Tuesday, August 26, 2014

An heirloom finished & a new craft (to me)

This is the blade I presented to Bridget Mohan and Ben Flanagan one beautiful summer night in 2014.  It's now theirs, and it could not have changed hands at a more joyous gathering.  It's inspired by 15th- and 16th-century Irish fighting knives called skeins, but with a blade of cut and folded carbon and nickel steels, and a handle of ancient Irish bog-oak, native New Hampshire moose antler, and simple copper. 

 The final presentation of the blade is on an antique mandoline cabbage slicer, putting the blade at home in the kitchen or by the hearth.  The old steel of the mandoline is rusted by age and air, the wood weathered and worn, and its strong lines and sharp angles compliment those of a blade that fits diagonally in the frame.  The whole piece is a marriage of old and new, honorific of heritage, home, and the land, and hopeful at the dawning of a new day with bright steel, a keen edge, and the joining of many hands.  

But alongside the making of this object, I have been exploring what are new avenues of creation to me, and attempting to delve deeper into the inexplicable but penetrating meaning I find in the hand-crafts. 

Since June, I have been working in the letterpress print shop of Bill Muller, who has been in the craft for over thirty years but currently does business as Big Wheel Press in Easthampton, Massachusetts.  Letterpress answers my craving for craft deeply, and Bill is an excellent teacher.  The weathered metal, dark wood, and mechanical movements of the shop are incredibly comforting and exciting to me, and to be additionally surrounded by breathtakingly beautiful words, letters, and graphics designed, arranged, and printed with such care and detail is frankly unbelievable.

Needless to say, I was enchanted, and began to exchange hours of work under Bill for his experienced instruction, practiced eye, and sweet materials & equipment.  I'll go into more detail about it all later, but my first real solo project was this one: a memorial certificate go along with the wedding blade. 

Rather than arranging classic moveable type into a chase (the frame pictured to the right), I used the Ludlow typecasting machine to cast entire lines of type for arrangement in the printing block.  The brass dies (pictured below &two pictures above ) were arranged in a composing stick and engaged in the Ludlow machine, where they were injected with molten lead and with a ka-chunk of a clamp-release, a leaden "slug" of type slid out onto a little tray for setting and printing.

Letterpress, when conducted with care, can look incredibly clean and refined.  I love everything sensory about it: the smells, sounds, & rhythmic movements of presses and typecasters, the organization and repetition of type drawers and the miniscule joy of finding the most obscure and perfect ornamentation, and the ever-exciting trawling through libraries of old graphic blocks. 

The only part I mind is having to keep my hands clean.  But I suppose I can compromise. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

An Heirloom in the Make

Back in December I was at a cozy farm in New Hampshire, sheltering from the snow with old family friends and talking about the coming summer.  Bridget, who I have known since childhood, and Ben, who I met then but instantly took to, were planning their marriage in August.  They had seen my work and asked me to make something for them, for the wedding: an object to enter their lives on that day that would be symbolic of the years and lives that had funneled them together, and the corresponding array of actions and story-lines that will spread forward from them in time.  Their awareness of and respect for the presence of a handmade object that can endure for even centuries when cared for means much to me.  Also their requests for symbolic use of material in terms of provenance and association were exactly the creative material I like to work with. 

With these inspirations in mind, I drew up a concept for a skean, an Irish fighting knife native to the 15th and 16th centuries, in honor of Bridget (Mohan) and Ben (Flanagan)'s shared heritage.  I included the materials Ben & Bridget had requested: oak (the sigil of the Flanagan family) and something native to New Hampshire (where Bridget grew up).  These I answered with Irish bog oak, which spent most of its 1000 years as wood submerged in a peat bog being slowly but fully tanned black, and antler from a moose that lived and died in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. 

 I also began to prepare a special steel.  I started with alternating layers of 1095 and 15n20, and folded these roughly to 48 layers.  Then I rotated the billet 90 degrees and folded again to 48 layers.  This was after asking Owen Bush how he goes about making pattern-welded steel that is intended to imitate the ethereal and indecipherable patterns of wootz crucible steel. I really did not succeed in doing what he does, but continued to follow his directions to make something new to me: this billet folded in two planes was then "laddered", which means many grooves cut into each side for pattern disruption and then forged flat again.

