METAL MAN: The art of blacksmithing may be on the decline, but for Red Cliffs’ Ron Farrell, it’s the love of his life, and he’s an expert when it comes to working with hot-steel. Photo: PAUL MENSCH

By JOHN DOOLEY

ONE of the great things about being a journalist is that you get to meet some interesting people. 

Ron Farrell, the Red Cliffs blacksmith, is one of those people. 

Located not far from the old Co-op sheds in Red Cliffs, Ron’s workshop factory is something to behold. A curious mix of all-things-metal awaits when you visit his shed, and it just gets more fascinating the more you chat with him.

Many locals may have seen Ron at the Mildura Show last October, where he had a furnace set-up and was demonstrating the basics of blacksmithing.

“I was asked quite literally at the 11th hour if I was up to demonstrating at the show, and I said, ‘Yeah no problem, except I’m very unprepared’,” Ron said.

“They said, ‘Don’t worry mate, we’ll make it work’ and we did.

“I had to work with solid steels, because the borax I use for forge-welding could potentially splatter and blind someone.

“Borax is a natural mineral which acts as a flux, and when it becomes hot, it forms into a liquid, and if I was to hit that with a hammer, it would go 20-feet.

“The first day I was at the show, I had a classroom full of young school kids – wide-eyed and full of questions.” 

Ron’s stand was located next to livestock, and so a lot of people came past and were fascinated by his work.

“I fashioned a couple of crow-bars so the visitors could see how the process of working with hot metal is handled,” Ron said. “Three days at the show was a wakening for the body – yeah that was hard work.”

Ron’s tough and in good shape for his years, which he didn’t immediately declare, but was happy when it was suggested that he was in his late 50s or early 60s.

“I’ll take that, I’m 65 in a couple of months,” he said with a hearty chuckle. 

Ron then explained the basis of the blacksmith’s work – the art of forging metal.

“Forging is heating the steel up to a semi-critical stage, where it takes on a plastic type characteristic but doesn’t flow like lava, that’s what you call molten,” Ron said. “People say, ‘Oh, you melt steel’, no I don’t, I get it before the molten stage, which is when it is malleable, ‘Oh yeah, then you hit it with a hammer’ – yes!

“When you do that, you’re forcing the steel to bind to itself, that’s where the flux comes in and removes all of the scale off the surface of the molten steel and presents hot, clean material, and I also use a special tumbler to remove the scale.”

It’s a complex process

Ron said the process leading up to the hot metal being fashioned into a component was quite complex.

“You have to ‘anneal’ (heat the metal and allow it to cool slowly to remove internal stresses and toughen it) the raw metal first and take the hardness out of it before you can actually de-scale it, and then forge it,” he said. “It’s a complicated series of events that has to happen in the right sequence for you to end up with a good piece of steel.

“If you don’t follow the process correctly, or you don’t give it the 100 percent of time it requires in the furnace, you’ll end up with cracks through it.

“It’s tedious work, that’s why I built myself a power hammer, because I’m getting too old to swing a hammer and fashion everything on the anvil.”

Ron’s workshop in Red Cliffs is a place of wonder, with an incredible collection of all sorts of scrap metal components and customised apparatus, which he reckons allows him to make almost anything from steel. 

Ron proudly showed his home-built ‘power hammer’ which is made from a variety of bits and pieces, including car parts.

“It’s quite a devastating thing. It takes all the work out of swinging a hammer and because I am still basically setting this workshop up, I don’t have my big anvil set up,” he said.

“Over here we have a 100-tonne hydraulic press, into which the red-hot, malleable steel is placed to be consolidated, and then it goes under the bigger hammer to be worked further.”  

Ron produces everything from knife blades to door-knockers and handles, through to belt buckles, letter openers – you name it, he’ll make it.

“I can produce full size ‘medieval’ replica weapons, or tiny little customised components that someone might need and can’t buy off-the-shelf,” Ron said.

Many of us commonly think of the traditional blacksmith as the craftsman who made horseshoes, and yes, Ron’s up for that too!

“Yes, I’ve done that too! I’ve been known to ‘hot-shoe’ horses, and can make those from scrap steel, but there are better people around for that,” he said. 

Farm-bred skills

Ron picked up his skills as a metal forger when he was growing up on a farm.

“I started out like a lot of people of my vintage, on a farm. As a kid, I stood around watching my father, grandfather and uncles working hot-steel, doing implement repairs, ‘re-pointing’ things, shoeing horses – farmers relied upon being able to work hot steel through necessity,” he said.

“Hot steel always fascinated me, but initially I did my trade as a boilermaker, the only thing about being a boilermaker is that you are not as skilled as a blacksmith. You don’t know your material as well as a blacksmith does, because he knows how to work with the metal while it’s hot.” 

Ron said that most people working with steel only ever cut it, clean it and weld it together. 

“The difference is that I can weld the pieces of hot steel without using a traditional welding machine,” he said.

Many of Ron’s pieces are created from discarded chains, which may have once been on motorbikes or chainsaws. To demonstrate how he utilises them, Ron brought out a typical chain he would use and then produced a piece of forged steel that had been flattened and was ready to be turned into a knife blade.

“That was a chainsaw chain which has gone through the metal press to keep it together, then it went into the furnace where it was forged into one malleable piece, which was then worked and flattened,” Ron said.

The wonder of chain

“There are four types of steel in a chainsaw chain. The pins, the plates, the rollers and the teeth. When they become red-hot, you can see each component exhibits a different colour. 

“I also work with ‘cable’ because it’s equally malleable, and it’s something people discard and so I have quite a bit of it – it’s something to be explored, but I’ve had good success working with it.”

Ron’s furnace is another self-fashioned piece of equipment in which he has set up two LPG gas burners, together with a car heater/de-mister fan that supplies air. 

“I’m going to make a bigger furnace to increase the heating capacity,” Ron said. “Like the saying goes, to have many irons in the fire I have to have a bigger furnace!” 

• FOOTNOTE: Anyone wishing to contact Ron with the view of having him make something for them, can contact him on 0401 769 316. He asks that people text him first with their enquiry and he will be in touch. He can also be contacted via email; ronzphoned@gmail.com.