By Steve Kraus, CJF
One of several game changers in the business of shoeing horses was the development of the portable gas forge. This item, that we take for granted today, has made profound changes to the farrier profession beyond just heating metal. Although gas forges have been around for a long time, the portable version for horseshoeing began to appear in the mid 1970s. Prior to that, shoeing horses was clearly defined by one’s ability to use a coal forge to make and modify horseshoes versus just cold shaping and fitting.
The portable coal forge was mostly a home-built item of various designs to be placed in the back of a pick-up truck or van. The skills of operating one properly, as well as forging skills were uncommon. When I first started learning how to shoe, my only familiarity was with cold shaping the old Diamond Bronco shoes. Once I was exposed to the practice of shoe forging, hot fitting and modifying keg shoes, I knew I needed to develop those skills to improve as a farrier. The trouble was finding a suitable coal forge.
I befriended Doug Butler, who was in Ithaca while I was attending the College of Agriculture at Cornell University. He had published a small book that showed how to make a coal forge for trucks. I also met Harold Mowers, the Resident Farrier at Cornell’s Veterinary College. With Harold’s help and Doug’s advice, I was on my way.
Then there was the coal. Good soft coal suitable for blacksmithing also was uncommon. What constituted good coal also was poorly understood. Working with “dirty” coal that has some sulphur in it is an unpleasant experience. Even good coal or coke has dust particles that find their way into most body parts.
Finding a good source of coal was a challenge. My farrier friend Doug Pokorney and I started a quest to find a source, which ended up in southwest Pennsylvania, 5 hours from where we lived. We drove there with an empty truck with a portable forge to test it. Arriving at the coal yard, we were fortunate to meet the superintendent who gave us a lesson in the variations and quality factors of coal. It was a huge operation with mountains of coal that all looked alike. He pointed us to a smaller pile he called “metallurgical grade” and said this is what you need. It was black, shiny and less dusty. It made a really nice fire, so we loaded up the truck with as much as it would carry.
A couple years later, I opened up a farrier supply business and started selling this coal. I couldn’t keep enough of it in stock once word got out that I had good coal. I kept running back to the coal yard for more, every time with a bigger truck. Eventually, I had the coal company ship a tractor trailer load and I sold two full dump trailer loads a year, for many years, until gas forges became widespread. The last load took several years to sell, so I discontinued carrying coal.
In the mid 1970s and beyond, other farriers began realizing the value of being able to do forge work on the job. I made some changes in my original design and started fabricating a good, portable truck forge.
I wired a 12-volt blower to the forge, which made it completely portable. Now I was able to sell the forge, the coal and the forging tools, as well as the bar stock to make shoes.
Ken Mankel developed one of the earlier portable gas forges for horseshoeing. Dave Willis also entered the market with his Valley Hot Box models, followed by Don Jones with his NC Whisper forges. These were the early “game changers.” Now anyone could have a portable, safe, convenient, heat source.
Operating a coal fire is a whole other skill as opposed to throwing some shoes in a gas forge. Keeping the coal fire running takes constant attention. It provides a hotter fire, but can actually burn up unattended shoes. Coal fires are dirty to be around, especially without a good draft to remove smoke. Even good truck forges needed to be outside the barn because a stray ember could start a fire. When the gas forges became more widespread, few farriers wanted to stay with their coal forges.
Hot Vs. Cold Shoeing
Horseshoers eager to transition from being known as a “cold” shoer acquired a gas forge to instantly become a “hot” shoer. Unfortunately, just heating up some shoes and making some smoke rise off a horse’s foot still didn’t improve their overall job. Cold fitting can work fine with the lighter shoes that do not need any modifications. Heavier shoes need the forge to shape them properly. Often just heating up lighter shoes to go through the motions of hot shaping wasn’t enough for some horses.
As better selections of horseshoes have come onto the market, wider, heavier shoes are more available, which must be worked hot to shape and modify. Today, many farriers are happy to produce shoes from barstock, some still maintaining a coal forge. However, the gas forge is the most popular way to heat steel until other technologies arrive. Yes, the gas forge was a major game changer during my 50-plus year career in this business.
Steve Kraus is the Head of Farrier Services, Instructor of the Farrier School, and a Lecturer at the Large Animal Hospital at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. He has been a professional farrier since 1971.