The surface of the material is then smooth but the currents within it are roiling and turbulent, like ink dripped into a glass of clear water.  Some semblance of this is visible in the fire-scale on the red-hot billet pictured above.

The next part is the less classically poetic but equally as enjoyable and beautiful to one who loves this process as much as I do.  It was careful, slow, shaping by abrasion: filing and grinding is like the action of glaciers over mountains, slowly scraping built up accumulations down to the white bedrock.  It is also like chiseling a statue from a block of stone: a million variations on a form are dormant in this block that can no longer be manipulated plastically, and you will choose one (or it will choose itself). 

I ground a single-bevel pointy blade with a false edge on the portion of the back by the tip (which is just a beveled bit on the unbeveled side)

From there on, the blade was a challenging but ultimately triumphant series of issues.  It warped drastically in hardening, but after tempering it, I was able to grind it back to straight and true.  Then I carved and fitted the handle of bog-oak, moose antler, and copper.  It was ready to be brought  to final finish, etched to reveal the pattern, and assembled. 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

What happens after hearth melting

Last week I got together with Prof. Justin Fermann of the University of Massachusetts Amherst chemistry department, a great enthusiast for craft and obviously a learned chemist.  For all his technical knowledge, none of the magic is lost on him, and he actively pursues blacksmithing, glassblowing, pottery, and brewing, fully content with neither the science nor the practice. 

What we met to do was to take the hearth-melted material that I made with Jack McAuliffe, in many ways indistinguishable from ancient, home-made bloomery (iron smelted directly from iron ore), and compact its porous, spongy mass into a bar without seams or cracks that would compromise its usability in a blade.  

In order to squish all the holes shut and seal up the cracks, we had to first flatten all the little pieces we had at a yellow-white welding heat, in order to squeeze out the slag leftover from the charcoal furnace and fuse the voids shut.  This necessitated a very hot fire, so we burned charcoal in a coal forge and used a hand-crank blower.  Charcoal burns extremely hot and fast, and we hoped it would also lend some of its carbon to the steel's molecular matrix to help ease of welding and to give us a more hardenable product.

Slowly, we flattened all the pieces and then stacked them on top of each other.  At first, we had a very frustrating time welding each piece to the other. Justin would crank the blower and when we deemed it hot enough to weld, he would grab the pieces with two pairs of tongs and lay the hot ends on top of each other.  I would tap that end lightly with a smaller hammer in order to tack the weld.  After the end was tacked, on the next heat I would fully set the weld with a sledgehammer.

We worked from one end to the other, welding, scraping, fluxing, heating, welding.  We first fused two pieces, then began to add.  We had four small pucks of the hearth material Jack and I had made.  I had several similarly flattened cakes of Jeff Pringle's bloomery material about equal in mass, so we added those too.  We layered them all together, and once all of our flat pancakes were welded into a solid stack, I turned them into a bar shape on the power hammer.  The consolidated but unrefined bar cooled down and weighed in at 657 grams.  Completely covered with charcoal dust and little burns but elated with our learning curve and general level of success, Justin and I slurped down a bunch of water and called it a day. 

The next day I threw our bar in the propane forge and began to refine it.  Refining is essentially heating it up to welding heat again, and further solidifying welds and expelling slag by forging the bar out, folding it on itself multiple times, welding the fold seams shut, and drawing the bar out again, kind of like stretching and folding layers of play-doh. They all seemed to take, though I had a few minor bubble issues, but eventually I had a flat bar with no weld flaws.  I can't truly count the number of folds because many of them were half-folds.  It still happened though, and once my flaws were gone I let it cool again and put it on the scale.  454 grams meant that I had about 69% of the bar that I initially weighed.  I wish I'd weighed the material I had before welding any of it together, but I totally didn't.  So there.

Where did the weight go?  I'm guessing there were two main causes of material loss.  The first is slag.  The slag is mostly composed of various silicates from the solid fuel and the material the furnace is made off.  These are rock-like bits that melt while the iron is still solid at high temperatures, and as liquid, they fill up the cracks and get squeezed out when you hammer and fold.  The other cause of material loss was probably just oxidation.  In such a hot fire, iron converts incredibly quickly into iron oxide (in the form of black scale, a kind of rust), and the amount of welding heats I had to take probably reduced a lot of the material into that.

