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Christopher Price

The Claude Moore Colonial Farm project

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I wanted to start a thread where I could document an ambitious project I've started on, working with the Claude Moore Colonial Farm in northern Virginia, to demonstrate iron-making in a period-appropriate fashion. The farm is the only privately operated National Park in the US, and demonstrates year-round a 1771 tobacco farm. Staff work the fields, run the farm house, and offer interpretive services year-round, there's a book store, several activities with gardening and animal husbandry, and three times a year they hold a Market Fair which has some things in common with a Ren Faire, except without any of the fantasy. Volunteers running booths dress appropriate to the time, and offer demonstrations of arts and crafts from the time in character.

 

While they have a blacksmith who's worked the Fair for the last 5 years, the question often arises "where did the iron you're working come from?" My attempt will be to offer a visual answer to the industry preceeding the blacksmith's work in the 18th century, in the guise of an itinerant iron master. With full disclosure of the large Iron Plantations (Hopewell Furnace being a choice example) along the East Coast, smaller works were also in abundance, and so we'll show what one of those works at "farm scale" might have looked like.

 

 

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When I first approached the Farm staff about this, I showed them the video from the Pigeon Forge smelt I participated in with Jesus, Alan, Mark, and Dennis, and asked if they were interested. "Heck yeah" was the reply, and I dropped the next bomb on them - that the single most expensive and difficult thing for us hobby smelters is to buy all that charcoal. Here I was in luck, and I suspected this answer might come, since I have a friend there who also volunteers, and he mentioned the saw mill. Turns out they've got one of those "portable" bandsaw mills, big enough to saw at least 12 feet of tree, pretty much to whatever size you like. The barn manager said, "why don't we make it?" which led into an hour of discussion on just how to proceed. So what I did was build a rocket-stove retort, based on the one I saw in the "pit charcoal" thread, i think. The idea is to take a 55gal barrel, run a length of pipe through the middle with a firebox on the bottom and ash grate, some holes in the lower section of pipe in the barrel for voilities to exit and contirbute to the burn, and some kind of frame to make tipping and unloading easy. I bought a couple barrels with locking lids and got to grinding and welding, and then insulated with a layer of Inswool on the bottome 2 feet secured with chicken wire for durability, since I didn't feel like cutting a 2nd barrel up and using solid refractory, which I think would eat up a lot of heat before it did any good. Some furnace cement to seal up all the little holes, and the cast iron pipe I use in the center throws off an amazing amount of energy, making the process easy as tending a small campfire. I tested it last weekend with some scrap wood from my yard, but today I went up to the farm and we sawed up a couple trees worth of pine into 2x2" sticks, filling my van, so this weekend I'll start cooking up my own pine charcoal in the retort. Takes two hours to saw enough wood to load my van, and keep me busy at home for a week of evenings.

 

The next big piece of the puzzle is enough ore for 6 days of smelting for next year's season, plus a couple test smelts to verify both the furnace design, and the ore choice. I've asked around, but any leads on piles accessible by vehicle would be most welcome. I plan on doing some scouting trips at old mine locations, but I figure it never hurts to keep asking.

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Sounds like a fun project. You'll have to post smelting dates so if any of us are in the area, we can stop by. More free labor!

I found some nice ore pits in Western Tennessee by talking to some local treasure hunters. They told me of an area that set the metal detectors off on ferrous metal, they thought they had guns and cannons but didn't find anything. I got permission from the landowner and checked it out. It was ore pits from the Civil war. There was a furnace location nearby with slag glass all over. I got about 60 or 70 pounds of ore, been trying to set up a smelt for a couple summers now.

Edited by J_Martin

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I'll go through 60 pounds of ore a day, and I need enough for 6 days, plus tests beforehand.

 

The dates of Market Fairs are in May, July, and October. 1771.org will publish the exact dates if they haven't already.

