May 26, 2001

by Robert M. Heath  photos by Jim Pigott

Published in the November 2001 Issue of Anvil Magazine

Note: Images and captions are at the bottom of this article.

The Mississippi Forge Council's Annual Conference held May 25-27 at the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Museum in Jackson had mixed blessings from multiple perspectives. The upside was the very excellent and high-quality presentations, and just plain work that Peter Happny did at the forge for those in attendance. There are few demonstrators of the blacksmith's craft who can equal Peter Happny's presentation in Mississippi. His knowledge is wide and his craft is filled with extreme detail. That is what impressed me the most about his work-the detail he offered in relating the information. Peter exhibited a noticeable tendency to tell it all and to leave nothing to guess about. He has a very rare presence of mind while he works, knowing when gaps in his information were occurring during his demonstration. He would then quickly fill the gap. That kind of quality in a craft demonstration and teaching session is very rare and indicates that there is no latent intent to conceal motives or techniques in craft executions. How many times do we attend blacksmith presentations where we leave a demonstration forge with the sneaking feeling that we didn't get it all because the blacksmith didn't intend to reveal all of his money-earning secrets? Peter didn't leave us with that feeling. We got it all, from colors of hot metal, annealing, thicknesses, where to buy supplies, carbon content, alloying, how to market, and what to look out for from the metal and from the people with whom one deals on a project. It was something like receiving the "pure juice" of the craft from someone like Francis Whitaker or Frank Turley.

There was a downside to the conference, however. We had only 31 one blacksmiths who signed up for the conference. It was a disappointment for all of us, but mostly for our Chapter officers, who have consistently and over many years presented annual conference programs that are second to none in the nation for a chapter event like this. In the past we have had Francis Whitaker, Jim Hrisoulas, George Dixon, Wendel Broussard, and now Peter Happny, who generously traveled to Mississippi to demonstrate at our conference.

Peter Happny was self-taught in the early 1970s. He indicated that self-teaching helps to make a technique "stick" in one's memory, because the learning is original or generated from within. It is appropriate and sometimes easier to learn a technique from other blacksmiths, since this type of learning magnifies craft abilities with less sweat. However, Peter says that although the things that he learns from others are very important to him, they do not remain with him in memory as long or in as much detail as the things he teaches himself. The hundreds of memories of how to do things at an anvil go far back in time and can be conjured up when they are needed for project tasks.

"You are going to forget things no matter how much you are self-taught, but it is fun to rediscover how you once did something," Peter explained.

He listed four things that he uses to develop his projects.

1) Drawing-Put the project on paper and refer to the drawing when the project is being crafted. The final product may not look exactly like the envisioned concept in all of its details due to the way the material forges under the hammer, but it is important to stick to the original concept. A drawing will help to keep a project on track.

2) Forge Welding-This is a basic technique and any blacksmith worthy of his craft needs to have a firm grasp of this aspect of his work. Really, something like this goes without saying, but it is important to list it since it is so basic. He emphasized that it is important to upset both irons that are to be welded at the joint location before the weld is made in order to prepare a proper scarf for the weld.

3) Upsetting-This point was somewhat of a surprise to some of us, since we were expecting "bending" or "fullering" or "hammering" for Peter's third technique. Blacksmithing is the only craft that does upsetting and it is very important to completely master this aspect of forging. Potters who work with clay add material or squeeze it to size, but rarely mash it in on itself the way a blacksmith builds up the mass he is working with.

Peter asked, "Did you know that the blacksmith is the only craftsman who can put a three-quarter inch hole in a three-quarter inch bar and still maintain the strength of the bar? Just think of it. What happens to a bar if a hole is simply drilled in it? Part of the cross-section area and material is diminished by the diameter of the drilled hole and thus the strength of the bar is diminished. But if the bar is upset, split and then drifted at the hole, the bar retains its strength."

Some of us in the observing audience began to think about what he was saying and realized that he was emphasizing this technique much more than most of the demonstrators we had heard before. He demonstrated the classic technique of upsetting a bar by first forging a bevel on the end that is to be struck. This allows the force vector of the blow to more closely follow the central axis of the bar that is being upset. The beveled end allows a blow to fall on a much smaller area of the end that is almost right on top of the central axis of the bar.

