I was visiting my sister in the autumn of 2016. She has a bit of landjust outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, so I asked her if I could build a furnace and do some casting there. I’ve built plenty of pit furnaces, so this time I wanted to build one that was above ground and a bit more visible. It would also mean that no one would trip and fall if they forgot where I put the thing.
The first task was to get the basic materials: Clay, Sand, and Horse Manure.
I thought that the clay would be the biggest hurdle. However my sister’s neighbour happened to be a sculptor who works in both iron and ceramics. She went to her regular clay supplier and got a couple feed sacks full of dried clay for free. Potters who work at wheels, or work with students end up with a lot of clay that is scraped off of workbenches and wheels that is hard to re-use. It often has a mixed consistency, it’s lumpy or part dried. If they want to use the clay again, it has to be reconditioned. So, they take their sacks of scrap back to the place where they buy the clay and pay to have it put through the mill. Since it’s not really usable, some potters are willing to just give it away. So thanks to Liz Fritzsche, who does amazing and beautiful work in porcelain, I was able to get started.
I threw some of the dried clay into a five gallon bucket and poured in enough water to cover the clay and let it sit. It was squishy and workable in a few hours. Next up was locating horse manure. A friend of a friend has horses, and they were grateful to have someone who would haul away a couple of barn buckets full of manure. The final bit was the sand. My sister did have some beach sand that she’d bought for the garden, but I was more fascinated by the soil there. Her land is in the old Rio Grande River Valley, and the soil is a mixture of silty sand and a little clay that had been pounded to a powder. The soil was almost the consistency of dust. It mixed in perfectly and later I found the mixture was highly resistant to cracking.
The ingredients were mixed with some water, stomped, and the proportions were adjusted until it was perfect. New Mexico is a lot drier than England, so I ended up adding more water than usual as I worked. It was also nice knowing that it was unlikely for any rain to fall while I was working.
The silt/clay/dung mixture made a durable clay, and after I flew back to Minneapolis, I was please that the crucibles and moulds I packed in my check-in luggage survived airport handling.
The furnace walls are about 8 cm wide (about the width of my palm) and the inside diameter is about 25 cm in diameter. I let it dry for a couple days and then moved it over to an unused area behind a greenhouse where I would have more room to work. I set a small fire with cottonwood branches, fed it for a couple hours, and then let it die out overnight.
We all like to put some decoration on our furnaces. My students have done everything from dragons to turtles to cats. I had been thinking about doing some decorations imitating the local petroglyphs, but as I was working it just seemed natural to do a portrait of Mavis, my sister’s exuberant German Shepherd.
Finally I adjusted the mix to have a bit more of the silty sand and horse dung to make the teapot stand and crucibles. For more information about teapot stands and how they work in furnaces, check out my article on the Umha Aois website here.
Later I added more water to make the slip for dipping waxes in for the first stages of mould making. The silt made a wonderfully fine mould that picked up all the details. Honestly, this mix was as good as jeweller’s investment for picking up detail.
I had some cracking on the upper part of the furnace, and noted that the part that cracked was where I used the commercial sand. The silty New Mexico soil held up much better. If it weren’t so heavy (and probably not allowed) I would have hauled bags of the soil on the plane home to use for more projects.
Both Mavises performed very well (Mavis the Dog is into barrel racing and advanced obedience classes). I’ll be interested to see how it holds up over the winter. Winters in New Mexico tend to be mild, so I’m hoping that the Mavis furnace will be available for friends in Albuquerque to use for some time to come.
Sometimes you just need a new pair of shoes. I’d been wanting to make some of the replica shoes I’d seen online. there are a few good sites where you can find patterns and step by step tutorials.
Kelticos has a number of different patterns that you can download.
I followed the instructions on this site. It goes step by step and practically no-fail. I however am a bit more cautious and rather start with the leather I made a pattern out of brown paper.
Once I was confident that I had a good fit with the paper pattern, I bought the leather that I needed. One thing that few sites describe is the type and weight of leather needed. I bought some cow leather that was supple, but not stretchy from Cox Leather in Albuquerque. The place is an amazing resource for hides, rawhide, leather, skins, and really anything leather related. They also ship!
Leather thickness in the US is measured by the ounce, and in mm in Europe. The leather I bought was about 8 oz / 3.2 mm / 1/8 inch thick.
Once I traced the pattern on the leather, I cut the shoes out using good sharp scissors and punched the holes for lacing with an awl. It’s important to use an awl or punch rather than cutting the hole with a scissors since a round hole pushed through the leather is less likely to tear than a hole that is cut.
