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Blacksmithing Tips – What Type of Power Hammer is Right For Your Shop?
blacksmith hammer or travel hammer
If you’ve ever used a rotary hammer, you’ll see the world of forging through different eyes. Power hammers actually fall into 3 basic categories, hydraulic, mechanical, and pneumatic. They are all designed to increase the force you can apply to the steel. This means you can do more in a given amount of time, and do bigger jobs. Suddenly, this opens up a whole new creative reality in steel.
Haven’t used it in my shop, but I used it at another Smith’s a year ago. Hydraulic systems possess enormous power (literally) and can press metal into many different shapes very efficiently. They can be used for extremely controlled force applications, such as pressing steel into pre-forming dies, or cutting to specific lengths or angles, etc.
This is not an impact machine like a mechanical or air hammer, nor is it fast. It can be used to pull out steel, but it’s tedious. While this saves time on hand-painting and allows you to work on larger bars, I would drive myself crazy with this slow process.
Essentially, the machine is a hydraulic ram mounted on a frame with an electric pump. You use the foot controls to flatten the metal. Stepping exerts more force with the foot. Release the foot of the die back, then you can move the rod and apply force again at a different location.
There are several positive aspects to hydraulic presses. They have a small footprint and require no special foundations. The price of such tools is manageable. About $2000.00 in my area. This type of machine has no shock noise or vibration. The whine of a hydraulic pump can be loud, but it doesn’t annoy the neighbors like the pounding of a hammer. A press is rated for the tons of pressure the ram can produce. 20 ton, 40 ton and 60 ton are common sizes.
All mechanical hammers work on the same principle. The rotating crankshaft lifts the balanced weighted hammer head, then pushes it down on the second half turn. The attachments on other hammer heads have to be some sort of spring construction so that the shock is absorbed in the spring rather than the crankshaft. The counterweights take some of the stress off the motor.
Mechanical hammers have come in many different configurations over the years. Little Giants comes to mind, but it’s just a style. Others include Helve Hammers and others. Mechanical hammers are rated by hammerhead rate. So a 25 lb Little Giant has a 25 lb hammerhead weight. The heavier the head weight, the more steel you can work under it, but the bigger the motor you need to run it.
Things to consider. If your shop is in the open air but has no electricity, you can run a mechanical hammer with a small gasoline engine. A bit pricey, but compared to the amount of work you can get done this way, it’s probably worth it.
I’ve only used mechanical hammers a little bit, but a 1 hp motor can handle about 50 lbs of hammer head weight.
The beauty of a mechanical hammer is that it is relatively simple to build or maintain. The concept of movement is very simple and easy to understand in slow motion. Mechanical hammers were relatively common in industrial settings in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, so you might be able to find one in your area at a reasonable price. The downside is that parts may not be found and you may have to make your own.
You can also build your own mechanical hammer. This requires some tinkering, but makes for a good hammer very economically. They don’t take up much space. Small ones might be 2 feet by 3 feet. They are a bit noisy to run and there is a banging sound to them. They do need a good foundation, although a small one will do with a small foundation. They are somewhat limited by the tasks you can perform with them. If you get creative with your tools, you can still do a lot of work and save your arm.
My personal favourite. Air hammers were originally conceived as steam hammers for large industrial applications. Like mechanical hammers, they are rated by tip mass, which typically ranges from 50 lbs to 1200 lbs or more. At the upper end of the scale are large machines that require a large foundation to function properly. These are poems in motion, for viewing skilled Smith.
The principle behind an air hammer is very simple. The air pressure lifts the weighted hammer, then something changes the air pressure, the hammer drops under the air pressure, then lifts again. The air at the bottom of the cylinder acts as a cushion, replacing the spring in the mechanical hammer. This process creates cyclic hammering of the steel. Both the weight of the hammer head and the pressure of the air contribute to the force applied to the steel.
Most smaller blacksmithing shops use sizes from 50 lbs to 150 lbs. There are two subclasses of jackhammers you should know about. Self-contained and air compressor versions. Self-contained using two cylinders. One is the compressor cylinder, which is driven by an electric motor. This cylinder supplies air to the hammerhead cylinder. Thus, each upward stroke of the drive cylinder forces the hammerhead cylinder downward, and each downward stroke forces the hammerhead cylinder upward. Valves allow air to either be expelled or delivered to the hammerhead cylinder in varying amounts. This provides control over the stroke and force applied to the steel. The loop timing is controlled by the speed of the motor.
Air hammers that rely on an air compressor are sourced from a constant line pressure and have a feedback circuit built into the design. The hammer head moves up and triggers a switch that tells it to move down. Once it reaches a certain point of travel, another switch tells it to go back. The displacement determines the speed and force exerted on the steel.
While an air hammer may look a little more complicated than a mechanical hammer, it actually has fewer moving parts and less wear and tear. I find them more generic. You can adjust the stroke and strength by adjusting the foot pedals. With a mechanical hammer, you have to make mechanical adjustments to change the stroke height. Your power is controlled by impact speed or rotational speed.
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