Archive for the ‘toolmaking’ Category

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.





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


We are putting on a tool repair and maintenace workshop next Friday for Cultivating Communities North Valley. CCNV’s mission is to:
…increase food security by serving the … needs of low-income residents, local growers, and service agencies.

Getting invited to ‘perform’ for an event like this makes me mull what it is that we have that is worth sharing, so here are some thoughts on tools and repair in a story about one small project.

Repair is about knowing: how the broken object functions, why it broke, what the broken part is made of, and which tools and materials to use to make a replacement part. You could take it one step further and say that if you take good care of your tools, you won’t have to fix them.

I don’t think of repair as a skill set – I think of it as a living expression of culture. It is in our collective DNA. Our ancestors were handy people who knew how to repair things because that was what you did if something broke. Repair is not dead in our culture – Google ‘Repair Iphone screen’ and you will get 106,000,000 results.

Our accumulated knowledge. Hand-written sheet metal pattern book from mid-20th century.

The knowledge to fix ANYTHING mechanical exists here in our community.

We can even fix things when we have no idea what they do.

And the raw materials are here too.

My dad grew up on a wheat farm about 20 miles from the nearest hardware store. Like most farmers they were poor – my Grandpa was born in a sod-roofed dirt shack dug into the prairie. Nothing was ever thrown away, but in1956, they went broke, auctioned off all of their equipment (most of it still owned by the Bank), and moved to a Hayward, California suburb. My Grandpa became a builder, as his father had been, and spent the next 20 years putting up big buildings in the Bay Area. My dad became a builder too. Grandpa started a new bonepile, bringing home leftover screws and bolts, nails, boxes of tile, and hinges from the various jobs they did. A lot of it went into a house he built, but eventually we inherited all of that booty, and bits and pieces are still finding their way into our projects.

The bonepile. I used some of this stuff today to fix a trowel.

Time is the only thing that we really have, and I think we need to renegotiate our relationship with it. I’d rather spend an hour in the shop than an hour going to Home Depot. The idea that it is cheaper to buy a new shovel when the handle breaks only pencils out your only choice is to either buy a $10 handle or new piece-of-shit $12 shovel. If your original shovel is of high-quality (Made in the USA, England, Germany, or somewhere other than China), by all means you should fix it – you may never find a better one from here on out, and the satisfaction that you get from doing the job will come back to you every time that you use the tool.

First question – Is this tool worth fixing? If you have a cheap Chinese garden fork with tines that keep bending, the answer is probably no – you will just end up with a shitty tool with a nice handle. I got this broken garden fork in an auction for $2. It was intact, but the handle was badly cracked. It was forged in the USA – this is a quality tool, made from good carbon steel. If the person who had this before me was able to crank on it hard enough to break the handle without bending the tines, that is also a good sign that they are solid.

Another thought about my Grandad’s generation – in the early 1940s, steel scrap prices were high, and trains came through Montana loading up all of the old tractors, plows, and scrap. It was all sold to Japan, which used the steel to militarize their country in preparation for WWII. During the war my Grandma and Grandpa were both employed at the Alameda Naval Air Station repairing shot-up airplanes from the Pacific Theatre. My Grandpa said that he couldn’t help but wonder if the guns that did the damage were made from his old tractors.

Recycling is a losing proposition. Scrap prices are high now too, and the high-quality tool that you haul to the dump or scrap yard will go to China (for sure) and come back as a disposable shovel, or something else of lesser value than what it is now. Also, instead of turning our good steel into guns, the Chinese are turning our good steel into USA debt, which we seem to be happy to exchange for garbage. Good tools are a resource to our community, and Nation. Don’t throw them away.

Baseball bats are a great source of handle stock. They are premium-grade hardwood, selected for their tight grain and lack of knots. This trowel needed a new handle, so I shaved the butt-end of a bat down to fit within the ferrule (metal band) salvaged from a broken rake (thanks Bonepile). This bat was $1 at a yard sale.

I flattened the side of the bat with a sharp hatchet, and scribed the shape of the old handle socket onto the bat. Used the hatchet for all of the rough shaping of the new handle.

Carpenter’s hatchet with a flat face – kept razor sharp, kind of like a big chisel on a stick. Here the handle has it’s rough shape, and is ready for smoothing with a block plane.

Used an electric drill and chisel to prepare a hole in the handle end for the bar on the fork – the drill was the only electric tool used on the project.

I used a center punch to tap a small pilot hole to guide a drill bit into the center of the rivet, and then drilled the head off of the rivet.

Using a drift punch to remove the rivets from the old T-handle.

New handle shaped, fitted to the original socket, and hammered onto the fork.

A simple job using these simple tools.
Block plane
Hammers and punches
Crescent wrench

It still needs a piece of wood for the cross-piece on the T-handle, better find another bat.

We just had a batch of handlebar racks made here in town. Dave Richer at Earthen Iron sent over these pictures of the process.
You can check our our new Tweed Handlebar Bags this weekend in Chico at the Bizarre Bazaar, Saturday and Sunday at the Womens Club.


Going to have some new sorts of goods for sale at the Bizarre Bazaar in 2 weeks.  Spring cleaning!  Gathering random metal for years and finally have time to recycle it.  Rice harvester teeth and lug wrenches become flowers; metal rings and combine chain, yard bling.  Old garden tools are new garden tools, and Erika is sewing leather and finishing bag projects that I’ve stalled on.  If you have broken old garden tools that you want to recycle, hit us up: