Jump to content
Mark Green

Pigeon Forge Smelt.

Recommended Posts

This past weekend, 5 guys from the Board, using local iron ore, made iron, in Pigeon Forge Tn., for the first time in over 150 years.

Here is the story:




Edited by Mark Green

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

It works for me! We had a blast. I'll post some of my pics tomorrow.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Thank you, guys for a great time. Regardless of my opinion about the nasty slag and how it keeps destroying my furnaces, the iron bloom we made was one of the most dense and solid that I have ever seen.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Looks like a fun time! Congrats on the successful smelt!

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

That was a blast. Sunburn in February? Check. Good iron? Check. Great camaraderie? Check. Living History? Check.


Hit just about all my fun buttons, even if it was a lot of work getting there and getting it done. Kudos to the other for doing most of the manual labor, I'll be putting together a video this week walking through the process and showing the results.


Thanks for having me, guys... that was a great time.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Here's a write-up I did last night for some other friends of mine, it assumes one knows very little about the process, but I thought it would be good to share here for beginners and vets alike.


Now, a history lesson.

Back in about 1810 or so, There were two sites established along the
Pigeon River in southeast Tennessee, one a blast furnace which is a tall
structure, fed constantly with charcoal and iron ore, and tapped
regularly to drain the molten cast iron out into "pigs" which were then
later remelted into cast iron implements like your frying pans, your
wood stove panels, etc. Some was sent to finery furnaces, where it was
melted through a charcoal fire, the carbon burned off, and either
ductile iron or steel produced for manufacture of goods needing those
qualities. The town of Pigeon Forge is where that smaller furnace was,
and it has been established that both this post-processing of pig iron,
as well as primary production of iron through smelting at a smaller
scale, was done there. The site is directly under the Old Mill
Restaurant, and just yesterday we toured the site after our work, and
found the evidence of the ironworks... iron scale concretions, a nice
bed of oxidized scale held in place against the constant flooding by a
tree growing there, the hand-cut water trace in the limestone bedrock,
and a small piece of cast iron from the pigs, previously undiscovered by
an archeological survey and a couple visits by my archaeologist friend.
It is now under my curation.

There are several pockets of iron ore in the area, and that's the way
the geology of the place works - you get a little plug of it here and
there, so there's lots of "old mine rd." kinds of streets, but the most
accessible site was on some private land. Several open trenches where
iron had been surface mined were still there, and we obtained about 100
pounds of ore from the landowner.

The furnaces both went out of blast sometime around 1860, meaning that
no iron has been made in Pigeon Forge from local ore in 153 years, until

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Our team was asked to do the demonstration during the 14th Annual Saddle
Up event, mostly consisting of the most elaborate dutch oven cooking
I've ever seen. Guys hauling authentic chuckwagons on dual-axle 5th
wheel trailers (covered and walled), just to make some damn beans.

In the midst of this culinary chaos, we were given a space in which to
work, so we got to it. Our smelter design is a modern adaptation of what
you might find in a Roman or Viking Stack Furnace, basically a clay
tube about 4 feet tall, maybe a foot around inside, in which you burn
wood charcoal with an air blast near the bottom. We build a plinth using
bricks and mud to elevate the first section about 6 inches off the
ground, and pack the inner floor with ash, very solid. Round sections of
cured clay are then stacked up, we use 3 to get the height we need,
using lighter mixes near the top, since they don't have to bear either
the weight or heat of the main reaction.

Iron production is a hot gas chemical reaction. Oxygen is very loose at
high temperatures, and since ore is Iron Oxide, we burn charcoal to
create an abundance of hot CO gas, which then scavenges oxygen from the
ore, eventually stripping it down to iron, and whatever else is left in
the rock (mostly silica). The fire is north of 2600* F, which liquefies
the silica and creating a slag bath at the bottom of the furnace. The
iron, as it gets purified, eventually hits the hot spot, goes briefly
molten in little drops, and falls through the turbulence to land right
where the air is coming in, and these little drips and drops weld to
each other. Eventually, this mass is called the "bloom" and is the
material we seek. The hard work is managing the temperature of the
furnace, the slag conditions (you want some, but not too much), and the
rate at which everything's happening. If you're good, and our team is
one of the best, you can usually keep your head around most of that and
get a successful smelt. Sometimes the ore doesn't cooperate, and has too
much of something undesirable, or your furnace isn't designed well, or
the charcoal is of low quality - but we can usually mitigate everything
but the ore, leaving it as the culprit in any failures we have these
days. So choice of ore is high on our list when we're doing this for
fun, or for demonstration, or just because we need the material to make
the implements we require this stuff for. Use the easy good stuff, and
it's all pretty simple.

