The Foundry: Put a Lid On It

In the previous foundry post, we made the foundry hugely more efficient by adding a fan to force air into it using an old hairdryer. Although it made the fire super hot it introduced many problems. It forced the tiny pieces of ash sitting in the foundry into the air, and towards anyone in a 2m radius. Some of the fuel also gets forced out which makes it less efficient. Bad all round, especially for the neighbors clothes on the washing line, which probably smelt smoky after each burn. We came to the conclusion that we needed a lid to hold in that glorious heat.

The fire burning
The fire burning with a steel tin on top to stop the ash flying out.

We went to the internet and found the easiest way to make the lid is to just make it in the same way we made the foundry itself, but with a few modifications. Firstly we made much less, we only want a lid about an inch thick (2.5cm) for a lid. This size was thick enough to be strong, but not so thick that it was unusable. We also used a plastic bucket rather than a metal one. As plastic can be bent it allows some movement to get the set lid out of the bucket without breaking either. You also need something to make the hold in the centre, we used a bottle, but if you can find something with a nice base then use that, the bottle had its drawbacks. Make sure the item you use can be ruined, and has a slight taper, because it needs to come out when the lid is set. Once put together we left the lid for a day to set, just like with the foundry.

The new lid
The new lid sitting inside the bucket setting, with the bottle in the centre to make the hole.

As you can notice in the above image we added a way to pick up the lid. This is firstly really useful to take out of the bucket, but will also be useful when we are actually using the forge and things get hot. It is much easier if we have something to actually grab on to. We used standard off the shelf D rings from ScrewFix, but anything that has a good ring and plenty of metal for the mixture to mould around then it should work fine. For us, it made the act of picking up the lid much easier.

the first lift test
The first attempt to lift the lift after it had been taken out of the bucket.

So once it was out, we left the lid out of the mould overnight, and then tried it out the next day. For the first burn with it we were gentle, and barely put on the hairdryer. This was to make sure that we didn’t damage it, we really wanted to help the curing process. You can see the difference in the below picture though, all the heat is confined inside the forge, and no ash or particulate is coming out the top. To add or remove the lid from the top we used kitchen tongs, as the D rings get very hot. We also hd head gloves to make sure we didn’t burn ourselves in the process. Safety is paramount if doing this yourself. It is easy to make a new lid but it isn’t easy to fix third degree burns! you have been warned. That being said, from our perspective that is a working forge! Now onto melting things.

The lid setup
The full setup, with the lid on it , the first burn was much gentler to allow the lid to set better, we though an extrer first burn could damage it.

Hope you enjoyed this post, hopefully there will be another update soon, but for now search the rest of the blog, as there are some awesome images of rockets, interesting history about aerospace, and you might learn something about electronics. Thanks for reading.

The Foundry: Blowing Smoke

In the last post, we saw a fire actually burning in the foundry. The concrete has set, and doesn’t fall apart while being used. After researching other designs, and using some logic, we figured we need to force more air into the system. As we designed previously, there is a large 30mm hole on the side of the forge to allow air into the fire. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to provide the amount of air we need to get the desired heat. We have tried a number of ways to force air into the hole, with varying success. First we literally blew into it, like you would a campfire, and it works well, but soon you start to really hyperventilate, and it’s not good. The next idea was to take a chopping board (but any board will do) and flapped it, forcing air towards the hole. This worked much better than simply blowing. Lots of air fuels the fire, and it burns really hot. The big downside is that it wastes most of the air produced, and creates some interesting smoke patterns that seem to be inefficient. Either way, it is a good cheap way to improve the forge performance.

First Tests
The foundry during its first fire, not particularly hot.

The method we eventually used to force air into the system was in the form of a fan. Before I start this section, it comes with a warning, you need to wear goggles if you try this, as will be explained. You have been warned. The initial fan was in the form of an old hairdryer, bought from a charity shop for £3. Putting it right up to the hole forced hot air directly into the hole, with very little waste air escaping. It worked very well, and the fire started to burn much hotter. It also meant we could control the amount of airflow by using the switches on the hairdryer, or simply moving it further away.

Forcing air into the forge
Forcing air into the forge using a hairdryer, the fire is visibly hotter.

