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Jesus Hernandez

A different way to make steel by...

124 posts in this topic

The steel used in this process was made by Skip Williams and Lee Sauder. They have developed a simplified process for making steel that will described below. Ingeniously, they have taken the bulky, painstaking, and time-consuming direct open reduction method of steel making and turned it into an easier, do-it-yourself project. By scaling down the components and starting from bloomery iron instead of iron oxide, they have reduced the fuel consumption and the time duration of an otherwise tedious method. At the end of a run in the small furnace, an ingot of steel is recovered. The size of this ingot is very easy to manipulate for most bladesmiths operating a small gas forge.

 

In the following description, I will demonstrate the process that I used for transforming one of these steel ingots into a beautiful blade. The final product is, in my opinion, indistinguishable from the Japanese tamahagane steel. After describing how I made a tanto out of this steel, I will include a description by Skip of the contruction and operation of the furnace. I am very thankful to Skip and Lee for allowing me to participate in this process and for letting me play with the steel and turn the first blade made out of it. I am also thankful to both of them for the work thay have put into developing this method which may probe helpful to many of us here.

 

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My first step was to make a rudimentary assessment of the quality of the steel. Without resorting to the expensive chemical analysis, a simple spark-test can give an idea of the carbon content. You can’t limit yourself to carrying out the test on one single spot of the ingot. Several areas need to be sampled, as the steel made in this way tends to be variable in carbon content. The Japanese also sort the steel by means of assessing the looks of the fracture of a thin (1/4 inch) section of the steel. To carry out that particular test, the steel is first brought up to a welding heat and gently compacted into a thin plate. That plate is brought up to the so-called "austenizing" temperature and rapidly quenched in water. The plate is then hit with a hammer. High carbon steel will break cleanly and shatter. Iron will remained attached by strands of metal that did not harden and are pliable.

 

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Skip sent to me two ingots of steel. The spark test suggested high carbon content for both pieces. The fracture test of one of the two ingots was limited to a few surviving chunks of steel from the ingot, as it crumbled to pieces during the flattening process. In my experience, this may happen as a result of too high carbon content or alloying elements causing the steel to be red short. Other variables may also play a role in this “crumbling” of the ingot or bloom, such as grain size. Larger grain size may allow for the steel to increase hardenability thus turning it red short as it is being worked on. The second ingot flattened out nicely without crumbling.

 

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The looks of the fracture on the remnants of the ingot that crumbled showed strands of malleable iron mixed with layers of nicely grained steel. The ingot that forged flat without crumbling showed a fracture of consistent grain that snapped easily in two after being quenched and hardened in water. That was suggestive of a nicely homogeneous composition in that particular ingot.

 

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At the end of the flattening and sorting process, I had about six pieces of material measuring about 2 x 2 inches square and ¼ inch thick. Following the Japanese model with a Western twist, I stacked up the pieces of steel alternating one from one ingot and the next from the other. I sprinkled borax on the stack and brought it up to a welding temperature in the forge. At this point of writing up this report, I felt as if I was outlining a cooking recipe for a TV show. Just the ingredients and the temperature range change. At any rate, the billet welded nicely, and on the second heat I drew it out to start shaping it into a bar. It is a rather rough looking bar in the beginning as you can see in the pictures. The forging scale from one side of this bar was cleaned up with a grinder in order to move to the next process, which consists of folding the bar onto itself to refine the steel. In this way, the Japanese were able to take chunks of variable carbon content and turn them into a solid bar of quite homogeneous composition.

 

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After five folds or about 200 layers, the steel bar was behaving as a solid piece of steel. It was easily welded onto itself and showed no tendency to develop any cracks. I decided to draw out the bar to a ¼ thickness in preparation for forging a blade. But I kept looking at that bar, now measuring about 14 inches in length and it was begging to be worked on just a little bit more. I split the bar in to four segments, re-stacked and re-welded. I looked at the bar one more time. Then I looked at the forge, nice and hot at welding temperature. I put the bar back in the forge and did an additional two folds. With some quick math, I calculated I was at about 3000 layers. That seemed just about right. Time to call it a day, and the next day I would forge that bar into a tanto.