I stitched up the backs with sinew. I followed the directions and stitched the sides of the heel to the heel tab straight up. It ended up a little loose. When I get the time I’ll restitch them so they come in a little tighter on the top. Another modification will be to put more of a sole on them. Some options are to cut an insole out of rawhide and sew it between the inside of the sole with another, softer leather insole on top. I might line it with some sheep skin, too.
First posted on 16th November 2016
Since I first posted this I have worn the shoes often and have come in useful while working at the Bronzezeithof in Germany. They are holding up well after a year, although I don’t wear them every day.
Bag bellows might be the oldest form of bellows used. We don’t know for certain because they are made entirely of organic materials, and so none survive in the archaeological record. Because they have the advantage of being portable, lightweight, and easy to make, this type of bellows are still in use for iron forging in parts of Africa and South Asia. When you make a pair, you can be as “authentic” as you want, using only wood and leather, or you can use more readily scrounged materials like vacuum cleaner hoses and pleather. There is a remarkable video of Kenyan metalsmiths using bellows made of cement bags here.
In addition to this tutorial, check out the Bellows Forum page where there are variations of bellows designs and some interesting variations.
Traditionally bag bellows are made of pliable leather and the usual description is that a single bellow is made from one goatskin. The bellows I describe here are made with upholstery fabric. At the time I made them, leather was too much for my budget. After they were sewn I gave them a good coating of linseed oil that made them both waterproof and airtight. I find it ironic that in the Bronze Age leather would have been readily available, but hand-woven fabric would have been exorbitant. So, these are my ostentatious display of wealth bellows.
How big the bellows you make will depend on what’s comfortable for you. I’ve used very large bellows and ones so small you’d think that they’d never produce enough air to get the job done, but they did remarkably well. What is important is that the size works for you. You’ll be sitting on the ground, or close to the ground (I like a log or a short tree stump with a bit of padding). Sit down on the floor and raise your arm with your elbows bent so that they are lifted a little over waist high. Try not to move with your shoulders. You’ll be pumping your arms up and down for hours, so it’s good to find a height that works for you so that you don’t wear your arms out. Measure that height or get a good idea of how high that is. Then you’ll want to add a few more inches because you want to have the bellows rest on the ground. If you lift them too high, the sides will collapse and you won’t be able to trap the air in them. You also want to add another few inches to wrap around the handles.
Besides the leather (or whatever material you choose) the other supplies you’ll need are heavy waxed thread or sinew, leather or sail needles (depending on the type of material you’re sewing). The handles are made of two straight branches about 3-4 cm (1-1 ½ inches) in diameter, or four boards 3 by .5 cm (1 by ¼ inch) the length will depend on how wide the top of your bellows are. If you use branches, they’ll have to be split lengthwise so that they have a semi-circular cross section. My bellows are about 16 inches wide.
Using your own measurements, adapt the pattern below, adding about 3 cm/1 inch for the seams around the edges, and enough at the top to wrap around the handles. You’ll also need some scrap to make loops for your fingers. The loops are more important than you realise. Getting them right will mean the difference between being able to work for hours, and giving up because you keep getting blisters or losing your grip.
Another useful detail is to sew a small triangle in the front of the bellows, just below the handles. Holger Lonze taught me this trick. It makes it much easier to open the bellows wider and get more air in.
The other detail is the part at the bottom that sticks out. This is where the tuyere will fit. The size you make that will depend on the tuyere you make, and also how much air you want to push through to the fire. If it’s too narrow, you’ll be expending a lot of energy pushing air through a small space. Too large and you’ll be pumping furiously to get the volume of air through the tuyere. Mine is about 10 cm (4 inches) and tapers a little so I can fit different tuyeres to it in case I ever want to change it.
The other supply you’ll need is rawhide. Leather strips can work, but they aren’t as durable or tight as rawhide. The best source for rawhide I’ve found is the pet shop. Buy a rawhide chew bone for a dog and soak it in a bucket of water overnight. The rawhide will soften and you can untie the ends and unroll a nice sheet of rawhide. I cut it in a spiral so I have good, long pieces. While it’s wet, you can wrap it and tie it easily. Once it’s dry it shrinks to a hard, tight fit.
Cut out the leather or material and then stitch it with the outsides together so that when you turn it inside out, the raw edges will be on the inside. Don’t sew it all the way to the top. You want that extra selvedge to wrap around the handles. Make sure you fit the triangle in the front below the bottom edge of where the handles will be.