Two issues came up while using this method of airflow. The first big problem is the mass of air being forced into the hole needs to go somewhere. The only place it can go is straight up, and as we don’t have a lid it just fires ash into the air. This is dangerous if gloves and goggles aren’t being worn. This ash can be hot and can take some of that fuel and heat away from the forge. A lid will fix this, and that will be covered in the next post. For this test we kept it at a low fan speed, and found a nice point where we weren’t firing ash into the air, but still giving lots of air to the fire. The second problem was that the hairdryer started getting really hot, and the plastic began to melt. Essentially this means it was too close to the fire, but if you move the fan away then the air just misses. To fix this we found a 30mm diameter iron pipe, and attached the hairdryer to it. This allowed the air to be funneled in with the fan unit being further away from the forge.

The fire burning
The fire burning with a steel tin on top to stop the ash flying out.

So what have we learnt from this fire? We need a lid. This will be a topic of further posts, but for now we know we can produce a hot fire, and the air going into the fire can be controlled. Thanks for reading, and hope to come with another update soon.

The Foundry: The First Fire

Now it’s time to test the foundry, or at least the first version of it. This also has a benefit to it. Some others who have made this style of foundry have found this process helps the concrete to fully cure, and dry any leftover water still in the mixture. This process is pretty simple, most suggest using charcoal as the main fuel. We went down the local hardware store and they had a sale on charcoal briquettes. These are small and there are plenty of them, and fit nicely in the foundry. Light the fire in any way you are used to, we used fire lighters and some cheap kindling, also from the hardware store. If you don’t know how to light fires safely, find somebody who does.

First Tests
The foundry having its first fire, drying it out and seeing whether it can survive.

We didn’t use much to start with, this is meant to be a calm fire to help cure the concrete, and test it can deal with at least some hot temperatures. It was also to see how well it burnt with the air hole we put in. Main problems we found were that the air hole did not provide enough oxygen into the system, so the fire was slightly stinted. We tried blowing into the hole a few times, and the fire definitely got bigger, but it also sprayed ash into the air, so be very careful of that. We also noticed something most blogs talk about, lots of heat escapes from the top. With the foundry having such a big opening, very little of the heat is retained, and the fire has to work harder to keep the heat at a set level. A lid is often the best way to battle this.

The aftermath
The foundry after its first test and the ash was scraped out of it.

So what have we learnt from our first fire? We need a lid, and some way to force air into the hole. This will be a topic of further posts, but for now we know our concrete foundry can withstand the heat of a fire, and is now a little bit darker from all the ash. Thanks for reading, and hope to come with another update soon.

The Foundry: Drilling an Air Hole

At this point we had a cast foundry base, made out of sand and plaster of paris. To see how that was made, see the tutorial here.  Before we first test it though, we had to make one modification, and that was to drill a 30mm diameter hole in the side of it.

The hole from the outside
The hole from the outside

The idea of the hole is to allow air to come in and fuel the fire. The theory goes that the air comes in the side, and the resultant fumes (like smoke) leave via the opening at the top. It makes sense because heat rises, and takes all those hot resultant gasses up with it. Note that we don’t really care about the fumes coming off the fire at this point, we just want as much oxygen as possible to get to the coals. If hot exhaust fumes are leaving via the same hole as the oxygen, but going the opposite direction, they will interact with each other, slow each other down, and make the furnace much more inefficient.

Also notice the hole is angled down into the base of the furnace. This isn’t by accident, we want that hole to do two things, pump air into the base of the fire, and not let anything go back up the hole. This hole in the future may contain a fan, to pump more air in. We don’t want the embers flying back up the pipe and breaking the fan during use.

To drill the hole we used a hammer drill bought from Aldi, and a 30mm masonry drill bit, these parts can be pretty cheap if you search around, and the hole doesn’t have to be this exact size. Use what you can find, and make sure you get help when doing the drilling. As always, safety is important, and safety glasses and gloves would be a good idea. if one person steadies the foundry, while the other drills, it is much easier. Go slow, so that the plaster on the inside doesn’t break too much. It is easy to be too eager and create large cracks and chips, which could mean an entire restart.

