Back to the Roots: Clay and Iron!

Back to the Roots: Clay and Iron!

I have worked in all sorts of art mediums. But I always like a good challenge, so I decided to try something “classic” that I hadn’t done before: pottery and blacksmithing. Working with raw materials like “earth” and “metal”. People have used these “elements” for thousands of years. Surely, I could give it a try!

Element #1: Clay

I dug out some dirt clumps from our yard, broke them down, and sifted them through several sieves until I had “clay powder”. Next, I mixed it with water and played around with the material. I had no pottery wheels or any other pottery equipment, and the clay was very sticky. So, I shaped the material around an empty paint can and worked from there. It was surprisingly difficult to get the right consistency. But still, I managed to make a rugged shape. I let it dry for 3 days under a damp cloth so it wouldn’t crack. Then, I went back to refine the shape. Unfortunately, there were still cracks, but I got the pot to a somewhat functional shape. It looked ok! But would it survive the firing process? I let it dry for a few weeks and then put it into the “forge” that I was using for the metal work. The pot came out ok, but it broke a little as I applied the layer of wax and oil. still, it looks good for a first attempt!

Element #2: Iron

I wanted to make a simple knife. So, I bought a piece of steel from the hardware store. (Safety note #1: Ideally, you get uncoated steel, but I could only find galvanized pieces. So, I had to make sure and not breathe in the fumes as the coating evaporated) Next, I worked out a design on paper and cardboard. I wanted the knife to look balanced and feel good in your hand. I tried a couple of designs until I found something that would work. Now, it was time for the forge.

I built a “forge” out of bricks, coals a metal pipe, and a blowdryer; a few more flat bricks served as an “anvil”. We have plenty of old wood in our garden and I got some charcoal to add. We were ready!
Over the next few days, I started a few fires and slowly got each to temperature. It was harder than I thought: Sometimes, there wasn’t enough coal, sometimes the angle of the pipe didn’t work, sometimes the blow dryer stalled (safety note #2: Hot air rises. Putting a blow dryer at the top of the pipe was a bad idea, the hot air from the fire was damaging it. I should have known better, but once I figured it out, I moved the blow dryer to the low end, where the metal went in). But in any case, the fire was eventually hot enough. I put the steel in and let it sit until it turned red/orange. Then, I pulled it out and hit it with a hammer. There were deep hammer marks and the “anvil” bricks eventually broke. I didn’t have enough heat to flatten the steel as much as I wanted. But despite these issues, I could take the crude shape and refine it with files and a grinder. I modified the design a little and got the knife looking all right. I tried to harden the blade by putting it in another hot fire and quenching it in water. I don’t think the fire was hot enough, the blade is still relatively “soft”. I sharpened it as much as possible but will need some additional sharpening stones to finish it. I drilled a hole in the handle so you could hang the knife up and called it a day. If I find better equipment I might be able to finish it more. But even now it looks pretty good for a first attempt!

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