But do it with the local ore, for the living history reason, and you take a little bit of a gamble.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

So, this particular ore makes really nice iron. History proved it, and a
small test-smelt back in October with some of the material we got from
the ore banks confirmed it - but it's not without it's challenges. It's
really slaggy. Meaning, about half the roasted ore is silica, half
iron. That silica melts, and builds up fast in the bottom of the
furnace, and it's filled with gasses, very similar to lava runs you see
on Hawaii, that thin magma full of little frothy bubbles. And it's a
bit thick, gummy by comparisons to other slag chemistry's we prefer for
this sort of operation. That means it can clog up the works if you're
not absolutely on top of it the whole time.

About halfway through, thing started speeding up on us. The reaction was
happening faster than we wanted, and the way to cool it down is to add
more ore for the same amount of charcoal, increasing the amount of work
the same amount of heat has to do. But, like I said, this is slaggy
stuff, and the hot molten slag holds heat like nobody's business, so
while we slowed down the reaction up the stack from the air source, once
it got down to the bottom it just flashed into iron no matter what else
we did. We had to tap slag off from the low side of the furnace every
time we put ore in at the top, to keep the balance, which is excessive
most of the time. Usually you let some slag out a couple-3 times per
smelt, sometimes on purpose by poking a hole through the clay, sometimes
it self-taps and the molten silica find a way out and takes care of
itself, especially if it's thin and runny, like we like. The slag
coming out of this run started building up a huge pile, which was
deceptive, since the visual volume equalled the material we were putting
in, but remember, it was frothy... so it was swollen up 3 or 4 times
what it would be if solid. We joked that perhaps there was no iron at
all in there, and we were just in the dirty glass making business.

Finally, we ran out of ore to feed it, a good hour or so earlier than we
expected because of the added ore to try and manage the speed, and you
follow this by a slow burn-down... a couple more shovels of charcoal on
top, a little sprinkle of ore to keep a minor reaction going so the air
doesn't start wrecking what you've already built, and letting the
charcoal consume down so we can begin disassembling the furnace. The top
section came off, then the second section 30 minutes later, and then it
was time to get to the iron.

In the base section of the furnace, all that slag had eroded some of the
clay, adding to its stickiness, and the moment it starts cooling off,
it acts like glue, so you keep the air going, keep the charcoal hot, and
get in there with long rods and gloves, and start scraping the sides to
separate whatever you've got from the furnace walls. Meanwhile, another
guys starts opening up one side of the plinth the whole thing's resting
on, enough to get a shovel in there and start digging out the ash
floor. When this happens, a lot more liquid slag drips out, and we give
it a moment to clear itself out as much as it will with gravity. What
happens next is very much like giving birth, the bloom which was
suspended in slag above that ash floor starts to drop, and we "deliver"
it out the hole we just made, which helps keep the furnace section
intact, and keep you from burning the hell out of yourself trying to dig
it out from the top. Heat rises, you know, and we're still working
with metal and charcoal around 2400 degrees right now.

We flip the bloom up onto a stump, and one guy holds it still with a
pair of very large tongs, and then 3 of us start hitting it, gently,
with sledgehammers in sequence, almost like a waltz. Just enough to
knock off the taffy-like slag that's cooling on the outside, and begin
compacting the metal. After rolling it around and hammering it into a
round-ish cake we start leaning in with the hammers, pushing it tighter
from the edges, getting rid of some of the air, reducing slag content,
and getting a nice solid thump from the work. Then it's time to cut it,
since this 20-pound piece of iron is too big to fit into most of our
home furnaces for working metal, so what you do is grab an ax, set it
atop the hot iron, and 2 guys sledge it to cut through the biscuit of
iron, pulling the ax to cool it in water every 20 seconds or so. Once
halved, the two pieces are cut again, so it's all quartered... while the
whole time the pine stump we're working with is on fire, the IR
radiation is frying our skin, and we have about 100 onlookers wondering
what the hell these crazy guys are doing. We've been talking to the
public all day about the process, taking turns lecturing the essentials
of the process, or running the furnace - having a 5 man team makes this
pretty workable, with one man acting as furnace-master and keeping a
close eye on the operation while the rest of us do the shoveling,
talking, and prep for the final stages. But watching a screaming hot
piece of metal being pounded by three guys on a flaming stump reduces
most people to befuddlement, so when we were done we grabbed the
still-glowing hunks with tongs, and took it around the edge of the crowd
and explained briefly what we had just accomplished.

It was, indeed, a historical moment for the town, and a very successful making of iron for us.

