How to Refine Metal

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Smelting metal sounds like a process far outside the range of the DIY enthusiast or historical re-enactor, until you realize that men have been refining metals from ores for several thousand years. As recently as the 1950s, Mao Zedong forced the Chinese steel industry into backyard smelters in his "Great Leap Forward." Early American industrialization was based on strictly local, small-scale furnaces to furnish a domestic source of metals. A determined person can make metal entirely on her own.

  • Locate some ore. You can either purchase your ore or lace up your boots and go looking for some. An easy example of finding your own ore would be to look for iron ore. Have you ever seen a rock that looked rusty? Odds are that is because the rock has a bit of iron ore in it. Those rocks have very little iron ore in them, however, which is why they are sitting there and not being mined. You will need to look further. Early Americans went looking for natural outcroppings of high-grade iron ore or fished natural crude iron out of swamp bogs.

  • Make a smelter. A colonial or Mao-era smelter was no bigger than a typical backyard barbecue pit. The design is pretty straightforward: you need a chimney that will allow you to continue pouring fuel into the smelter after you have started your fire (this will also allow smoke and waste gases to escape); ventilation holes along the sides of the smelter chimney to improve the flow of oxygen to your fire; and spigots along the bottom to allow you to release the liquid metal. The spigot should be of the bung-and-hole design. You will find a bung with a loop that a handle can be attached to easier to get open when your furnace is blazing, and a simple hole is easier to clear of slag than a faucet. Your spigot should pour directly into container for your liquid metal. In colonial times, this was merely a shaped sandpit.

  • Determine the level of heat you need to smelt your metal. Iron, for example, requires 900 degrees C to separate iron from its ore, and from there it will sink to the bottom of the smelter and form a slag. The necessary temperature may affect the materials you use to build your smelter.

  • Collect a lot of charcoal. You need a hot, steady fire to smelt metal in this tried-and-true old-school method. These smelting fires might have to burn for several days straight. You should always assume you simply don't have enough charcoal, so make sure you can get plenty more if you need it.

  • Put in your first load of charcoal and start your fire. Then add your ore and and additives. Iron traditionally included a portion of lime. Continue adding your charcoal and keep your fire above the necessary temperature. As previously stated, you should anticipate running your charcoal smelter for at least a few days, and perhaps as long as a week, to separate metal from ore at such low temperatures. How long depends on the heat you can achieve, the amount of ore, quality of ore and the quality of your smelter. This is not an exact science, so assume it will take longer than you think.

  • Pour your slag. With the fire still going hot, pull your spigot bungs and let the slag pour out into its cooling container (perhaps just a trench in the sand). Allow that to cool. In iron-making, the resulting ingot would be called a "pig."

Tips & Warnings

  • Smelting metals obviously involves long, sustained, hot fires and working with incredibly hot materials. Take all due fire prevention and safety measures.

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