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I for one would love to see a pic or 2 (or 20) of your charcoal making set-up. Sounds like an awesome, incredible, exhausting endeavor. Kudos for even making the attempt (which I'm sure will go well).

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I didn't get pictures of the sawmill today, just too busy doing the work - but it won't be the only load we cut. I'll make sure to get pics of the pile when I get it out of my van, and I do plan on documenting the process from beginning to end, I'd like to offer a DVD next spring to offset some of my costs since as far as the Farm is concerned, this is all volunteer work. A short version will be on Youtube as a teaser, but I'll have plenty of stills here, because documenting it as I go helps me keep it all straight.

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Chris, I sent off some samples of that buckhorn ore. If it looks any good, you can come down after hunting season is over, and raid that 100ton pile.
You will need your boat.

I also located about 20 good sites just west of you. There is likely ore all over that area. I'll PM you soon when I get over to the UNCG lib. they have a few good books on old Va iron.

 

 

Mark

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Many thanks, Mark. The backstory of a nautical ore raid feeds my ego in a really special way. ;) Local options are good, too, and I'm not against trying them out.

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Chris,

 

It sounds like an interesting long term commitment ..I would do the charcoal via the traditional mound method, much simpler to do larger quantities ( very much like Dancoon does it but just using loam ). The smoke may be allowed due to the nature of the project.. .

 

Jan

Edited by Jan Ysselstein

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Sounds like alot of enjoyable hard work. I would like to do a something similar in the future at the local BSA camp once I have a couple more smelts under my belt. Are you going with the bellows for your air source? Looking forward to following this adventure!

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Yan, the barn manager would love to re-enact a smoldering pile, and we may do it when the crowd is there... but I just don't have the time to dedicate several days, round the clock, to manage such a pile, nor does he. While we may have one running for show, in order to produce consistent quantity ahead of time, we're going with the retort. I can run it when I get home from work any evening, and the smoke invisible at night will be far less cause for complaint unseen. The smell will just make someone think there's a fireplace going, and there are several each evening already now that it's getting cold.

 

Brandon, I'm probably going to hide an electic blower in the adjacent building, and run a long hose out to my works. I don't have enough skilled labor to run a bellows for hours non-stop. In the best case, I might have a volunteer or two helping me, in the worst case, I might be acting alone for much of the day. I have to be able to make iron, so we're "showing" period and cheating where it makes sense and isn't obtrusive to the lesson. I plan on having a poster board made before then, explaining how large iron plantations worked, with pictures of blowing machines, large trip-hammers, and other tools of the day, so what we're doing on the farm is put into proper perspective and I don't get called out too hard for not doing it "the right way". Most of our crowd is rich McLean Virginia families, there for a day of throwback fun, and if they happen to learn something... great. Naturally there are the "my grandfather was a blacksmith" comments, but my activity will hopefully deflect most of that, since the blacksmith is next door. I'm making iron, and one thing I've learned over the years, is that even within the smithing community, there are not that many people who really understand the process. Therefore I feel justified in taking a few shortcuts to get it done at Market Fair.

 

If I were doing something like Thijs does, true living-history community re-enactment, where his iron-age smelting is all done by hand with clay, stones, lots of helpers, and lots of time, we could be more authentic. I'd love that experience. But this isn't that, rather something in-between. Just smelting in front of the public is big enough.

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Here's the wood pile from yesterday's sawing... couple of 8 inch or so pine trees, cut to 2x2x30 inch sticks, took two hours to mill and load in my van. Had my girls unload it last night, since they were in need of a lesson in working together anyway (they're 12 and 15).

