firesharp tools by simon grant-jones Blacksmith

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History of forged tools

Traditional hand-forged tools

Forged tools used by Thatchers and other specialised craftspeople have evolved over the centuries, borne of necessity and conceived at the hands of a skilled artisan called a Blacksmith, who often worked from little more than a small shed in a close knit village community. These "ramshackle" workshops were the hub of the village and very often the forerunners of large modern day engineering businesses. The Blacksmiths shop was not only a much valued village business, but a meeting place where all the local gossip would be exchanged and many business deals made. The reliance on horsepower provided the main source of business and the tired animals could be seen waiting to be shod, tethered, underneath the chestnut tree so synonymous with old time forges and grown especially for shading the old workhorses from the elements. Horse drawn implements were also made, repaired and invented by the Blacksmith, some even diversified into agricultural machinery production, one of the most famous of these Blacksmiths being John Deere in America. Blacksmiths were, and still are, proud craftsmen intent on doing a good job that will last a lifetime, whether producing a hand-forged nail or a gate for a country estate, every job is given the same level of attention to detail making it fit for the purpose for which it was intended. The old time smiths used to say that "a job well done is a job never seen again", and to some extent they were right, with only the shoeing of horses being repeat business. Almost every other job was designed, and made, to outlast the user and finished to a high quality that would reflect the skill, expertise and devotion to perfection, practised by these conscientious Craftspeople.
The bespoke work that was once carried out on a small scale in the Village forge was eventually swallowed up by large companies of edge tool makers operating from the Cities, employing hundreds of workers and virtually making the individual local toolmaker redundant. This "mass production" had a devastating effect on the small local economy, hugely undercutting prices, watering down the quality of product and forcing the traditional Village Blacksmith as a worker in Iron, with his own shop in the village, to all but disappear. With the demise of horsepower, some Blacksmiths diversified into motor repairs, with the premises eventually becoming garage workshops, but most have gone altogether with a house name such as "The old Forge" or "Smithy cottage" being the only reminder that here once was a thriving business, run by a man who was a central figure in the community. A man who was not only a Blacksmith, but at times, a farrier, wheelwright, carpenter, veterinary surgeon, barber, doctor, dentist, undertaker and horse dealer.
When the farming and mining industries became more heavily mechanised in the 1950's and 60's, the need for hand tools decreased putting many of the larger and well known toolmakers into receivership. Others like Spear and Jackson and Tyzack, still survive to this day, although the range of tooling produced is smaller than in the boom times. Consequently the range of tools manufactured was condensed into the more lucrative and popular everyday lines, with the production of the more specialist tools ceasing altogether.
This has consequently meant a disaster for trades, such as the Thatching industry, that were reliant on the products that were conceived and developed in the Blacksmiths forge. This disaster has only recently been realised by the apparent lack of suitable replacement tools being available. Many thatchers are using edge tools such as shear hooks, sparhooks and eaves knives that were purveyed in the times when tools were hand made, and are now, after constant use, coming to the end of their working life. We are beginning to see knives made from old wood saws and petrol hedge cutters being used to trim thatch, and although these might do the job, we
must ask ourselves, can any craft that is no longer employing traditional tools and methods be described accurately as "a traditional craft".
Being a minority group, skilled craftsmen have to work extremely hard to maintain the high standards that have come to be expected from a reputation
built up, sometimes over centuries, by successive masters of their craft, and this means using the correct tools for the job.
Typically of the traditional craftsmen that still survive in the UK, there is Simon Grant-Jones, a Blacksmith, and a link to the past that is as genuine and true to history that modern times will allow. The commissions that Simon receives vary widely, with the bulk of his work being made up of the manufacture of special tools for traditional craftsmen and Women to enable them to maintain an established way of working and continue to make their living in the time-honoured way. Everyone is now beginning to realise that modern is not necessarily better and Simon tries to work as closely as possible to the original methods to produce tooling that will last a lifetime and probably more.
"All of our craftsman's tools have been developed in consultation with recognised professionals and the designs have been tried and tested over several years with many satisfied customers" said Simon.
Thatching tools are a speciality and the shear hooks in particular were painstakingly researched and developed over a number of years in order to get the correct "set" on the blade to enable it to cut correctly and to be comfortable to work with. Blades are hand-forged from a medium carbon tool steel and hardened and tempered in the fire using traditional methods. All finished blades are given Simon's own personal stamp and fitted with either a proprietary standard handle, or a hand-made handle from a local native hardwood such as Ash or Oak. The only modern touch is to thread the end of the tang and secure the handle with a nut to allow it to be easily changed or repaired without having to re-forge the tang.
Tools are not mass produced or machine finished, but individually hand-wrought and finished at the forge. Due to the personal relationship that most craftsmen have with their tools, Simon will also copy existing tooling to get as close a copy as possible, although allowances must be made for the original sizes of blades before the years of sharpening had reduced them to their present size.