The next step was the hardest for me. It’s a bit of a pain. You need to wrap the upper selvedge of the bellows around the sticks and sew them tightly into place. If you’re using half-round branches, make sure the flat sides are on the inside so they meet and make a tight fit. Sew these in tight along the bottom of the sticks. It’s annoying if they wobble around.
Turn the bellows right side out and admire your work.
If you used branches, you might not need loops for your fingers. Try pumping them a bit and see if you can open and close them easily without them slipping out of your hands. The action is to open them while the top of the bellows is close to the ground, Lift them, close them when they are as high as you want to lift them, close the bellows and then push down. If you lose your grip, you might want to put loops on them. They are simple, just strips of the same material that your bellows are made from. Sew them so your hand will be about 1/3 to 1/4 of the way from the back. When the bellows open, the little triangle in front will allow the bellows to open in a “V” shape and allow you to trap more air. Having the loops toward the back means that you don’t have to open your hands as wide. Since I work with kids a lot, this was a consideration when I designed them. Also, I have small hands.
The loops should accommodate four fingers on one side and your thumb on the other. The handles will stretch over time, so I periodically have to stitch them again to tighten them up.
There now, try them out. If you feel any air leaks in the seams you can seal them with linseed oil. If you made your bellows from fabric, the easiest way to coat them is to hang them on a clothes line outside and slather the oil on with a paintbrush. It takes a long time to dry and smells pretty strong. It’s definitely something to be done outdoors. Keep in mind that it might take a day or two for the linseed oil to dry.
Now in order to work, you’ll need at least a short tuyere. If you’re not fussed, some steel tubing from a vacuum cleaner works fine. If you want a more Bronze Age look, you can make them from wood. I took a short branch and drilled a hole in it using a 2 cm flat bit (1 ½” spade bit in the US). The branches are about 1 cm or ½” wider than the bit. If you don’t have a bit or don’t want to use power tools, take a branch of the right thickness (about 4 cm or 3”) and split it in half. Carve out the centre and fit them back together using glue and rawhide.
Fit one end of your tuyere into the opening at the bottom of your bellows (you didn’t sew that shut, right?). Now take the wet, sloppy rawhide and wrap it tightly around the part of the bellows covering the tuyere. If your tuyere is made of split branches, keep wrapping so that it holds the halves of the branch together. Depending on the weather and humidity, it might take several hours for the rawhide to dry.
Once everything is dry, try them out. They’ll be a bit stiff at first and will need to be broken in. It takes a bit of practice to get the Open-Lift-Close-Push rhythm going, especially if you alternate hands. Once you get into it, it gets easier. Think of a cat kneading its paws.
Another tip is to get some thin willow twigs, about the size used for making baskets. Make them into hoops that will fit inside the bottom of your bellows. It will help keep them open, especially if you have a tendency to lift them too high.
Next you’ll be wanting a “Y” shaped tuyere to connect the bellows together.
Tuyeres are the tubes that bring the air from the bellows to the furnace. They can be made of wood, ceramic, PVC pipes, copper pipes, old vacuum cleaner tubes, really whatever you can come up with that will do the job. They are usually connected to the bellows, but in some cases they can just be set close enough that the air is delivered through them to the furnace. If you have a set of two bellows, the tuyeres are in a “Y” shape, with two ends connected to the bellows that connect to a single end going to the furnace.
Archaeologically there aren’t many remains of tuyeres. There are some fragments of tubular ceramic objects that had evidence of burning on the end. However, the best example is a wooden one recovered from a Danish bog. This was the same sort of “Y” shaped one described below.
Quick and easy: Tuyere #1
One of the problems of working with kids is that they are so fascinated with flames that they sometimes don’t realise that the bellows aren’t the part that supposed to be burning. So I’ve been working on making a couple of new sets of tuyeres.
I’m under a deadline for one set, so this will be a quick and easy version. I pulled a good sized forked branch from the woodpile and cut the ends so they were fairly even. Then I got a 22 mm spade bit (in Britian it’s known as a flat bit). Then I just clamped it into a vise and drilled into the flat ends of the wood until the holes met near the centre. I removed the bark, rounded off and sanded the ends. I don’t want any bark that will work loose over time, or any sharp edges that will abrade the inside of the leather on the bellows.
I usually like one with a wider fork, but this will do in a pinch. It’s more important that the two ends are close to the same angle from the main trunk to minimise any kinks when connecting them to the bellows. The tuyere will be connected by leather tubes to the bellows and held in place by strips of rawhide. Skip down to the section on putting them all together for the details on that.
