Composition & Connection: Weeks 3 & 4

James Burr working at the hammer

During weeks three and four, our focus was on two things, power hammer forging and tool making. After just finishing the “design your own coat rack” project and having not yet forged anything on the hammers, these two topics were a welcomed next step. 

Sticking with my philosophy of having a firm grasp on the basics will serve you well as you advance, I asked them to do extensive parallel forging samples on the hammers.  On one bar they forge round to square, to octagon, then to round again, leaving evidence of each section.  They pick up on this pretty quickly, having first done it by hand at the anvil.  Because of their familiarity with this exercise, students can spend time focusing on lining up shoulders on the hammer and how to use flat dies to efficiently forge the material.  Besides the obvious benefits of control and comprehension of forging, it also gives our students an opportunity to run all three hammers and experience the differences of each one.   

Power hammer demonstration samples

Following these exercises, we get right into forging basic hand tools. Some of the tools I encourage the students to make are cold chisels, center punches, and 1/4” round and square punches.  The introduction of these forgings builds off of the parallel exercises, as I like my tool handles to be faceted, but introduces tapering on the power hammer.  This basic toolset covers two-sided tapers, four-sided tapers, round tapers and I like the center punch to be an octagonal taper.

Center Punch

I enjoy the challenge of transitioning parallel octagonal stock to tapered octagonal, and having the transition be in the same spot on every facet. This is more challenging than one initially thinks. These exercises provide the students with a nice toolset while getting them very comfortable at the hammers. Emphasis is placed on clean forgings done at the hammer then in some cases finished and refined at the anvil.  

Finishing and heat treating are also covered and taking care during these steps is encouraged.  I always feel like quality work starts with quality tools, and I like to be happy and proud when I look down at my tools in use.  I feel like that pride directly transfers into the work that I am creating. Personally, it’s hard for me to make clean work with sloppy tools. 

I love a successful heat treat when students use steel to cut steel with their cold chisel.  It’s a wonderful moment that gives everyone a sense of accomplishment and demonstrates one of the most special things about forging, the ability to make your own tools.  

Zach with his tools

Following basic hand tools is my favorite part of the toolmaking portion of this workshop…..


To me the importance of forging tongs is difficult to describe in a few short paragraphs. Anybody who might know me personally or follow my work on social media knows I’m mildly obsessed with forging tongs.  As an artist and someone who enjoys pushing the boundaries of forged steel, I cannot have enough tongs to help me hold all the odd and interesting shapes I like to create. On top of that as a learning exercise they teach a blacksmith a lot about forging at the anvil, power hammer, and hand hammer control. They involve shouldering, tapering, riveting, mass isolation and calculation, knowing how and where to preserve material to achieve strong transitions, and forging multiples.  

Forging multiples that are the same is essential to tong making and really drives home the forging multiples exercises we did as a class during the first week. I always like to point out to the students, “Remember when I had you make so many of those boring hooks the same without specialty tools and jigs? It was all for this!” I really think they understand and realize the importance.  

It’s not always the case but these students were just as enamored about learning how to forge tongs as I was to show them my processes.  Naturally we start off with the three shoulder flat jaw tongs and work hard on all our transitions and preserving strength in them. 

1/4″ Flat Jaw Tongs

I express that strong tongs, that hold material properly, are imperative to help you execute your forgings with minimal fighting and frustration, and most importantly for safety. My biggest pet peeve as an educator is students holding material with the wrong tongs. Often students and people getting involved in forging wonder why they can’t forge very well when they’re holding 3/8” flat bar with 1/4” capacity tongs. If you do not have a firm grip on the material you will have a hard time controlling it. As you scale your work up those habits also become extremely dangerous and can damage your tongs.  I stress these points and topics as I demo and we have engaging discussions about the importance of these tools and the techniques to create them.  

After their fill of flat jaws, (usually students forge about 4 pair each taking their time and making them nice) I introduce a really effective way to forge a very strong box jaw tong.  I have researched and come up with a one piece forging that can strongly hold stock up to 3” wide by ½” thick. This is a great exercise and adds some complexity to the three shoulder flat jaw, so it’s a logical next step.  Students were up for the challenge and I’m really impressed with the tongs they have created utilizing this method.   

Above: Box Jaw Blank

Above: Box Jaw Instructor Demo Tongs

After these we transition, pun intended, to forging V-bit tongs. I demonstrate techniques and tools developed from my research inspired by the industrial tong collection in the historic Cambria Iron & Steel industrial blacksmith shop. For the past three years I have been in awe of the tongs I have found here.

me, in awe of some tongs I found

The tongs left in this shop represent over 150 years of industrial forging in one of America’s most influential and impactful steel mills.  The bulk of my research in the shop has been spent figuring out, to the best of my ability, how these beautiful tongs were forged.  I sort of reverse engineered the forgings, or rather, gained some insight into how the blacksmiths here made them, and worked hard to develop the tools and techniques to recreate them.  All the literature and diagrams I have seen about forging industrial V-bit tongs doesn’t seem to contain the techniques that these blacksmiths were using.  

Because I have spent so much time observing these tongs and learning how to forge them, I am very excited about sharing the process. Getting all the proportions where I liked them and preserving strength in the transitions took me quite a while, but I feel was time well spent.  I have scrapped a lot of these tongs because they simply haven’t held up, but recently (since making some new discoveries) have been putting some through the paces that are preforming quite well*. The students absolutely shared my enthusiasm and had a blast creating tongs in this style to hold several different sizes.


*I prefer to forge my tongs from mild steel most of the time 

Above: 1/2″ 3/4″ & 1″ V-bit tongs
Below: V-bit detail
Instructor demos

Austin, @afreerose and Jim, @jbblacksmith76 showing off their tongs in the morning sun

Thanks for reading this and for your interest in Center for Metal Arts!  I hope this finds everyone well, staying healthy, and focusing on the things in life that matter most to them.

Hope to see you soon!



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