This past weekend I had the opportunity to take a trip up to DogHouse Forge in Lakeland, Florida to participate in a two day, hands on hatchet clinic. DogHouse Forge is run by Jonathan Porter and Alex Eisenberg and they hand forge high quality culinary tools, outdoor knives and probably anything else that strikes their interest. I had been following them for a while on social media and saw where they offer various forging clinics throughout the year. If you are looking for a high quality knife to last you a lifetime, check them out.
One of the promises I made to myself when I quit my “day job” was to get away from the computer to learn new things. I’ve found it very easy to fall into the trap of not leaving the house so this clinic was some good medicine. So, in keeping with this year’s theme of taking on new experiences, I decided to make a mini “vacation” and head on up to their shop for the weekend. What follows is based off my memory so consume with caution.
If you don’t care to read, then just go check out the photos…
The clinic kicked off Saturday morning with about 12 attendees getting prepped on shop safety while consuming coffee and some damn good donuts (seriously good. like instant diabetes good). There was a nice mix of experienced and the completely inexperienced in attendance. I fell into the latter category so it was good to get a run down on the tools we were going to be using. Most everything else was common sense. I’ve got a few bricks missing but even I know really hot hurts…
After a brief demonstration of bending metal around using the anvil, we all paired up and got straight to our work. Each person took a long chunk of a cut down metal rasp to bend and shape. It takes a fair amount of coordination, patience and quickness to move between the furnace and the anvil. For me, the challenging part was just working with the tongs to position the metal. I’m used to my hands having a firm grip on whatever I’m working on or at least having the material clamped. Having to manipulate a Satan hot piece of metal with tongs in your left hand was like trying to pick up greased walnuts with 14 inch chop sticks.
The first step was to get the metal bent to form a loop which became the eye for the axe handle. We used various parts of the anvil and attachments to create a rough form of a hatchet. Enough space was left to insert another piece of rasp which would form the cutting edge. After the insert was positioned, the whole chunk was clamped together in order to get a tack weld to keep the insert from moving around during the next steps. Keep in mind that everything was still mean hot so even using a C-clamp was interesting.
Getting everyone to this first stage took a while as everything was being shared and some of us (cough cough) had many questions to axe (you knew that was coming) of Jonathan, Alex and their very helpful friend Kevin. Eventually everyone got their hatchets to this first stage which meant the next step was to forge weld the whole thing together.
Rather than spew misinformation about the process of forge welding, I’ll let you look up the science behind forge welding yourself. With that being said, you are basically taking two extremely hot pieces of metal and fusing them together under high pressure. A flux material is added between the metals to help with oxidation and allow the metals to fuse together cleanly and consistently.
Two ways to forge the metal was demonstrated. The first is to just slam the metal with a heavy sledge hammer very quickly before the metal begins to cool. This way requires two really skilled people to hold the metal in place and swing the sledge accurately. The second way was to use a mechanical press and die to press the metal together. Both require the force to be applied immediately before the metal has a chance to cool. Given our time constraints and skill level, most of the class used the mechanical press.
Before we actually forged the metal, our pieces went through 2-3 rounds of being heated and flux being applied after each heating. And about the heat. If you aren’t scared of hell, then go spend a few minutes in front of one of these furnaces. The first time I went to pull my hatchet out of the furnace, I came away feeling like Fire Marshall Bill Burns.
The forging process took up most of the day as it took time to heat the metal and run it through the press. This afforded everyone a chance to ask more questions and see what everyone else was building. I took the time to mingle, hydrate and re-evaluate my glove choice.
As people wrapped up the forging step, they hopped onto an anvil and began hammering out the actual shape of their hatchet. The whole process consisted of moving back and forth between the anvil and the furnace to work the metal while it was still malleable. Once the metal lost its color, you had to get it back into the furnace or risk busting open seams. The whole crew and many of the attendees were helpful with their advice. It is always nice to partake in something where everyone shows respect regardless of experience level.
Eventually, I got my hatchet to “close enough” and called it quits for the day. Everyone let their work cool off and the guys loaded up everyone’s hatchets into a kiln to slowly normalize the iron to get grain structure cleaned up. Again, don’t listen to me. Read up on the process. While that was being done, I headed back to the hotel for some much desired air conditioning, a shower, food and a big sleep.
When we arrived Sunday morning, the hatchets were finishing up a cool down cycle in preparation to harden the steel. The only remaining tasks for the day was to harden the steel, clean up the profile of the hatchet, fit a handle and then sharpen the piece.
The hardening process was a trip. Nothing like grabbing a piece of screaming hot metal and plunging it into a tube of oil to rapidly cool down the metal. More times than not, the smoke coming off the oil would catch fire so once again you are shoving your hands down into flames.
This process took a while as well as only so many people could process their material and keep things safe. Once hardened, the pieces were allowed to drip and dry in some cat litter before they could be cleaned with a wire wheel on the grinders. While people were hardening their steel, the rest of us worked on the shapes of our handle material and enjoyed a little lunch.
After the metal had cooled down enough to be touched, the hatchets were cleaned up on the grinder. At this point they were ready to be affixed to a handle. This process consisted of working back and forth between various machines and tools (grinders, sanders and files) to get the handle to fit up into the eye of the hatchet. Some of the guys came up with some stellar designs. I on the other hand had no imagination that day and kept things straight with slight indentations at the grip area.
The hatchet handle was then “permanently” wedged into the hatchet eye so as not to go flying off in a direction you didn’t intend. Once secured, the final step of sharpening the hatchet could be done. So back to the grinder to work through various grits and bring the front to a nice sharp edge.
If you have any interest in knife making, axe making, blacksmithing or just want to get out of dodge and learn something, then check out DogHouse Forge’s website for upcoming clinics. I would highly recommend the experience.