Monday, October 29, 2012

Welling II: the Seax

I'll talk a little about the historical form of my blade now.  It's a seax, a single-edged war knife carried by any and all free men the Germanic migration period.  In some ways, it's really a symbol of that time and place: it represents the danger faced by the tribes who struck outward from their swampy homelands, the self-sufficiency and craftsmanship they were capable of, the fact that they knew what it would take to take what they wanted, and the fact that the power of freedom and personal choice were the utmost values of their society, at the possible cost of violence, and all with cold functionality and artistic flourish.

Classic Anglo-Saxon broken-back seax

The seax, as I spell here with the Anglo-Saxon spelling, refers to the particular weapon carried by men of the Angle and Saxon tribes of northwestern Germany, who migrated en masse to the British Isles in the 5th and 6th centuries AD.  "Saxon" itself is most likely a reference to the weapon (more generally spelled "sax" in reference to the Scandinavian and Continental flavors as well, and is the modern German spelling). 

A characteristic style of the Anglo-Saxon model is the "broken-back" design: thick spine, flattish grind, long and nasty point with a triangular cross-section, and almost axe-like cutting power, but with all the deadly "handleability" of a sword.  In many ways, the sax represents to informed bladesmiths today an historical sandbox of blade design and metallurgical techniques: there are so few parameters to what a sax is and such a grand and exciting variety of blade sizes, geometries, metallurgical compositions, patter-welding techniques (almost endless!), finishes, and beyond.  Therefore, a context-minded smith has great freedom in his design and boundless inspiration to choose from.  Some of my favorite museum pieces of saxes. 

A well-known beautifully inlaid Anglo-Saxon specimen

Anyone interested in saxes and their evolution must acquaint himself or herself with Jeroen Zuiderwijk.  Here is some of his extensive research, and a great source of knowledge and inspiration for smiths and scholars alike:

I have shown the construction and first finish of my sax. Here is my blade at that stage, after the final grinds and sanding:

It's hard to see at this point, but the blade's underlying pattern is visible in this polished state.  It's really just a matter of moving it around in the light, and a subtle difference can be discerned.  Some have argued that historical pattern-welded blades were finished like this and left as they were, with a polished finish and a very subtle revelation of pattern. 

However, they figured out pretty quick that anything acidic will eat steel and reveal the pattern much more dramatically.  Exposing steel to corrosion for aesthetic reasons is called etching.  This can be achieved with vinegars and natural acids, but for a bit more effect, modern smiths use more corrosive substances like ferric chloride (FeCl3).  Thirty seconds in a 1:1 water solution gives you this:

Once again, the differences in the steels' chemical composition is responsible for the dramatic contrast in the etch.  1080 is a simple steel, meaning it is almost completely composed of iron and carbon (about 0.8% carbon, pretty high), which here has etched dark.  The lighter one is 15n20, a similar steel but with a 0.2% proportion of nickel, lending it brightness.  These are both relatively simple steels that forge-weld well and behave similarly in heat-treatment, giving them good compatibility. 

This particular pattern: twisted bars and a high-layer piled edge is pretty well precedented in blades of this period and style, but probably more common in double edged swords.  Many seaxes probably sported equally striking but less complicated patterns.  One thing I love about the clipped cut on the broken-back seax is the cross-sectional view of the bars on the spine:

It's clear that the back bar is twisted more tightly than the middle, and has not been ground into as far.  The further you grind into a twisted bar, the closer you get to the star-pattern you see in the middle bar.  The outside of the twist looks like the diagonal lines of the back bar. 

The spine itself shows something of a gradient, from star to stripes, to show the different depths of my grind into the twisted bar.  There are incredible possibilities with pattern-welded steel, and I'm just beginning to explore them! 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Welling I: Pattern-welding

It was as March began that I took my first steps into an art that will shape me for many years to come: pattern welding.  It's an historical process, determined by availability of materials, inconsistency of organically produced steels and their non-homogenous nature, and varying states and methods of refinement.  The process produced a blade of varying physical properties, metallurgical circumstances, aesthetic beauty, and general fascination.

I took a three-day course with Owen Bush, more or less the premier swordsmith of the United Kingdom, a vast base of knowledge and experience, authority on his ancestors' Anglo-Saxon seax, talented and dedicated artisan, and dedicated giver to the craft and community.  His famous annual hammer-in has provided an incredible forum for the informed bladesmithing community, as well as served as a crucible of ideas for the leading minds of the modern movement of swordsmithery. 

The basic concept of pattern-welding is the mixing of steels in a semi-solid state by forge-welding them to each other.  In preparation, different or similar steels must be aligned for lamination.  With modern simple steel alloys in alternating layers, I prepared these packets for forge-welding:

Forge-welding itself is a nigh magical process, essentially wizardry, in such a way that even our modern understanding of metallurgy, chemistry, thermodynamics, and physics cannot dim.  For those of you who are more curious about the specifics of pattern-welding, I will be explaining the individual steps further as I post works-in-progress.  However, Don Fogg's bladesmithing forum is an invaluable resource, and there is good information to be found here at

But back to the thrilling tale of molecular abomination: I donned these shamanic masks for the protection of my soul:

Almost all of my experience in forge-welding has been in a gas forge under a power hammer.  Many smiths would criticize me for such modern techniques; there is a sentiment that they distance one from the spirit of the craft.  I feel no shame, although I would like to take the time to experiment more with solid fuel forges and of course with hand hammering.  That is an argument I will save for a later discussion.  For my purposes, these tools serve me well and allow me to make what I want in a way I think is appropriate.

