Story: Our history of metal


From the chronicles of Julia Rence, a descendant on Antheia. The chronicles describe the life 5 generations after planetfall.

Chapter 6: Our history of metal

When looking at the comfortable, thriving colony of today it is hard to imagine that we began with almost nothing. Nevertheless, we were able to get to this point through hard work, skill and some help from the Pioneer Planning Unit. Of course, the place we chose for our settlement had a great deal to do with it. Since we were cut off from trading with the colony we left behind, and there were no other settlements around, we were completely on our own and had to rely on the resources that we found in our surroundings.
Thankfully, Castor had found a good destination for our journey down the river. Good farm land, fishing spots and woods filled with game were essential, but in order to advance from mere survival to a reasonably comfortable life we needed tools, we needed metalworking. The foundation for that lay in the hills and streams nearby: iron ore, gold ore, good clay. When we discovered a herd of megapods in the nearby swamp, we knew that we could get natural polymers as well, in the form of secretions that megapods build their nests from.

The improvised smithy

(bloomery furnace, stone anvil)

We had two people with us who were skilled at blacksmithing, Andon and Kato. Since the group had lost so many tools during our eventful journey, we decided it was top priority to restock our inventory. Getting fields tilled and sown would be impossible without some basic farming implements, and getting a crop going would be vital for our survival.
So, we immediately started setting up the basics for metalworking. While some people dug for bog ore, others were gathering stones, clay and firewood. We constructed the kiln first, because we needed charcoal to be able to do any smithing at all. While the kiln was drying, we made a crude bloomery furnace and Kato found a large rock which could serve as an anvil. Since they didn’t even have a hammer, our two blacksmiths spent considerable time looking for a rock suited for striking a large lump of red-hot iron. From their apprehensive looks I could see that blacksmithing without a hammer was not an idea they were excited about. The first tool they made was surely going to be a hammer.

As soon as the first batch of charcoal was done, we fed it to the bloomery furnace together with the ore. Using a blow pipe made from water cane, we were able to make the charcoal burn hot enough to smelt our first iron bloom – a hot clump of iron and slag. We awkwardly maneuvered this lump to the stone anvil, and Kato hammered it repeatedly with a big rock. In between, he reheated the glowing iron mass in the furnace, then hammered again and again, gradually reducing the carbon content and splitting it until he had lumps of ‘wrought iron’. He then shaped a hammer head in an effort to make this process a little less excruciating next time.
Later, they made more tools for blacksmithing, such as tongs and files and put them in a blacksmith toolbox. It clearly made their blacksmith’s lives somewhat easier. They could now supply the small colony with items such as fishing hooks and small knives. A few days later, someone found large nuggets of gold and they worked them into kitchen utensils.

Andon and Kato made it clear that if they were to start making proper farm tools, it was crucial that they got a better smithy. They needed an iron anvil and a bench vise. The group agreed and the two started forging these essential items. The anvil was a big undertaking; it required several kilos of iron bars to be laboriously forged together. The vise was no small feat either, as I noticed Andon painstakingly file the threaded rod that connected the jaws. When they were finally done, they had a new workplace:

The simple smithy

(bloomery furnace, iron anvil, bench vise)

With this new smithy, the blacksmiths could make wrought iron tools for us a lot quicker as well as new items that were previously too difficult, such as saws and pliers and spring traps for trapping field quadites and other animals. I made a bellows out of thunder chicken hide which allowed them to heat the furnace more efficiently.
But for farming, we needed sharp, hard cutting tools. We needed good steel. The steel came from a special kiln that we built:

The cementation kiln

This was a flat structure made of clay where we heated wrought iron bars together with charcoal, for several days, in order to increase the carbon content of the iron, giving us ‘blister steel’ bars.

The blacksmiths took these blister steel bars and were finally able to forge good quality farming tools: steel machetes, sickles, axes, pickaxes, spades and everything else that needed to be hard, sharp and strong. At that point the colony switched from hunting, gathering and fishing to farming – and it was just in time if we wanted a crop of glassy creeper pods before winter.

The colony was on its way. We had planted some farm plots and built our first mud brick house. We were going to survive. But to lift ourselves out of hard toil and drudgery we needed more and better tools than what a smithy could provide. The most common sound heard from the smithy was not the sound of a hammer but the sound of a file. Lots and lots of painstaking filing.
We needed machine tools. A machine tool could constrain and control the workpiece, which would increase precision and work speed compared to the freehand methods of the blacksmith. They could be human powered, outfitted with some human power unit such as a bicycle or treadle or one day, even engine powered. The most experienced machinists were Andon and Daniel and after listening to their ideas in a meeting and studying our PPU, we decided that our first machine tool would be a lathe.