It just so happened that at MassArt last year I consolidated a bar of bloomery iron from when I was in England with Owen Bush.  It had almost the same proportions as my new bar (on the right in the above photo), so I decided to polish the two, and etch them to compare their pattern and what little I could tell about refinement/slag content, carbon content, and anything else.  The etch was much more revealing that I thought it would be. 

The left one is Owen's bloom.  The right one is the hearth material I made with Jack mixed with Jeff's bloom. Ours has a more complex pattern probably due to more slag and somehow less homogenous material.  Ours is also shinier.  What that means is that Owen's bloom, with the cloudy, dark parts, has much more carbon in it.  Carbon-rich steel etches dark (unless it has nickel or chromium in it, which this does not), and that's just something I know from experience.  If I were to pick one of these for a knife or a tool edge, Owen's would clearly be the better choice. 

 But I have to say that from a purely aesthetic perspective, the less homogenous steel has an incredible appeal.  Also, though I had a hand in making Owen's bloomery steel, the intimate involvement in the creation of the other one was so fresh in my hands and mind that I couldn't stop looking at it, couldn't stop looking deeper into its random matrix.

My favorite thing about this material is that it takes so long to make and is so imperfect that along with the slag and weld lines, it packs memories, conversations, frustration, and cooperation in between the layers.  It's a trophy of mutual discovery and a sedimentary painting of process.  It's also a little bar-shaped window into the random pattern-storms that only nature can make, full of beautiful tree-diseases and river-paths seen from on high.  It exposes the illusion of imposed order, as well as the cooperation of the chaos that is the true nature of order. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


This knife belongs to a close friend, who spends a lot of time on the border between nature and dream.  This knife is cloudy contemplation and rainy dronescapes and layers on layers of sky, dirt, and the mist in between.  It is birch and moon, silver liminal aethereal gateways.  Check out its owner's dream-wave creations in this land

The blade is forged of Aldo Bruno's 1095, clay-hardened under the supervision of Matt Venier.  The handle is carved moose antler, cow horn, desert ironwood Jeff Pringle found, and stacked birch bark that my uncle collected.  The ferrule is silver and the pommel cap is salvaged wrought iron from Warner, New Hampshire.

The leather is tooled using only a knife and punches that I forged and filed out of 1084 (except my lantern touchmark).  All organic materials are fully sealed with a beeswax-linseed oil mix, for misty morning contemplations and solitary transcendence of time. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

More Hearth-Melting!

A few weeks ago, I did another round of hearth-melting at my friend Jack McAuliffe's shop in Worcester, MA.  He's definitely got this process down by now, having produced a number of daring and incredibly advanced Roman blades of various periods out of this character-rich iron of unparalleled complexity and historicity. 

Scraps for melting on the right, consolidated cakes on the left
For those who don't know, hearth-melting is basically iron-age steel recycling.  The idea is you can build a fire in a furnace, chuck in all of your iron scraps that are too small to forge-weld together and semi-melt them into a porous cake.  Think like a scone, kind of.  There are many small furnaces that have been excavated across the Indo-European sphere of iron-working which were too small or temporary to accommodate full-scale reduction of raw ores into iron.  Other archaeological evidence and some primary accounts indicate that nails and other scraps were compiled and slowly fed to the furnace, consolidating into a cake that can be forged into a bar. 

The other purpose of hearth-melting is to change the chemical makeup of a batch of steel.  There in the furnace at temperatures between welding and melting, where fundamental bonds dissolve and form in a whirlwind dance of elemental cataclysm, iron, carbon, oxygen and other ingredients  strap together and tear apart.  The product of this storm is determined by overall mixture of fuel and air, temperature and time. The fuel is charcoal and the air is forced into the side by bellows or blower, though a slanted pipe called a tuyere.

We built our furnace out of easily-disassembled firebricks under Jack's coal-forge hood.  There was a bed of ash inside it and a hole in one of the bricks for the tuyere to poke though.  We built a fire with wood and then started piling on the charcoal once it was going.  After that, we started adding our scraps piece by piece.  Mostly we had broken up old saw blades, pitchfork tines, and other pieces of formerly high-carbon steel.  It was sort of an experiment to see how high-carbon our product would be if we used high-carbon source material, but our conclusion was that the environment of the fire mattered more than the material. 