The bearded sorcerer at his black art with his hulking eldritch machines:

Owen and his apprentice Owen running the show:

Those two packets I showed in preparation above got forge-welded into billets, one of which was turned into the two twisted bars on top, and one of which was folded on the laminated plane multiple times into ~320 layers on the bottom.  The diagonals of the twist can be seen as an imprint in the black scale on the top two:

The reason it's visible is that the two different steels involved, 1080 and 15n20, have different oxidation rates and reactions, causing that layer of black rust ("scale"; oxidation caused by heat) to form differently over the different layers.  Rust itself, oxidation, is an inhibitor in the welding process (steel welds to steel, scale does not weld) and must be ground off of the surfaces to be bonded, looking like the shiny bar on the bottom.  Here is another shot of the twisted bar:

Those three bars above, two twisted, one folded repeatedly (often called "piled"), have been thereafter welded (from left to right) into the below blank.  The edge bar being on the right, the left top corner has been clipped off to ease the forging of the shape and result in minimal pattern distortion. 

Here you can see more of the pattern as I forged out the shape.  The visual difference here is not caused by scale but rather a difference in heat contraction speeds between the two steels as the blade cools in the air. 

This is the blade after a few more tweaks of the hammer and cleaning up the tang shoulders with a bench grinder:

After normalization (heating the blade and letting it cool to reduce stress of heating and forging caused by crystalline grain growth), I ground the seax to shape.  I used a 72" belt grinder and gave it a flat grind (triangular in cross-section.  After that comes what is called the "heat treatment": I  hardened the blade (brought to critical temperature and quenched to make a rigid but brittle microstructure) and then tempered it (brought it to a lower critical temperature and allowed it to cool slowly, to reduce brittleness while maintaining most hardness). 

Heat-treatment is an imperative step for all blades, not just pattern-welded ones.  However, that first step of normalization (to reduce blade stress and thus risk of cracking in the quench) may be even more important in pattern-welded blades owing to their theoretically equal but possibly less stable construction of multiple materials.  A smith must keep in mind the thermodynamic properties and behaviors of his different materials during heat-treatment and change them accordingly. 

After all that comes a finer grind with belts increasing in grit weight, and finally culminating in wet hand-sanding in a final, decisive direction. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Park Lane, Originals, and Peter Johnsson


On 3rd March, 2012, I met Owen Bush on a rain-washed street surrounded by the high towers of Mayfair, and we strode oblivious of the wet to the auction house at Park Lane for its world-famous annual Arms Fair, where the most incredible feats of antique martial craftsmanship and most advanced modern research thereupon are represented.  Our particular friend, the frankly supreme and absolutely indispensable swordsmith/spathologist/design guru Peter Johnsson of Uppsala, Sweden, was the premier presenter at the event, debuting some of the most seminal and deep research yet done in any kind of spathology, with his usual humility. 

One artifact I handled there is below: an incredibly well-preserved sword from one of my favorite periods of craftsmanship, art and culture: Northern Europe, turn of the millennium, awash in turmoil and pain of war, but bursting with art and movement, trade and change.  Ideological and power struggles abounded between church and state, state and man, church and pagan religions, and around the Church in general.  It has often been cited as no accident that the sword of this period is the sword at its most cruciform; the problem of Christian pacifism seemed resolved when the theories of "just war" were distilled (or perverted) into the call of "Deus vult", and Christian Love became expressed with the sword.  

That blade above is what we in the craft generally refer to as an "original"; that is, a work that came from the craftsman's bench and went to the warrior's hand, in a time when it fit, when it was nothing but a contemporary item and also everything that that meant.  Originals are real.  When we talk about real swords, we are talking about originals, because they have a context that backs them.

When we talk about originals as objects, we are often trying to capture something that's difficult to pinpoint, something outside our ken, some sort of invisible border.  We ask ourselves, "what separates my work from this?"  We know there's a difference.  Is it skill?  Is it materials?  Is it method?  Does working with a coal forge really make my work more legitimate?  When I smelt my own steel, or make my own tools, am I closer somehow?  This last question is important because it asks about the spirit of the weapon, the spirit of the craft, and the spirit of the craftsman.  It is a spiritual question.  What determines the spirit?  Is it the product, the process, the intention, the smith's personality?

I think it is important to note here that there is no academic or official authority on these questions, and that means that any smith or craftsman has the authority to answer them for him or herself, and to determine their work thereby.  

There is one subject, however, on which the swordsmithing community shares a common view, and that if there is any such thing as capturing the true spirit of a sword, the closest man to come to that, whatever it may be, is Peter Johnsson.  As my research continues and more of my journey is laid behind me, I will speak much more on what he has to say.  As it happens, however, all I have is this picture to impart to you the alchemical mysticism surrounding his work, clearly heavy in years of thought, deep in spiritual searching, unwavering dedication to art, respect for the past and fearlessness for the future. 

We, who have held his work, can say this: a Peter Johnsson sword is real.  It is an original, whatever that may be.  It's something you know when you hold it.  Maybe that's all we'll ever know for certain, and maybe that's all anybody ever knew.  There has to be something that cannot be described, or else we'd stop making things.  Let's not do that.