Metals used in Blacksmithing

Published: 16th December 2008
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The term blacksmith has an interesting origin. The "smith" part of it comes from the old English word "smite" which means to hit. So a "smith" is someone whose work involves hitting and pounding to produce a finished product. Depending on the type of metal being used, the artisan was known as a goldsmith, a coppersmith and so on. Since ferrous metal like iron and steel are black in color, the person who work on shaping the metals was known as a blacksmith.

The traditional metal for blacksmiths to work with was wrought iron. When iron ore is smelted to create a useable metal, some quantity of carbon is usually to the molten metal. The higher the carbon content, the harder, and so more brittle it is. High carbon contents of over 2% result in what is known as cast iron. This iron has a low melting point and can easily be pored into moulds and cast into various shapes. Iron with a carbon content of less than 0.25% and which has iron silicate or slag added to it is wrought iron. Wrought iron has a high melting point and the iron silicate give it a doughy or plastic like texture when it is subject to extreme heat. The characteristic of not melting but becoming malleable when heated makes it the ideal metal of choice for blacksmiths to use.

Wrought iron is both a process and the name of a metal. The word wrought means to work a metal into a shape by hammering, pressing, twisting and bending. In other words, a product created by any or all of these processes is said to be wrought. Unlike many other ferrous metals wrought iron is corrosion resistant and because of its rough finish, accepts painting or any other form of coating well.

However, in America wrought iron is no longer made and the last plant making wrought iron closed shop in 1969.The reasons for this were economic. Producing wrought iron is a labor intensive and expensive process and steel, which can replace wrought iron in many respects, is both cheaper and easier to produce. The only way a blacksmith can procure wrought iron today is to import it in the form of scrap metal from Europe. So the ideal metal for a blacksmith to work with is almost unavailable.

The replacement is mild steel which, because of its low carbon content, similar to wrought iron, is also malleable and can be heated and forged into shape. What this means is that when we refer to a blacksmith's products as being wrought iron, we are no longer talking of the material used in the manufacturing process but of the process itself.

Any ferrous metal can be "wrought" or heated and worked into shape so irrespective of the material a blacksmith is using, in common parlance it is still known as wrought iron. Most forged items that come from a blacksmith are now made of mild steel, which is not as easy as wrought iron to work with, but the advanced is forge and metal working technology and equipment have compensated for this this, so the quality and finish of the "wrought iron" products remain even though they are no longer made from iron.

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