28 August 2009

Basic blacksmithing – building the bucket forge

(Click on the image for a larger view)

Ok, we talked about this very primitive forge in previous posts, and here is the “how to” article to build your own bucket forge. Just so this is very clear, this is not going to be a really incredible forge, and it probably won't be very pretty, but it is simple and dirt cheap (that's a joke son, a joke... it will become apparent in a bit).

This bucket forge has not been covered anywhere else on the internet that I am aware of, but a lot of parallel evolution happens, so it is quite possible. You could think of this as a portable ground forge if you like, so any photos or information you might happen across on a ground forge could apply to this project.

So lets jump right into this then.

First you are going to need a bucket. A metal bucket or pail is certainly fireproof, but because of the way we are building this, any 3 to 5 gallon plastic bucket will work just fine.

Next, you will need some way of getting air into the fire. Here, I really suggest you use a section of steel pipe. Plastic pipe, such as PVC, is definitely going to melt and it won't last longer than it takes to get a good fire going. Copper pipe is going to carry a lot of heat back out of the fire, and could melt the side of your bucket, plus it is pretty expensive. Now for this project, any old hunk of 1 1/2” or larger pipe should suffice, though I wouldn't suggest much beyond about 3 inches in diameter. If it has an elbow or T connector on one end, that's even better. You will need a way to put a hole in the side of your bucket for the pipe to enter, but we will get to that in a bit.

Lastly, you are going to need some fireproof material to fill your bucket and make your bowl. This is where the “dirt cheap” joke comes in. Simple dirt can work just fine, with a layer of clay to make the bowl. And if clay is hard to come by in your area, kitty litter shouldn't be, and it is just pelleted clay. If you opt to go the kitty litter route, make sure it is the non-scented stuff, those scents could emit nasty fumes once they heat up.

Now that we have our materials, we just have to put it all together. The first thing is going to be a hole in the side of the bucket to allow the air pipe to come in under the fire. If your air pipe is just a straight section, it can come in higher up than if it has a T or elbow on it. The proper way to do this is to use a hole saw to cut a properly sized hole in the side of the bucket for the pipe to have a nice close fit. But hole saws are fairly costly, and this thing is to be done on the cheap, so... you will need to heat the section of pipe at one end, and find a means of safely holding the pipe to melt a hole in the side of the bucket. For this a propane torch can work, or a small camp fire. You only need to get the end of the pipe up to about 400 degrees, so even putting it in your grille or oven would work. Now wrapping a wet towel around the pipe might seem like a safe way to hold it, but go with me on this... it's not. If the pipe is long enough, you should be able to hold in with your hands, as long as you check it with the back of your hand first. By that I mean hold the back of your hand near the potentially hot pipe and feel for heat. Then get a bit closer and so on until you can touch it and know for certain it is a comfortable temperature. Why use the back of your hand, you may ask? Because the back of the hand is more sensitive to heat than the palm and fingertips, plus if you do burn yourself, it is in a place that wont cripple your ability to keep working. If the pipe is too short, or the heat moving though it has heated it up, you will need something like a pair of pliers or vice grips to hold the pipe. DO NOT put one end of the pipe in a bucket of water. This can cause the water in the pipe to turn to steam and shoot out the end like a shotgun, and steam is very effective at causing burns.
Once you get your pipe heated up, you simply hold it against the bucket and let it melt the plastic. Be sure to do this outside on a windy day, those fumes can not be good for you. Also be sure there is nothing flammable nearby, like a wooden deck or a bucket of gasoline soaked rags. If the plastic flares up and starts to burn pull the pipe off it and let the pipe cool somewhat, and put the flame out either with water or a hand full of sand. Don't blow on it to put it out though, as that could easily splash molten, burning plastic back into your face.

The objective here is to get a hole that is just about the size of your pipe, about halfway down the bucket. Of course if you have a hole saw, you can use that too, but this is the low dough way.

Now that you have a hole, let the bucket and pipe cool back to air temperature. Next fill the bottom of the bucket with whatever is handy to make up the space up to the level your pipe comes in at. Dirt is just fine, but is rather heavy. Since this area will not be exposed to much heat, it can be filled with wood scraps, a couple empty cool whip containers with lids or what have you. Just fill any air gaps with dirt and make sure you have a few inches of dirt under your pipe for insulation. If you choose to fill the entire bucket with dirt, the forge will be much more stable in use, which is safer, just be careful moving it, as the handles on many of these buckets are not designed for that much weight. Now slide your pipe in through the hole you made so the open part is at the center. If your pipe has and elbow or T, you will have to put the pipe in from the opening at the top of the bucket, on an angle and slide it into position. Now fill the bucket with some more dirt around the outer edge to create a basic bowl shape. Tamp this all down from time to time to make sure the dirt is packed as tightly as you can, so it wont collapse later.

Next comes the final part, making the bowl. If you have river clay, simply press it into place forming a nice bowl shaped depression with the sides packed tightly all the way to the top. If you are using cat litter, you will need to mix a little water into it so it is sticky, and pack it into place. There are illustrations on my blog to better show the shape and layout of this step, and that can be found at http://ironangelforge.blogspot.com/, along with other lessons.

Now you must have some patience, and let the clay dry for several days. Once you have let it dry, check it for cracks, and if some have formed, mix up a little clay and water and patch the up nicely, and let it all dry again. If you have no cracks, congratulations! You just built a bucket forge! You may want to build a small fire of paper and sticks in it to bake the forge bowl, but don't get to gung ho, you are just trying to drive out more of the wetness in the clay, not build a fire that can be seen from space.

Lastly, you will need to find a few nice rocks to put in your pipe to keep the coal from falling down into the pipe. These are easy to come by along side gravel roads and some driveways. Try to steer clear of any rocks that have been in creeks or rivers, they could still contain water and explode or turn to powder under heat. We will cover how to use those rocks in our next installment, which will also cover putting air into your bucket forge.

That's all for now, stay out of trouble til next time.

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