Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Hilting, Real Blacksmithing, and Bone-Knowing

Hilting!  This where my years of reading about, dreaming about, and drawing swords started to come to the slightest amount of use.  I've always been drawn to subtle, sweeping lines and curves in swords.  The more practical, understated beauty of earlier medieval swords has always pulled at my fancy.  While I am deeply invested in the magical and alchemical processes of pattern-welding that were the hallmark of the semi-mythical legendary Age of Heroes, the Germanic Migration Period, I am also fascinated by the aesthetic of the later sword: monosteel, more mass-produced, less an object of adornment and symbol of wealth, but somehow more stripped down; in many ways more true.  It speaks of machines, of industry and war in a more direct and somehow equally beautiful way.  I wanted my first sword to be like this.

I write of a weapon that is supposed to look like it has been and can be used.  It is not a king's scepter; it is not a peasant's billhook.  It is a weapon and a tool of war whose aesthetic is meant to reflect nothing other than what it is.  It has grace, it has refinement, but only insofar as what does not inhibit it for what it is. 

The guard was forged of the same 1080 steel that the blade was.  There's no real reason for this; I honestly would prefer that I had made it out of a softer steel, so I could have engraved it or otherwise adorned it.  But I think that being trapped in hard, simple steel was good for providing me with creative boundaries to work with.

One great thing about forging this guard with Owen was that I was able to bear witness to his 17 years of blacksmithing experience, and not just his bladesmithing skill.  Blacksmithing is something that I honestly admire more than bladesmithing, though being a bladesmith is my current aspiration.  In comparison, a bladesmith's forging skill set is rather small and the dimensions in which he or she is required to think are very narrow.  The ability of a blacksmith to understand the material and its flow, the boundless opportunistic advantage-taking of angles and weight and heat, dealing with the vicissitudes of the material and tools: all these are a source of endless fascination and admiration for me. 

Owen was able to think about the stock in a way that let him map out, over several stages, the exact shape I wanted to create.  This understanding is something you can only build with common sense and sheer hours of doing.  Jim Austin, too, is a person I have spent considerable time with, simply mesmerized by his deep knowing of his tools, materials, and limits.

 A bladesmith and notable presence in today's movement is the young and very seriously talented Josh Burrell, a good friend of mine.  Josh is the son of a blacksmith and a jeweler, and has an organic and spiritual understanding of  craft that results from a lifelong surrounding by it and its love, and yet also requires a particular and special personality and intelligence.  Having both, his work is truly impressive, executed with skill, and filled with obvious love. 

There is a word I read once: bone-knowing.  This word  describes to me what comes with skill and patience and mistakes and despair and resurgence and hope and inspiration and hard work of learning a craft.  One of the reasons we learn craft is to feel this bone-knowing: to have a flow and harmony to our movements with our surroundings and our materials.  There is a song to work, sung by our bodies, our tools, our materials, and our souls.  We become a part of our workspace, our tools become extensions of our bodies, and we connect ourselves to our materials through the tools.  Our materials are of the earth, and when we join the song of craft with our bodies, our souls join with our work. 

The pommel, like that of everyone else in the class, was a drilled and drifted disc of round stock.  I had specific plans for my own, inspired by a Peter Johnsson pommel.  It was this sublime masterpiece:

 Here is the guard as I work on the geometry under Owen's direction.  I wasn't referencing a particular guard, but rather imagining one in harmony with my blade.  My design comes from an archetypical understanding I have that comes from years and years of poring over pictures of swords, drawing swords, and voraciously internalizing and processing them.  I have so, so much more to learn, especially about how to look at swords and think about their components and proportions, but I have a sense of them, regardless of how true they are. 

What's interesting about this particular shape is that it's both common and beautiful.  Countless variations of it are extant on originals, and this means one thing: it's intuitive.  It's easy.  It's easily prepared for, and someone with a bit of a blacksmith's mind knows just how to tease the iron into that shape.  The earliest guards forged out of a single piece of iron are on viking swords, and take either the most simple cross shapes, slight curves, or else some early evolution of this shape (Peterson Types Z and Æ). 