 

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It is quite obvious from my writings that I favor the Japanese way of making blades, so I did not want to disappoint. For the next step I chose to do a differential hardening by using clay during the thermal treatment of the blade. I was not really sure what to expect here. I knew that I had enough carbon in the blade for it to harden, based on the sparks produced during the rough grinding. I did not know if the steel was a simple steel (iron + carbon and little or insignificant amounts of alloying minerals) or not. A simple low-hardenability steel is best for showing a hamon. The hamon is the demarcation between the martensite and the pearlite crystalline structures in the steel. It was going to be a surprise.

 

I quenched the blade on 8/8/2008 at 8:08 PM for the added magical factor. The blade hardened nicely and achieved a Rockwell score of between 55 and 60 at the edge after tempering. I have simple graduated files to test for hardness and the scale jumps in 5s from 40 to 65. So I can’t be very accurate in this reading. I would say it was closer to 60. You can see the file scratches on the picture the next morning.

 

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The next step was to polish the blade. I used the grinder to remove the scale and put an edge on the blade. Then I moved on to sandpaper starting at 220 grit and progressing on to 2000 grit. The hamon was already visible at 220 grit. I had a nice grin on my face. Seeing the hamon at that stage almost instantly heals all the pains of having to go through the polishing stages. As the hamon becomes more visible each time you advance on the grit, it makes more stimulating to continue polishing.

 

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For the final stages of polishing, a fine paste polishing compound is used to bring out the hamon details.

 

 

 

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I completed the blade by making a poplar wood sheath (shirasaya) with a detail made of bloodwood, a copper habaki fitting, a bamboo peg (mekugi) and a light coat of oil.

 

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I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed making this blade. I want to thank Skip and Lee for providing the steel and for their efforts to bring the steel-making process to a level where many more can participate.

 

And now for the description and operation of the furnace provided by Skip.

 

There are three well known traditional ways to make steel, directly in the tatara or bloomery furnace, by pack carburizing soft iron in charcoal, and by the Wootz or crucible process. A few years ago Lee Sauder and I discovered that by melting waste scraps of iron in our bloomery we could make a very nice steel ingot quickly and cheaply. It has taken us a few years to improve upon the initial experiments and now with the assistance of Jesus Hernandez we feel it is time to share what we have learned.

 

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This is everything that you will need to make your own simple steel ingot, a small clay furnace, wood for preheating, several kilograms of charcoal, and a pound or so of scrap iron rods.

 

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The Furnace

The furnace is made of clay, sand, and peat. The stack which measures approximately 12 inches tall and 4-5 inches wide is built by placing the clay around an empty soda bottle or any other suitable form. Connecting an air blower to a clay furnace is always a challenge. I find that it is easiest and most reliable to screw a short metal tube to the base that the furnace will be built upon and then build the furnace right over the air tube. Air is fed into a 2” diameter passage built against the side of the stack that houses the angled blow hole. After the stack and air passage have been built and have had time to harden the blow hole is made by poking a 3/8” rod through the opening at the top of the air passage and then passing it through the wall of the stack.

 

The bottom of the stack must now be shaped into a bowl by adding a replaceable lining. The lining is a mixture of the material used to build the furnace and an equal volume of charcoal fines. I use only fines that will pass through a window screen. Knead the lining material by hand (15 minutes or more) until it has the consistency of rising dough and then form a bowl in the bottom of the stack. The lowest point of the bowl should be in the center of the stack and 4” below the blow hole.

 

Fire

Go ahead and plug the top of the air passage with a lump of clay and start your preheating fire. It’ll take an hour or two before the furnace will be dry and ready for making steel.

 

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Special Tools

There are only two special tools you’ll want to have on hand. The lower one is just a thin iron rod that you’ll use to probe the temperate of the hot zone in the furnace before you start adding iron.

The upper tool is more important, it is the ingot hook! At the end of a melt the bottom of your furnace will contain a steel ingot in a slag bath. You have to get the ingot out before everything hardens into an immovable mass or it will ruin your furnace.