Peter uses a soft metal (aluminum) "gripper" placed in a vise to hold a bar that is to be upset. The softer metal conforms to the surface contours of the bar and allows a much firmer grip by the vise. Copper or bronze sheeting can be used for this purpose too. He likes to hit while the bar is held horizontally in the vise because the jaws of the vise, which push the soft metal "gripper" into the bar, has a much more secure hold due to the greater surface exposure to both the bar being held and to the jaws of the vise. The vise has contours that the softer metal can conform to for a more secure gripping action. However, he also likes hitting from the top vertical angle, since it allows very fast hammering on top of a red-hot bar that cools very fast in a vise. The mass of metal in a vise tends to draw heat away from a hot bar that is held tightly, just as a cold anvil will draw off heat from hot work laid on its surface.

Peter says that speed is the main ingredient in upsetting a bar properly. One speedy way he does it is to use two hammers at a time, with a hammer in each hand. The hot bar is quickly pulled from the fire, quickly clamped in the vise, and banged down into the upset very rapidly with both hammers working in tandem. He says that he thinks it is important to use light hammers in this operation since they can be swung faster, to take advantage of the limited amount of time available when upsetting. It is not slow, massive blows that are needed, but very fast blows delivered before the metal cools. A massive blow tends to bend the bar over in the vise instead of upsetting it.

4) Punching, Piercing, and Twisting-These terms are self-explanatory and important. Most blacksmiths already know how to perform these functions and seem to do them exactly as Peter demonstrated.

One of the things that Peter forged was a poker. These things are simple to do, but also require the basic skills that he was demonstrating to us. Almost anyone can forge a poker but when someone like Peter makes one, it is very obvious that a master blacksmith is at work. The ease of the flow of work that a master always seems to have was very evident here. No blows were wasted. The metal seemed to come into shape almost on its own. These were sure signs of a true master and there are very few around.

Peter fullers his iron on the edge of the anvil or over the rounded horn. A magnet is stuck to the bottom of the heel on his anvil to keep the noise level down, especially when he is working over the horn. Red heat "is a kind of finishing heat" to forge a nice finish on a piece of iron. "A hammer is kind of like a backboard in basketball that a blacksmith uses with the anvil. Keep your hand fairly loose on the hammer. A tight grip will tend to tire one out when forging metal. Take rests when forging by bouncing the hammer on the anvil-not forcefully bouncing it, but take natural resting bounces. "The resting bounces will help to reduce the stress on arms and shoulders and will help prevent tendinitis in ligaments if a lot of forging is accomplished.

"I have taught myself to use both hands ambidextrously when I forge at an anvil so that I can rest one side of my body at a time. I had to learn to use my left hand when, at one time, tendinitis developed in my right. It really helps to prolong the amount of time a tradesmith can work when earning a living, at those times when work must absolutely come out of the shop on time. I use a power hammer about 80% of the time to save myself physically.

"Take the hardy out of its hole when you are finished with it to prevent damage to your hands. Use a frying pan to hold welding flux. A cast iron frying pan is heavy, will stay put, and is wide enough to catch sprinkled flux. Sunlight prevents adequate judgment of a welding heat. On critical welds, take two welding heats. It is okay to drop a pair of tongs when performing a weld. I flux right in the fire on some welds without removing the pieces from the forge. Watch the left hand of a craftsman-not so much the hand that holds the hammer. The hand that holds the piece is the money hand. Do the same thing that a potter in clay does, only do it hot and with tools. Use cotton gloves on the left hand. It is convenient to hold hot iron with a cloth glove, even though some master blacksmiths frown on gloves. A glove can help speed the work.

"Another way that I like to use a glove is to dip it in water. When the water is absorbed (by the cotton cloth) it can be quickly squeezed out in drops onto specific spots on the hot iron that you want to cool down, just by making a tight fist on the gloved hand.

"I have learned a lot from farriers and others who do a lot of specialized work because they become quite skilled at doing things over and over. Many of them get very good at what they do for a living."

