While I was at Elvaston Castle at the weekend I got to talking with Mark Constable of the Al Fresco forge. Mark was demonstrating lighting a fire using a flint and steel, making it look easier than lighting a match and at the same time explaining how it works. Pay attention now, here comes the science:
Turns out, iron is pyrophoric which means that it spontaneously ignites in the presence of air! Of course, it doesn’t normally do this while I’m working because the surface area of my axe is too small compared to it’s mass. To make it ignite you need to make tiny particles which then burn (actually they rust but it’s the same thing). Why weren’t we told this in school?
So the way to make tiny particle of iron is to knock them off a bigger lump using something hard like a piece of flint. Now iron on its own is too soft to chip off so the iron is hardened by mixing in carbon to make steel, heating up that lump and cooling it very quickly (still with me?). Now when you hit the hardened steel tiny flakes of hardened steel are chipped off into the air where they oxidise and burst into tiny flames. That’s a spark and, for me anyway, it’s even more magical now I know the science behind it.
Anyway, Mark & I then got talking and he explained how he’d wanted a trade where all the tools could be carried around in a small box. He studied to be a jewellry maker and discovered certain techniques (namely damascus and mokume gane) that led him to become a blacksmith. Several years into a successful career he suddenly thought ‘Hang on, what happened to the idea of the tiny tool box?’ Since then Mark’s scaled back, from a 5 tonne truck to a van, to a hatchback and now he’s considering making ‘Only stuff which fits in my pocket and that I can make in a day.’ This is something that definitely rings true for me with my own work as it’s all too easy to accumulate more and more tools in the aim to make the work faster, easier or accomplish more complicated projects. In the end though, I’ve always been most impressed by craftspeople who can make with the simplest tools and find that, by having fewer tools, not only do you become more expert in their use but the limitation becomes a source of inspiration in my making. As Mark poses on his website, if you could only have one tool which would it be?
I was so mesmerised by the sparks demo and our chat that I completely forgot to take any photos so I hope Mark won’t mind me using some of his.
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