The Blacksmith Shop of Mt Vernon

Spending some time in Washington DC last week, my wife and I went to Mt. Vernon to visit George Washington’s estate. After we bought our tickets to the view of the house, we had some time to kill, so we walked around the grounds to see what else was around.

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On the right side of the estate near the near the back, was the blacksmith shop. It appeared to be about 15′ x 20′ in size.

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We arrived in front and saw one of the blacksmiths making a large hinge. You can see how soaked his shirt is as it was nearly 90 degrees that day. He must lose twenty pounds during the summer working in there.

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Here’s a shot of the bench with a scrap iron on the ground waiting for use.

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Here are some of the items the blacksmiths make at the estate. What’s really cool is they make axe heads and other tools.

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On the side of the shop sat a bin full of coal which stank to high heaven. The smell of burning coal is not a pleasant thing.

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I looked around the other buildings for a carpentry or cabinet shop, but found nothing. I find it odd that Washington didn’t have one on his estate somewhere. The only thing I saw was display case inside the museum with this panel raising plane.

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Now That’s a Leg Vise

While traveling between Greenville, OH and Richmond, IN for work, I stopped in an antique store in New Paris, OH and came across this behemoth. The flywheel on this leg vise must have been 18″ in diameter and was very smooth when I turned it.

Some of you may be aware of Jameel Abraham from Benchcrafted who makes reproduction flywheel hardware similar to this for workbench leg vises. I’ve tried one at the Woodworking in America conference a few years ago and loved it.  I even considered buying one for my bench before I built my Roubo workbench a few years ago. This thing would beat up his flywheel and take its lunch money.

The screw mechanism for the flywheel is so big and heavy that it needs its own shelf. I imagine the leg vise can open up to at least 12″.

Even the flywheel on the bottom was no slouch. It was probably about 8″ in diameter. It keeps the leg vise parallel to the leg of the workbench to hold the piece more snug. Put a little grease on these babies and you’ll be ready to go.

The bench sat on casters that could be rolled around the shop. For $1500 it can be all yours. I told the shop keeper that the flywheels were probably worth $500 – $800 just by themselves. What an impressive beast.

My New Years Resolution

It’s a brand new year and I’m not getting any younger. I’ve been thinking over the past few days about what I’d like to achieve this year with my woodworking. The answer was clear. 2014 has to be the year where I finally get into and learn blacksmithing. For years I’ve been farting around with the idea of incorporating metal work into my furniture. I took a blacksmith class from Welch chair maker Don Weber of Paint Lick, KY in 2008 where I made a couple of hold fasts and a cold chisel, but unfortunately, I never took anymore classes from him. I use the hold fasts all the time and I’m very proud of them, I just wish I would have taken more classes. Don’s shop was nearly three hours away and I believe he has since retired as his website has been down for several months.

I really want to learn blacksmithing for a few reasons. I want to make hardware for furniture, handles for cutting boards and be able to heat-treat blades for tools. I bought a set of handles for cutting boards from a guy at an art festival a few years ago and the design is simple enough that I’m sure I could reproduce it with a little practice. If I make cutting boards I would add handles like these and sell them through my Etsy account.

I have been a member of Southern Ohio Forge and Anvil (SOFA)  for a few years and I attended their annual meeting in Troy, OH back 2011. SOFA offers classes on blacksmithing but Troy is an hour and a half from my house. Ten weeks of driving back and forth from Troy on the weekends doesn’t sound like that much fun.

I do have a few books on blacksmithing, but the best by far is The Backyard Blacksmith by Lorelei Sims. She writes about setting up a simple shop and teaches some basic beginning projects. It’s a great first step in learning blacksmithing.

Awhile ago I bought the first piece for my blacksmith shop, a 150 lb anvil, at a local auction. My wife warned me that I would buy an anvil and it would just sit in the garage for six months before I would even use it. Well she was wrong. It’s been sitting in there for a year and a half. I need to make an anvil stand for it, but that shouldn’t be too hard. I’ll probably write a blog about it when I do.

I have three blacksmith vises that I bought at a tool auction a few years back. I only use one of them right now as the other two are sitting underneath my shelving where I store my wood. The one I do use is fantastic and works much better than a metal machinist vise that is bolted on top of a workbench. If you ever have a chance to buy a blacksmith vise for a good price, do it, you won’t be disappointed.

Last fall, I bought the final piece of my shop at an antique show, a forge. It’s really nice with a hand crank blower. I would like to eventually make my own chisels or blades for molding planes and a forge like this is ideal for that task. Maybe I can even get good enough to shape my own carving tools.

Now that I have all the major tools for my blacksmith shop, I could set it up in the garage, but that is where my wife stores her furniture or parks her car. We’re talking about getting a shed in the backyard in the spring. If we do, that would be an ideal spot where I can pull out my anvil and forge and work in the yard. All I know is that it has to finally happen this year. I just wish there were blacksmith classes around Cincinnati I could take.