So, once we figured we had loaded enough source material into the furnace that we'd accumulated a good amount of mushy iron batter at the bottom, we stopped adding charcoal and let the fire burn down a bit.  We removed bricks from the side and dug out the little cake.  Jack handled it with tongs and laid it on the anvil, and I slammed on it with the sledge.  We had to be a little bit careful because what comes out can be brittle and portions of it can crumble off.  The most troublesome part is getting the extremities to weld on; usually they cool too fast to do that.  But we've learned that there's a significant amount of material loss, and the best thing to do is just re-melt whatever falls off. 

After we'd manageably flattened our little steelcakes, Jack cut them in half on the power hammer.  The idea was to expose the interior of the puck so we could spark test the carbon content on both the exterior and interior of the puck.  We also split it up so we'd have more pieces to layer and fold, in order to better homogenize the material.  Good thing we did that, because the steel we made ended up being incredibly non-homogenous.  The spark test showed very, very high carbon content on the outside of the puck and surprisingly rather low on the inside. 

That probably meant that fire was hot and oxidizing enough in places that the carbon burned out of what we put in, especially in the material that remained in the furnace for a time and became the center of the cake.  However, the extremely high carbon casing indicated that there was a significant amount of carbon migration into the material from the charcoal fuel.  The fact that it was not very deep illustrated that carbon can saturate iron to make a very high-carbon jacket, but penetration depth takes a significant amount of time, perhaps at lower temperatures so it is not also burning off at the same time.  Either way, that is how we concluded that regardless of the carbon content of the starting material, most of it burns out due to the extreme heat and oxidation, and any carburization that happens is the result of cementation from the charcoal.  Either way, it might follow to use higher carbon stock anyway, simply knowing that it will melt faster and more fully (more carbon means a lower melting temperature; castable iron is around 4% carbon and utterly unforgeable; malleable wrought iron has almost no carbon and takes very extreme temperatures to melt). 

The other variable we did not experiment with or research much was the shape of oxidation and reduction zones in the furnace as determined by tuyere height and angle.  That we'll have to save for the future.  As it stands now, I have a few small cakes of homemade steel to play with, and there's challenges ahead but lots of promising and exciting work to do!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The other side

'What the smelter, smith and alchemist have in common is that all three lay claim to a particular magico-religious experience in their relations with matter; this experience is their monopoly and its secret is transmitted through the initiatory rites of their trades. All three work on a Matter which they hold to be at once alive and sacred, and in their labours they pursue the transformation of matter, its perfection and transmutation.'  -  M. Eliade

The iron-working smith is shaped by their relationship with a material that often develops into a philosophy of experience indelibly changed by the idea of iron. The bladesmith, arguably more than most other smiths, works to push the limits of iron and steel, delving deep into their genetic attributes and attempting to alter them to their own ends: supernatural standards of hardness, flexibility, complexity and beauty.

The blacksmith is concerned primarily with form; the bladesmith as well, but just much with substance. The material of both smiths starts with the iron-maker smelting from ores, but the blade-maker must understand these processes from start to finish. What goes into the creation of steel, what goes into working it in time and temperature, form and finish is imperative in every measure. The standards of what a blade is and does are at once vague and very specific. For every blade that has ever been made, the process is complex; similar yet different every time, and ultimately concerns the learned transformation of materials in a seemingly magical, elemental transformational process. 

The natural state of iron on earth is transformation into iron oxides, or rust. More than any other kind of smith, the bladesmith is very much concerned with reversing this process.This reversal is the process whereby iron is made from ores in the smelter's furnace; it is when firescale is scraped off to foster forge-welds. Reduction is the opposite of oxidation. Rust is the foe of the finished object as well, destroying beauty and function at once. As long as a blade is being created and used, growing and living, its makers and users fight against oxygen's effects.  They scrub with stones and oils to preserve the substance, and preserve the form by sighting down lines to make sure they are true. 