Plans for the metal lathe

The lathe would be used for turning and could make metal objects that are symmetrical about an axis, as well as making screw threads and making smooth-bore and rifled gun barrels. It was also essential for making more machine tools.
It would be somewhat similar to the wood lathe we used for turning wood and bone – but to turn metal it needed stronger and more precise parts. These parts needed to be made from cast metal, but Nisa Morozov, who knew metallurgy, explained why cast iron was out of the question.. Casting iron would be very hard for us to do, since melting iron required a high temperature which would be difficult for us to reach. It also required materials for the furnace, crucible and molds which could withstand the high temperatures. She had yet to find a type of clay and sand which had the necessary properties.
Instead, she recommended that we started smelting the gold which we found in so many places. Gold has a lower melting point, allowing us to use the types of clay and sand that were available for building the furnace and the molds. The cast items would be easy to shape and would be very durable since gold does not corrode. As Nisa pointed out, we could also cast bullets for our rifles – since gold is heavy and ductile, it would be even better than lead. The group agreed. We began building our next structure:

The gold furnace

A flat structure with a chimney; the technical name for the gold furnace was ‘reverberatory furnace’ but we never called it that. It was made from tiles of clay that were carefully fired in the kiln under Nisas instructions. Once it was ready, we placed the gold nuggets in a hearth which lay next to the ‘firebox’. We used firewood as fuel instead of charcoal, because long flames were needed to project the heat from the firebox up against the roof of the furnace down towards the metal. The melted gold that came out of a tap in the bottom was inspected by Nisa who confirmed that the quality was adequate.

While building the furnace, we had already started preparing the sand casting technique needed for making the components of the lathe. We needed many different shapes such as wheels and disks as well as elements for the frame.
We made mold boxes filled with a special mixture of sand and clay which we compacted around the so-called patterns – shapes made from wood that resembled the finished castings. These wooden patterns were made with the wood lathe and the other carpentry tools we had.

The melted gold was poured into the molds and allowed to cool. The gold castings were then worked by the blacksmiths who also used wrought iron and steel to construct the other parts of the lathe.
Daniel made a treadle system which allowed the lathe operator to use his legs to power it.
After many days of work, the metal lathe was finished and stood gleaming in the sunshine with its beautiful mix of iron, gold and steel components.

To celebrate this achievement, we had a feast, eating a fine roast using cutlery and plates made from cast gold. Even though gold is common here, every child knows that gold was rare and considered a luxury back on Earth, so we took a little pleasure in that.

The metal lathe

With this tool, endless possibilities lay ahead. We could start making more machine tools, such as a milling machine and a drill press. But we agreed that high on the list were more guns. There had been some dangerous encounters with dendronts and whipjaws which we did not want to repeat. Guns would also allow us to get near enough to the megapods to gather the polymers from their nests so we could make plastic items. After a heated meeting, we compromised and decided to work on the milling machine and a pair of guns simultaneously.

Kato began work on the gun barrel, forging together bars of wrought iron and steel. Meanwhile, we started casting the many parts for a milling machine. The lathe became a bottleneck. At one point, Daniel was working the lathe day and night, boring and rifling gun barrels and shaping the new machine parts. We wanted rifles immediately, but we also wanted a milling machine because it would speed up everything else.

The engine

When the first gun barrel was done, Kato tested it. To make sure that it worked, he used a charge of gunpowder four times larger than the usual and a gold bullet. Sadly, the barrel cracked and he had to go back to the forge and start over. It was a clear sign that blacksmithing was no easy task and we knew that at one point we should upgrade the smithy and replace his handheld hammer with a power hammer, powered by an engine. Making an engine became our long term goal. The machine tools we were making at the time were all outfitted with human power units, pedals and gears very similar to bicycles. If we could make a fuel-powered engine, we would take a giant leap forward.

The engine became our biggest project yet. The valves especially were a huge challenge, and there was a lot of trial and error involved with using the natural polymer which we harvested from the megapod nests.
It was a long journey but here we are. We have a machine shop, complete with lathe, milling machine, drill press and grinder, all powered by a home-made engine. The engine runs on wood gas using a wood gasifier which we feed with firewood. Another engine is driving the power hammer in Katos smithy. But we’re not done yet.
Trees and firewood is getting harder to come by, so we’re currently looking at switching to another type of fuel. A lot of people are looking forward to getting an ethanol fuel distillery. I’m pretty sure they are not only excited about using ethanol as a fuel source…