Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fall 2013 Demos at Hampshire College

You may or may not have gathered that I attend Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, which is a beautiful, wonderful school between fields and forests that I'm so fortunate to attend, and beyond lucky that I can simultaneously study history, mythology, and archaeology, as well as practice the crafts that I love with my whole heart.  It's actually unbelievable, but I try not to walk around smacking myself in the head out of incredulity and instead make the most of it. 

Don the 18th century sutler!
We have an incredibly well-equipped and accessible fabrication shop, which in particular houses a wonderful array of smithing tools in good shape, thanks to our legendary shop-master Don Dupuis.  In some ways, I might say "you've probably worked with someone like him", if you've spent any time working with craftspeople or in any kind of shop where people care about their work.  On the other hand, I'd also say that you've very rarely met anyone like him.  I'm so grateful for the support and encouragement I've received almost constantly over the past three years, but his has been some of the most constant and welcome.  He's absolutely awesome.  He'll give you anything you need and answer any question, but he'll do it in a way that makes you figure it our for yourself at the same time.  He's one of those.  He's a great teacher and a great friend, and he'll always be those to me.

Don holding a spring fuller for Jack McAuliffe
Thanks to him, our shop is great and we have a strong blacksmithing collective which buys most of our equipment and materials with school funding (awesome).  Our freedom and opportunity is rare and almost unheard of, but the trade-off is that we as a group need to teach ourselves most skills.  That's a wonderful way to learn, but for my own part, mentorship and teacher-student relationships are hugely important in craft, and community is one of my favorite things about it.  So, I've taken the initiative to contact several local smiths and bring them into our shop to do paid demonstrations, so the Hampshire blacksmiths can absorb skills, witness the techniques of experienced craftspeople, and network in person.  It's what makes this such a real and rewarding practice: sharing work and ideas with other people and riding the wave of collective creativity.  It's one of those few things in life that's both addictive and can't do you any wrong.

Derek addressing our small group of smiths!
So, the first person I contacted to come and teach our group is Derek Heidemann, owner & operator of Resurrection Ironworks in Millbury, Massachusetts.  He's only a few years older than me but he pulls weight with the old guys.  He's been a blacksmith at Old Sturbridge Village for a long time, and when it comes to the accurate production of 18th and 19th century tools and hardware, I'd say his work is not only of incredible quality and execution but also distinctive in its style, which is definitely something to say about someone who's in their mid-20s!  The first demo he came to do was a rose-head nail-making demo, which was impressive in his efficiency, accuracy and speed, but also marvelous in his exhibition of toolmaking: his steeled wrought iron nail header is not only a beautiful take on an historical object but also a fully functional and intuitive tool.  That's pretty representative of Derek's work: he loves old things because they work, not just because they're old, and he knows how to bring both of those out in beautiful harmony.  

Derek's custom tongs
Last year I contracted him to come for a nail-making demo, just to sort of get used to the shop and feel out the whole situation.  This time, we planned a little better, invited more people, and did something a little more exciting: tong-forging.  He brought an impressive array of tongs, all of which he had made, and in a fast, controlled, and coherent demo, he forged a pair of tongs in front of the small assembly, taking care to explain the objective and parameters of each step, and the anatomy of the product: jaws, reins, and rivet.  Derek is an excellent teacher and craftsperson, and I'm always happy to share a shop with him, absorb his experience, and share his unquenchable spirit of pursuing the craft and having a good time doing it.  

Explaining Japanese geometry
Our next demonstrator this month was Matt Venier of Lancaster, MA.  I met him in March at Baltimore Knife & Sword's Fire and Brimstone hammer-in, and was blown away with his intense attention to detail in the Japanese tradition, his great presence, and his proximity to my home (but wished I'd known he was driving instead of paying for the train ticket!  Oh well, I love trains)!  His exploration of Japanese blade geometry is exciting and honestly tempts me, but his primary pursuit is the elusive hamon: the ethereal line between the hardened martensitic edge steel and the unhardened spine.  Being among a student body interested in blades and certainly enchanted by the legendary Japanese aesthetic, and knowing Matt's passionate knowledge about it, I thought a demo on heat-treatment and a Japanese-style take on aestheticizing it would be perfect.