Note: Save that sawdust that you’re generating with all that drilling. It will come in handy for making moulds!
Larger and more labour intensive: Tuyere #2
The next one is another wooden tuyere for a new set of bellows I’m making. It’s larger, so the spade bit isn’t an option. Instead I cut the wood in half lengthwise and then carved out the inside with woodworking gouges. It’s all handwork, so it takes longer, but one advantage is that the diameter of the air holes isn’t limited to the size and length of the drill bit.
Once the branch was cut, I marked off where I would carve out the centre and went at it with chisels and gouges. I made the interior as smooth and as even as possible. However, I don’t smooth the surfaces that will be glued together. They already fit well and the rougher texture will help the glue bond. If you’re going for authenticity, you can use birch tar or other natural glues. If you’re pressed for time Gorilla Glue works very well. Other tuyeres I’ve seen are held together with leather and rawhide.
Another variation was made by Morgan Van Es, who hollowed out a “Y” shaped branch and then covered it tightly with leather. This is far easier than drilling holes or carving two pieces of wood and trying to fit them back together again. The tuyere definitely works!
Ceramic and other Tuyeres
If your tuyere might be placed close to the furnace (as mine accidentally was), it would be a good idea to make a ceramic extension. This is just a tube made of the same ceramic you used for making the furnace or moulds. It can be fit to the end of your wooden tuyere with leather and rawhide, as described below, and the end can go straight into the furnace. The only problem I find with ceramic tuyeres is the possibility of them breaking when being transported or if someone steps on them.
At the Terramare Village in Montale, the tuyeres they use there have a 90 degree bend. The tuyere sits on the edge of a small, shallow furnace and blows air straight down onto the crucible. It’s an Early Bronze Age design and does get hot enough to melt bronze and copper. If you don’t have much space for a furnace this would be an ideal solution. It’s also worth experimenting with different types of furnaces to get an idea of how many solutions there are to the basic question of how to melt and cast metal.
At the EAA in Glasgow, I saw a poster showing the reconstruction of a beautiful horse-headed ceramic tuyere by Katarina Botwid of Lund University. This is similar to the right-angled ones they use in Montale. You can see the tuyere in action here.
I’ve also made tuyeres using the stems of Japanese knotweed. The stems are hollow, similar to bamboo, but much softer. The plants can get over an inch in diameter and several feet tall. The stems can be easily cut with a knife, small garden shears, or secateurs, and then the membranes between sections can be broken by poking a straight stick through them.
Note:Japanese knotweed is a controlled invasive species in Britain. Any fragment of stem, leaf, or root will take root and start a new plant. They are almost impossible to get rid of once started. When I find a large stand of knotweed, I strip off any leaves and excess stems and leave them there. If I need to trim off any more once I’m home, I put it in a plastic bag and then put it in the bin.
As I said earlier, tuyeres can be made of anything that will get the job done. If you don’t need to have that “authentic” Bronze Age look, you can quickly whip something together with PVC plumbing or copper piping. It wouldn’t be glamorous, but as long as any flammable or melt-able parts are kept away from the heat of the furnace, it should get the job done.
Putting them all together
The tuyere still needs to be connected to the bellows. I usually make tubes of leather that fit the tubes coming out of the bellows and the ends of the tuyere.This allows for some flexibility and gives you a bit more distance from the furnace.
Then I tie them in place with wet rawhide. Once the rawhide is dry, they are about as secure as you can get. If the leather is soft, the tubes have a tendency to twist or collapse, so a nice solution is to get some green willow twigs and roll them into a spring. Fit them into the tubes before doing the final attachment and they’ll keep the leather tubes open and prevent them from twisting.
I also fit twisted willow hoops into the ends of the bellows to keep the leather from collapsing.
Everything is fit together and tied with damp rawhide. Once the rawhide is dry, the bellows are ready to go.
By the way, if you have a hard time finding rawhide lacing, buy a rawhide dog chew. Soak it in a bucket of water overnight and then cut it into long strips while it’s still damp. If you don’t need all of it right away, let it dry out. Then when you need it again just soak it for a few hours and it will be nice and flexible again.