Since the other guys do this far more often than I do, and have tons of
bloom material still waiting to be worked down into bar, I ended up with
half of it which I'll process into iron bars before I decide what to do
with it next. I have two options I'm completely torn on, and if I'm
lucky I'll have enough to scratch both itches, but we'll see. There's a
lot of work before I have to make that choice.

Our next gathering in late March, the Fire & Brimstone hammer-in
just west of Baltimore (much more convenient for me), and if I have bar
by then, I can spend my demonstration time doing the next steps, and
we'll have an info board showing off the work we did in Pigeon Forge.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Picture time.

Pre-heating the furnace Saturday morning, 0900

Hot charcoal warming things up

God, I love fire.

Dr. Jesus Hernandez

The ore, after roasting and crushing it to split-pea size

The rest of our crew: Alan Longmire

Dennis McAdams

And Mark Green

Poking a hole to tap slag

Hot slag pouring out

Cooled slag, looks a lot like shield flow lava

We put a shade 10 welding glass on a threaded end cap, so you can look into the reaction and see what's going on in there

We were all busy during the birthing and working of the bloom, but I put some video up on facebook, and I'm editing a youtube video together this week I'll share here when it's done. Here's the 4 quarters of the finished material, though, and I have 2 of them.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Video: Tapping the slag

Compacting and cutting the bloom

Edited by Christopher Price

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Great write up, Chris!!!!

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Nice job, Chris! If your video is in youtube there's a tutorial on linking it in the video and multimedia forum. That said, here's my pics, some of which duplicate Chris's, but mine are better 'cuz I have a newer camera. :P


Building the furnace base on friday afternoon.


building the furnace 1.jpg


A Lee Sauder-style brick plinth filled with tamped ash and chinked with mud from the creek. Once that's in place, Jesus made a gasket of wet newsprint and clay so the upper sections can be lifted off later.


building the furnace 2.jpg


Now it's time to bring over the next section. Careful, it's both heavy and fragile! Made of kaowool lined with clay.


building the furnace 3.jpg


Set it in place and grout with clay slip, then do the wet newsprint thing and add the top section.


building the furnace 4.jpg


Now it's all together, with a low fire inside to cure the clay joints.


building the furnace 5.jpg


Next, Jesus likes it to look neat and clean, so I fired up the 500,000 BTU weedburner to get rid of the external paper.


building the furnace 6.jpg

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Okay, I have apparently compressed the pics too much so my camera looks cheap, but you get the idea... :rolleyes:


The cast of characters. Smeltmasters Jesus:




And Mark.




Helpers Dennis




and Chris




Not to mention the view from the hotel on Friday night. Nothing says Pigeon Forge like King Kong's butt...


King Kong.jpg


Now, it's Saturday, game day if you will. So we preheat the furnace with wood.




Then add charcoal to get things going. Jesus got the bag a little close to the fire...


uh, fire!.jpg



Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Once the stack was full of charcoal and burning all the way up, it's time to charge the ore and charcoal. We took turns.


charging ore.jpg


charging 2.jpg


This went on for a few hours until it was time to start tapping that gooey corrosive slag. Jesus gently drilled a hole in the furnace base to let out just enough to keep a good slag bowl going in the base.


tapping slag.jpg


LOTS of slag later, we had charged all the ore and almost all the charcoal, and things got too busy for photography. About 55 pounds of ore and 160 pounds of charcoal produced a BIG, solid bloom estimated at between 16 and 20 pounds. We forgot the scales so we couldn't weight the end product. :wacko:


Once the bloom was quartered there was nothing left to do but take pictures of it.


bloom photography.jpg




We then retired to the hotel for much-needed showers, beer, and naps. After we cleaned up the location we took a field trip to the original forge location under the mill, where Chris is standing on the remains of the slag heap.


Chris at the forge site.jpg


We all forgot our cameras, so that's a cell phone pic, sorry. :rolleyes:


All in all it was a great success and the locals learned a lot about their town, and the smelt monkeys learned a lot more about smelting, plus the owner of the orebank is now interested enough he may let us get a little more ore one day. B)


The true success story is that this event was the fruition of a chance happening last May. I got a call from the University of Tennessee archaeological research lab to ask for a report my office had about a blast furnace site impacted by road construction out in west Tennessee. When I asked why they wanted it, they told me they were doing a one-day volunteer dig at the old forge site. When I told them a blast furnace site wouldn't tell them much about a Catalan-type bloomery furnace like the one that gave Pigeon Forge its name, then sent all manner of literature and links about Catalan forges and water-powered hammers, plus a description of how to smelt, they said "Oh yeah, we forgot you do this stuff for a hobby. Wanna come down and provide technical assistance?" I jumped at the chance, of course!