 

The Process

Preheat the furnace with small wood splits. When you think it is hot enough change over to charcoal broken into ½” pieces or smaller. Adjust the air rate so that you are burning 100 grams of charcoal per minute. The tin can in the top photo is what I’ve been using for a 100 gram measure. After just a few minutes you’ll be able to stick your temperature probe rod into the stack and when you pull it out it will be sparkling hot.

 

Now it’s time to start making your ingot. Stick your first iron rod into the stack about 2/3 of the way across the stack from the blow hole. The rod will melt and slowly descend. Keep refilling the stack with 100gm measures of charcoal. After the first rod has disappeared into the charcoal stick in the second rod and so forth until you have melted 500gm to 700gm of iron rod. This whole process will only take ten to fifteen minutes. Wait until you think that the last of the iron has melted and then stop adding charcoal. Let the charcoal burn down a few inches and turn off the air supply. With your ingot hook pry the ingot loose from the bottom of the furnace and take it out. And most importantly, stir up the slag and charcoal in the bottom of the furnace before it freezes. The slag can then be spooned out of the furnace and you will be ready for another run.

 

The product is

 

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Simple Steel

Edited by Jesus Hernandez

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Very interesting, thanks. Could you use the same furnace fora bloomery as well?

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Hi Jesus.

 

 

Thanks for new bloom/smelt/blade topic :lol: I all ways love topic´s like this...I wonder why ;)

Skip Williams and Lee Sauder too.. Thanks guys.

 

It´s quite solid bloom...was it hard under hammer?

I notised my last bloom that hi carbon cont will make steel crumbling under hammer...But...if used power hammer, same material will not behave so

Low orange heat...two quite stong power hammer hits and viola` waffel and now grumbling.

Under hand held hammer 2 kg it behaves totally different??

 

Grain looks nice on those waffels...did you used all or sort carb cont the best parts only method?

 

Did you had chance to check grain after you grind surface? Was there carbides?

 

You used borax right from start...why didnt you used slag in side steel it self? I just thought boorax decarbs steel too much...after all many folds and weld too same...loose of carbon ?

 

Steel it so nice.

 

Thanks for showing

 

Niko

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Hi Niko. I share your passion for steel making.

 

The two ingots behaved differently under the hammer. One was more "solid" and forge down nicely. The other one did not want to remain in one piece but even the smaller chunks that broke off of it did weld very well. I think that there were some differences in the way the two ingots were made but Skip can add to that information.

 

I added borax from the start because these ingots did not seem to have any slag in them at all. As a matter of fact, Skip describes in his writing how he can separate the slag from the metal very cleanly. That makes the next step of working the ingot less messy. Borax coats the steel and protects it from oxidation during welding operations thus preventing some carbon loss.

 

Ben, the distinction between a bloomery furnace and this type of furnace may more a question of semantics or size. From the practical stand-point, Skip designed this smaller furnace to do what it does.

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Just when you think you're getting your head around one way, Jesus comes and shows a couple more.

 

Wow. I love it. Thank you for sharing.

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Hey Chris, I can't take the credit for this. I just made a tanto out of the steel. The whole idea and from conception to reality is Skip's.

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What are you using for scrap iron rods? Should one use mild steel rod, like 1018 or is there something iron that's readily available? And thank you all for sharing this with us. I've always wanted to try this, but do to where I live, building a Tatara furnace was out of the question. But this small size furnace should be fine. Thank you all.

 

Tony G :ph34r:

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On the scrap, I'm guessing that you really don't want to put anything in there that you won't be happy with having in your final product. Manganese, for instance, has hamon-killing potential. I think Skip says clearly, that bloomery iron is what is getting carburized... much like Louis Mills uses a charcoal fire to "fine" bits of steel into a bloom of sorts for bladesmithing.

 

If your scrap is crap, don't use it. If it's close to plain ol' iron, great. Mild should work, if it's not too dirty. Wrought would probably kick butt in this application. Perfect for those odd little chunks that aren't really forgable as-is.

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It is quite possible that many of the "unwanted" alloying materials could be retained within the slag thus the end product will remain a "simple" steel. Mostly iron and carbon and therefore capable of displaying a hamon when differentially hardened. That would be independent of whether you start with bloomery iron forged into a bar or a piece rebar. Skip can add to that from his own experience.

