Steel for Tools

This is an article that I wrote in 2009. I still feel the same about making tools and the steels used for them.  I wrote this thinking in regards to handwork, but have known several Blacksmiths who have used spring steels for treadle hammer tooling and mechanical trip hammers. Without further ado…

Thoughts on Blacksmithing in 2009

by Vince Nakovics


  I was braced the other day by yet another fellow Blacksmith enthusiast who insisted that I needed to get myself some S-7 and make my chisels and punches out of it. I asked him “Why? Do my chisels not cut my metal when I demand them to?”

   “But look at the work you can save” he replied.  “What work?” I said, “There’s less touch up of the edges and no re-tempering and they will last a long, long time” was his reply.

   I have a chisel that I made in my first Blacksmith class at John C. Campbell Folk School in 2000, under the guise of Don Witzler of Ohio. Now, I admit that this chisel sees does not see daily use at my personal forge, but I do use it, some might even say that I am somewhat hard on my tools. That would be a fair assessment. I expect my tools to do what I want them to do, when I want them to do it and push them to their limits. But, that’s another subject for another day. This chisel has only required re-sharpening two times and has needed to be re-tempered only once, both of these instances I knew would happen beforehand as I was doing an amount of cold work and long hot cuts. This work required me to re-sharpen my chisel twice and re-temper it once. Wow! That is a lot of extra work on my part. Just think, if I still smoked I probably could have smoked ½ a pack or one small cigar.  I might add that I actually do own a 3’ x 5/8” and a 3’ x 3/4 “ round bar of S-7 that I purchased in a weak moment early on in my Blacksmithing to make a few chisels and punches. I have yet to be motivated enough to make them, so the Round Bar sits waiting patiently for their time to be made into a mighty tool.

   It could be that I just don’t get it. I find that one of the things I enjoy most about Blacksmithing is taking something and making something else out of it, to make that same item usable in a new or similar form. It happens to fall into our politically correct culture that we can claim to be recycling, but that’s not the reason that I rummage through piles of cutoffs and waste parts at the local dump or machine shops. Nooo, it’s not. I do it for the pleasure of making something unique, different and to bring a new life to something old.

   I find that I cringe more and more every time I hear of the Deity like properties of the mighty steels called S-7 and H-13. You cannot do without them if you are going to be a professional! Heck, why make them, just buy them! Look at the time you will save and you will be able to marvel at the mystical properties of the mighty Steels that you have in your chisels and punches. Aha, yes they may be superior in many senses, but at the end of the day, the can of water you needed to dip your spring made chisels will be there day after day, year after year and if you should break or wear out one of those horrid chisels made from the dreaded and troublesome spring steel, you will have to rummage around and find another length, straighten it out, normalize (or anneal), shape it, normalize it again, heat it, quench it, and then temper it, all over again. My, oh my, what work!

   If you had only used the Glorious and Mystical S-7, you could still be chiseling and punching away, Oh! My! What joy!

   Now don’t get me wrong here. Obviously S-7 is better steel for chisels and punches, but when you are starting out look at what you learn from using the scourge of the junkyard; drawing, spreading, inspection (stress cracks), normalizing/annealing, quenching techniques and finally tempering. Of course don’t let us forget that we learn to sharpen and dress the chisel & punch that we made from a twisted old car/truck spring, that cost us next to nothing. This poor excuse of a chisel or punch might only last for 9 years or so. The horror of it all!

   There are many professional Smiths out there who for years promoted the use of car & truck springs as all that is necessary for Smiths who know the skills necessary to make their own tools. And maybe that’s the rub for me. I was initially drawn in and then had those ideas reinforced over and over by both fellow enthusiasts and professional Smiths of some notoriety. “The Springs from Cars & Trucks make excellent tools! And look at the skills that you learn for next to nothing.” 

    Well I am sure that there will be some fellow Smiths in our communities that will disagree feverishly. To them I can only say, I choose to spend my money on other things that will make my work easier. The hour or so that I spend making a chisel or punch is well worth revisiting the skills required and I always feel a sense of accomplishment when I am done.

     S-7! H-13! Are Not Necessities! Good Chisels and Punches are necessities and these can be from many other sources. The obvious and maybe the most commonly used source being the Lowly Car and Truck Spring. Three Cheers for Car Springs!



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