Forging edged tools

The amount of carbon in Steel determines whether it can be hardened or not. Wrought iron was 99% pure iron and therefore could not be hardened, Steel is, in layman's terms, Iron alloyed with carbon, and with the right amount of carbon content, can be hardened to take a cutting edge. When wrought iron was forge-welded to a carbon steel core it provided the perfect flexible "backbone" to produce a superior edge tool. Up until about the 1950's, blades were made from carbon steel sandwiched between two layers of wrought iron. This allowed the edge to be hard yet supported on both sides by a softer layer of Iron. This process was widely used for most edge tools and gave a bi-metal blade with a steel core that could be hardened and tempered to different degrees of hardness to produce a tool for different applications e.g. for use in agriculture, and for cutting different types of materials such as wood, leather or stone. The union of soft iron and hardened steel proved to be a combination that would greatly extend the life of the blade and would often allow it to outlast several generations of user. This process has been in existence for thousands of years and has its origins in ancient Damascus where weapons were hand forged, fire-welded and folded together from alternate layers of a type of carbon steel and soft iron. This method is still used today, but mainly to produce decorative collector's blades, and can also be known as pattern welded or Damascus steel.
Contemporary carbon steels are produced with a scientific chemical composition that tailors each type of steel to a particular job. We now have low carbon, medium carbon, high carbon, high speed, spring and air hardening steels, to name a few. This means that the skill of the bladesmith is no longer needed in preparing the raw material prior to forging.
Most modern Shearing Hook blades start from flat bars about 30mm wide by 5mm thick and are then forged out to the correct width and thickness for the type of finished blade that they will become. The tang (the part of the blade that fits into the handle) is forged, and the blade, in the case of shearhooks, bent to the correct shape and cutting angle. The blades are rough ground and then hardened and tempered in the fire to hold a cutting edge. The tang is then gently warmed to allow it to burn its way through a pre-drilled hole in the handle. This is particularly important for sparhooks (a small version of a Billhook used just for making spars) to ensure that the flat tang does not twist in the handle when splitting the gads (lengths of hazel that will be split to become spars). The blade is then finish ground and oiled.

Hardening the blade

The hardening process consisted of heating the blade to a cherry red temperature and quenching. Some blades were hardened in water or brine and some were hardened using other mediums such as mineral oil, whale oil, or peanut oil in the USA.
This made the blade as hard as it could possibly get and was very often too hard or brittle to be used without breaking. Blades that were bi-metallic with a steel core as previously described, needed no tempering as the wrought iron outer layers held the core together and allowed flexibility of the blade without fracturing. Blades that were made from just carbon steel needed what is termed as a "temper", in effect, some of the hardness needed to be sacrificed to make the blade softer and more malleable so that it did not break, but leaving enough toughness so that it could still do its job effectively. Hard enough to do the job but not too hard that it would crack under stress. The steel was said to either have a good or bad temper depending on the success of the tempering process, a term that has become firmly embedded in the English language to describe human characteristics.
Most Blacksmiths had their own methods of hardening and tempering and they would often lock the doors when this operation was being carried out to stop others stealing their trade secrets. The secret art was to gauge exactly the right temperature to re-heat blades so that the correct degree of hardness could be achieved without making the blade useless. Some of the methods that evolved used known constant temperatures to apply to the steel to check the correct temperature to quench the blade, for example, a pine stick could be held onto a heating blade, and when the stick started to char, a temperature of approximately 280-290 degrees Celsius (536-554 degrees Fahrenheit) was reached. The flashpoints of the various oils used were also measured. The steel blade would be hardened in oil and then the oily blade would be re-heated over the fire until the oil reached its flashpoint. It would then be quenched again to give the correct temper.
Mechanisation and more accurate processes have mostly replaced these old time hand skills, but the time honoured methods are still used by traditional Blacksmiths that are continuing to produce traditional tools by hand.

It is important to our heritage that British craftsmanship should never lose sight of the traditionalism and methods of working that have been invented, tried and tested by successive generations of our forebears, those same forebears whose skills were responsible for building an Empire and whose ingenuity made England one of the most successful nations on the planet. They often fought and died to protect their craft, their ideas and their business and if successive generations are allowed to practice these ancient crafts without proper training, guidance and support, continuity of skill will be lost and future generations will not know any different. A hand-made job will inevitably cost more than something that is mass produced, but any craftsman or women passionate about their trade will impart their spirit, as well as their skill, into that piece of work, a spirit that you won't find from a factory made product. Ask the craftsman where they trained, enquire more about their craft and be proud to pay a handsome price for a job well done.

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Simon grant-Jones FWCB, LWCB,CERT.Ed. (2019)

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