Applying clay for differential hardening & hamon!
So that's what we agreed on, and showed up with his whole home-made heat-treating arsenal: a furnace made from an old propane take with two strategically placed thermocouples, a horizontal quench tank filled with Parks 50 fast-quench oil, a small clamp table for blades and a few jars of black Rutland furnace cement.  With these tools, he taught us how to prepare the blade for claying, how to clay it for basic function, and how to augment it to achieve certain aesthetic details in the hamon.  Under his direction, each of us who had blades ready for heat treatment clayed up and hardened them.  His strong working knowledge of the properties and behavior of certain steels is very valuable and resulted in a beautiful hamon on my blade (I was using Aldo's 1095), but unfortunately some of the blades were mystery steels and we had to just sort of wing it.  Some still got some activity, some didn't, but overall it was a massively informative and clarifying demonstration, especially for those who had never heat treated before at all.  Matt's demo was an awesome follow-up to Derek's, in that he's an equally talented craftsperson working in almost exactly the same materials but with entirely different objectives and pertinent knowledge sets.  Having these two demos back to back really displayed the harmony and discrepancy between blacksmithing and bladesmithing, and the exciting and compelling levels one can pursue them to.

Jack talking with Brendan and Paolo in the background
Our third and final demonstrator this month was one of my oldest friends, Jack McAuliffe of Worcester, MA, where he bases his bladesmithing/teaching endeavor Underhill Edge. Recently, he's been bravely and successfully exploring the making, refining, and forging of metallurgically historical steels, particularly his own hearth-melted steels with varying levels of carbon.  This lends an intimately historical knowledge to his work like Derek's, but in a different way: not only is he incredibly faithful to historical construction but also to vital material, giving him an intensely real idea of the techniques and frustrations of the ancient smith whose work is he is trying to emulate.  Working mostly in charcoal and coke forges with primeval materials, Jack's experience of welding and pattern-welding is ingrained and he had much to share.

Straightening a 6-bar hearth steel spatha
His demo focused on the techniques for forming traditional weld joints and ensuring their success.  He went over steels for welding in historical tools, material and forge preparation for welding, the use and behavior of flux, how to know when you are ready to weld, setting and finishing the weld, which weld joints require certain hammering,  how to know if your weld failed and how to save it if you can.  He demonstrated butt-welds, lap-welds, scarf-welds, and billet-folding, and talked about twisting laminated bars, multi-bar construction, and the consequences of weld failure, which is not a pretty sight!

This demo was, in the words of friend and fellow student Paolo, "quite the game-changer" for those who have forged but never forge-welded.  I'm probably a bit biased in that it's the basis of all my ironwork, but on all account's he's right.  To be able to almost indiscriminately bond immovable pieces of incredibly strong material into bigger or more specialized shapes is beyond useful: it's magical, and no matter how much I learn about it, my wonder and enchantment only increases.  Magic and science are not mutually exclusive; I think that from the vantage point of the human experience, they rely on each other and cannot exist without some measure of the other. 

Endless thanks to all these awesome people for sharing coming and sharing their knowledge, experience, and excitement, which we can all feed off and become inspired by!  Also I want to acknowledge how unbelievably awesome all the Hampshire blacksmiths are: Sam, Andi, Peter, Emiliano, James, Paolo, Brendan, Rhett, Allxie, and just everyone else who's in the shop all the time: damn, you are cool people to work around.  Definitely good looking folks all around, too.

But to Don, I don't think any of us would be sharing this space, community, and thirst for knowledge if it wasn't for you.  Thanks from all of us, students and friends past, present & future. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Oakland Axe 'n Sax-In

First: many thanks to Jim Austin and John Page for letting me use their photographs.  

In the fantasy-land of California, between the Great Bay and the Hills, there lies Oakland, and in it the Shangri-La of shops, to my mind: Alchemy Metalworks, where James Austin grapples with metal and the higher meaning of materiality.  It was here, in his incredible shop-creation and presence, along with that of Jeff Pringle, where I first witnessed serious and passionate craftsmanship that has affected the whole course of my life since. 

