Thursday, September 27, 2012

February III: Edinburgh

With little left of February, I passed by train to Edinburgh, with the intent to stay for a few days.  Next thing I knew, more than two weeks had gone by, and I was loathe to depart.  Having spent most of my days in New Hampshire, I have never been much of a man for living in cites.  I think that they are endlessly fascinating, exciting and stimulating beyond measure, but they are not where my soul lives.

Edinburgh is a different story.  It is not a gold mine but a full-on treasure-hoard of everything I hold dear about human creation: beautiful buildings of every age past leaning upon each other, narrow passages and steep, dark stairwells winding through soaring stone buildings clinging to the stony hide of the land they are built on.  Cobble and flag on the ground everywhere are slick with wet and the sky is a shifting iron mass of pure emotion, tugging your heart this way and that. The people are kind but earnest and solemn in a way that reminds a young American traveler that their lives are built upon those uncounted before them, that they have been here a long time.  The many planar levels of the city overlap deliciously: it seems that every road is a bridge or an underpass, with so many diagonals and inclines making you feel like secret meetings could be whispered above or below or behind you anywhere.

But truly, in what other city can you walk five minutes away from that and be here:

And the museums-BY GOD the museums!  The National Museum of Scotland has some of the coolest artifacts and greatest presentation of all the museums I have been to, not to mention a totally badass logo.  On top of that, my awesome friend Rob (deeply involved in the Beltane and Samhain city festivals) knew a lot of museum people, and we got invited to a "Night Museum Party", where the museum re-opened at 9 PM and all five floors were devoted to partying and music and looking at artifacts and Giant Jenga and Giant Connect-Four and holding boa-constrictors, etc.  There were many more museums but this is the one I visited the most.

And now the old stuff!  This incredible (whalebone?) carved reliquary.  I love boxes. 

There were a delectable amount of Viking-age artifacts, a time of great craftsmanship in Scotland.  Below is a beautiful pattern-welded sword with a clarifying schematic:

Yeahhh those twists.

I must say that what is to this day my favorite museum in the world is this one: the National College of Surgeons Museum in Edinburgh.  Stuffed to the brim with the macabre and the fascinating: surgical implements, organs in formaldehyde, bones riddled with musket balls, field surgery kits, questionable anaesthetic devices, lobotomizationalia, gangrenous limbs, and a slightly out-of-place shrine to Arthur Conan Doyle. 

I was moved by this face, that of a soldier from World War One who was shot between the eyes and died.  The wound was sewn up and his face preserved, exactly as it was at the time of his death.  

Beyond the museums, I got to visit (actually, more like "find in a labyrinth") the only full-time blade shop in Edinburgh: Macdonald Armouries!  Their picturesque shop is below, at the back end of some hidden mews. 

This is Greg, apprentice of Paul Macdonald, giving me a little tour on that brisk morning. 

The door into the mews, tastefully adorned with crossbows:

Daniel shows me a crossbowman's pavaise shield and the armoury's requisite liquor cabinet:

It just so happens that the basket-hilted broadsword of the infamous Highland outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor was in for repairs (on loan from his heirs).  Here I am, just giving it a little handle.  Felt great!  Nice and light. 

But this stint too had to end, for it turned to March, and on the Third day of that month I was to meet Mr. Owen Bush, the man for whom I traveled to the UK, at London's famous Park Lane Arms fair.  So once again I wended south!

February II: Chisels, Hobgoblin, and Saxon Sunsets

But the greatest gift I was given was this:  a professional introduction to the very basics of Japanese chiselwork.  Before we had met in person, he invited me to attend a lecture in the basement of the Victoria & Albert museum called "The Vicissitudes of Meiji-Era Metalwork", a politically turbulent time during which the sword, an powerful symbol of power and status integral part of the Japanese social hierarchy, was banned.  As such, the myriad arts associated with sword-making were still practiced out of context.  This resulted in some truly beautiful art and sculpture, particularly in the realm of fine chisel work: engraving, inlay, repoussé, as well as alloy-making, patination, and enameling. 

These are my first curving chisel lines, under the direction of Julio:

This is an experiment in inlaying silver into copper:

Here I am texturing a project of copper in steel that I never finished:

The tools that I became familiar with: chasing hammer and these six high-speed steel chisels for making various grooves and marks.  My work was laid into a block of pitch that could be heated and moulded to hold my work steady.  

