Fly Press Tooling

Posted: December 17, 2015 in Uncategorized

It has been a busy summer and fall. We have been working on wildfires and prescribed burning projects, but things have finally calmed down enough to get some metal work done. I am making texturing dies for the fly press, mainly from 1045 medium-carbon shafting – 1″ round bar.

Most of the dies are worked hot, and then finished on a metal lathe. Others are done completely on the lathe. Most of these tools will be used on hot metal.


These were cut with the lathe, and then hardened using a brine quench.


Some are hand-filed or cut on the lathe and then forged.97




The flower is built from rods and hand-filed. Negative was faced on lathe.99

Next step – using these for some projects.

Fly Press

Posted: February 28, 2015 in Uncategorized

We just got a new tool set up in the shop. It is a 1930s Norton Fly Press, made in England.
We are using it to make tooling, and will be using it to forge hot and cold iron.
Here are a few first experimentations using it to form blocks of hot steel into rounding dies, and a make hot-cut hardy chisel from a jackhammer bit.

Some tooling that we’ve made for it so far:

Kitchen Tools

Posted: November 20, 2014 in metalwork
Tags: , , , ,

Into gift season, and it is also the time of year that we usually get a goat from my brother up in the hills. Breaking the carcass down to quarters is pretty straightforward, but when it came time to cut through the spine, all I had at hand was a boys axe.

I thought that I could do better.
Here is a functional carbon-steel cleaver crafted from scrap.

Blade is cut from 1080 high-carbon steel, from an old tractor disc. Full-tang handle.

Textured using handmade punches I made last fall

Walnut handle made from local wood, rivets are 16d nails. Finish is beeswax and pine pitch, from some boot grease that my brother learned how to make in Alaska.

My five year old asked if it is sharper than his axe, and if we can chop trees with it. It is very sharp, and heat treated to hold an edge.

An eye to hang, and hammered texture.


Here is a smaller one, a little more manageable.


This one is the first thing that we have made using the large rivets. They are known as ‘Loveless Bolts’, and we made them from common 5/16″ bolts.


Next project, a general-purpose kitchen knife. This blade started its life as part of a massive bandsaw in the Collins Pine sawmill in Chester, California. After we got our hands on it, I cut out a knife blank, ground it to this shape, textured the blade, and then hardened and heat-treated it before final grinding.


The handle is made from some local sycamore wood that I found at the ReStore here. It was very heavy, kind of a mystery-chunk. I ripped it into strips and used it for trim on some shelves, used a leftover scrap for this project. I gave it to my folks to replace the 40 year-old wedding present knife that they got from my grandmother. I like the rough texture on the handle, and am looking forward to seeing it age.

Wildland firefighting – an iron-age culture of backcountry ditch-diggers – has folklore borne of 50,000,000 hours of tool time. Young rookies must learn to keep their tool sharp and swing it safely all summer. Tool maintenance is reliable winter work for the fulltimers, many of whom learn to grind and weld. Wildfire stations usually have a metal shop, and over time, crews in each region have developed custom tools that work well in their particular fuel-type. Losing your tool is a serious ‘crew-foul’.

The clearest memories I have of seasonal work with the Forest Service all include tools: The sense of LOOT! upon seeing a jumble of beat-up, hand-me-down fire tools in the forestry cache at Bogard, Larry Vogan giving us hell for sharpening our Pulaskis without gloves on, Cedric accidentally throwing his machete at me, sharpening my Pulaski every 10 minutes while chopping ceanothus and on rocks along the Deerheart trail, or the public shaming I got when I stuck my Pulaski into a stump, sharp-end up, thinking it a clever way to hold it for sharpening.


I just got back from 10 days on the Klamath River Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX), where about 40 of us practiced putting good fire on the ground, reducing hazardous wildfire fuels and restoring oak and conifer forests with a torch. Half the group were new firefighters. We were too busy lighting the woods on fire to talk much about tools, so it was kind of a free-for-all – we just grabbed tools off of the fire engines, or from the back of a pickup, but few of us had our own tools. I loaned out a nice McLeod and someone tried to use it as an axe, broke the handle.

The intention of the TREX program is to build local capacity for using fire to manage forested landscapes (how did the government come to own fire on the ground)? A decentralization of fire management empowers local communities to engage with fire on their own terms, but it also requires a level of thrift not common in our current fire culture. A set of personal protective equipment (fireproof clothes, a fire shelter, hardhat, and boots) can easily cost $1,000. A good radio can cost over $1,000, a fire rake costs over $100, a Pulaski fire axe is $80.

Luckily the Nature Conservancy showed up with a big stash of loot for us to use, but part of building a sustainable fire stewardship culture must include a means to equip a large number of backwoods restorationists with the tools that they need to do the work.