My feet having tread the pathways of the space many times, my eyes having gazed upward so many hours at the dust-motes drifting wearily in the light-shafts of the ceiling windows, for all the world like a forest of cement and steel, chipped and ancient paint replacing bark, but clean in the way a forest is before autumn.  It was in this familiar place, where I first discovered the many-fold transformation of elements within my power, one day in October, a number of individuals from all over the world gathered to feel the same thing in their own way and communicate it through a common tongue. 

Petr's excellent design
Though I wax poetic, the Oakland Axe n’ Sax-In 2013 was a specific enough event on paper.  Few will argue that Jim Austin’s work in re-creating the Viking-period axe-forging process is unparalleled in its results, based only on his examination and rumination on original artifacts with Jeff Pringle, and his experience with traditional forging techniques.  It was only fitting that he host the event and hold forth on the subject into which he has such respectable insight.
idea was a celebration of the making of the two most unique, fascinating, and beautiful feats of Iron-Age Germanic metalwork: the axe and the sax.

As for the other focus of the event, I have spent much time meditating on the sax and its implications as an object in Iron-Age Germanic society, but the bottom line is that the ubiquitous freeman’s war-knife is basically a simple, wonderful, and broad playground for discovering historical pattern-welding techniques, experimenting with historical blade steels, and familiarizing oneself with historical forging geometry, finish, and much more.  That’s why sax-forging is such a rich and exciting field for me, and is a great skill-builder with a higher success rate than sword-forging, at least where I am. 

So the idea for the whole event was that a number of presenters, experts in their creative areas from Canada, Europe, and the whole US, would lecture/present/demonstrate for the attendees something they could get from nowhere else.  The first to present was Owen Bush, with whom I first learned pattern-welding techniques, an Englishman and peerless blade-maker, whose recent years of research have focused in great part on the historical pattern-welded sax, primarily in his native Anglo-Saxon broken-back style.  His presentation was in two parts: in the first he want over basic sax recognition skills, and the history of his own work on it, and introduced a particularly interesting original piece in the British Museum he aimed to loosely re-create.  The second half of his demonstration (on the final day) was forging this technically difficult and creatively challenging composite piece before our enchanted eyes.

The next presenter on the list was Petr Floriánek, that library of historical art styles and their material contexts, again someone I have visited abroad.  His scholarship focused on Iron-Age Germanic ornament and how it was traditionally applied to historical media, such as the carving, chipping, and scraping of antler and wood, the pressing of foil into dies to make pressblech, engraving, and much more.  He gave a chronological run-down of art styles from the beginning of Germanic art to the end of the Viking Age (roughly 300-1100 CE).  He also tag-teamed a presentation with Jake Powning on “decoding” Germanic abstract ornament, revealing ways in which one can scan for clues, for familiar shapes, that reveal the form of the whole hidden within the flowing lines.  One of the most interesting insights he shared was the method of thinking about the abstraction-of-form based ornament as a language, with vocal landmarks you can watch out for, just like in the structure of speech, from which you can make constructional headway to learn it.  For example, he pointed out similar portrayals of eyes, jaws, and hip joints in earlier art, and the application of tongues, tendrils, and other extremities in later art, and how their integration is the same but the styles themselves have completely different soundscapes, so to speak. 

There was also Jeff Pringle, whose extensive collection and long study of individual artifacts for personal examination and discovery has led to a truly deep insight into the intangible "authenticity" aspect, which is well-reflected in his own work. He spoke of how we examine original artifacts; what they tell us and what they don't tell us.  A piece tells us exactly what what the product of a smith's work was.  A corpus of work tells us what norms, trends, and anomalies existed over a given period or in a given area, provided they have some sort of correlation.  But there is more that the objects imply that is less straightforward.  For instance, types and amounts of material tell what was scarce or difficult to make, like ratio or iron to steel.  Overall, we can surmise that in the past material culture we were concerned with, labor was very cheap and materials were very expensive.  As someone who has witness his share of iron-making (with Jeff), I can tell you that even for the most experienced, it's a laborious and expensive process.

