News – Page 9 – Brant & Cochran

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Nick Rossi on Iron, Steel & Early American Axe Making

I traveled to bladesmith Nick Rossi’s Portland workshop recently to have him explain what metals were traditionally used in axe making in the United States from colonial times through the Civil War.  In addition to creating museum quality knives which you can view on his website, www.rossiknives.com, Nick is a frequent teacher at the New England School of Metalwork in Auburn, Maine, www.newenglandschoolofmetalwork.com.

Brant & Cochran:  So Nick when a lot of us laypeople talk about axes we say they are made out of iron or steel.  We often use those terms interchangeably. Which I know is wrong.  What is the difference between iron and steel?

Nick Rossi:  Iron is an element just like oxygen or sodium.  It is taken out of the ground in the form of iron ore which is simply a fancy word for a rock or soil from which iron can be extracted.  The iron in this ore is mostly bound with silicates which need to be removed to create usable iron.  Steel is just further refined iron – it is iron to which some carbon has been added through a chemical process.

B&C:  We know that the early American colonists made axes and other tools from the time they arrived in the 1600’s.  Where did they get the iron ore to make these tools?

NR:  One place they got it strangely enough was from bogs and ponds.  You have probably seen a spring or creek around which the surrounding ground has a reddish color.  That is the naturally occurring iron coming up through the ground.  Bogs sometimes have a high concentration of iron which is precipitated out by bacteria.  You can see the work of the bacteria from an oily film on the top of the water.  This precipitate became a source of the ore which the colonists used to produce usable iron for metalwork.

B&C:  How did they turn this bog mud into iron?

NR:  Through the bloomery process.  A bloomery is a chimney made out of clay or stone.  At the bottom of the chimney are pipes to allow air to flow into it to control the heat.  The bog ore is layered in the bloomery with charcoal and the whole thing heated.  The goal was not to melt all the bog ore but to create a gooey “bloom.”  The carbon monoxide from the burning charcoal reduces the oxides in the ore into metallic iron which falls into the bottom of the chimney and mixes with the impurities in ore called slag.  The bloom is then removed from the chimney and beaten with a hammer or “wrought” to remove the slag.  The result is usable wrought iron.

B&C: Then what is “cast” iron?

NR:   Unlike bloomery iron which leaves you with a glob of iron and slag that must be worked the cast iron process produces liquid iron.  The temperature of a bloomery was relatively low and so was the carbon content of the iron produced in one.  Cast iron was made in a blast furnace.  Into the top of the furnace iron ore, charcoal and a flux material such as oyster shells or limestone were mixed and heated to extreme temperatures by “blasting” air into the furnace.  The iron that was created from the blast furnace was usually around 2-4% carbon significantly higher than bloomery iron.

B&C:  Was this wrought or cast iron used for axes?

NR:  Usually for part of the axe.  Both wrought and cast iron are too brittle for the edge of an axe.  You wanted to have a steel bit which could be tempered.  To make good steel from wrought or cast iron before the 1850’s a puddling furnace was used.  In this furnace, the fire did not come directly into contact with the wrought or cast iron.  The heat was blown over the top of the iron lowering the carbon content of the iron.  A “puddler” would watch for the point when the de-carbonizing metal reached the desired quality and remove a ball of this puddled steel.   This puddling process continued until the invention of the Bessemer process in the 1850’s.

B&C:  So after making the iron you had to make steel. Sounds labor intensive.

NR:  Yes, this is why steel was so expensive and was just used for the bit of the axe.  You could use a softer iron or steel for the axe head, but the bit was a piece of welded steel welded.  The New England School of Metalwork offers a class on making an axe using this traditional two piece method.

B&C:  Sounds fun.  Thanks, Nick.

 

More information on pre-Civil War iron and steel production and tool making can be found at:

http://flintriflesmith.com/WritingandResearch/WebArticles/ironandsteel.htm

H.G. “Skip” Brack, Art of the Edge Tool: The Ferrous Metallurgy of New England Shipsmiths and Toolmakers 1607 - 1882 (Pennywheel Press, 2008)

Interview with Forester Fred Safford about Cruising Timber

I am sitting here with Fred Safford of Clear Lake Lumber in Spartansburg, PA. Fred you have “SAF” after your name on your business card.  What does that mean?

Fred Safford – It refers to my membership in the Society of American Foresters which is an organization made up of professional foresters. To maintain your membership, you have to keep up with continuing education credits through classes and seminars.

What do you do for Clear Lake Lumber?

FS - I am a procurement forester which means I contact landowners with the hopes of buying their timber. I then negotiate a sale and supervise the logging of the property to make sure it is done in a sustainable manner.

I hear the term “cruising timber” is that what you are doing?

FS - Cruising timber is just a fancy name for going out to measure trees. It refers to determining the number of board feet of lumber in a given area to come up with a value.  In Maine we use a sample plot method.  We will mark a specific area like a 1/5 of an acre and measure the height and diameter of trees we consider merchantable to then apply across the entire stand.  In Western New York and Pennsylvania where the acreages are smaller and timber more valuable we don’t sample the plots.  Instead, we measure every tree we are going to harvest.  Filson still makes a coat they refer to as a cruising jacket which originally was used by foresters to work in the woods.

[Cruisers at Cold Spring Ranger Station 1917 - Oregon State University Collections]

Is this also called blazing?

FS - No, blazing is a little different. It is marking property boundary lines.  An axe is use to carve out a slice of wood from a tree which gives you a flat surface to paint.  You can’t just paint the bark because in a few years it won’t be there.  By blazing the boundary marker lasts 12-14 years.

Do you use an axe when cruising timber?

FS - Yes. It is a multi-purpose tool when out in the woods.  If you are doing sample plots and taking a compass bearing you may need to clear out a sight line by using an axe to limb or cut brush.  You can use the poll of the axe to take a sounding on a tree trunk to determine if the tree is hollow and rotted.  Two weeks ago I was looking at some big cherry in Cattaraugus County, New York and I used an axe to chop into the trees to determine the quality of the wood.  In that instance I found the wood powdery meaning it had red rot and was thus worthless.  I also carry an axe in my truck because I am usually going into remote areas where I may need to clear out a tree over an access roadway. 

Why don’t you just use a chain saw?

FS - Because it is a pain to carry the gas, take it out of the case, and start it up just to use for a minute. Most of the time the trees laying across the roads are smaller anyways.

What is a “cruiser” axe?

FS - A cruiser axe is just a smaller axe. You don’t want to lug around a big axe when walking through the woods.  I can do all of the things I need to do while cruising timber with a smaller, lighter axe.  It also straps into my backpack easier.

So the axe is still an essential tool for today’s forester?

FS - I don’t know a single forester that does not have an axe in their truck at all times.

Thanks Fred!