The pommel's work was full of imagining radii and asymptotic curves. 

There was quite a bit of heavy grinding with the belt grinder on both, using a flat platen behind the belt for the outside curves and a contact wheel (generally 1") on all of the interior radii.  The pommel was tricky and hard to hold onto during that part! 

The fitting of the guard's opening from that point was refined with a dremel tool and little files.  That took quite a while, but I got it to a tightness with no wiggle or rattle, and it held itself on tightly by friction alone.  I was very happy with it!  You find yourself spending less and less time actually working on your sword as it nears completion, and with each new step in wieldability, you really just play with it more and more, making excuses to walk across the shop for a different tool and slaying invisible enemies as you traverse the concrete. 

One aspect of swordsmithing as art and sculpture I really want to branch out in is texture and finish.  Communicating to Owen the dull, matte look I wanted for the hilt components, he suggested I throw them in the tumbler for a few hours with bronze media to batter them all up and give them the warm, decidedly-not-shiny finish I was looking for.  Here they are in the barrel:

Finishing next!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Terrible Beauty: Grinding and Heat Treat

After that came the heavy grinding.  Grinding is the second most dramatic period of material change in a sword's creation, after forging.  

This part of making a sword is transformational: it is when, both physically and metaphysically, a sword becomes.  The black scale is ground away to reveal the sheen of steel, and in small but symphonic ways, weight is shaved off and a lean and slender blade emerges from the hunk of metal, like a statue being slowly rescued from its marble imprisonment by a sculptor. 

The lines drawn by the hammer will cut it while you are forging, and your eyes learn to correlate highs and lows and the hammer's footprint, finding averages and drawing fat marker-lines on your piece.  But that's only the beginning.  Even after one pass with a course 36-grit belt, it already looks more like a sword.

My sword-forgin' flannel and my sword-grindin' pants, which still have the hole I burned in them that day with sparks.

The beautifully bumpy lines you drew with your hammer now get leveled by a belt, becoming real lines.  You begin to see what is hiding in the steel, and it's exiting and scary and a little intoxicating.  It only gets more so, as the feel gets closer and closer to what's hovering above you in your artistic mind. 

Smeared with anti-scale compound for the heating before the quench.  Scale may form on some places of the blade, insulating it unevenly from the fast cooling of the quench. 

There is one stage that the blade undergoes during this process that happens both as soon as it can and as late as possible.  The heat treatment of a blade is something I have described already but will never stop learning new things about and finding that I was doing something wrong.  It's a very esoteric-seeming process of normalization/hardening/tempering/not ruining the temper.  The idea is to quench it when it's thick enough that you have to worry less about warpage, but thin enough that the whole blade makes the necessary changes all the way through and so that you don't have to do a ton of grinding at high speeds, when too much friction heat can ruin the temper if you are not careful. 

Owen has a classic horizontal drum-furnace outfitted with thermocouples and pyrometers to ensure the accuracy of his temperatures for the safe and consistent heating of blades to critical temperature before the quench in the heated tank of industrial quench oil nearby.  The oil is in a vertical tank and is heated from below with a torch.  The heating of the oil is important so as to not provide too great a shock for the dull orange blade that is quickly plunged into it vertically. 

After the blade has fully  cooled in the quench it is tempered in the same oven at much lower temperatures.  After each tempering heat is achieved, the blade hangs vertically once again, to reduce warpage due to uneven cooling.  The fragile tendency of a sword blade to submit to expansion and contraction because of thermodynamics, as well as the sometimes frustrating intrusion of gravity on hot steel, becomes a struggle, but the accuracy of using low temperatures and bending jigs means that you learn how to keep your blade straight as long as you grind evenly. 

My blade slimmed down into a very serious fighting machine thereafter.  Smiths often characterize the heat treat as the period when a blade becomes a blade, and after that it's all refinement.  While I believe in the completion and composition of a piece from an artistic perspective, complementing a sword with all its parts and accompaniment, it's completely true that at any point after the heat treatment, the sword can fulfill its intended purpose.  It's hard, flexible, and can be sharp and light and deadly.  The fact that we do not stop here takes it, for me, further away from a killing object and more into the art realm, but in beautifying it we are also further perfecting it, for so much of its beauty is in its perfection of what it is.