The hole from the inside
The hole from the inside, notice the dust, and broken parts around the hole.

Although this was a shorter post, the next one will be about the first tests! As always, thanks for reading, and I hope to be along with another update soon. If you guys have any tips, questions, or want to show your foundry, please post in the comments below.

The Oak Tree

In this particular post, we are going to talk about the Oak tree, or more specifically the English Oak tree, and how we can use it. The Oak is one of those classic English trees, its a recognisable name, and most people will have things in their house that are made from Oak. How can it be used though? Well in this post we will go over some interesting uses, and what makes it special.

How to spot it

Before we can use it, we have to be able to identify it. There are some distinctive points about the Oak tree, to help you distinguish it from other trees. The Oak is a large tree, about 20m-40m tall when fully grown. It is also deciduous, so it loses it’s leaves in the autumn. When the Oak gets older it forms a broad crown on top, so no spike. It grows big sturdy branches underneath, so overall it forms a nice rounded tree, which is quite distinctive. The canopy it forms is actually really good at letting light through, so you generally find lots of plants growing underneath them; these can include primroses and bluebells, and other woodland floor plants. Young oaks have quite smooth and silvery bark, but as they get older, they get huge cracks and crevices throughout, this is a great way to differentiate from other trees.

The leaves are also pretty recognisable, they tend to be about 10cm long, with 4 or 5 big deep rounded lobes along the edges, these are smooth. Be aware though, that the amount of lobes can change between different forms of oak, in fact this is one big way of differentiating between them. The leaves generally don’t have much in the way of a stem, and grow in bunches, close together. They really grow around mid may. The Oak also flowers, the long yellow hanging catkins distribute pollen into the air. In the winter, the tree can be identified by bunches of rounded buds, with each bud having 3 or more scales.

Technically the Oak has fruits, although we know them as acorns. They are generally 2-2.5cm long, on fairly long stalks, and have a little cup that they sit in (called a cupule). While they grow  they are a green colour, but as they ripen they become a more autumnal brown. At this point they loosen from the cupule and fall to the floor. Anyone who has walked around an oak tree knows there can be many of them. These acorns are a rich food source, so they don’t hang around long. Many wild creatures come along to feast on them, like squirrels, jays and mice. For them to germinate, they need to root quickly, before they dry out.

The Oak is generally found in the northern hemisphere, in cool regions as well as tropical climates. In England they are found in southern and central woods.

Why are They Useful?

In terms of wildlife, the Oak tree is rich in biodiversity, and arguably support more life forms than any other tree native to Britain. In the autumn the falling acorns are often eaten by badgers and deer. These acorns are technically edible, but read up on ways to prepare them first, they contain tannins, which should really be removed before eating. 10,000 years ago, humans used acorns to make flour. Also during autumn, beetles and fungi take advantage of the fallen leaves. The leaves are soft, and break down easily, forming a rich environment underneath the tree. Birds are often found nesting in the Holes that the Oak’s bark provides, bats also use some of these holes, mainly due to the rich supply of insects.

The Oak tree has forever been known as a hard and durable timber, even it’s latin name Quercus Robur means strength. So it has been used for centuries as a building material, up until the 19th century, it was the primary ship building material. Unfortunately, it takes up to 150 years before an oak is ready to be used in construction. For those who want to tan leather, the bark of the Oak contains Tannin, and has been used for this purpose since roman times. This Tannic acid is also found in it’s leaves, and is poisonous to horses, and humans, damaging the kidneys.

If you wanted to plant your own acorn, it needs to be as soon as it falls to stop it drying out, if its right, a sapling should arrive the following spring.

Best Uses for an Oak Tree

For the keen bushcrafter, here is the main uses for oak trees.

  • Harvesting acorns, although these need to be processed before edible, its a great free source of food.
  • Plenty of insects to eat living in the tree, they also attract squirrels, birds, badgers and deer. So depending on how brave you are, there could be some good meals to be found.
  • Strong wood, things like digging sticks, tools, or anything that needs strength or impact resistance.
  • The inner bark of a dead branch is a good tinder.
  • The leaves do not rot very fast, and are often the last left on the forest, so could be used for shade, huts, or maybe even flooring.
  • The wood is good to burn for a fire. It burns wells, and produces a heat good enough for cooking.
  • The tannin found all over the tree is good for stopping bleeding, it does it by making the capillaries contract.