But alas, I had to move on.  I said farewell to Julio and his wife Annabel, with many thanks and a determination to provide them with the same sort of hostly generosity another day. 

So on I trudged, north and east, into the elder Kingdom of East Anglia, and the ancient city of Colchester (Roman Camelodunum)!  Here I was hosted by another good friend, Anthony, who worked at a pub called The Hole in the Wall, where an actual hole in the wall revealed sections of the Roman wall built there about two millenia beforehand.  Feet away from that wall we enjoyed pints of Hobgoblin and existential conversation over games of pool. 

The heathen Britons approach!

East Anglia: an ancient realm, where the land still hums with the intoxicating spirit of Anglo-Saxon enterprise, the sentiment of "I have a sword and a ship and I can take what I want".  I'll touch on it more later, but to me this is a fascinating embodiment of the sword as will, and the idea of an armed man as a decider, and a doler of mercy and violence as he sees fit. 

The spirit is palatable here, at the burial mounds of Sutton Hoo, where I saw one of the most incredible sunsets of my life.  The museum was fascinating, the information illuminating.  But there was something about standing in the wind in a bleak farm-field, alone before the mounds of kings who carved their kingdom from nothing, in a world where they took what they wanted and built what they would. 

My next stop after Colchester was York, ancient Jórvík, first the seat of Northumbrian kings and later of the Danish vikings.  I arrived in time for the annual York Viking Festival, a massive and captivating festival, full of re-enactors and vendors and educational events, and just overwhelmingly fun.  Witness battle:

Mr. James Cameron, student of Welsh gravestones, as well as a Saxon warrior who keeps up to date with the Danegeld on his iPhone:

Irresistible architecture of the city:

Vendors inside the above building who introduced me to the wonders of tablet weaving:

This woman let me try it out, and I'm still planning on doing some of it myself!

The fabulous pattern-welded blades of Łukasz Szczepański, sold by his friend Dariusz (Nordulf jewellery), member of the fantastic group Wulfheodenas!

But once again, it was time to move north. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

February I: Museums, Books, and Beer

So, for about the first month of my two-month trip in the UK, I was essentially a bum.  Albeit a bum with an extraordinary taste for museums, and the knack for not getting thrown out of them, largely by way of not being an actual bum.  The first three weeks represented the seeding of my forever unrequited love for the British Museum, the Museum of London, the Wallace Collection, and perhaps most of all, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the exposure to which I must first attribute to my good friends Jake Powning and Owen Bush.  I cannot begin to explain the combination of reverence you feel in the presence of such shockingly beautiful artifacts, the mad pangs of inspiration and urge to pay homage to the craftsmen past, and the deep, longing, unanswerable question of "how, how?"

One of my favorite pieces from the British Museum is this truly striking La Tène period iron Celtic sword with a fascinating cast bronze scabbard chape.  Note the double fullers, flawlessly ground.  This culture had an understanding of the circle and the curve that I chase far behind. 

These Russian and Caucasian kindjal are among my favorite types of exotic blades.  Stylistically descended from the Roman gladius, it's an out-of-place weapon imbued with all the material and ornamentation of its native culture.  The blades are often naturally-patterned crucible steel, which we call wootz but the Russians may have called bulat.  They are also cleanly and skilfully scraped with tasteful fullers and grooves, and decorated with mesmerizing gold koftgari overlay.

These are the richest, however, seen in the Wallace Collection; there exist many, many more of a much less refined and opulent finish, but no less lethally beautiful with a tarnished blade and plain wooden grip scales.

Next is a set of wootz knives, either Turkish or Persian.  Apart from the obvious intrinsic value of the materials and the untouchable level of craftsmanship evident, I am most smitten with the composition of the piece, the idea of three knives in a matched set.  It's all very aesthetically pleasant. 

 This may remain the most beautiful knife I have ever seen:

While in London, I fell afoul of the un-endingly generous and awesome Julio Rincones Gamboa, whose graciousness as a host and enthusiasm as a fellow scholar and artist I will never forget.  In spite of his grueling schedule as a student of dentistry, he shared many hours with me in conversation philosophical and worldly, hilarious and grave, in museums ogling artifacts and in rare old bookbinders' shops, admiring ancient tomes bound in hardy materials.

