The Truth About Power Tools

The Truth About Power Tools

You have done it. You have made your decision to pick up a craft as a hobby. You are attracted to the old-timey romance of blacksmithing and the challenges of making knives. You want to start forging.

Now what?

You have seen photos of a proper professional workshop full of large, intimidating and expensive machinery. You might have seen a video of someone squishing large blocks of damascus steel with a hydraulic press. When you take a look at the various Facebook groups focused on ironworking, the people in there seem to devote half of their time to discussing various specialised tools, choosing what piece of machinery to buy next, or showing off their newest addition to the workshop.

All of this might convince you that you need a lot of expensive equipment if you want to make anything decent. You are now thinking that the making of keen blades and fine ironwork is reserved for professionals and those hobbyists with truly deep pockets. The rest are doomed to mangle railroad spikes into vaguely knife-shaped objects.

Luckily, you are wrong.

Let me tell you a little secret.

All of that fancy, high-powered machinery that you see in a professional blacksmith’s or bladesmith’s shop is not what enables the master to create fine artefacts. It is his skill that does it.

This is the 3rd part of a series posts aimed at novices in the world of craft, offering encouragement, motivation and advice to those who would like to start making things. First I told you to ‘Stop Making Excuses and Start Making Things’. Then I explained why ‘Why ‘Amateur’ is NOT a Bad Word.’ Now I will tell you something about what you need and do not need to start forging.

Disclaimer: This post is written from the perspective of bladesmithing/blacksmithing, since this is the craft that I have the most experience in. Nevertheless, the above scenario and general message apply to most other crafts as well.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility


Here are two simple facts:

1. There a precious few things that you can do with professional equipment that you cannot accomplish with hand tools alone.

2. Having better tools will not automatically make you a better artisan.

Any true master is capable producing the same quality of work irrespective of whether they use a belt sander or a file; a power hammer or a cross-peen. At the same time, this means that the hobbyist has the possibility to create work which matches that of the masters.

If you read read my previous week’s post on being an amateur, then you should not know that the main difference between amateurs and professionals is not necessarily one of quality, but one of purpose and scale – one of quantity and speed. And this is where power tools come into play.

Power tools are what makes it possible for the professional to create things on a commercial scale.

A power-hammer, an expensive belt-sander, buffer and what-not, they all just enable the professional to work faster. This makes it possible to crank out enough work in a given day, so that the price of the individual item drops to the point where somebody can afford it.

A power tool in the right hands has immense creative potential, and seeing somebody who knows what they are doing operate a power hammer is poetry in motion.

On the other hand, all of that power can also be very scary if you do not know how to use it…

Therefore it should be kept in mind that all of those high-powered implements will also mess up a piece of work very quickly in the hands of the unskilled.

A slip of the hand when working with a file means that you have to spend some time grinding out a nasty scratch. This is annoying but not disastrous.

The same temporary loss of focus when using a belt grinder or angle grinder usually means a ruined project, or at least an ‘unexpected drastic change in design’. Starting from scratch can mean that the whole project ends up taking longer than if you had just done it by hand in the first place.

Therefore a lack of expensive equipment should not keep you from creating works of wonder.

Also…

There Is Always a Place For Hand Tools

No matter how much professional machinery you have, it will never completely replace the need for hand tools and the knowledge how to use them properly.

Even for professional artisans with workshops full of specialised equipment, some jobs are best addressed with a good hand tool. An example of this would be Liam Hoffman, a young and very successful maker of high-end axes from North Carolina.

When Liam makes one of his axes, he relies on gas forges, a hydraulic press, drum and belt sanders, an electric digitally controlled heat-treating kiln and possibly some other machinery that I am forgetting now. Despite all of that, when it comes to hanging the axe, he swears by using a draw-knife to fit the handle to the eye of the axe.

The deceptively simple hand tool thus becomes the fastest and most accurate way of getting the job done in the hands of the skilled.

