What’s It?

At gatherings of blacksmiths, a frequent feature is the “What’s It?” display. In this display are tools from old shops, many of which were individually made by smiths to perform specific jobs. Sometimes the tool in the “What’s It?” display is so specialized and idiosyncratic that the smiths at the gathering have a great time trading ideas about how this tool could have worked.

Special tooling is required for almost everything we make in our shop and can range from a jig for braced, driven catches to a die used under a fly press to shape latch keepers. Although our individualized tools may not stump any future gatherings of blacksmiths, they are essential to our accurate reproduction of hardware.

What’s It? Gauges for setting the stop on the blacksmith’s helper tool. The blacksmith’s helper makes the indentations that set off the mass that will be a cusp from the mass that will be the handle when we forge latches. These gauges let us set the stop so that we get the same amount of mass for the cusps and handle every time. We use the gauges pictured in making bean latches and bars. Other gauges are used when we forge heart or ball and spear styles.

What’s It? It’s not hard to guess the purpose of these slot-cutting tools used to cut the slots in latches. The bolster in the middle of the picture supports the red-hot latch as George cuts the slot using the specially-shaped chisel on the left. He drives the drift shown on the right into the slot to make the hole the correct size and to refine it. Successful slot cutting depends largely on the skill of the blacksmith.

What’s It? A design stamp. Most of the forging of bars for Suffolk latches, after initial delineation by the blacksmith’s helper tool, is done without special tooling. The exception is at the end of the forging, when we use this tool to stamp a design element onto the bar near the cusp. To make this tool, we created the desired design on a piece of tool steel. A bar of mild steel was driven, while extremely hot, onto the piece of tool steel, creating a negative impression of the stamp. This bar (on the left in photo) is the tool we’ve used over the years for stamping the design onto each latch bar. The bar seen on the right is the tool-steel master used to stamp the tool when it was made.

What’s It? This tool has two uses. The slot is the same size as the slot in a latch. We insert the drawn-out thumber into the slot to make sure the dimensions are true after we have forged it from short and round to long and rectangular, as you see it in the bottom of the picture. Later in the process, when we’ve shaped the thumb press and given the tail its final curves, the tool is used again. This time the hot thumber is held by the slot while we tweak it with pliers until the thumbpress is aligned with the tail, straight and pleasing.

What’s It? These templates we’ve cut from 20-gauge brass are essential in forging cusps to the right size and shape. George runs a silver pencil around the slightly-undersized contour to draw onto the anvil a shape for comparison when we forge cusps. After the cusps are forged and cool, he again draws the template’s contours, this time directly onto the cusp. He’ll then remove excess material by grinding or filing. Each cusp is the same as each other cusp, but no two are exactly alike.

Our most fundamental specialized tools are our notebooks. Hundreds of decisions are involved in making each item. What size stock do we begin with? What is the sequence of steps? What is the correct heat for this step? What is the most efficient hammer to use? What angle of blows works here? Could a different jig or tool produce better results? Our notebooks help us make products for Horton that have a certain size and shape and are regular in appearance and finish, to match the examples shown in the print catalog and online. Our notebooks allow us to refresh ourselves when we make something we haven’t made for a period of time. As our understanding of the process grows, we revise and add to the knowledge contained in our notebooks.

The page shown here is a part of George’s notes on making a bean Suffolk latch. To see how involved the process can be, see How to Make a Hand-Forged Latch.

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