 

20141121073237-L.jpg

 

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And here's the rocket stove retort. I didn't get the inside, took these on my way out the door to work. You can see the center pipe which is cast iron, ~5.5 inches wide and 4 feet long. The barrel is about 33 inches tall, and the firebox is 1/8" wall 4 inch square tube welded to the pipe after I cut a space for it to match in. I've also welded an ash grate on the bottom, using 1/4" stock and leaving approximately 1 inch holes for coals to drop through the bottom, keeping the airway as clear as possible for good draft. There are twelve 3/16" holes drilled in the vertical pipe, set inside the barrel, four at a time and staggered at 3 inch intervals for volitile gasses to exit the charring chamber and combust in the burn tube, adding to the heat for pyrolization. I did a test run on some scrap wood last weekend, and with a piece of pallet wood in the vertical tube, and a few sticks in the firebox, I had flame coming out of the top of the pipe with no smoke to speak of. I got lucky with the cast iron pipe, because it has such great emissivity, and I think conducts the heat into the char chamber better than ductile iron might have, and I got it free after it was abandoned in place at a sewer repair job at the local school. I eyeballed it for over a month, then asked the office if they cared if I took it away for disposal, and they were thrilled. Original length was 10 feet, so now I have a 2' and 4' vertical quench tanks.

 

 

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The bricks on the firebox are just to balance the rig, it was leaning back a little and I think the opening of the firebox should be level wih the entry point, lest rising heat set up a reverse draft, which would be bad. The tilting frame is just shoddy welded rebar, with forged curves at the top to hold the pivot pins. Those have a piece of flat stock welded on to keep the frame from just popping off, and since the wall of the barrel is so thin, a reinforcement piece is welded on to take off some of the bend strain at the pin.

 

The idea is, load it, seal the lid, and get a fire going in the firebox, and add a long stick down the middle burn tube. Once it gets hot enough, volitiles start burning off in the tube as well, and you just keep a few sticks in the firebox, and something thin in the pipe, and read a book while poking it every 10 minutes or so, for a couple hours. Takes very little fuel. After you're done charring the innards, let it cool, pull the lid, and tip it over into a container for chopping and bagging. Reload and repeat as needed. I'll probably run it tonight, I'll get pictures or maybe even video of the flame when it's really going.

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Chris,

The burner has 16" of surface area at high temperature ( eventually) and 72" of surface area ( both are per inch of height, so we could multiply times 36 ) at low temperature, they create competition. One wants to heat up your barrel contents while the other wants to keep it cool..I suggest some regular insulation to keep things warm and an improvised propane burner for the central tube...once you get high volumes of smoke, putting a stick in the shaft will only worsen it.

Good luck.

Prepare your means of apologizing to the neighbors ahead of time.

Jan

Edited by Jan Ysselstein

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I thought I mentioned it, but the barrel is insulated on the outside with a layer of inswool, protected by a long roll of chicken wire so the wood doesn't destroy it too quick. When I did my test-fire last weekend (before I built the tipping jig, just set up on bricks) it was running nice and hot, and there was a distinct difference in radient heat between the insulated area, and the top of the lid - the cooking chamber was hot enough to pyrolize and cook off any smoke, as long as the fire-tube was running nice and hot.

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well this is music to my ears! I live close by -- just across the river in Maryland

 

I don't know if I have the type of ore you're looking for...but you're welcome to it...I have 1 or 2 five gallon buckets of magnetite sand, a bucket or two of magnetite chunks from the Mineral Hill area near Baltimore, and bog iron from the Calvert Cliffs area

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What I'd love more is directions... but we should talk offline. Thank you for your kind interest in the project.

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Well, I was going to run a batch tonight, but temps dropped down to 20, and I'd rather wait to tomorrow and do it above freezing, at least.

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Go for the bog ore. I like the retort, hadn't thought about going with a rocket stove core.

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A couple of our local guys have those. They work great.
Not a lot at a time, about 30-40 lbs. max, but its nice charcoal.
Even living right in the city, I was thinking about fixing one of these up.

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Yes, small loads. I'm setting one up in a moment so I can take pictures. But I can do it pretty much any night it's not too cold, and it's efficient... much more efficient than "light a fire under a barrel full of wood" which had always been my mental image of a backyard retort until I discovered this design.