Bellows are a bit of a mystery. We know they had to have existed in the Bronze Age, but the only physical evidence we have consists of fragments of tuyeres. An Egyptian painting from the Tomb of Rekhmire, from 1450 BC shows a man using pot bellows that are operated by hands and feet. There are also Chinese documents depicting the use of box bellows. But bellows, after blowpipes, are likely to be one of the earliest forms of delivering air to the furnace. Unfortunately they are also constructed of ephemeral materials.
Until a set of bellows is uncovered preserved in a bog somewhere a lot is left to the imagination. How big or small could they be? How can the valves be altered to be more efficient? How heavy should the leather be? Should sturdiness trump suppleness? How are all the parts held together and made airtight? Bellows are one of the most essential pieces of equipment that we have for casting bronze and yet very little information is available about their origins, and we rely on information for their use and construction from the community of experimental archaeologists and reenactment groups.
Over the years I’ve seen many different shapes and sizes of bellows and always thought that a forum where bellows design and use could be discussed would be invaluable for people to share ideas and experiences.
I would like to invite others to share photos of the bellows they’ve made on this site. This could be a welcome forum for discussing the pros and cons of different designs, what worked, what didn’t. Of course any news of archaeological bellows or tuyeres discovered would add to the fun.
I would welcome others to send in photos of their bellows, and not just bag bellows, any bellows that could be considered to fit in with what we know or can surmise from archaeology would be interesting for this forum.
While this technically isn’t experimental archaeology, this is a good way to facilitate archaeological experiments in metallurgy. I regularly cast bronze and smelt metals using a small clay-lined pit furnace. However, there are occasions when I am asked to demonstrate Bronze Age metalwork, but am not allowed to dig a hole in the ground. Museums and schools do get fussy about grassy areas and holes that could be a tripping hazard.
I found the link below and I thought it would be a good solution to my portable casting problem. The tutorial was for a making a small iron working forge, but I decided to make one that would be a scaled up version that would enable me to do the same sort of casting that I do with a clay furnace. http://www.instructables.com/id/Make-a-Small-Blacksmith-s-Forge/?ALLSTEPS
When I say that I do Bronze Age casting, I have to be honest about it. So far, in Britain no intact Bronze Age furnaces have been excavated or properly identified. The furnaces I used are based on the work of others and best guesses as to how the technology was done. I have used short shaft furnaces, similar to, but much smaller than bloomery iron smelting furnaces. I have also used clay bowl furnaces with the air supply coming across the top or from below. The most efficient type I’ve used is a two chamber furnace with the air introduced into a lower chamber with the charcoal and crucible supported above it. It fires up quickly and evenly, plus it has the advantage that the crucible has a stable support, so I don’t have to worry about spilling the metal because the charcoal is moved around.
Step one was to find a sturdy steel bucket and drill a hole in the side near the bottom for the tuyere, the tube through which air is blown into the furnace. The air is needed to increase the heat.
I had a length of steel tube and a flat drill bit (spade drill bit in the US) of the same diameter. The hole was drilled about an inch and a half above the bottom of the bucket to allow for at least one inch of space for the furnace lining.
The original website used furnace clay, but didn’t say much about it. I bought a tub of Cementone Fire Cement for £8 at B&Q. As you can see it did about half the job, with the clay packed about an inch thick. The directions said to use a trowel, however the cement has a texture like gritty plasticene, but not quite as rigid. Getting it smoothed in the bottom of the bucket was awkward with the trowel (I’m more used to removing material with a trowel than adding it) so I put on some plastic gloves and pushed it into place.
Now the instructions didn’t say anything about getting it on your hands, it just had warnings about getting it into your eyes. However, knowing that many materials like this can be caustic I decided to err on the side of caution and wore nitril gloves. The container had a handy link to the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) so I could check out all the possible material hazards. The MSDS is a great online resource that will let you know exactly what’s in a product and every possible statistic for it. Check it out here http://www.bostik.co.uk/diy/product/cementone/Fire-Cement/109. Note that it is caustic and there are precautions against getting it on your skin. It also tells you what to do in case of contact with skin or eyes.
I used to work with someone who was severely health and safety challenged. I survived, but in the process learned the effects of being too intimately acquainted with carbon monoxide. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Do this outside with plenty of ventilation and don’t hover over the thing while it’s being heated. It’s not a barbeque (at least not yet, there’s plenty of time for that later).
I took out the tube that I was using for the tuyere and built a small wood fire in the furnace and faced it so the tuyere hole faced the breeze. The fire lit quickly and I kept it topped up with scrap wood and a little charcoal and let the whole thing burn down. Once it was cooled, the material was hard as a rock. The next step was to make the tea pot stand. It’s simply a flat plate that fits the diameter of the interior of the furnace with holes about an inch from the edge. The tea pot stand allows the air to circulate freely below and then up through the holes to increase the heat of the charcoal. Once that was fired the furnace was ready to use.
