The Blacksmith’s Spear
by Dave Jungst
Blacksmiths made use of what they had. Years ago, resources were not as abundant as now. They were from a time when people couldn’t afford to throw things away. Good blacksmiths were highly valued members of a local community. They were relied upon to keep things going. Since they needed to make the most of what they had, they were often inventive and sometimes ingenious.
The fishing spear in the museum’s collection is a good example of that ingenuity. If you look closely at the spear, you can still see the cross-hatch markings of the teeth of the farrier’s rasp that it was fashioned from. A rasp is a big file that has large, coarse teeth to remove material faster. Many blacksmiths were also farriers. A farrier is someone who trims horse hoofs and fits horse shoes. It makes sense the blacksmith might have some old dull hoof rasps laying around. An important characteristic of a rasp is that it’s not made of ordinary iron, also called mild steel. It is made of tool steel which has a higher carbon content and can be tempered or hardened so that it holds an edge longer and stays sharp. Tool steel can be heated and softened, re-shaped and then tempered again to hold its new form. That way the spear made from the rasp would have points that would not dull easily if they hit something hard, like a rock on the bottom of the lake or stream.
Tempering steel is done by heating the metal to a cherry red. As it is heated, steel will go from being black, to dark red, to cherry red, bright red or orange, then white. When steel reaches a white heat, it will begin to throw sparks which indicates the metal is burning away. Blacksmith shops are often depicted in movies and paintings as dark places. They were dark on purpose, so the color of the heated steel could be seen more easily than in bright daylight. Once the steel reached cherry red it was quickly quenched or cooled in water or oil. If tool steel is cooled slowly after heating, it will be as soft as mild steel. The quick cooling sets up the crystalline molecular structure of the carbon in the iron, causing it to be much harder.
Nowadays, heat for metal working comes from compressed gas such as acetylene or using high voltage electricity. But before the second World War, and even up to the 1960’s, many blacksmiths used coal to heat up metal for their work. Blacksmiths use a high quality low sulfur coal for greater heat while avoiding contaminants getting into the steel and weakening it. The coal was heaped in a tray with legs called a forge. It had a throat that would allow air to be blown from below to turbo-charge the fire. This achieves temperatures that can melt steel.
My Grandfather, Walt Jungst, was the blacksmith in the town of Kandiyohi, east of Willmar Minnesota. He was also an avid hunter and fisherman. So naturally he made much of his own sporting gear. He also made fishing spears and sold them as a sideline in his shop. He got the steel for his fishing spears from old trip springs on farming plows. They were coil springs so he would heat the springs, un-coil and straighten them, fashion them into spears and then temper them to harden the points. Pictured is one that I have that was passed down to me. I’ve speared many fish with it.