Furthermore, working working efficiently with good hand tools can very enjoyable, therapeutic even. When you stand in front of a loud belt sander for hours on end, then picking up a file, a draw-knife or plane can provide a welcome break from all the noise.

hoffman camp axe
Camp Axe by Liam Hoffman – A fusion of old school and high-tech. (Photo: Hoffman Blacksmithing)

Lastly, you should keep in mind that craftsmen of old whose work inspires many of did not have access to any sort of power tool, only helpers and apprentices. That did not stop them from creating breath-taking artefacts.

All those intricately pattern-welded swords made by Roman smiths and found in the bogs of Ilerup Ådal and Vimose. The ornate swords of the Anglo-Saxon kings – buried with their owners. The famed Ulfberht swords made by Carolingian smiths in the Rhinelands and exported across early medieval Europe. Those revered Japanese katanas – their steel folded ad nauseam and, their blades meticulously polished. The blades of legend passed down in tales.

They were all made by hand.

viking sword old drawing
A fine Viking sword with pattern-welded inlay on the blade. Not a second was spent at the belt grinder during the making of this blade. (Drawing: Lorange (1889) Den Yngre Jernalders Sverd)

Start Simple – Scale Up Later

Having all of that in mind… What do you really need to start forging? What is the core tool set? Which upgrades should you look into first?

When I urged you to stop procrastinating and start making things instead, I already mentioned some basic tools which will enable you to try your hand at bladesmithing.

The core of the blacksmith’s workshop will always be composed of a some kind of forge, anvil, some tongs and a hammer. Add to this a hot cut or chisel and you can start making pretty much any other tool that you will need. With a bucket of water and a can of oil, your needs for cooling materials and hardening steels will be well served.

For grinding and finishing your blades, as well as making knife handles, you can get very far with a few good files, a rasp, some kind of drill, a selection of wet & dry sandpaper and something to hold your work. The latter can be as rudimentary as a c-clamp, but most people with a few tools also have some kind of machinists vice.

One thing that most beginners do not have, but is immensely practical is a blacksmith’s or leg vice.This tool allows you to hammer on a clamped piece of work, which is great for making bends. It also comes in handy when doing twists or aligning the tang of a blade.

Once you have all of that you can not only start forging, but given enough time you can actually create some amazing things. After all, the craftsmen of old did not even have all of that.

primitive blacksmithing forge
It does not take much to get started. During my time at University College Dublin I taught a quick bladesmithing class to the other experimental archaeology students. Using this basic setup, 4 students at a time could try their hand at forging a blade.

If You Could Get Only One Thing…

Nevertheless it is in our nature to start accumulating more things and your toolbox start to grow before you know it.

So let us say that you have a basic selection of decent hand tools and would like to invest in a power tool. The question then is where to start? If there is only one piece of machinery that you can it be?

Without a doubt it would be an angle grinder, or even better pair of angle grinders – one large, one small. Such sets are often on sale for a very reasonable price and the required grinding/cutting wheels do not break the bank either.

By learning how to use an angle grinder effectively and accurately, you might wonder how you ever lived without it.

Need to quickly cut off a piece of steel? Grind off the scale off a rough-forged blade so that you save some files and abrasives? Maybe even do most of the rough grinding? A cheap angle grinder can take care of that very quickly, provided you skilled in its use.

Beyond that, everything is a luxury.

Should you want to make a lot of blades, then you will eventually look into a belt grinder. If you want to make a lot of pattern-welded blades, then you will dream of a power-hammer, or get yourself a friend who likes wielding a sledge-hammer. You might picking up an electric welder, get a buffing machine, so on and so on…

How much money and space you end up investing in machinery will be you own choice based on your finances, interests, the amount and style of work that you do.

Just keep in mind that as practical as some of those things are, they do not enable you to make make anything. They just make things quicker, and sometimes easier. But with enough patience and determination you can always do without them.

The Takeaway

Better tools will not automatically make you a better artisan.

Power tools will make you quick – quick to create and quick to destroy.

In the end it is your skill that matters and that is created with practice, not your wallet.

So instead of thinking about the tools which you do not have, you should work on learning how to properly use the ones that you already have. You should work on your technique and improving your skills. You can always save up for fancy gadgets later.

Now go to the workbench and CREATE!

How much do you rely on power tools? Do you mostly work with hand tools instead? Do you have a specific task where you believe a hand tool cannot be replaced? Share it in the comments bellow!

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