The heart of the smithy is the hearth, the forge, the source of heat that makes metal malleable. Without this, very little can be achieved in metal work. This article will discuss fire in detail. Beginning with how to start a fire in a cold hearth, I will later discuss its use and maintenance for the smith(in another article). It is worth noting before we go much further, that I use almost specifically charcoal in my work. This is not because it is a superior fuel, but because it is more readily available. Both fuels operate somewhat differently. Either may be lit in the manner described below, but bituminous coal may be harder to start. That is to say, it requires more heat to catch.
I will also go so far to say that anthracite (often called nut coal) has never really been operable in any of the forges I have worked. It certainly generates heat, and that over a long period of time. It breaks down very slowly, regardless of the amount of air it gets. You can get metal hot with it, certainly, just not very hot. If you have other experience with anthracite I would love to read or hear of it. There is a place to leave comments or a button to send us an email below the article.
Without further jawing, let us begin. For those who read my article regarding the anvil stand, this box of wood shavings may look familiar.
I save these expressly for starting fires. The region we live in is very damp, even the air. It becomes difficult to store tinder outside. I used paper for a long while. Wood shavings have the advantage of absorbing water less readily than paper. Just to be sure, I save them up in a box with a good lid. “Waste not” really is my motto. Wood shavings catch just as readily as paper, and generate more heat as a rule. You can also purchase them as a pet supply, they work just as well from a bag as if you planed them off yourself. I take a little pinch of them in three fingers and thumb, and deposit them in the floor of my hearth.
With a small pyramid of wood shavings, I get a scuttle of coal(that is, a bowl full). You will see below that I do select them for size. Larger chunks are not ideal for starting the fire. I break them on the side of the hearth and let them fall into the fire when it is established. While starting it I lay them to one side and select pieces about the size of two of my thumbs or so. Roughly the size of a walnut is good. Larger pieces will not catch and build heat in the same speedy way that small ones do. I find myself blowing fires out when too large are my bits of charcoal.
You can easily see I do not adhere to my own rule. Some pieces are larger. I lay them around the outside of the fire. I pile little ones around the wood shavings. The larger pieces make a sort of shelf to support my pyramid. Also, you can see where the tuyere enters the fire. I lay some pieces in such a way as they make the air flow around. Blowing your fire out is easy to do, even with a hand bellows. I have and use an electric blower. When starting fires I take it off and use my hand bellows. I find that manual bellows are better for controlling the blast during starting fires especially.
Have some small pieces readily to hand. I set my fuel on the ledge. I strike a match and tuck it down into my tinder. If you scorch your fingers you are doing it right. Another tuft of wood shavings can be added on top of your now smoldering pile if your heat goes awry. Sometimes I have to take the tinder out and turn it. Fire has a mind of it’s own! Your pile of wood shavings will flare up in flames(we hope!) and once it is going, gently add your small pieces of fuel. The heat traveling skyward is what will ignite them. Do not choke the fire with too much extra fuel. Better to add it a piece at a time.
Smoke is a good sign. Your flames alone are not doing anything until they start burning your charcoal. Have a stick handy, if you think you choked your fire, poke a hole in it. Sometimes a little draft is all it takes. More likely you have a little roaring fire that you are dropping coal in and giggling. I certainly do. There is no shame in it.
Dump some more fuel in there. It is going now.
Too much fuel? No, the smoke and embers show we are doing well.
As you see more heat forming underneath it is safe to step up your airflow. At this point shown we could force air in by mechanical means with no fear of extinguishing our fire.
Manual adjustment of the fire is sometimes necessary. As you read earlier sometimes the tinder must be turned. This is to expose the unignited tinder to the heat of the ignited tinder. It can be tempting to simply squish the tinder to bring it close together. While this works, it will burn your fingers. You can lay a bed of charcoal and lay lighted tinder on top, adding more fuel slowly to create the pyramid shown in the pictures above. Either way, the unburned clump of tinder must be above the heat. Heat rises as many people know. If you light your tinder in place the flame often runs over the top. Turn the clump and now the heat runs up through the body of your tinder. So with a few turns you have the flames running up through your shavings. It is not always necessary to do this, however I think it beneficial for you to know.
This is another fire being started.
Match is lit and pushed in under the tinder.
In this fire you can see that all the same steps are followed. We ignite tinder, and add small fuel to feed it. Blowing with your mouth into your fire can be better than the bellows. You have more control over exactly where the air goes. In fact, if you just keep blowing on it, controlling where the heat goes is much easier. When you run out of breath, you will probably have your fire started.
It requires two hands. You keep the heat and air flowing as you add fuel. Fire cannot burn without enough oxygen, fuel and heat. If you lack one thing, it will not go. You can tell you are on the right track if it generates lots of smoke once you are adding fuel. Add the right amount of air and you will soon have flame shooting out of your hearth.
In a later post we will discuss maintaining and using the fire for smithing purposes. To sum up, however, your heat is always rising. So your work should not be at the same level as your tuyere. Rather it should be resting on bed of coals filling your firepot and heaped over with more glowing coals on top. My work sits about five inches over my tuyere, which is at a fairly steep angle, between 15 and 20 degrees downward. Without sufficient coal on top you are blowing heat up into the atmosphere and not concentrating it on your work.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this article. I enjoyed writing it and look forward to expanding on it in the next. If you have any questions or comments, you can either leave them below. Else you can go to the:
Be safe wherever you fare dear reader.
P.S. There are yummy recipes my wife has written and described as well as other work articles about blacksmithing. You can find them in the