Sand is not an insulator. Instead of sand try vermiculite. That is more of an insulator than sand. Also, try heating up more pieces of steel at the same time and put them into the vermiculite at the same time. Then it will take longer for the steel to cool thus getting softer.
Just my 2¢ :)
In the past, during the few times I have made Damascus billets I have only used a hand hammer for setting the initial weld and then used a hydraulic press for the remainder of the work.
Power hammers are fun and useful but not the only way to skin the Damascus cat.
In your case it sounds like...
I like this idea. Although I can use my Whitney punch to make washers the quality is not all that
Now I need to talk with some of my machinist friends about making the dies......
My lathe will be setup soon and the mill is already setup.
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Hey ! , all my razor and knifemaking friends. I have this Electro-Punch machine and i an trying to think of uses for it.
I can have a stamp made that will fit in it for stamping in my "makers mark" or i can use it for making conchos for hat bands, belts etc.