Monthly Archives: November 2011

Tools for Setting up a Blacksmith Shop


Making nails

Setting up a blacksmith shop for home use is not that difficult. You can get everything you need for about $300-500 if you buy used equipment and make what you can yourself. The main tools you’ll need to get started are a forge, an anvil, a vice,  hammers, and tongs. One of the great things about blacksmithing is that you can make many of the tools yourself, as you go.


The forge is what you’ll use to heat the metal that you’re working. It consists of a firepot, to hold the fire, a work surface, and a blower. The firepot should be about 4-5 inches deep, and can be made from an old brake drum. The forge I use is made of brick and firebrick and is more substantial, but I’ve also seen forges on old farms made from concrete poured into a tractor tire, with a depression for the firepot. You can find blowers in antique stores or salvage them from air conditioning units, clothes dryers, or other used appliances. My dad’s first forge was basically a brake drum with legs. The blower was an old hair dryer!

Blacksmith's forge

Small forge and blower


Unless you have a lot of money to spend, it’s best to start with a used anvil. You can find them for about $1-2 per pound. Even if an anvil has some dings, it can be cleaned up and resurfaced if necessary, and it will work just fine. A “wanted” ad in the paper is a good way to find these and other blacksmithing equipment. We’ve also found anvils and other blacksmithing equipment at farm sales, estate sales, and farm auctions.


Anvil and other tools


You can start with a basic ball pein or a cross pein hammer. You can usually find these at local hardware stores. You can also order various types of blacksmith hammers from a blacksmith supply house. Once you develop some skill with blacksmithing, you’ll be able to make hammers.

Blacksmith's hammers

Ball pein and cross pein hammers


There are two main types of vices, the post vice and the machinist’s vice. A post vice is the blacksmith’s vice. It is designed to stand up to the hammering. Machinist vices, particularly the smaller ones, can be damaged from the repeated hammer blows. The place to look for post vices is farm auctions and estate sales. If you’re not able to get a post vice, you can start with a machinist’s vice. It’s best to get a larger vice that will stand up to the hammering well, and you’ll need to fit it with smooth jaws so that it won’t mar the workpieces.

Post vice

Post vice


Over time, you’ll need many different tongs, one or two for each thickness of metal that you work with. Having tongs that are the right size for your materials makes it much easier to keep a good grip on your metal and improves the quality of your work. But for starters, you only need about 1-2 pairs, which you can buy for $30-40 each from a blacksmith supplier. After you’ve gained some experience blacksmithing, you’ll be able to make your own tongs. Usually by the end of our two day blacksmithing class, our students are ready to begin learning the skills of tong making.

Blacksmith's tongs

Three types of tongs

Other Tools

You’ll also use drifts, slitters, center punches, twisting tools, and chisels. These are all tools that you will be able to make yourself as you develop your skills.

Blacksmith's Tools

Tools made by the blacksmith: hardie cutoff, cold chisel, center punch, and set hotcut

To learn more, see our online blacksmithing videos and our series of classes on blacksmithing and other traditional skills.

Beekeeping for Pollination

Honeybee with pollen on its back legs

There are many good reasons to keep bees, but one reason that’s often overlooked is pollination. Although some crops like corn and small grains are pollinated by wind, most crops in your garden or orchard depend on insects for pollination and will not properly produce fruit without it. Examples include tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, okra, onions, watermelon, cantaloupe, blackberries, apples, apricots, strawberries, and many others. Other crops, such as broccoli and cabbage will produce a head without pollination, but they require pollination in order to set seed, so if you’re planning to save seed for next year’s garden, you’ll need pollinators for those crops also.

Cucumbers and squash, depending on the variety, require as many as 8 to 12 visits per flower in order to set fruit properly. Apples need about 8 visits per blossom to produce good quality fruit. In our beekeeping class, I often bring a misshapen apple to the class, one that is large and well developed on one side and small and poorly developed on the other side. When we cut the apple open and look inside, we invariably find that the well developed side contains more seeds than the smaller, poorly developed side because the seeds stimulate the growth of the fruit.

Honeybee on cantaloupe flower

Honeybee on cantaloupe flower

The best way to ensure that your crops are pollinated well is to have a bee hive nearby. Honeybees form large colonies, having 30,000 – 40,000 bees in a single colony during winter and increasing in size during the Spring. Honeybees actively collect and store pollen in their hive because they depend on it as a food source for their young. The way that honeybees collect the pollen makes them especially good pollinators.

Honeybee in the hive with pollen

Honeybee in the hive with pollen

There are several types of wild pollinators, such as mason bees, bumblebees, and butterflies, but none of these are as effective as the honeybee. Mason bees are good pollinators, but they are solitary bees and do not form colonies. This means their workforce in your garden is small compared to a honeybee colony. Bumblebees form colonies, but each bumblebee colony begins with a single queen bee in early Spring and only grows to about 600 bees by its peak later in the year, so although they are an important pollinator, they are less effective than the honeybee. Butterflies tend to mainly feed on sweet nectar producing blossoms, and they do not collect pollen, so although they do contribute to pollination, they have a much smaller effect than honeybees.

If you want your garden and orchard to be pollinated well so that all your plants will set fruit, we recommend having a bee hive on your property. Honeybees often range up to 2 miles or even further in their search for nectar and pollen, but they will concentrate more heavily on the areas closest to the hive.

Beekeeping is not difficult or expensive to get started with. It takes a small amount of time to setup your first hive, and once the hive is established, you will need to check on it every 10-14 days. I tell my students that anyone who can garden can keep a beehive.

If you would like to learn more about beekeeping, we offer a beginning workshop on how to keep bees and a more  advanced hands-on beekeeping and hive management workshop. Together these two beekeeping classes will teach you everything you need to know to get started. We also discuss beekeeping along with other important topics in our 3-day homesteading seminar.