The Foundry: Part 1 – The First Casting

So we had our aim, and a basic design based off we saw in the videos we had watched. Now we needed to start the process of making it. We made a list of materials we might need, and had a basic look around on the internet, and off we went to the shops. During our travels we visited Screwfix, Wickes, B&Q, Hobbycraft and even Homebase. There were some pretty simple things we needed. Listed below:

  • Sand
  • Plaster of Paris
  • Drill (and drill bits)
  • Steel bucket
  • Safety Goggles
  • Safety Gloves
  • smaller plastic bucket
  • cheap measuring jug

Some of these items you might already own, (and we did) but it was listed as things we needed to complete this stage of the project.

Safety Notice (don’t ignore)

At this point I am going to stress a couple of those boring safety points. We have worked with some materials that could be considered quite dangerous if improperly used. So use safety gloves wherever possible (these can be as cheap as £1.50 in some stores, so there is no excuse!) and goggles and masks are a good idea, especially with dust, and when drilling. If you don’t understand why these are needed, maybe you should stop reading at this point.

Location

We would recommend thinking about where you do this project, there is the potential for spillage of plaster of paris, and that can ruin surfaces; so kitchens are probably out of the question. We recommend outside on a nice sunny day. Its always a good idea to be in a nice open area with plenty of ventilation, even when not working with toxic chemicals, it’s just good practice. We chose out outbuilding, its airy, already has paint stains, and contains all the tools we need as it doubles up as a basic workshop.

The Making

So let’s get on to the bit you care about how we made the foundry. The method starts with mixing together a mixture of 3.5 parts plaster of paris, 3.5 parts sand, and 2.5 parts water. This can be scaled up or down depending on how much you need to make to fill your bucket. We used a standard 14 litre bucket, and a standard liquid measuring jug to mix parts.

14 litre bucket
a 14 litre steel bucket found at most hardware stores
measuring jug
standard measuring jug

A few good tips to add in at this point. You should probably get some friends for this project, a few extra hands can be really useful. while we were making ours, we had one person stirring the mix, and another adding in the parts. Notice below, how many hands are in the images. The other point is to add the sand and plaster of paris before the water. As soon as the water is added, the mix will start the process of setting and you need to get that stuff mixed as fast as possible before it gets too hard. The last point is to mix this a lot, you want it to be thoroughly mixed together, else it could separate in the drying process.

Also, it would be a good idea to wear gloves at this point in the making, plaster of paris can cause burns if it gets in contact with the skin. Read the packaging first, and be careful when handling the powder and the mix.

mixing it together
Mixing it all together

While the mix is almost at its fully ready state, somebody needs to get the smaller plastic bucket, and fill it mostly with water. The amount of water used will depend on your buckets and mix. The water makes it much easier to hold the smaller bucket in place while the main mixture sets. If you get it right, it should not need much force to keep it in place until sufficiently hard.

placing the inner bucket
Placing the inner bucket

Once it is held in place for around 5 minutes it should be hard enough to let go of. if not, it may need to be held longer. You could always put heavy items on top to keep it in place. After a while it should look like the one below. Able to be left without touching, slowly drying.

still drying
Waiting for the mix to dry, but it still hold the inner bucket

Remember that at this stage, it still needs to be left for a long time before we actually take the bucket out, preferably for 24 hours, but it will depend on the mix you made, your climate, the temperature, all manner of things. We recommend leaving it overnight. When you touch the top of the mix, if it is moving then it isn’t ready yet.

The next stage is very fragile though. First empty all the water out of the inner bucket. Then we used a pair of pliers to slowly move the sides of the bucket away from the newly set mix. The bucket was slightly damaged, but with patience it is possible to remove the inner bucket to leave your new fire hole. If it doesn’t collapse in on itself it’s considered a success!

finished
The finished article, ready for fire

Thanks for reading this post, I hope to be posting some more updates about our foundry in the coming weeks, so watch this space. Also, if you have been making your own foundry, leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you.