I’ve used the furnace now several times and it holds up well doing high temperature work. My initial fear was that the seams in the bucket wouldn’t hold, but it remains intact after melting bronze and copper. I’ve used it both with bellows and electric pumps.
After I made this, there was some discussion about experimental archaeology and authenticity on the EXARC Facebook Group (a group well worth checking out if you have an interest in any aspect of experimental archaeology). I made the point that this isn’t designed to replicate a Bronze Age furnace, but it replicates the conditions of how we believe Bronze Age furnaces performed. Many early experiments were done using modern gas or electric furnaces, however those have oxygen enriched atmospheres. Charcoal fires have reduced atmospheres, meaning that the air immediately around the crucible is free of oxygen. This is good news because less dross and slag is produced since the environment won’t allow the surface of the molten metal to oxidise.
As for electric pumps, sometimes it’s valuable to have a controlled air-flow. Having an electric air pump means that I can control how much air goes into the furnace and replicate conditions from one pour to the next. This way I will be able to have multiple experiments conducted under conditions as close as possible to each other. It would be difficult to replicate the controlled airflow of an electric pump with bellows since there might be times when I get tired or there is some distraction and the air flow is slightly less than for the previous pour. Control in these situations is important for experiments where I would I want to compare the melting times of different alloys and need to control as many variables as possible.
Another advantage is that this furnace always starts out at the same temperature. While a bowl furnace dug into the ground is well insulated, there are often problems getting it dried out or warmed up after a night of rain. While it’s good to have the experience of getting a cold, damp furnace going, it’s also nice to have one where I don’t use up a couple kilos of charcoal getting it dry and heated.
By the way, it’s not only good for metal casting, but with a small grate, it does a good job as a barbeque.
 I should note that while there haven’t been any of these types of furnaces excavated in Britain, twice now when I have been demonstrating using a small bowl furnace, field archaeologists have told me that they excavated something that looks identical to what I was working with, but didn’t know what it was and wrote it up as a cooking hearth.
These were made for a project in conjunction with Weston Park Museum in Sheffield. In the past I cast bronze using bag bellows, but we wanted something slightly more modern for an upcoming exhibit on the Roman presence in South Yorkshire. They were surprisingly easy to make and have held up well after many episodes of casting bronze and even an iron smelt.
In addition to this tutorial, check out the Bellows Forum page where there are variations of bellows designs and some interesting variations.
Leather or vinyl
3 cm Copper coupling
Linseed or other oil
Tacks (a box each of 25mm/1” and 13 mm/ ½”)
Upholstery hammer, or other hammer with a small face
Linseed or walnut oil
Saw (preferably an electric jigsaw)
Drill bit to match the wooden pegs
3 cm Spade or flat bit
Cord or clamps
A note about health and safety
I am going to assume that you are capable of safely using the tools and materials described in the tutorial. Don’t wear loose clothing when using power tools, or let long hair get in the way. Don’t use electric power tools outdoors in the rain. If adhesive has warning labels, pay attention to what it says. I’m writing this tutorial so that you will have enough information to make a set of bellows. As for everything else, you’re on your own and I would prefer you have a good time making and using a great set of bellows.
Designing the bellows
The first thing to do is to sketch out what you want the finished bellows to look like. Traditional fireplace bellows are teardrop shaped, but since I was making a set of bellows and would be sitting between them, I wanted them to have a narrower shape so I could easily reach both handles without having to rock my body back and forth more than was necessary. I also frequently work with kids and wanted the bellows to be manageable for them as well. This was also a consideration when designing the handles. You’ll be working with these for hours at a time, and so you want something you can hold easily without getting blisters or straining your wrists. Gripping the handles will just stiffen the muscles of your hands and wrists and wear you out. Design something that’s comfortable and enables you to shift or change your grip periodically. The handle I ended up with was one that I could easily lift just using two fingers and push down with the flat of my hand.
The eventual over-all design and size of the bellows was limited by the availability of places to buy boards of the needed thickness, by the size of board I was able to find, and the fact that I don’t have a car. Mega-hardware stores like B&Q in Britain don’t have proper boards. They have composite shelving, which if you look at it closely will have seams running the length of the board where two narrower boards were glued together. I worried that this would weaken and possibly break, so I had to find a place that had solid boards. I went to a small shop that does custom woodworking. It would have been nice to make them of oak, but all they had was 2 cm/ ¾ inch pine. I was extremely glad when the man there cut the board into lengths for me. It was a bit tricky since the board had knots and one large hole. We managed to figure out how to cut around the worst of them and I happily carried my supplies home.
