Chain Making

Some rusting chain in New Bern, NC. Who knows what Florence (20189 did to it?

The chain is a unit of length equal to 66 feet (22 yards). It is subdivided into 100 links[1][2] or 4 rods. There are 10 chains in a furlong, and 80 chains in one statute mile.[2] In metric terms, it is 20.1168 m long.[2] By extension, chainage (running distance) is the distance along a curved or straight survey line from a fixed commencing point, as given by an odometer.

The chain has been used for several centuries in England and in some other countries influenced by English practice. In the United Kingdom, there were 80 chains to the mile, but until the early nineteenth century the Scottish and Irish customary miles were longer than the statute mile; consequently a Scots chain was about 74 (imperial) feet,[3] an Irish chain 84 feet. These longer chains became obsolete following the adoption of the imperial system in 1824.[4] This unit ceased to be permitted to be "used for trade" in 1985.

Chain Making Tools

A German chain makers block

Chain tongs

These rivet tongs could also be used as chain tongs

Link by link, chain by chain
(from Rural Blacksmith Blog by Steve Kellogg)

Traditional blacksmith's work is particularly satisfying when the item to be made is real and needed. Such is the chain maker's lot. Forged chain was an essential tool that was in demand. It was used with horses and oxen to pull farm wagons, logging sleighs, and stone boats. Chain was used to anchor ships in the harbor. A forged chain was even strung across the Hudson River during our Revolutionary War to keep the British from sailing up river. Chain today is largely made by automated machines. But for over 1000 years (900 to 1900AD) chain was made link by link through craft and skill.

I have been making chain for the farmers to use with the oxen. Each link starts out as a 7-inch length of 3/8th-inch round bar. It is bent to a U shape. Next, the link is prepared for forge welding. The ends are scarfed to a wedge shape and overlapped. They are heated and fluxed with borax to prevent iron oxide from impeeding the weld. Working on the anvil and over the horn, the link is welded to a solid link and forged to a nice even oval shape.

When the smith has turned two-thirds of his pile of U-shaped links into nice welded ovals, the chain assembly begins. Two welded links are scooped up with an open U. The ends of that link are welded making a 3-link chain. Once all of the links are joined in sections of three links each, then the smith starts joining sections of 3s together with an open link to make chains of 7 links. Then, he joins two 7s with an open link to make 15s, then those to make 31s, and finally two chains of 31 with an open link makes a chain of 63 links. Then, he might add a nicely forged hook to each end.

If all went as planned the chain is now 63 links, two iron rings, and two iron hooks! It should be very close to 12 feet. That is just right to use with oxen to haul the stone boat or the harrow in the field.

Throughout history chain was needed and highly valued. But it was also utilitarian and commonplace. Therefore, the chain maker's work was essential and difficult, but carried no great prestige. If a swordmaker produced a blade with 500 layers of forge-welded steel, they were respected for having created a masterpiece. If a chain maker produced a chain with 500 forge welds they have made a 100 foot chain. It is just a half week's work. Tomorrow, he would begin to make another chain link by link, foot by foot! And be careful with those welds because everyone knows chain is only as strong at it's weakest link!

From Machinery (Engnering Edition), Volume XV, page 605
Click here to view article
Black Country Chain Making Shop

The ironwork of the two man hearth used for making 'dollied' chain
was rescued from Noah Bloomer's works in Quarry Bank.

From the eighteenth century chain making was a major industry in the Black Country, particularly in the villages of Netherton, Old Hill and Cradley Heath.

The trade developed due to the ready supply of raw materials in this area: fuel, locally produced high quality wrought iron and a highly skilled workforce of trained ironworkers. In 1911 there were 6,550 people working in the chain making industry and by 1914 the Black Country had an international reputation for good craftsmanship.

Both men and women were employed in the industry, many in back yard workshops like the one behind our chainmaker's house, but many others worked in chain shops like this one based on the Cruddas chain shop from Cradley Heath.

Chainmaking in the Black Country

Lighter chain for agricultural purposes has been made in this district since before the nineteenth century. The work would have been a branch of blacksmithing, and the workshops were spread throughout the Black Country. Production of heavier chain and chain cable developed in the 1820's and 1830's in response to demand from industry and shipping. This type of chain was made in the Cradley Heath and Netherton areas. Chainmaking developed as a trade in the Black Country because all the necessary materials were readily available: fuel and locally made high quality wrought iron plus a workforce familiar with iron-working skills.

Frequently asked chainmaking questions 1. What was chain made from? Most chains were made from wrought iron, Black Country iron was of good quality and was widely used by chainmakers. There were a number of reasons why wrought iron was used; these included its excellent fire welding quality, its shock resistant property, its quick recovery if overstrained and its corrosion resisting properties. The material used for chainmaking demonstrations at the Museum is a soft mild steel with a low carbon content. This works well and welds well. 2. How are the sizes of chain gauged? The size of chain is always referred to by the diameter of the rod or bar of iron that it is made from. The smaller chains up to 5/16 inch were know by 'Wire Gauge' sizes. The smaller the number in the table the larger the size of chain, no. 1 is almost 5/16 inch. The most common chain made by women was no. 8. The number of links per foot for this size would vary according to customer requirements; they could ask for 11, 12 or 13 links per foot. The fewer links per foot, the cheaper the chain. 3. What different types of chain were there?

There were three broad categories of chain; heavy, medium and small.

    There were also several different types of chain:

  1. Short link: this chain is the strongest that can be made and must conform to a standard formula. The outside dimensions of the length of the link must be 41/2 times the diameter of the iron that it is made from and the width must be 31/4 times the diameter of the iron. Short link chains were always used in situations where safety depended on them e.g. cranes and slings.
  2. Long link: this is neither so strong nor so flexible as short link and is used for non—critical applications, such as fencing, and is made to suit customer requirements.
  3. Twist chain: this used to be mainly the form of agricultural chain, most of it made by women who called it 'country work'. The last stage in the manufacture of each link was to twist it while still hot so that the length of chain would lie flat. Twist chain used to be widely used for horse harness and cow ties.
  4. Pitch/Block chain: these chains were manufactured in the usual manner but after every few links they were laid in a machined or cast—iron block which contained the impressions of several links of chain and after a few deft taps with a hammer the length of chain was 'standardised' and equalled out and uniform in shape so as to allow it to be used in a crane pulley block (such as 'Weston's Patent'). Today, electrically welded machine produced chain is so uniform and identical that very little attention is needed to allow it to be used in a pulley block. These machine made chains are usually made slightly short and are pulled to pitch or stretched on a machine after they have been welded, at the same time it checks all the welded joints to see if they are sound.
  5. Cable chain: when iron cable chain replaced hemp rope for anchoring ships around 1808 it was realised that ordinary open-link chain could get 'knotted-up' and this could cause serious trouble when the ships anchor was being run-out. A knotted lump of chain moving swiftly when it came to the hawse-hole would either jam—up or take out part of the side of a ship especially if it was a heavy anchor. From 1813 onwards a cast—iron stud was fitted across the centre of the link and so divided the space and allowed for the free movement of each link. It also prevented the sides of a link closing in when a heavy strain came upon the cable such as when riding out a heavy storm at anchor so keeping cable free moving. Cable chain, like heavy chain, was made by a team of three men.

    Gee Mom, look what else I've found!

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