind leading the blind). In a good class environment the beginner will have the best opportunity to learn fire maintenance, heating the iron, and get to try out a good forge for themselves. The class experience will give the beginner an opportunity to learn if they would like to continue the craft of blacksmithing and find out what it is like to work with good equipment. Learn how to use a good high quality forge BEFORE building your own forge.

If the beginner wants to start by jumping directly into smithing on his own then I recommend he/she buys good equipment. The best tools are the cheapest by far in the long run. So you say you don't have a lot of money? Then start saving money. Get a job. This craft is very expensive.

Buy a good cast iron firepot or side-blast tuyere from a blacksmith supplier such as Centaur Forge or Baker House Group. It is possible to make a good firepot from scrap steel but the cast iron firepots and tuyeres offer excellent performance. Check out your local scrap yard for scrap steel but be ready to buy new steel when they don't have some of the things you need. Buy a new anvil- they are cheaper than overpriced worn out used anvils. Buy new Peddinghaus brand hammers. Buy some 5/8ths round, 3/4ths round steel new and learn to make your own light tongs. Buy the book The Blacksmith's Craft by CoSIRA or RDC and modify their method for tongs making using your lighter materials. Buy a 5 inch leg vise- make sure the jaws are in good shape, not misaligned or worn out. Buy good blacksmith's coal, not the cheap stoker coal. Stoker coal is full of clinkers. Buy a large forge blower. Not the tiny blowers. Don't buy the tiny portable forges. Attend some seminars and see other smiths working and get some ideas for your own work. Attend a horseshoeing school that specializes in forging hand made horseshoes. Make your own rake, shovel, and poker, and make a nicer set of fire tools a year later.


Latest update on: 25 December, 2013.

 An article concerning the easiest way for teenagers with little money to get a good start at blacksmithing will be added to this website in the near future and links to that article after it is ready.

Page created on November 24th, 2003.