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About an hour or less north of you, the Blacksmith Guild of Central Maryland [bGCM] has done a smelt demonstration at their yearly blacksmithing event for the past couple of years. Also Wally Yater does a lot of charcoal making, and he is in western Maryland, you might be able to get a donation of charcoal from him. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-jz0C-OgZ4 You might wish to take advantage of the experience and information resources of folks in your area.

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David,


Thank you for posting that Utube link showing Wally Yater making charcoal. I am very much indebted to Wally ....in about 1982-1983, Wally published some articles on the history of wootz steel in the "the Anvils Ring" magazine. At the time the "the Anvils Ring" published his articles they were way over my head technically, I had no clue regarding wootz.

When I became interested in Ferrous Metallurgy (and wootz), I dug up his articles and go to them on a regular basis..I ended up doing exactly what he suggested at the very end of his third article and have been able to make it work for me ( after an infinite amount of experimentation).


Looking at Wally's burn pile/water method for making charcoal...I am sure he would very much benefit from the Pit Charcoal thread I have posted under Bloomers and Buttons




Assuming you have his email , would you forward that link to him. I am expecting to attend the 2016 ABANA conference in Utah and will show some wootz blades made , based on his suggestions. At the conference I will communicate my appreciation of Wally's work to the gallery viewers.


Jan

Edited by Jan Ysselstein

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I know Wally, he shows up every year to Fire & Brimstone. Even ate one of his burgers, which is a genuine test of manhood.

 

I've read just about everything I can find on retorts and charcoal making, and with the resources I have available, and the neighborhood I live in, there really isn't a better way. I could do all the smoke-making I want up at the farm, but I can't commit the time on-site... at least this way, I'm at home, and can attend to family when I need to. If I were a hermit bachelor things would be different, as they would be if I lived in the middle of nowhere, but in Alexandria Virginia, the suburbs of DC, one only has so many choices.

 

Just watched that video... While Wally's Way certainly looks like a straightforward method of reducing a lot of wood to a useful amount of charcoal, I can't have 20 foot flames in my yard, or probably even at the farm. I'm glad it works for him, and that he has a place where he can get away with it. My condition is, I have limited time (evenings), no money (but free wood), and have to "stealth coal" my wood. The run last night made some smoke, but in the dark, you couldn't see it. The base of my cast-iron fire tube was glowing for at least 2 hours, I heard the sizzle of pine tar burning off for a good long while, and then just a little smoke with no sizzle for the last hour or so running. It started raining this evening, else I'd be out there doing it again and showing what I made, I'll see if I can get pictures in the morning.

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The "told you so's" may now begin.

 

The barrel loaded and ready to go...

DSCF1203-L.jpg

 

During the burn, a nice constant flame out the top, the pipe was glowing underneath, heat coming off the whole system.

DSCF1212-L.jpg

 

And the poor results:

DSCF1213-L.jpg

 

 

The curved piece on the right is perfect charcoal. Better than anything out of a bag, breaks nicely, totally coaled through, good stuff. Apparently the only stick in the whole batch to do so, however. I don't understand how one piece can convert so well, and all the rest not at all, from the looks of it. The only thing I can imagine, is that this is fresh-cut wood, and quite moist. But I ran the fire for 4 hours, and all the sizzling and hints of moisture seemed gone about halfway through, so I thought I was making good material.

 

Back to square one.

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Chris,

Nobody is going to do an I told you so, I am glad you ( finally someone ) are posting what is the reality for now. I do think you are going through a learning curve, and will still be frustrated in the end. Charcoal is about 22%-to-25% the weight of the dry wood that is being charred. I have read about yields of 80% and wood lost at 25%....those numbers indicate incomplete charring to me.

 

I would not let the charcoal supply become a "must do" issue if specific dates for public events are coming up. You may want to look for a donor of $ or charcoal as David suggested.

 

Jan

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