Tools are also important for leaning on.


This unit was so steep that most of the time I was using my McLeod as an ice-axe or a crampon.

A 20 person fire crew is a machine, designed to chop fireline 12 hours a day. Each person takes a whack at the ground and steps forward – ‘bump and lick’ – repeat. On our burning projects, smaller groups of people worked on a wide variety of tasks. A day’s work might include chopping fireline, putting in a hoselay, pruning branches, scraping moss off of an oak tree, running a drip torch, throwing some dirt on a hot spot, pulling back litter from the base of a large tree, scratching line around a slop-over, or mopping up a smouldering snag. There is a lot of solo work.

Working on the Klamath I had a few complaints about the different tools I was using.

  • Pulaski axe is great for chopping branches and grubbing brush, but the handle is too short for a long guy like me to use for very long.
  • A shovel is good for throwing dirt or cleaning up after a bunch of line-builders with Pulaskis, but not very effective for chopping fireline in rocky oak litter.
  • A normal McLeod fire rake is great for moving leaf litter, but lacks the heft to chop out brush or limb small trees, and the handle could be longer.
  • I got to use a Rogue Hoe for a while, but it also has a short handle, is pretty heavy, and is not very well balanced.
  • Combi-tools are great for mop-up, but not much else.

Now that fire season is finally on hiatus, I got back into the shop this week with a notion to prototype a multi-purpose fire tool that works for my body, and the Klamath mixed evergreen/conifer forests. Here is a first prototype of a mini-McLeod fire rake. Made from recycled tractor plow disc (which is actually high-quality ‘1080’ tool steel), it is designed to rake, scrape, limb, and grub.


I was hoping to find a shape that would yield 4 blanks from a single disc, but this design only yields 2. After layout, I cut the rough shape with a plasma cutter and cleaned it up with a grinder.


My favorite toolmaking projects require making more toolmaking tools. This jig is a bottom die for crimping the teeth of the rake. It goes under a 65# treadle hammer – you place the yellow-hot tool blank onto this, center each rake tooth on the jig, and then drive a fuller hammer down onto it.


The initial blank seemed much too heavy – the disc is pretty thick – so I chopped the top half way down, then got it yellow-hot in the forge and crimped the teeth using the tool above.


The hole is for the handle/socket to go thru for welding on both sides. The top edge is sharpened for whacking branches and chopping brush. The sides are ground for scraping.


Heating a piece of pipe in the gas forge to use in making the handle socket.


Tapering the handle socket on another custom tool made for this particular job – a cone mandrel made from lengths of round bar and old bolts. The cone mandrel has a 1″ solid shank on it that plugs into the hardie hole on the anvil.


Finished tool with handle installed and thru-bolted. The blade is 1080 tool steel while the collar is plain/mild steel. When you weld tool steel, you have to preheat it to a cherry-red color either with a forge or torch. I tacked the collar into place, and then got both blade and collar red hot, and used 6011 rod in an arc welder to weld both sides of the joint. It is also good practice to draw a blue temper on the tines and cutting edge.


The handle is an off-the-shelf hoe handle, with a tapered end – you could substitute local hardwood if you have it.


Back it down, nice and easy. ^This is good McLeod ground. I am looking forward to trying this thing out.

The Broadfork

This is a non-forged, toolmaking project that I did a few years ago for some local farmer friends. Farming is another tool culture, and though I have less of a personal connection to farming, we like getting ‘custom’ for our homies, and they paid us in good food.


Broadforks are used for turning garden beds. You use the weight of your body to drive them into the ground and pull the handles back to turn the soil over.


While both the fire tool and broadfork projects used 100% salvaged steel and plasma cutting, the creative process was much different, and this one felt a lot less organic. Where the layout for the fire tool project used soapstone and a ruler, I designed the tines for the broadfork in Adobe Illustrator and had them cut locally on a robotic plasma table. The hardest part of the fire tool project was tapering a chunk of red hot metal with a hammer and a hokey homemade jig; the hardest part of this project was converting an Illustrator file to a DXF format that the robotic-cutter could understand. Many hours wasted, with little to show for it. I don’t believe that any time spent working with red hot metal is ever wasted. If I had to do this project again, I wouldn’t remember the file conversion steps, and it would cost me another day at the computer. No muscle-memory to be built behind a keyboard…


Tines cut, ready to weld.


Jigging up the tines for MIG welding.


Ready for handles. I used ash 2×2’s, and rounded them with drawknife and block plane.


The finished tool. It worked alright, but since we didn’t use tool steel for the tines, they are prone to bending, and it isn’t very good for hard packed or rocky soil. There is another tool company in town that makes nice broadforks. They have a nice shop and a steady crew. Theirs cost $200 – they are pretty nice. I don’t think we’ll be building a broadfork factory any time soon.