It is truly a terrible beauty.

Forging a sword (Type XIV)

After Owen's pattern-welding class came a brief hiatus during which I worked on another pattern-welding project, began to hone my grinding skill, and generally geared myself up for the major project of my stay: Owen's week-long "sword forging" class.  

He runs it about twice a year, check it out here: Owen Bush 7 Day Sword Course

The classroom.
The class itself meant a few things: it meant forging a single sword out of a single piece of steel, in what we generally think of as the "classic" or "basic" method of forging a sword.  In some ways, we have our generally non-analytical view of historical context to thank for this idea. Anyone who has delved into historical metallurgy knows that well into the "high middle ages", when we generally think of long, slim, shining monosteel (non-composite) swords, a huge amount of blades were still produced of non-homogenous, poorly refined steel and iron.

Owen began by forging a random variety of blanks for double-edged medieval European swords, according to the preferences of those taking the class.  Here they are, in 1080 steel, cooling from the initial forging.

It's true that more refined steels were used during that time, but the fact is that nothing truly as standard or predictable as modern Bessemer-process steels existed until the Industrial Revolution, and that all older steel, no matter how well it performed its use, was the product of pre-industrial craftsmanship and was, in many ways, unique.

The first exercise was to learn forging bevels on a double-edged knife, my first attempt at which is shown here.

But this was not an historical metallurgy class.  Anyone with that in mind should check out Owen's From Ore To Knife class (probably incredible).  This was a sword forging class, which was about process and product, technique, skill and style, and making something that was, in all identifiable respects, a modern sword.

We each chose a blank whose proportions matched the sword blade we had in mind.  I envisioned a 13th century English sword-and-buckler weapon, called by most today by its Oakeshott classification: Type XIV.

My tapered but un-beveled blank in a coal forge.

This was to be a short, broad cutting sword, with a long, tapering tip to allow for quite a lot of edge with lots of width to back it up: perfect for slashing, but with a long enough tip to pierce armor that had come more heavily into play during the 12th and 13th centuries, when this type of sword was popular.

Various scenes from the English I.33 manuscript, showing the use of a Type XIV with a buckler.

It represented the more conservative legacy of the Viking-type sword of earlier centuries: shorter and broader, squat of handle, broad and brutish, though still elegant in its way.  This is when swords branched off in the other direction, becoming longer and slenderer, starting with the Norman sword and eventually becoming the long, acutely pointed thrusting swords that characterized the High Medieval period. 

The use of this particular sword is most described in what is referred to as the I.33 manuscript.  It resides in the Tower of London, is German, and was written in Latin in about the year 1300.  It is the oldest surviving manual of Western martial arts, of which there are few compared to the highly traditional and well-documented and ritualized fighting system of Asia and India.

The sword blank after beveling the edges by using the hammer and the anvil face at specific angles to sculpt consistent planes.  There is much twisting and warpage that must be learned and counteracted, with also constant attention to keeping the steel both hot enough to work without cracking and not too hot so that the steel "burns" (carbon is burned out and the steel breaks down)

The general idea is the simultaneous use of a short, broad cutting sword and a small, brutal shield called a "buckler", which protects the sword hand from an enemy's blows and is also used as a bludgeoning weapon: essentially massive brass knuckles.  But steel.  

A photographic capture of "recalescence": thermodynamic change in steel's crystalline microstructure can be identified by regions of cooling and heating emanating from the metal. 

The fighting style itself contains a lot of grappling and trapping the enemy's blade.  There's twisting and trickery.  I believe it represents a sword of sub-knightly class of fighters, wealthy enough to afford a sword but not a horse: probably not professionals, but landowners with a stake in defending their property.  

The sword cooling vertically during normalization, a heat cycling operation to reduce stresses caused by heating and forging.  It's vertical so as not to warp it by lying it on a cold surface that would contract one side by faster cooling.