Blacksmithing: Five Twists
August 15, 2012
This twisted spike amulet (which will probably end up on one of my pod knives) has five miniature variations on the traditional “reverse twist” used in ornamental blacksmithing. I’ve briefly summarized the steps below, though this is not a beginner’s exercise and anything not directly related to the twists has been left out. Twisting is not too difficult but it requires concentration and of course a bit of practice.
Twisting adds complexity and a sense of movement to a plain iron bar. Although other metals can be twisted, only steel can accommodate the tightly controlled twists that are essential motifs in ornamental blacksmithing. Twists can be applied to plain or tapered stock, and can be done in one direction or alternating “reverse” twists. In addition to their visual interest, twists can give a bit of extra grip to torcs, bangles, and cuff bracelets.
TOOLS: For stock under ¼”, twisting can be done with a pair of tongs in each hand. If you are new to twisting and/or do not have strong hands, this technique should not be used with anything thicker than 1/8” stock. Even an experienced smith can strain the wrists when repeatedly twisting in this fashion. For tapered twists or stock that is ¼” to ½”, (and ideally for any twisting on forged iron) you will need tongs and a leg vise or large bench vise. This technique will produce the most successful twists with minimum chance of injury to your wrists or arms.
The piece can be heated in the forge or with a torch. Some blacksmiths prefer a torch for twisting, even if they use a forge for everything else, because it’s an easier way to apply heat to only a small area of the bar.
PHOTO: The large spike on the left is a basket twist on a 6″ length of 1/4 inch square bar. A traditional basket twist is made by welding four bars together at the ends, then twisting them tightly until they resemble a piece of rope. Then the piece is twisted in the opposite direction, which opens it into a hollow cagelike basket. The welding method isn’t practical with jewelry-sized steel (though I’ve used it with 14-gauge soldered sterling silver wire). Instead, I used a cordless dremel tool with a heavy duty (fiberglas-reinforced) cutoff wheel to slit the middle 1.5 inches of the bar on all four sides; this takes awhile but eventually all four cuts reach the center and create narrow “windows” through the bar. The center portion was twisted tightly closed, then opened by twisting it in the opposite direction, creating the “basket”.
The other four twists were done with 3″ lengths of 3/16″ round mild steel bar (3/16″ square bar is no longer made). Once the bar is prepared, all the twists were made the same way: the piece was heated to bright orange, placed vertically in the vise, then twisted with pliers. It took several heats to complete each twist. The piece must be kept perfectly straight while twisting, because any bending will result in a permanent uneven kink that is impossible to undo. If the final piece is to be curved, such as for a bracelet or chain link, the curve should be shaped AFTER all twisting is finished.
To create the reverse twist, the piece is twisted first in one direction, then heated and quenched up to the edge of the first twist, clamped in the vise, and twisted in the opposite direction. A series of alternating twists can be made this way (as I’ve done for several bracelets) as long as the piece is quenched all the way to the end of the previous twist, which keeps previous twists from “unravelling”.
How much do you turn the bar for each twist? Anywhere from half a turn to one and a half turns. More turns means a tighter twist. Too many turns means a very tight twist and a broken bar! For a series of evenly-spaced, identical alternating twists, make each twist with the same number of turns on the same length of bar.
FLATTENED TWIST (second from left): The bar was hammered along its length to give it a slightly flattened cross-section. (This is also how I prepare black steel wire for making twisted wire fringe). I left the narrow edges rounded for a softer look. Flattening them would have given a truly rectangular cross-section with a crisp, sharp-cornered twist.
SQUARE or FOUR-SIDED TWIST (center): This is the classic ornamental blacksmithing twist, and is the easiest to make. The bar was hammered along its length on two sides to give a square cross section. (Obviously if you start with a square bar, such as 1/4″ or 1/8″ square stock, no hammering is necessary and you can go straight to the fun part).
FLATTENED HEX or SIX-SIDED TWIST (second from right): This is my signature twist and the one that I use most often in forged iron jewelry, because I like the unique pattern of alternating high and low ridges. This twist can produce very sharp edges, and anything that will be worn close to the skin, such as a bangle or torc, should be sanded with 400-grit emery paper just enough to smooth the edges and make the piece comfortable to wear.
The bar is hammered into a square cross section, then turned and hammered along its length along two opposite corners to give it a flattened hexagonal cross section. The hammered section must be kept smooth and even, with no stray hammer marks to mar the final twist.
OCTAGON or EIGHT-SIDED TWIST (right): This subtle, flowing twist is probably the most difficult to make, though it’s ideal for jewelry because it feels very smooth, and can even be used for items such as hair sticks. The narrow sides give the tongs less metal to grip. The cross-section is very close to round rather than square, which can make it difficult to judge whether the bar has been turned far enough.
The bar is hammered into a square cross section, then turned and hammered along BOTH SETS of opposite corners to give it an octagonal cross section. The more evenly the piece is hammered, the better the twist will look.
After twisting, the ends of each bar were drawn out, rounded, looped, and cut to staggered lengths. The pieces were cleaned of firescale with a wire brush and blackened in peanut oil.