It is one of the coolest things about blacksmithing. Indeed, it’s one of the best and least expensive ways to build your own shop and your hammer skills. Plus you get the satisfaction of custom-designing and using your own tools.
During tong-making demonstrations, Lyle Wheeler (blacksmith, instructor, and chair-maker) will often call for a moment of silence for the smith who bravely reached into the fire bare-handed to make the first pair of tongs. The story always earns Lyle a chuckle. There are certainly ways to make tongs without tongs (and without burning your hands), but it’s not easy. It’s theoretically possible to trace the “ancestors” of your tongs back to ancient times, each set of tongs crafted by the set before. Smiths making tools for other smiths across generations.
If you’ve got some time on your hands, try plotting out exactly how you’d get a blacksmithing shop together from scratch for real. I’ll be generous and start you off with an anvil. Need a hammer? Oh, gosh, you’ll have to make one. How do you get that hammer handle punched?
It’s clearly possible to do if you’ve got the right environment. Maybe that stone doubles as a makeshift hammer. Maybe you cast a hammer with some clay and sand. Humans are smart and creative and good at using their environment to bootstrap their way into making more efficient tools.
Making your tools from scratch can take a considerable amount of time, knowledge, and resources in your environment. Carl Sagan says, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
Consider the simple punch; just a small bit of steel, a taper, a flat face, and rounded striking end. You may find that in addition to the tool-steel, you need an anvil, anvil stand, hammer, forge, forge stand, fuel, appropriately sized-tongs, hardy/chisel/other cutting device, a tempering chart, a magnet, something to polish the steel to see the colors run, something to quench with (also a quench bucket), a bin of vermiculite for slow cooling. You might want to have a vice and a set of files to clean it up. Maybe you’re lucky enough to have inherited a complete working shop, but for the rest of us, this list can be prohibitively long and expensive. These simple punches sell for $4.10 apiece on http://www.piehtoolco.com/ and a bag of vermiculite alone costs about $10.
It has taken me years to collect the tools necessary to make my own tools. I haunted guild shops, befriended neighboring smiths, and shopped the tailgate sections at blacksmithing events. I learned so much from the smiths who taught me how to improvise with the tools I had, and I am eternally grateful to those who lent me their tools.
Don’t get me wrong: making your own tools is arguably vital to becoming a good blacksmith, but the refrain of “blacksmiths make their own tools” fetishizes a self-sufficiency that is simply unrealistic for most beginning smiths.
If you’re an experienced smith, please save that line for folks without any dirt under their fingernails.
If you’re a new smith: don’t be afraid to buy, borrow, and improvise until you can make your own tools. Ask questions. Find teachers. Stop at nothing until you find a way to move forward. Welcome to the most amazing craft! We're glad to have you here!