Making the pattern
The next step was to make a pattern. I drew it out on newspaper, cut, taped, adjusted, and fiddled with it until I had it right. This really was the most time consuming part and rightly so. Take time to get the pattern perfect. Play with it. Pretend it’s finished and try pumping it. The time spent tweaking the pattern is time well spent.
Now, about the pattern. There are two large sections for the base and the top. The bottom piece would run the length of the bellows from the nose to the back. Rather than have two handles (like a fireplace bellows), the bottom would come just short of the handle (so I don’t knock my knuckles into the wood every time I pressed the bellows down. I did drill two holes in the bottom corners so that I could put tent pegs in to hold it down. My experience working with kids and plenty of adults) is that they tend to overcompensate and lift the bellows clear off the ground. (Figure 1 photo pattern)
There are also two small pieces for the nose that will be laminated together with the bottom of the bellows. There are another two pieces that will serve to hold the leather hinge in place, and then the scraps that will be used for internal supports and feet. Just about every bit of the board was used in one way or another.
Once the pattern was made, I laid it out on the boards, working around knots and splits, so that it would be as solid as possible. I traced around it, and in one case changed it at the last minute, you’ll see some of the crossed out lines in photos of the interior. The important thing is to make any changes before cutting the wood.
The thing I worried about most was the valve. I searched, but nowhere could I find a formula for the size of the valve hole in proportion to the rest of the bellows. I looked at as many as I could and from what I could tell something about one third of the width of the bellows would be sound. The valve itself would be a thick, but fairly flexible piece of leather, so if the valve was too long it might have difficulty making a good seal. I remember one set of bellows that a friend from New Zealand had that were enormous, but had a problem with the valve. The valve was large enough that when drawn up the leather would flip backwards on itself. The bellows had to be flipped over and the leather pulled back down before work could continue. I fussed and fretted awhile, but knew that if I erred on making the valve hole too small, I could always enlarge it. I ended up with a valve hole 6 cm by 8 cm.
The other decision was if the valve would be on the top or bottom. For this I got some input from friends who told me that having the valve on the top was more in keeping with Viking/Scandinavian traditions and that in order to close the valve I would have to push down more forcefully. This is not as much of a problem if I was primarily using these for an iron forge, but casting bronze and smelting iron blooms goes on for hours. I need something that will be efficient and not require any extra effort. In addition, when I work with kids, I want them to be able to help with casting without having them concentrate solely on trying to get the bellows to work.
The disadvantage of having the valve on the bottom is that leaves and debris can get sucked in. I decided to put the valve on the bottom of the bellows and to put small risers underneath. Then I just have to make sure that where I set them up is free from debris. If I was worried about anything getting sucked in I could put a bit of wire mesh on the outside the valve. So far this hasn’t been a concern.
For convenience sake, I decided to make the tuyere (the pipe where the air exits the bellows) out of a 3 cm copper coupling. For this I needed a spade or flat wood drill bit of the same size.
Assembling the bellows
Now to the cutting. That was pretty much straightforward, and I found that the two pieces leftover from cutting the handle made a nice design when put back to back. I later glued them together and they became the shield shape of the hinge. Of course if you want to save time, you could just use a door hinge or some fancy looking strap hinges.
Long scraps were used for the risers on the bottom of the bellows. Miscellaneous pieces became the internal supports. These support the top of the bellows and prevent it from being pushed too far down and straining the hinge. Another support was placed at the back for the same reason. It also prevents the leather from being trapped and abraded.
Once everything was cut, it was fit together and small adjustments made. The next step was to sand everything. You want the wood to be smooth and comfortable to work with, but also to remove any sharp edges might scrape and wear holes in the leather.
Once everything is sanded and fitted, the final assembly can begin. The first thing is to glue and clamp the nose pieces together. I didn’t have enough clamps for the job, and also some of the pieces were awkward sizes, so I wrapped and tied cord around them and then twisted it with some steel chopsticks (A good sized nail would do the trick, too). Get the joins as tight as possible and then let them dry completely. Once they are good and solid, mark the centre and drill through the end using the spay bit. Fit the copper coupling in. It should be a tight fit. (Make diagram) Now from the inside widen the hole so that it is cone-shaped going back to the end of the coupling.
