For those who have never used a coal forge in their daily work, especially in a mobile practice, there are a few things to know. It takes some time and effort to get a coal forge up to a nice even working heat. Once that has been accomplished, the last thing you want to do is dowse the whole thing in order to move on to the next appointment to start all over, but with wet coal.

In 1973, I was in my first summer of shoeing and propane forges were rarely seen. I was using a homemade coal forge fashioned from the core of an old water heater. It sat on squat legs about 6 inches high and had a short chimney about 4 inches wide. The other thing it had was a somewhat ill-fitting door. When stationary it did an OK job of preventing drafts from stirring up the fire when I didn’t want it stirred. It sat in the back of the bed next to the tailgate of my 1965 Chevy pickup. It didn’t have any kind of canopy or covering over the bed and therefore when driving down the road a considerable updraft would enter through the door and exit out the chimney. In doing so, the coal fire would receive exactly the kind of draft it needed to really take off.

One morning in August, I finished an appointment and had about 8 miles to drive to the next stop. I banked up the fire with some damp coal and with no flames visible I started down the road. 

I was on the main two-lane road in the county and was doing around 50 mph when the large side mirrors showed what no one wants to see. There was a sheriff’s car with lights flashing and a disturbed looking deputy with his arm out the window, motioning very emphatically for me to pull over. I can still see what the mirrors showed me as he approached from behind, and the incredulous look on his face said he was not amused at what he saw. By now the lack of movement caused the updraft to cease and the chimney was spewing an impressive column of thick black smoke. 

As he approached the cab, he continued to glance back at the smoking forge with a look of curiosity and apprehension. Before he even asked for the license and registration, he looked at me and asked, “What the hell you got back there, son, a still?” I explained what it was and how I used it for my work, but he wasn’t very sympathetic to my needs.

I hadn’t noticed that, driving down the road, I was blowin’ smoke like Casey Jones on a downhill run and there was a considerable amount of sparks and hot ashes exiting the forge as well. 

“I hadn’t noticed that, driving down the road, I was blowin’ smoke like Casey Jones…”

“I get what you are saying,” he explained, “but I can’t have you throwing live embers up and down the road in August.” There was a ditch running next to the road with a few inches of water in it. He watched as I dipped the bucket numerous times, pouring it on my coal forge until there was no sign of fire or heat left.

It was cold shoeing for a good while after that. I came home that afternoon and said to my wife, after describing the day’s events, “You know what, I think I’ll get one of those new-fangled propane forges!” Shortly after the incident with the deputy, I bought a two-burner forge made by Ken Mankle.

I never looked back, though having to run a wire from the back of the truck to the battery to operate the electric fan it needed was a bit of a pain until the newer atmospheric forges came on the market.

I would add that initially propane forges weren’t deemed hot enough to forge weld and contestants at shoeing and forging contests preferred coal for quite awhile after we were using the propane forges in our daily work. Quite a difference to today when only propane is allowed.

It was during this transition period that Farriers Association of Washington State (FAWS) held a competition at a popular indoor arena near Olympia. When a dozen or so competitors started up their coal forges, the resulting dark acrid smoke had nowhere to go, the ventilation system being nowhere close to handling the amount they were producing. There was a restaurant on the second level of the arena, so the patrons could watch whatever was going on below. The thick cloud of smoke hung around in the restaurant for at least 2 hours, and nothing could be seen but the table next to you. Management was not amused and FAWS had to look for another venue for our next forging contest.