Julio (left) and Lord Nelson (right).
 We also share a love for the grotesque, and took great pleasure in seeking out this sort of fantastic print:

"Cat Priest Bathing Troll Dude Regurgitating a Miniature of Himself" - 1490

In fact, the mutual interests extended also deep into the culinary and brewerial.  We have a mutual reverence for the varieties of St. Peter's ales, expensive and rightly so.  Julio himself is a fantastic cook; once again, I can attest to the world-class hospitality I was shown as a guest.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Oakland Part I: Continued

But forging one sword blade was not all I did in those few months!  I like to think I got up to some other stuff with Jeff, Jim, Nate, Nina, and others in the forge and outside of it.  For instance: I took a lost-wax bronze casting class at Studio One in Temescal, which was awesome!  I met a bunch of great craftspeople and learned to do something that takes very specialized equipment and materials.

The wax for a runic ring I never cast

 Unfortunately, the class ran out of time and I never got to cast any of my waxes.  At least I learned to make them!

Viking-inspired pommel cap, also never cast

I explored some more with abstract Scandinavian art forms:

 And reaped the benefits of Jeff and Jim's tireless practice in finding a method to reproduce the legendary "koftgari" overlay method, characteristic of Indian and Persian blade ornamentation.  This is my practice piece of 32 ga. fine silver wire on mild steel, perhaps 1" x 3/4":

Beautifully fun.

I attended many sundown smelts, a few of the more intensive bloom-iron variety at Jim's shop in West Oakland, but usually of the crucible-smelt kind at Jeff's house in North Oakland.  This type of smelt is a whole different animal, and I'll go into it in more depth later, but it's much easier to set up, you can basically sit back and crack open a beer or three while it's running, and then really just turn it off and see what you got.  The result of a crucible smelt will be what's often called wootz steel, a difficult term to define, but I'll try my best soon enough. 

Jeff and his crucible furnace

Jeff also took me to my first fancy arms auction in San Francisco, where I learned to keep an eye out for antique shamshirs, tulwars, kards, and Khyber knives forged of wootz steel, as well as intricate gold koftgari in impossible applications.  Here I am holding an insanely beautifully inlaid middle-eastern matchlock musket:

Bein' greasy at a classy auction

All in all, it was full of adventure, work, and relaxed California-ness.  Then, one day in January (more or less), I decided to go to England.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Oakland Sword:

My first real, disciplined project took the shape of a long, single-handed double-edged tenth-century Viking style sword blade.  I forged (with endless direction and correction from Jeff) it from a single piece of steel; actually a car’s leaf spring, most likely of the designation 5160, which is an alloy steel specifically produced for the making of springs.  It contains very small proportions of chromium and silicon in addition to the prerequisite iron and carbon, which define “steel” in general.  

Early incarnation of the blade

Jim was extremely generous with my use of his incredible equipment, particularly his immaculately maintained Nazel 3B air hammer.  The hammer herself was less forgiving, and it took me a long time to begin to use it with any finesse.  Once you have become familiar with the movements, however, your control can be impeccable.  A literally unimaginable amount of power in muscle suddenly becomes an extension of your body whose precision depends on that of your foot.

Jeff refining some bloom (I believe from Mark Green?) on the Nazel

A slightly more exciting photograph of the same thing (credit Ryan Burkhart 2012)
The Nazel was what I used for the majority of my forging.  I started with the tang, hefty and thick, and then turned it around and started forging the profile of the blade from the tip back to the tang.  Then, I put a spring-fuller between the dies and used it first for the fuller and then, ever so gingerly, on the edges, to bevel them from the edge of the fuller outward.  This is the part that's hard to write about.  All the hours I spent then on the blade are really now a blur of hammering, straightening, twisting, measuring, eyeballing, sighing, filing, and grinding.  It's the work of several weeks, but making your first sword is really one of those "you don't know 'til you've done it" journeys.  Nevertheless, the day eventually came when it was ready for heat treatment!

Talented but perhaps less-than-serious Nathan Smith, recklessly swinging his 600+-layer grosse Messer about, on the day I heat-treated my first sword

So, on the day my sword was heat-treated (the process consisting of hardening and tempering, when the blade is imbued with the ability to be sharpened to a cutting edge and then with the capacity to flex under duress and return to true), Nathan was also heat-treating his grosse Messer, and Jim and Jeff were conducting a viking-age iron smelt in the front courtyard of the shop (which I will address later). 
Quench tank filled with heated oil (left) and a heat-controlled tempering oven (right)
Also hanging out were Niels Provos and Nina Heckman, each exceptionally talented bladesmiths on their own.  Come to think of it, it was a pretty crazy day, with a lot of people working on their own projects but sharing a passion and excitement throughout the day and space. 