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It is quite possible that many of the "unwanted" alloying materials could be retained within the slag thus the end product will remain a "simple" steel. Mostly iron and carbon and therefore capable of displaying a hamon when differentially hardened. That would be independent of whether you start with bloomery iron forged into a bar or a piece rebar. Skip can add to that from his own experience.

 

 

Really? Again, learn something every day. Today's bonus day. I was always under the impression that what you got in your steel largely depended on what was in the "ore"... and in this case, whatever contaminants went in would to some extent follow the steel. I mean, we're not talking about reducing iron oxide, we're simply melting and adding a little carbon in the process, right? Where's the slag coming from? The floor of the mini-furnace (that 50/50 mix of clay/sand/peat and charcoal fines)? The walls of the furnace itself? I didn't read anything about adding a flux to the "ore" as you feed the rod.

 

This really puts tamahagane in the reach of most any backyard bladesmith, I think.

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Really? Again, learn something every day. Today's bonus day. I was always under the impression that what you got in your steel largely depended on what was in the "ore"... and in this case, whatever contaminants went in would to some extent follow the steel. I mean, we're not talking about reducing iron oxide, we're simply melting and adding a little carbon in the process, right? Where's the slag coming from? The floor of the mini-furnace (that 50/50 mix of clay/sand/peat and charcoal fines)? The walls of the furnace itself? I didn't read anything about adding a flux to the "ore" as you feed the rod.

 

This really puts tamahagane in the reach of most any backyard bladesmith, I think.

 

I am going to let Skip answer this one. He knows more about the details.

 

Could that get hot enough to melt pure Iron?

 

As I understand it, that's what this process is about. Temperatures at the hottest point in any bloomery exceed 2800. Lower as you get further away. The rod needs to be thin enough and close enough to the tuyere where it will melt but not in the immediate proximity where the enviroment is oxidizing. A few inches away with the correct air flow and the atmosphere will be reducing. There are charts that describe the extension of the oxidizing and reducing zones in inches away from the tuyere. That distance changes with changes in air flow.

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Thanks for sharing this, Jesus and Lee :) So this is basically an Oroshigane process, yes? Would this be the same thing as the "grappage" furnace I have read about?

 

Nice results on the tanto by the way :)

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Thanks Paolo. I believe the "grappage" uses scraps of steel as source of metal. This process will indeed be more alike what the Japanese call oroshigane. Which I understand as as way to regulate both up and down the carbon content of pre-made bloomery iron or steel.

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COOL!!! B)

 

I might even be able to build that on my property, unlike a larger shaft furnace or Catalan forge.

 

Questions for Skip and Lee: Where did you get the idea? I agree with Paolo, it seems like a grappage furnace in principle, just regulated a bit differently. Is this something traditional from somewhere, or just a riff on what some of the grappage/oroshigane folks have done? Also, the air chamber acts as a hot blast reservoir, no? Otherwise you'd just run ambient air into the furnace chamber.

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Everything is really interesting, thank's for sharing. I too was thinking about the quality of the scrap iron to melt.

I didn't understood well: do the alloying elements get burned-absorbed in the slag during the melt? So the purity of the molten iron makes no difference?

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Where's the slag coming from?

 

A lot of it's probably coming from the charcoal ash, no?

 

Jesus, what sort of surface is that little furnace built on? And can you give rough dimensions? (I realize it's flexible; I'm just trying to get a sense of the scale of that one.)

Edited by Matt Bower

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Matt,

 

I am going to let Skip take over this thread and answer some questions.

I am going to be away from a computer for some time.

Besides he knows more than I do.

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Hello All,

Thanks for the enthusiasm. I'm really looking forward to seeing what other Bloomers and Buttons experimenters will do with these new ideas. Since I know that all of you are just like me, I also know that everyone will build something slightly different depending on what materials they have lying around. When you do try your hand at making simple steel, please, come back here to this Forum and tell us what you've discovered!