Peter demonstrated how he makes a forged "square bend" in a piece of iron by first upsetting the metal at the location where the bend will be placed. He had a little trouble with it since he was using a small piece of metal that did not retain heat long. But he wouldn't let the metal beat him and kept after it to produce a perfectly square angle when it was finished. We have all been there from time to time when the contrary metal that we get at the supply houses these days wants to "fool around" with us at the anvil.

"I do a lot of finishes," Peter continued. "I paint a rust finish on some items but have never used boiled Clorox (washing bleach) to rust (or age) metal. My biggest money makers are things I can pick up with one hand. Sometimes it takes two years to make a sale on some items that are forged in the shop during times when commissioned work is not being done. Commissions come in on a day-to-day basis. Consignments are a growing tool for sales these days. Wholesaling is a technique that some blacksmiths opt for, but if you do that you must enjoy building wholesale things. It is very easy to burn out making items for sale at a wholesale price. Don't lowball your work. If you do you will not only be hurting yourself, but your craft in general.

"I had a project to build a railing for a fifth-story penthouse in an apartment building. It was high-end stuff that required a lot of attention to detail, a good bit of arc welding, and a specific time frame for completion. I thought I had taken every precaution against damage and fire by isolating the work area with sheets of cardboard and plywood. That extra work of isolating the work area did drastically cut down on the dust and grit that is always associated with something like this. Part of the work had to be done by hanging from a rope off the roof of the building and down to the railing I was working on. I can tell you it was more than a little disconcerting to have to look down five stories to a concrete landing below! But the job went just as planned until a complaint came in from the fellow who occupied the apartment immediately below the ledge I had been working on. These were very high-priced apartments that were occupied by people who expected some of the best things in life. His complaint was about the melted metal drippings that had fallen on the sheets of plate glass which enclosed the outside wall of his lower apartment. The glass had been spotted and damaged by my arc welding. He had been quoted a price of $5,000 to replace the glass and wanted to know what I was going to do about it. Well, at that time, I needed the $5,000 and tried to figure a way to satisfy his claim, yet not pay up. I ended up dangling on that rope again, isolating his lower-floor glass with more paste board, also isolating the fourth-floor glass from the street below, and then attempting to clean the glass myself. This was successfully done by very carefully and painfully applying muriatic acid on the drip spots, allowing the acid to work over a period of a day or so, and then chipping the drips off after the acid worked to release them. It took two extra weeks to clean up my mess, but the lower floor fellow was satisfied with the results. I had never tried anything like that before on glass, but it worked. The motivating factor, of course, was the $5,000.

"I often use helpers, but generally only one at a time. Young kids usually last one year before they learn enough to move on. I often use women helpers. They are easier to train since they don't have the male ego to contend with and are usually very good."

The final item that Peter forged on Saturday before the iron-in the-hat auction in the late evening was a fanciful set of pursed human lips or kind of a kiss, out of 14-gauge sheet steel, that were about 14 inches long by about 7 inches wide. The technique was repousse' in steel with forging on the edge of the anvil. He did a surprisingly good job in a very short period of time, just to demonstrate the techniques of forging sheet steel in a normal blacksmith setting without special tools. It was interesting to watch him forge the curvilinear lines of the shape of the mouth by skewing the piece against the straight edge of the anvil as he forged. The piece would be heated to a cherry red in the forge, then laid over the edge of the anvil and forged downward, starting with the area that needed the deepest hollowing first. The shallower depressions were forged later as the piece was swiveled and moved over the flat face of the anvil toward the edge. The hammer landed just over the edge and in the vertical direction as he went, thus bending the metal along the edge. He kept hammering as the red heat dissipated from the metal, since the piece was softened enough to be easily bent without the heat. Eventually the piece would be noticeably strain-hardened through hammering and another red heat would be taken at the place where work was needed.

It was a most enjoyable conference, thanks to the efforts of many. Peter Happny as demonstrator was a delight to watch and to learn from.

Hope to see more of you from around the country at next year's Mississippi Forge Council Conference. For more information, call current president Jim Pigott, 601/856- 3644. His e-mail address is: gforge@bellsouth.net.

Peter Happny forging a hooked implement.

Roses by Steve Paulson of Canton, MS.

Sconce by Ernie Darrill of Carthage, MS.

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