Our Plans to Build a Wood Fired Kiln


This article was also updated and featured in the Winter 2012 issue of the SustainLife journal.

Pottery from Our Existing Gas-Fired Kiln

We currently use a gas-fired kiln that we built about 10 years ago. We have fired a lot of pottery in this kiln over the years, and in many ways it has worked well for us, but it has a fundamental design flaw that makes the kiln very difficult to use, especially with certain types of glazes.

Types of Kilns

There are two basic types of fuel fired kilns: natural draft kilns, and forced air kilns. A natural draft kiln uses the draft produced by the chimney to pull air into and through the kiln, and dampers are used to regulate the atmosphere within the kiln. A forced air kiln, such as ours, uses fans to blow the flame from the kiln’s burners into the firing compartment where the pottery is located. This type of kiln doesn’t need any secondary draft, such as that produced by the chimney, and in fact any secondary draft makes the atmosphere inside the kiln difficult to regulate.

The Problem with our Existing Kiln

The chimney on our kiln is too large in proportion to the rest of the kiln. Because of this, it produces some secondary draft, which causes turbulence. The draft also makes it hard (or impossible, depending on weather conditions) to regulate the atmosphere inside the kiln.

Our existing gas fired kiln

When firing pottery, one very important stage in the process is the reduction stage, in which firing temperatures are in the 1,600 to 1,900 degree range (Fahrenheit), and the air intake is adjusted to reduce the amount of oxygen in the firing chamber. This “oxygen poor” environment draws out oxygen that is stored in the chemical makeup of the glazes. This  causes the glazes to change to the proper colors.

If there is too much oxygen in the air, the glazes will not change color properly, and if there is too little oxygen, the fire will become sooty, producing a lot of carbon, which also interferes with the glazes. It is important to get just the right oxygen content, and that is what we are unable to do with this kiln.

Red Glazes Turn White

This has been most apparent when we have used red glazes. If the oxygen level is incorrect during the reduction phase, the red pieces turn white. Sometimes the whole piece turns white. Other times, part of the piece will turn white.  Once the piece has been fired, certain minerals in the glazes have been vaporized, and re-firing the piece will not correct the problem. We no longer fire red pieces in this kiln because it is impossible to fire them reliably. In the photo below, both pieces of pottery were glazed with a red glaze, but due to the incorrect atmosphere in the kiln, the pot on the left turned white. The piece on the right turned red in most places, but turned white near the rim.  Although the glaze color does not affect the usefulness of a piece of pottery, it does make the piece unsalable when part of a custom order.

“Red” pottery fired in our existing gas kiln

Our signature Homestead Green pottery also is difficult to fire in this kiln. The effect is less pronounced than for the red pieces, but still very noticeable. Normally, the glazes produce a beautiful translucent, opalescent finish, but when the kiln’s atmosphere is incorrect, the finish becomes metallic green.

A Sustainable Wood-Fired Kiln

Because of these problems, we plan to begin building a new wood-fired kiln very soon. It will be a double fast fired kiln and will use only renewable resources (wood, which is plentiful here). It will require no electricity to operate. We are working toward sustainability in our community, and this kiln will take us another step toward developing a sustainable pottery shop and teaching facility.

We’ve discussed the kiln design with a number of other experienced potters, and we feel that this particular design is the best suited to our needs. There are several types of wood kilns, but this particular type will let us produce pottery that is very similar to the pottery that we currently fire in our gas kiln.

Once we have built the new kiln, we plan to operate it alongside our existing gas kiln until we have gained enough experience with it. Then we plan to dismantle the gas kiln and build a second wood kiln using its materials.

The wood fired kiln will cost about $5,000 to build and will contain more than 1,500 fire bricks.

Update 5/21/2012

We have nearly completed the kiln.  See this update on the kiln for more information.

Visit SustainLife journal for more information about the journal.

Our 2011 Homestead Fair is just around the corner

We will have our 2011 Homestead Fair on Thanksgiving Weekend, Friday – Sunday, November 25-27, 2011, and we invite you to attend.

Activities for the Entire Family

There are many activities for the whole family.  Help milk a cow, take part in a timber frame barn raising, or watch a master craftsman fashion a fine Windsor chair straight from a rough log.  Sample the multicultural dishes from our food court or enjoy a delicious maple pecan ice-cream cone while touring our farm on a horse-drawn hay wagon.

Other activities include hands on projects, sheepdog work, horse farming, pottery making, blacksmithing, woodworking, quilting, weaving, spinning, basketry, boot making, cheese making and much, much more.

Hands-On Activities

Children (and adults) can learn how to make a candle or a leather key fob, weave a basket, hand sew a keepsake bag, make a soap ball, fashion a brass spoon, make a handwoven dog leash, build a toy sailboat, or participate in our more than 30 hands on activities.

Seminars about Sustainability

We’ll have a number of seminars on sustainability at the fair. The seminars are 30-40 minutes long, with a time for questions afterward.

  • Small Scaled Diversified Family Farming
  • Sustainable Gardening
  • Backyard Chickens and other Poultry
  • Beekeeping
  • Grass-fed Beef and Milk
  • Canning and Preserving Food
  • Cheesemaking
  • Breadmaking
  • Possibilities for Renewable Energy on a Small Farm
  • The Human Dimension of Sustainable Culture
  • Children on the Farm – Chores and Activities

Parking Passes

Parking passes are $10.00 per vehicle, good all three days of the fair. They are available at the fair, or you can order them online for $7.00 each and receive with a special discount coupon if you order before November 15.

More Information about the Fair

To learn more about the fair, including driving directions, camping and lodging information, food and events at the fair, visit the link below:

Homestead Fair Website

We hope to see you at the fair.