While on-site I identified the compacted and rusty scale concretions they had thought to be a prepared floor of some sort, and showed them the YouTube video of that water-powered tilt hammer that Giuseppe showed us a month ago to explain the sort of hammer that was there. The official historian for Pigeon Forge was there as well, and she started grilling me about stuff, since both she and the owners of the mill are putting together a new brochure about the origin of the town and wanted to make sure they got it right. During the course of our conversation I just happened to mention that I knew a few guys who are very good at smelting, and wouldn't it be cool if we could get some of the ore from the original orebanks and smelt it. ;) Turns out the owner of the orebank is a member of the library board and a friend of the historian. Two weeks later I had 120 pounds of ore and a PM sent to the guys, all of whom were happy to oblige so I wouldn't look like an idiot. ^_^


Next came the search for an appropriate venue, because the historian was determined we had to do it IN Pigeon Forge for the public (!). The two events that presented themselves were the annual Pigeon Forge Wildlife week in January, where they wouldn't let us set up the furnace in the parking lot, so I gave a talk on smelting instead. The outdoor event was the annual Pigeon Forge Saddle-Up, a cowboy-themed weekend at a nearby campground where open fires are allowed. I asked, and they comped us some hotel rooms, some travel expenses, and the cost of the charcoal if we'd come down and do it. By this time I was under contract to the city of Pigeon Forge to make this happen, so I cannot begin to express my gratitude to the guys who came to help, including Seth Howard, who was unfortunately unable to make it for the weekend it ended up happening.


So, thanks again guys! They may want us to do it again next year... :ph34r::ph34r::ph34r:

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Lol Graham. I spent the weekend working a billet of pattern weld. As fun as that and im sure rabbit poop is, you guys got to do the 2nd most fun thing in the world with a crowd! How lucky Pigeon Forge was to have several smelting wizards there in the same place at the same time. You guys got to do it with free charcoal to boot!

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

It was fun. What was irritating, though, was the blacksmith set up right next to us. If you could have a successful person who did everything "wrong," this guy did it... making knives from horseshoes, leaving them in his forge for over a half hour at a time while he talked to people (grain growth, anyone?), banging on a loud ringing anvil unsecured to an unstable stump, spewing all the worst myths about how to "drive that carbon into that there steel, by plunging it for 8 seconds into ground up human remains... that's the best stuff, by golly, then 3 second back in the forge, then you heat treat and you're done." A tape recorder on hand might argue with 2 or 3 of those words, but I swear that's about what he said, verbatim, to the ignorant public lapping it up out of his hands. The contrast of our efforts, doing it the real way, with control and expertise and an embarassing wealth of knoweldge, up against that guy couldn't have been more extreme. It's not that I particularly care, you can't fix everyone, but it was just a sad observation that some of our best wasn't any more appreciated than that guy's worst.


I'll be refining iron on Sunday, will post up some more pictures then.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

You guys need to tone down the awesome, my head can't keep up! That goes for pretty much everything in this sub-forum.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Nothing says Pigeon Forge like King Kong's butt...


Amen... I live about 25 minutes from it.


But this is one event that would have been worth seeing. Hate I missed it.


How was the interaction with the public? Did you get many intelligent observers and any good questions?


I fear that the typical Pigeon Forge crowd might have missed the significance of your efforts.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Alan and I worked the crowd the most, I think, while Mark and Dennis did most of the shovelling, and Jesus was in his state of constant worry. For my part, as I explained it to them, they seemed to get the basic idea, but only when I'd gone through that and called out the fact that this was the first time it had been done in this town for so long, did I get the "cool" reaction... as if making iron from rocks wasn't just cool enough. :P


I certainly didn't get the sense that we were dismissed by anyone. Some asked better questions than others, but nobody I spoke to was a latent smelter, or even blacksmith... so there was only so far we could take them.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

I was not worried, that's just the way I look when I am thinking. I feel that we worked together very well as a team, each one of us making the best of our own skills and contributing to a good end.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Agreed. Don, I am sorry, I should have told you. The last few weeks of feverish preparation and the fact it wasn't a bladesmithing event just drove it from my mind. If we do it again next year I'll be sure to announce it well in advance.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

I spoke with quite a few people that seemed very interested.


A few, were right taken with what we were doing. Lots, thought is was the coolest thing they had seen in some time.


While most, ( it's a hard thing to explain to someone that has no clue at all) didn't really understand what we were doing, it was still very cool to them.


Plus, we had LOTS of slag taps for people to see. Those are always the exciting parts. And, the monster bloom came out, right at the end of lunch, while dozens of folk were milling around. No one walked away once that bloom hit the stump. :)


The organizers seemed very eager to have us return next year.



Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now