One of my favorite things about springtime in Chico is knowing that our wild Chinook Salmon are making their way up our local creeks.

I met the fish in the late 1990s when my friend Eric – who was living in Helltown, in Butte Creek Canyon – got me surveying work in the Upper Butte Creek Watershed. He invited me over to his place to swim with the fish, and I have never been the same since.


Poolfull of Spring Run Chinook, 15 miles from Chico.


The fish navigate the crazy hydrology that is the Sacramento Valley, swimming thru the Golden Gate and SF Bay, thru the Delta and up the Sacramento River, turning right into a canal that parallels a huge flood control bypass, past some gates that spill Butte Creek into a different part of the Sac. River near Colusa, thru duck clubs in swamps near the Sutter Buttes, between levees through rice fields South of Durham, over cobblefields leftover from hydraulic mining and gold dredging, and then into the tranquility and shade of Butte Creek Canyon.


Some old friends have a place in Helltown overlooking the pool where the top two photos were taken, and over the years, they have introduced hundreds of people to the fish, and done an enormous amount of lobbying, politicing, and activism to help improve the odds for the fish. They asked if I could make them a metal Chinook Salmon and matching address sign for their place, and I finally had time this week to finish the project.




Holding in the Shade

Pectoral Fin


Wanted the sign to match the fish



Industrial scrap, with reflective road sign surpus that I found years ago at a fabulous crafting store in Durham, North Carolina



Hammered scrap pipe


Texture from custom punches


Bullet holes for local flavor


Picked up some industrial scrap in the form of discs that are left over when holes are laser-cut into plate steel. I wanted to make a candle holder/altar that can hold 3 large candles, so I made a couple of dies for the treadle hammer to use to shape the hot discs into bowl shapes.



Final product




I had another unfinished piece that was the result of an experiment to hot-twist multiple bars of steel rod and rebar using an impact wrench, so I cut that in half, and untwisted the open end to make a sort of tree candelabra.


The top candleholder was sort of a ‘happy mistake’. I heated a 2.5″ disc and used punches and a ball peen hammer to texture it, then heated it again and used a large ball peen under the treadle hammer to press it down into a cut-off piece of 2″ pipe. It wanted to fold along the textured edge, and I love the way it worked itself out.



Wasn’t happy with the clunky welds where the base meets the stem, so I added roots with a MIG welder and they looked like – welds… So I ground them down, like them much better. The grinding pops out the decorative punchwork, too.





New Fire Hose Tool Bags

Posted: February 6, 2014 in Uncategorized

Just made a couple of fire hose tool bags for our friend Dave Richer at Earthen Iron. They do ornamental metalwork and custom forgings, and need to lug a bunch of hammers, chisels, and clunky tools around to their various jobsites, and the old milk crate wasn’t cutting it anymore.

We made them two 6×20″ bags out of indestructible fire hose that nest inside of their rolling tool chest. One bag is going to be used for hammers and punches, the other for small tools. The small-tools bag has pockets for pens, small chisels, and bits.

These bags are 99% recycled. The only new material in them is the thread. $80/apiece or 2 for $150. Email us.


We’ve had some time in the shop between mapping projects lately, and have been burning some coal and propane, forging tools from salvaged metal. I’ve had help/coaching from friends Paul Lackovic, Dave Richer, Anthony Branner, and Brad Hauskens. Here are some of the things that we have made, and the source of the material.


Kitchen knife from Collins Pine Sawmill blade.


Alligator snout, from railroad spike.


Bottom fuller tool (for rounding/shaping hot metal on anvil), from old pickaxe eye.


Bottom fuller tool (for rounding square stock), from farm disc axle.


Cutoff hardy tool – for cutting hot bar stock – from scrap of 1.5″ square bar.


Detail in decorative hook, from railroad spike.


Steel jewelry tray, 2×4″ from industrial scrap. textured using punches, below.



Change basket/small bowl, from industrial scrap, textured with punches, below.



Decorative/texturing punches, made with carbon steel recycled from tools including pickaxe blade, old rock drill bit, and old cold chisel.



I went to see my friend Lewis and dig through his scrap piles over the weekend. Here is one of the meanest looking pair of snips I have ever seen.


‘Flatter’ hammer used for flattening hot metal. Made from old sledgehammer and part of an old splitting maul.


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Decorative twists in a handles made from railroad spikes.


‘Cross Pien’ sledgehammer made from 10 lb. splitting maul.

Even though steel prices are high and lots of old stuff is getting melted down to make new, poorly-made Chinese crap, there is a lot of good, high-quality tool steel around, and we are looking for ways to recycle it into tools and art.

