Forging his own fire

Blacksmithing a hobby for 11-year-old Hughes


PITTSVILLE, Wis. — When it comes to hobbies and interests that might spark the interest of an 11-year-old boy, blacksmithing might not be at the top of the list. But Gavin Hughes found himself drawn to the art form last summer.

“We would go to some of the steam shows and activities around and there would sometimes be blacksmiths demonstrating how they did it,” Gavin said. “I thought it was cool to watch them. Then I got hooked on the show, ‘Forged in Fire,’ and decided I wanted to try and do it.”

Gavin, his parents, Alan and Stephanie, and brothers, Bryce and Derek, milk 60 cows on their Wood County dairy farm near Pittsville.

“I found him one day, with his grandpa’s can of old, bent nails, working on pounding them straight,” Alan said. “He had fashioned an anvil from a metal block, a stump and wire. Gavin is a builder, fixer and creator by nature, and that is when I realized he really had an interest in metalworking.”

As Gavin continued his hobby of pounding nails straight, Alan procured a small cast iron forge, that was in pieces. The pair reconstructed the forge and, together, set out to learn the finer points of operating a forge.

“It has been a lot of trial and error, and a lot of learning,” Alan said.

Once they completed the reconstruction of the forge, they lined it with a clay mixture to insulate the cast iron bowl. In their forge, the two use a hand pump to operate the bellows, providing additional air to fuel the fire and reach a higher temperature.

The fire in the forge is fueled by coal. Since they started the forge, Alan and Gavin said they have learned about the physical properties of coal and how it burns.

Alan said that coal does not burn hot in the beginning because it has impurities. As it burns, coke is left behind. Coke burns much hotter because it is purer than the original lump of coal.

Traditional tales say getting a lump of coal for Christmas is a bad thing, but the 100-pound bag of coal Gavin received at Christmas will fuel his forge for a long time, he said.

“The first time we fired it up, we used the hand pump to provide the air for the fire,” Alan said. “He had me out here pumping for almost three hours. After that, we made a modification, and I hooked up a hose from the air compressor to provide the air.”

As the fall progressed, Gavin became proficient at operating the forge by himself. In his spare time, he can often be found in the farm shop working with the metal.

“I have been making a lot of different hooks for around the farm,” Gavin said. “I have been using old steel electric fence posts, but I’m starting to run out of those.”

While his hooks have been more utilitarian, Gavin has tried his hand at making more decorative designs by twisting the metal.

To work with the steel, Gavin said that he holds it in the fire until it is red hot and then uses a ball peen hammer to flatten and shape the hot metal.

“You can shape it until it starts to cool down, and then you have to put it back in the fire for it to get red hot again,” Gavin said. “The whole process just keeps repeating while you keep working toward what you want to make.”

An early lesson for Gavin was learning how long it takes for the metal to heat each time it is in the forge.

“If you leave it in too long, if it gets too hot, it will just melt and fall apart,” Gavin said. “The more you do it, the more you know how long to leave it in and how to turn it to get it to heat the way you want. The same (applies) with shaping it.”

Gavin and his dad traveled to Thorp Jan. 13 to attend the monthly meeting of the Badger Blacksmiths, where the pair said they learned more about the process.

“They talked a lot about the different kinds of hammers you can use and different techniques of swinging the hammer and how that makes a difference,” Gavin said.

The methodical practice and the ability to make something new from a piece of steel is what draws Gavin to blacksmithing.

“I like being able to make something like this,” Gavin said. “To be able to start with just a piece of steel and turn it into something completely new and useful is a lot of fun.”


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