Watching the smelting process
Anyhow, amid the madness, I got my sword blade up to temperature, and quenched it!

Niels, Jeff and I examine my sword pre-hardening (credit Ryan Burkhart 2012)

At 1525 degrees F, the quench!
I had welded a handle to the end of the tang at Jeff's suggestion so the sword could hang vertically in the oven.  That way, unlike in a horizontal oven, gravity would not act on the sword to warp it.  Also, I could lift it vertically and plunge it into the quench tank vertically, in one simple movement to insure against uneven angles.  The quench-hardening process is such a radical micro-structural change for the steel that any uneven grinding, uneven heating, or uneven movement will almost certainly contribute to warpage. 

That's normal. (credit Ryan Burkhart 2012)
The oil ignites, even though it was pre-heated to lessen the shock of the hardening.  I kept the blade steady in the tank until the temperature with the oil more or less equalized, after twenty seconds or so.  Then I drew it out, wiped it off, and put it in Jim's big kitchen oven for the tempering.

Fits perfectly!  Always good to have a large oven on hand, or a kitchen in your shop.

The hardening process gives the blade the ability to hold an edge, but it's brittle.  The tempering process reduces the brittleness and provides flexibility and durability while minimally reducing hardness.  In tempering, I brought the blade up to about 500 degrees F for about an hour, let it cool down, and then repeated this twice more.  With each temper the blade becomes more flexible and slightly less hard.  This is a good time to deal with slight warps.

Correcting a warp under the fly press (credit Ryan Burkhart 2012)

If you do it too much or too hot, you will remove the hardness by annealing the blade.  If you do not temper your hard blade, it will snap or shatter under stress!  Clearly this was sometimes hard to control in the solid-fuel fires of old times, and that's why stories exist of swords bending or breaking, because of improper heat treatment.  This is a true secret of smith-craft, which must have seemed a kind of sacred magic in ancient times.

A blade ready for the final grind! 

Champagne in celebration and in the West Oakland twilight

One project milestone behind and another waiting for fruition.

Oakland 7/11 – 12/11

Oakland, California is where I spent the majority of my year off, and the first artistic community I have ever felt a part of.  This is where I first learned what it is like to work in a blacksmith’s shop, how to conduct oneself, how to channel creative excitement into the learning of skill, reconciling the free exercise of design and the hard truth of craft, and dealing with frustration and difficulty.  

Me striking for Jim Austin on a viking axe
My mentors and greatest friends in these months were Jeff Pringle and Jim Austin.  Jim Austin owns Alchemy Metalworks in West Oakland, and is one of the few traditionally-trained professional blacksmiths in the nation.  The company name is apt: he is an alchemist, a renaissance-man, a student of many disciplines, not ruled by logic but set free by it, using it as his tool and knowledge as his strength, as much as his tools and strength are hammer and arm.  
Jeff is a man to whom I really owe everything, but he would never take it.  He is a pioneer and a master in the fields of historical swordsmithing, pattern-welding, and archaeo-metallurgy, and though an unsung hero in the academic world at large, in his field he is an absolute authority.  He is the first swordsmith I ever met, and my greatest personal inspiration and professional role model, as well as a true friend.  

Jeff and Nazel, Jim's more stately of two forge-cats
My first stint in Oakland began with a few random projects in Jim’s shop, with Jeff around working on his own.  I was alright with a hammer, I could make shapes, but a true eye for lines had not begun yet to develop in me; indeed it is still developing every day.  I had begun to explore design and proportions visually (I keep a sketchbook), drawing and meditating on swords and related styles of art and craft, but the process of making them out of steel was alien to me.  At first, it feels like a completely different way of thinking.  I often thought that perhaps my passion for swords should only be expressed on paper, that steel was not my medium.  But I did not give up, and slowly, over many months, I have come to realize that they are not as different as I once believed.  

A study in 11th century Ringerike style-ornament from my sketchbook
Forging is very much the same as drawing, but a much slower process, with much more time for meditation and processing, and with many more dimensions to consider and control: depth, volume, heat, force, time, weight; there are even dimensions that cannot be seen, dimensions which must be “sketched” obliquely: chemistry, crystal structure, microstructure, molecular bonding, decarburization, partial changes of state, and more.  But in the end, I am using flames to prepare my canvas and hammer to paint my lines.  

Matching my forged seax to my soapstone sketch