I have been lucky to spend some time in some great metalworking shops this year, and have learned a lot from the generous people in these photos.


A jig for clamping hot metal in a post vise at an angle so you can work it hands-free – @Earthen Iron


David searching for a part in his van-based storage system


A kitchen knife we made from part of an old sawmill blade with a baseball-bat ash handle

Somewhere in South Chico

Consignment auction in Chico

Old iron in Portland

Dave Richer and Anthony at Earthen Iron bending up a custom stair railing for a hair salon.
I like the scaled-out template on the concrete floor

Their finished product

Forging night at Earthen Iron

Dave and Brent Bailey at the coal forge

Metalworkers social

Heavy sculpture in progress at Earthen Iron

Some basic tools

Preparing an exhaust hood for our forging area from reclaimed nut-drying ductwork

Starting point of a coal forge blower rebuild, c. 1901.

Champion Forge Blower guts, just needed some oil, cleaning, and $5 worth of loose 1/4″ bearings.

Champion Forge Blower frame and tuyere, it needed new legs

A new burner for the forge, some sort of old hub.

Nena Creasy, Klamath River metal sculptress

A collage

There’s a heart in there

Hand forged hooks in Nena and Max’s kitchen

The beginnings of a firepan for the coal forge, an International Truck wheel and hub.

Firepan, step 2. a custom base plate to fit it on the tuyere of the original blower.

Anthony texturing straps for gate hinges on the power hammer

Oak chair parts > forging hammer handle

Rake becomes pound-in key hooks

Richer’s gas forge

Rake becomes key hook or cellphone shelf

Anthony laying out a railing

Firepan, step 3

The refurbished forge, complete

Forge, in action

First tool out of the new coal forge

Hatchet made from old hammer head

J. and David Irle, South Chico, with 58 years of accumulated materials

Anthony and Dave at the forge. There has been a blacksmiths shop on this property since the late 1800s.

Anthony practicing his decorative twists on an old railroad spike

Looks about right

Improvised anvils were getting old

Broken anvil found in a junkyard and purchased by the pound. Made in England in the 1800s.

The broken top cleaned up well, and without the missing tail, it still weighs 200#

Got a 24″ Valley Oak stump from an arborist friend to put it on, together they weigh about 500#

Decorative twists in railroad spikes

Drawknives made from car leaf springs

Handles from an old axe handle, ferrules from 3/4″ copper pipe couplers


New-Old Xtracycle Bag

Posted: April 23, 2013 in Uncategorized

Just finished a four-year-old project.

I started on a pair of leather bags for my bike back in 2009, but somehow only ended up finishing one of them. The basic panel for this one sat in a milk crate under a spare industrial sewing machine motor and some other hemp Xtracycle panels that we cut in 2011(?)

I think that reason that I only made one back in 2009 was that these bags are deceptively complicated, and the first one took so long. I forget about this until somebody finds a picture of one of our bags online and sends me a custom order like this one. Then I say that I can do it for $200 and it takes me 20 hours. Man, they are a lot of work.

I was feeling it yesterday, though, and had a little time in the shop with Penny Lee and KZFR. I wanted to make a new one that incorporated the tweed and leather style that we have been toying with for our new handlebar bags. The tweed is backed with heavy-duty cordura packcloth.

One reason that the bags take so long is that we build a separate suspension/harness out of seatbelt webbing that distributes the load across the whole panel – I was worried that if we just used leather, that the loops that go over the top of the Xtracycle frame would stretch or sag – you can see the harness as 2 lines of horizontal stitching about 3 inches down from the top.

Another reason I quit on the last one was that our walking foot machine wasn’t working very well, and it kept choking right in the middle of each line of decorative stitching. Unlike nylon or other textiles, if you blow a line of stitching in leather, when you pull the thread, you are stuck with a bunch of holes in the fabric that don’t rub out – you have to start over. The main panels for these bags use 9 square feet of leather each, so mistakes are expensive, or you just have to live with them. Leather is fairly heavy but so are Xtracycles! These bags probably weigh more than some road bikes, but we aren’t weight Nazis around here – we’d rather look cool. Also, Chico is flat.

I sure like rivets.

The straps are military-surplus cam buckles. One day a guy showed up at our house with a shoebox full of them (about 80). He said ‘Some of your friends from Westwood go you our church and they told us about you, do you have a use for these?’ They are great. Thanks Larry and Seren! I have been liking having tie-downs for ratchet straps and bungees, so we added extra loops to the webbing that holds the buckles, and ask some sewn loops between each buckles.

Inside pocket with snaps.
We can make you a pair, but it might take us a few years to finish them.