As I write this in January of 2011 the East Coast of the USA has been hammered with several winter storms and ice. There was 6 inches of snow as far south as Atlanta, Georgia! Whole cities have been shut down. That is very understandable in areas where half a foot of snow is a once per century event.
But I live in the North Country. We are less than 30 miles from Canada. Mountains, frozen rivers and lakes abound. This is where the Military does Winter Training without going to Alaska. A local Meteorologist invented the term “Lake Effect” to describe the heavy snows we get from Lake Ontario. We often get more snow in January and February than most regions get in a whole year. When you get that much snow you might as well have fun with it. This Igloo my boys made is about 14 feet tall, and almost big enough to park the car inside.
Up here when it storms we don't get inches, we get feet. It is a yearly occurrence for it to start snowing an inch per hour and for that to continue day and night for two, three, or four days. Our record stands at getting 6 feet in 6 hours, and our region got 14 feet in 5 days in the Blizzard of 1977. So six inches isn’t really going to slow me down! Because we get so much snow our towns and counties are very well equipped. Here is what we see daily plowing the village sidewalks. Some states don’t plow their roads as nicely we do our sidewalks!
Blacksmithing in cold winter weather isn't really optional. But working in cold weather has some major drawbacks. It helps to know some tips and tricks to make it easier.
One is to create a safe working environment. In bitter cold you have to bundle up. But most modern cold weather gear is Nylon, Polar Fleece, and other synthetics. They are a major danger around hot metal. Sparks go through them like water through tissue paper. If they get too hot and burn they not only melt but also shrink. That coats your skin with 300 degree molten plastic. Not good. The solution to this is two fold. First, create a warming spot in the shop. If you are using a drafty, uninsulated building like I am heating the whole shop isn’t practical. But you need a spot that is warmish. I’ve seen wood stoves and propane heaters used to good effect.
Second, wear traditional fiber clothing. Cotton canvas jackets are stiff, but as also predictable around fire. They scorch before they burn, and if you catch it on fire it is easily put out. Isn’t that the hallmark of a Blacksmith? That being a little on fire isn’t that big a deal? I like two layers of wool shirts. Very warm, easy to move in, and very spark resistant.
But what about your tools? Can they get too cold and break? There has been a great deal of discussion among Blacksmiths about how cold is too cold to use an anvil without breaking it. I don’t know the answer. I do know it is hard to do good and timely work on an anvil that is below 20 degrees F. It sucks the heat right out of your iron on contact. I usually preheat a slab of steel and put it on the anvil face to warm. A five pound bar won’t warm the anvil much but it will take the chill off. Once the anvil face is near or above freezing it works better and is probably less likely to suffer damage. Another solution is a Magnetic Block Heater. This is a magnetic hot plate designed to warm vehicle engines to around 50 degrees. Stick it to the side of your anvil and it will keep it warmer. Others use a foam box and a light bulb. Whatever works!
Extreme cold. Since we have pretty serious winters up here in the North Country I’ve done work in the shop with temperatures well below 0 F. At those temperatures you have to work carefully. You are more encumbered with heavy clothes and can be more clumsy. Light leather gloves are a good idea since 0 F. steel tools will stick to your skin. Once you are warmed up you may be able to shed layers.
These are just some tips I have found helpful working in cold weather. Do what works, have fun, stop when you can't feel your feet!