Meanwhile pieces of leather were cut for the valve. There is about a ½ – ¾ inch overlap on the end and sides and a bit more at the end where it is tacked in place. I doubled that part over to make a stronger hinge and used the shorter tacks to secure it.
I wanted to use wooden pegs as much as possible for the construction, but I realised that using some wood screws would make life easier. So the next step was to drill every piece that would need pegs and then to glue all the internal support pieces and secure them with wood screws. The internal supports were also cleverly lined up so the screws would help secure the risers. However, these were also drilled and pegged to the bottom of the bellows. Once again, everything was glued and clamped. Once it was dry I gave it a good coating of linseed oil. I used linseed because I had plenty on hand, but there are other good oils designed for woodworking.
Leathering the bellows
Now it’s time to go back to the drawing board. This time the design will be affected by how high you want to lift the bellows and your budget. Ideally this part should be made of soft leather, such as goat or pigskin. I’d love to have had the money for that, but had to opt for vinyl. Despite having used the cheaper material, it has held up amazingly well, and I do have the option of replacing it with leather on later. But whatever material you choose, a pattern must be made first. Bin liners / plastic trash bags are ideal for this.
Sit beside the bellows and lift the top up as comfortably as you want. Ideally you should be able to open the bellows to about 45° or a bit more. Think about your shoulders when you make this measurement. Measure the length from the handle to the bottom of the bellows and then add a few extra inches for rolling the edge under. Take into consideration that you don’t want the bellows to be so short that you lift them off the ground every time you pump them. Remember you’ll be pumping up and down for hours!
Now measure from the centre back around to the front. You’ll also need to have enough that both ends of the leather will overlap on the block where the tuyere comes in. The next dimension you need is the height of the front end. The leather should be a few inches higher than the block. Now a paper pattern can be made making sure that the sides and ends are symmetrical. Make sure to add an extra inch along the top and bottom to allow for folding the leather under when it is tacked in place. Get the pattern symmetrical by folding it in half lengthwise and adjusting it, and then fold it in half sideways and adjust that. Keep tweaking it until it’s exactly what you need. Use this to make a pattern from the plastic bags. This can be taped to the wood, and you’ll have an approximation of how the bellows will work. Try it out and make any adjustments before cutting into the leather.
Once it’s cut out, working from the centre back of the bottom, fold the leather so the cut edge is inside and secure it with tacks. I used the shorter tacks most of the way, but for some areas that get more stress, like along the corners, I used the longer tacks. Once you come to the front, pull the leather gently so that the edge is along the bottom, and tack it in place.
Put some tacks around the tuyere hole and cut the leather so there’s an opening. Do the same for the other side, overlapping the leather and cutting another hole. Put tacks in around the tuyere and the edge of the nose.
I had thought that I would need to glue the leather along the edges of the bellows, but I was pleased to find that the tacks did a good enough job and that there was no leakage.
Now for the top. Starting at the centre back again tack the leather along the edge, folding it like before. Overlap it along the front edge. There will be excess leather and you’ll have to push down a bit to get it to meet. At this point there will be a gap where the leather overlaps. Use some contact cement to seal the pieces together and let dry overnight. You’re almost there!
At this point you can test the bellows and feel how much air they put out. They work, but they’re a bit wobbly, so the final step is to make the hinge. You should have two drilled pieces of wood (if you didn’t drill them for pegs, wood screws will work well). One will fit closely over the top piece of the bellows and the other will go on top of the nose of the bellows. Push the top of the bellows down (it will take a little effort to cram the leather into place) and fit the top of the bellows so that it meets the edge of the nose.
Cut a piece of thick leather (the same type as used for the valve works fine) that will fit under both pieces of the upper hinge. If you’re using pegs, cut holes in the leather for them to go through. Glue the leather to the nose piece and to the wooden piece to go above the leather and secure them with pegs or screws, then do the same for the other half of the hinge. It should be a tight fit. The leather in the hinge will stretch over time, but after several months of use, I haven’t seen much change.
That’s it. You’re done. You’ve made a set of bellows suitable for bronze casting, forge work, or even iron bloom smelting. You can make them as big or as small as you want. Adjust them to fit your needs. Experiment and enjoy.
If you want to use one at a time, you can add a longer pipe (I’ve found old pipes from vacuum cleaners work well). However, if you want to link two of them together you’ll need a more elaborate tuyere. There will be more on tuyeres in another article.