Until its day comes. Until the yarns of its fate have run off the spindle, as does that of every named thing. If it has a name, it has a purpose and it has a life. These must end. Just because a thing does not breathe with lungs does not mean it escapes the jurisdiction of time; its numbered breaths are on a different measure. All things of this earth are constantly in flux: we are growing, as we age; we die as we age, and why would we think that the state of death is permanent either? It is another passage which we cannot choose to avoid, through which we must change like any other passage. It is a process of initiation and transformation. 

A blade is true, a blade is sharp, a blade shines with the light of day. Until its time as a blade is over. Then there is another initiation, another transformation, to ready it for the next world. 

When our time-yarn runs out, we are surrounded by those who know the meaning of our name and who would see us out of this world into what lies next. In our ships, in our coffins, they prepare us to pass the gates. With ritual, with love, care, duty, and sacrifice, they destroy us. They surrender us to the elements; fire, water, earth, or open air: these will each break us down into what the earth loaned us, the corporal vessels our souls borrowed, and we will become the soil and water that sustained our bodies and will sustain those of our children's children. They will eat of our bodies and drink of our blood, and we will live on in them even as we fare out onto planes they only dream on. 

Our rituals are prayers for growth, for birth, for seed, for strength. Time will not yield these without proper sacrifice. We must sow now if we are to reap later. We must give ourselves to the earth for our offspring to grow and live their days. We must carefully and sacredly cultivate growth and creation. To do that, we must observe and venerate rituals of destruction and decay, recognizing it as absolutely an equal process. This is the basis of all physics and chemistry; this is the basis of all alchemy and magic. They are all based on the same rule, which transcends and permeates all systems. 

 A smelter and a smith will spend a lifetime honing their skills at the reduction of iron oxides into iron; the perfecting of alloys; the treatment of steel; the exhibition of perfect substance, beautiful patterns, natural and intended (always a blend of both). There is a reason the grain of wood and the flow of rivers manifest themselves in the patterns of steel. There are sacred, underlying patterns at work: call them mathematics, call them intelligent design: they are the same. It is to these patterns, likewise superimposed on time, that we and our objects must be surrendered. 

Creation is a science, an art, a ritual: all of these and never just one. There is an entire other side it relies on: destruction. All elemental bodies composed with a soul and traveling under a name are subject to the cycles of nature and time. Destruction is likewise a science; why not a ritual? Why not an art? 

Is rusting not as fruitful a process as smelting? In truth it is; without rust, there would be nothing to smelt. The birth of iron lies in its own death, as with anything else. Why is bending not as beautiful as straightening? It is, when it is intentional. The smith spends a lifetime perfecting form and finish. But straightness and shine are not forever; neither should they be. The time must come when the passing of a threshold necessitates further change of form and substance. Iron must become rust. A blade must become not a blade. The cycle cannot be broken. 

And so we worship creation and destruction in equal measure. We rejoice in birth and mourn in death, and cannot have one without the other. Likewise our iron comes tearing into the world from the dark mother in a storm of flames and air, and we surrender it to her deep earth and roaring waters, like we do our own shells when our souls have flown. There are patterns at play in the movements of stars and planets, in the lay of soils and rivers, in the lives of people and things. We have honored these since we first could in whatever ways we know, and it is not time to stop.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Stefen's Sax

I made this sax for a great scholar and friend of mine.  He is well learned in much of the old lore as well as experienced in new systems of numerical mysticism and esoteric lock-making and lock-breaking. The runes on the scabbard name this sax his, and I know he will treasure it. This blade is work of mine from long ago, but it has a place to go and I will see it there. 

The blade is the first multi-bar I forged on my own, a year and a half ago, after my very first with Owen Bush.  The handle I made under the learned eye of Petr Flori├ínek, of brass and elk antler and centuries-submerged bog oak.  The grooves in the blade I cut by hand and the brass engravings as well. 

The carvings, engravings, and leather toolings are all motifs inspired by the rich and majestic material culture of the Wends, known in their native tongue as Vendels, a prosperous but mysterious flourish in the history of Scandinavia.  The silent eyes of hoary-bearded men stare out from their artifacts; they need not the written word for you to know of their might.  Written on their very war-gear is the evidence of the sway they held when they walked this earth, and knowing their names or not, you will remember them.