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Coppersmithing


Hammered Copper


American Craftsman used local materials and Gadget Craftsman follows this ethos. Living in Phoenix I look to the stream of used materials produced here as potential for building. One valuable material is copper in the form of wire and pipe. Beautiful enough to be used in jewelry it can add richness to a home. It also has a very long history of being used in homes.

Originally copper was prized for its workability. But this aspect as become much less common in the past 50 years or so. When worked these days it is most common to buy sheets and lay it on a table or maybe punch holes in it. Pretty rare to see actual coppersmithing any more. And that's a shame because it is very easy to work and requires very few tools.

Plate 1. Fire box.


Plate 2. Hair dryer feed pipe.


Forge


I think coppersmithing fell out of common use when fire fell out of common use. 100 years ago fire was an important tool for many different craftsmen and farmers. Many people knew about fire, how to control heat, etc. Working copper really only requires heat. Once heated and cooled it is annealed and can be worked almost like putty.

Annealing steel is complex. Annealing copper is very easy, fast and pretty hard to get wrong.

Propane Torch - Not So Good

At first I annealed copper using a propane torch. OK for very small parts. But a fire works much better and I think is much safer. If you've ever had gas leaking out from around a torch head, basically a fire ball in your hand, you know what I mean. Lucky for me I was wearing gloves when I had this experience.

Building a Forge

The key to using fire is building a forge. Plate 1 is my forge. Stacked bricks, no mortar, a steel pipe and a hair dryer. Pretty simple. Fast to set up. I can reconfigure the bricks to fit the piece if needed. I'm using fire brick here but that's only because I already had a bunch. Any fired clay brick should work fine for the short time needed to anneal copper. Concrete brick is also probably fine too.

I could give a bunch of warnings here like bricks can blowup in a fire, fire can burn you, dropping a brick on your head can hurt, don't pick up red hot copper with your hands, etc. But I'm a great believer in evolution. So if you think you can predict the future and know nothing bad is going happen to you then by all means don't wear safety goggles or gloves. Shoot me an email if you make The Darwin Awards and live.

There are lots of instructions on the web for building these, search "hair dryer forge". I won't go into details here. Plate 2 shows the steel pipe with the hair dryer. I had a 1 ½" galvanized drain pipe sitting around. I left it long, I might need it for something else later. I drilled some holes in the end, maybe ¼" or smaller, for air to be forced up into the fire. Stacked bricks around the end and metal taped a hair dryer to the other end.

I did disassemble the heat on an old hair dryer, which I, sadly, no longer have any use hair wise, as there wasn't an off switch. The heat isn't a big issue, just wastes electric.

Build a fire above the air holes, turn on the hair dryer and you are ready to anneal. I do like to start with a big fire and let it burn down a bit to get some nice coals in the bottom. Maybe 10-15 minutes worth of burning. I cut and split a good supply of wood ahead of time as once the hair dryer is enaged wood is consumed at a prodigious rate, especially soft woods. You can turn on the dryer for a few seconds at the start just to get the fire going.

Plate 3. Start with a lot of wood.


Plate 4. Air on.


glow

Heating the Copper


You'll see some parts of the fire will be hotter than others. Put the copper into the hotest spots.

Heat until the copper glows red. OK, this is one of the things web sites get confusing about...what's "glow red". There are lots of levels of glowing and colors. Keep it simple, any glowing red will work. You don't have to heat to yellow and white. When glowing red the copper will be softer but still basically hold its shape when picked up with pilers.

You can heat one end of the piece and turned it around to heat the other end. Any section that glows red will be annealed. The whole piece doesn't have to been uniformly glowing or anything like that. Simple. You can even anneal one section and not another if you want.

Seeing the glow is pretty easy at night or if you have something over the top of the fire box. In daylight pulling the copper out of the fire will be enough to see the glow.

It only takes a few minutes to get a red glow going. I have left pieces in for 10 minutes and have not had any melt to date. Not really very tricky.

Good video showing copper being annealed.

Cooling


Once you've heated to satisfaction the copper can be dunked into water to cool. You can leave it to air cool if you like but the result is exactly the same. Annealing steel on the other hand does have all kinds of different cooling procedures for a desired out come. Not copper. Water or air cool, doesn't matter, as far as I can tell.

There is no benefit to working copper while hot. Also I think that would be pretty much impossible anyways as it conducts heat so fast it would cool quickly when set on steel.

Plate 5. Copper pipe flattened.


Working the Metal


Most of my work is with old copper water pipe and normally the first step is to flatten it with a hammer. I use 3 lb sledge or a ball-peen. You learn very fast about how the annealing went when hammering.

The hammer and anvil faces will transfer marks onto the copper. Also, the inside of the pipe will transfer through to the surface. Old pipe may have a lot of scale inside and you'll get a rough surface. It's a look I like so I don't clean the inside of pipes.

Hammering or bending the copper will harden it making it more brittle. I generally flatten and add any bends if needed with a single annealing. Hammering a pipe flat without annealing will generally crack the pipe. Plus it's a bitch.

The ends of the flatten pipe look like a single thickness.

Plate 6. Top - annealed, middle - flattened, bottom - formed.


Plate 6. Final, polished with steel wool.


Forming


Flattened copper pipe has nice round edges as can be seen in the formed piece in Plate 6.

Forming is where coppersmithing skill comes into play. Different hammers, different anvil surfaces, it's endless. For Americam Craftsman the shapes are very simple. Here are the steps I used to create straps for some electrical conduit.

Bend over pipe.

Keep pipe in bend so it dosen't deform. One end of tab in vise roll pipe to start tab.

Finish forming tab.

I have found it much easier and faster to create copper brackets than to drive to a Home Depot and wander around 130,000 sq ft of mess looking for all the different spots they've hidden brackets. And I get a great looking solid copper bracket rather than a plated bit of steel that will look like crap in a few years. Saving time, money and stress is just a bonus.