 

Maybe the first question to address is the type of scrap that I used for making Jesus's ingots. The initial goal of my experiments was to design a furnace that would produce a nice round dense ingot. Because of this I didn't think much about the type of iron that I was melting just the shape and quantity. I scoured the neighborhood for any kind of iron rod I could find and came home with a couple pieces of skinny rebar and a half dozen of those iron stakes that people use to string an electric fence around their property (the goats had already escaped). The chemistry of that kind of iron is totally unknown. It is just great good fortune that the resulting steel produces a nice hamon. I couldn't have predicted that from the start. Jesus, thanks again for finding this out.

 

What I did learn by melting all of this random scrap was that the furnace works best with 1/4" to 3/8" rods about a foot long, longer works but you have to keep messing with them to keep them from tilting over, and trying to melt 1/2" rebar just about choked this tiny furnace. Also, this little furnace can only hold just so much iron; when I tried to make a three pound ingot the iron filled up the bottom and the level rose up closer to the blow hole, the top of the ingot was by then being burned by the air blast and the resulting iron oxide immediately reacted with the clay furnace wall, turning it into silly puddy. You already know what happens next. Fortunately patching and repairing a furnace like this is effortless.

 

Best to all

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I have a bunch of 1/2" wrought, I want to forge down a foot or so to your dimensions, and try this. Right after the other 300 projects I have waiting, 2 of 'em paying ones.

 

:wacko:

 

Never enough time for all this. But, thank you for sharing your observations. I know someone will run with this.

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Jesus, Thanks for posting this! I appreciate the time you've taken to document the steps and bring them to us.

Also thanks to Skip and Lee for sharing their part in the process!

 

I've some skinny wrought iron pieces that I couldnt find a use for... This is something I've just got to try!

 

BTW, beautiful blade :)

 

Randy

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Hi J

 

beautiful tutorial... those pictures are real tasty.. ! Wow

 

isn't that bloom type steel a wonderful thing...

 

thank you for taking us on an adventure..

 

Greg ;)

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COOL!!! B)

 

I might even be able to build that on my property, unlike a larger shaft furnace or Catalan forge.

 

Questions for Skip and Lee: Where did you get the idea? I agree with Paolo, it seems like a grappage furnace in principle, just regulated a bit differently. Is this something traditional from somewhere, or just a riff on what some of the grappage/oroshigane folks have done? Also, the air chamber acts as a hot blast reservoir, no? Otherwise you'd just run ambient air into the furnace chamber.

 

Hey Alan,

The ideas are pretty much homebrew. Aristotle 325BC wrote the earliest description of this that I can find.

 

The air chamber is there to make connecting an air blower more reliable. This furnace can be used over and over again. If you're just gonna try this once or twice then you can go directly into the side of the stack with your air source. take a look over here for http://reidojo.com/forum/viewtopic.php?p=38107 for a picture of the straight through approach. You are correct to think that the air passage warms the blast, and at the same time it keeps the tuyere wall cool, double duty!

 

Bennett,

This baby gets really hot. I've made an ingot of pure iron by melting mild steel and adding iron oxide to grab the carbon from the steel. The furnace probably gets close to 1600 degrees C.

 

Chris, Guiseppe,

Right on, the slag comes from melting the lining of the furnace. Normally we would expect whatever is in the raw material to pass into the steel but our working theory right now is that with the extremely different conditions in this furnace, ie. oxidizing in front of the tuyere and carburizing in the bowl, that some elements, manganese included, will oxidize and pass into the slag. It would follow that zinc, copper, etc. would all burn off also.

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I had a try at this over the weekend and consider my efforts to be a success!

 

 

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I used only what I had at hand, for the furnace I used local clay, some sandy dirt and a lot of dry grass clippings. The wrought iron was from some little rusted out pieces of 1/4" and 3/8" rod and part of a mule shoe. All the wrought was decayed beyond use by itself.

About half a bag (less than 5 lbs) of charcoal was all it took to run the furnace for about half an hour. My furnace was slightly smaller than Skip described.

 

I now have just under a pound of product to work with. While it was still glowing from the furnace it was hit a few times under the powerhammer and it started to crack but the pieces seem to forge easy and I plan to flatten and stack the pieces.

It sparks to show a nice carbon content.

 

Thanks gents for bringing this to us!

 

Randy

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Hi all. Randy, tell pls, have You made your furnace from local FIREclay, or You have used usual red (pottery) clay?

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