With this in mind about the material culture at hand, Jeff went on to address the research of originals: there are archaeological reports, many made between 1890 and 1950, published in Danish or German and accompanied by line drawings of varying accuracy.  These can be helpful or misleading when you are researching an object.  Another important concept Jeff covered was this: original artifacts exude a power over us, because they are material, empirical evidence of past persons, with whom we as smiths or makers or anyone who uses tools or as humans in general have a connection, which is alive in the piece, in the material, which has not changed since we first learned to work it.  Finally, he addressed the issue of blade culture and continuity, which is an important thing to consider.  He compared Japan, where swords and their making have remained culturally important continuously, as opposed to their complete oblivion in the West.  But there is an in-between: he had a beautiful pattern-welded spear in a very Viking-style, expertly made and highly functional with visible but cosmetic imperfections.  It was made in the Philippines in the past century. Just like the living tradition of bloomery smelting in western Africa, these new but undeniably original artifacts are miraculous windows to the past, even though they were made a thousand years and thousands of miles from our area of study.  That is the beautiful universality of iron. 

 Jake Powning contributed to Petr's first presentation, but had two of his own to execute.  His first was a deeply needed and captivating examination of, in his own words, "the world the axe and sax came from".  In my work, I try to remember that what I'm making is not strictly mine; it belongs to another time, another place, and what I'm trying to make is something that would have been made by someone with an entirely different mindset, an entirely different worldview.  He shed light on who would have used axes and saxes, by surveying what we know about class and weapon ownership from legal documents, literary references, and grave excavations.  He questioned our perceptions about warrior status, addressing the Anglo-Saxon linguistic distinction between "wæpnman" and "wīfman" (weapon-person and weaving-person, the latter which gave us the words "wife" and "woman"), which was a genderless dichotomy (man: person, cf. modern German man: one), the fact that swords, axes, and saxes are present in the graves of both men and women, just as with what is called a "weaving-sword", a wooden or bone slat for ramming down the weft into the warp.  He talked about who the smith might have been in Germanic society, respected for his skill but feared for his power, valued but stigmatized.  Jake went on to regale us with his own re-tellings of the Lay of Volund and the story of Sindri and Brokk, smithing tales both, and laid into us with magical storytelling, capped off with his own breathtaking illustrations.  It was transformative.  He continued with the tooling of the leather scabbard of a beautiful little broken-back seax he forged, for use in his demo and then to auction off for the benefit of the event!   

There were three more demos: the forging demonstrations of Jim Austin and Owen Bush, an axe and a sax, respectively, and the antler handle-carving of Petr Floriánek.  The impact of witnessing the making of these three master craftspeople is honestly too complex to explain here, and I will let pictures speak in what two-dimensional way they can. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Hearth Melting / Axe Modeling with Jack McAuliffe!

Me striking for Jack in his Worcester, MA shop
Alright so Jack McAuliffe and I go way back.  We grew up in the same little town in New Hampshire, and the first conversation we ever had was in 4th grade when we made a deal to build a lightsaber together.  "We've got all the parts.  We could totally do it.  We just need some crystals, man."

I'm not sure exactly what happened after that, because we don't have any lightsabers, but we do have these incredibly awesome lives where we get to work and learn and make things and meet people who do the same things and different things.  We live in different cities and have totally different lives but we have a lot of really awesome things in common and it's really cool to have a good friend grow in a craft with you, especially if they knew you before something that's such a huge part of your life now was just a potentiality.

One thing we worked on together a little bit this summer was hearth melting.  He recently embarked on a journey across the vast United States where he stayed with such bladesmithing luminaries as Dave Delagardelle of Cedarlore Forge and Jeff Pringle, learning and making and doing travelly things.  After that he spent five months in Australia and New Zealand, sailing and cliff-adventuring, battling giant spiders and learning the sand-smelty ways of a smith named Anton A., and brought his knowledge back to the New England for further experimentation. 

So, this past summer, we built a few small melting furnaces from bricks, ground clay/mud, and some fibrous plants.  For air we used a small shop-vac on the blow setting and a tuyere of 1" black pipe.  For fuel we used hardwood charcoal.  Our only real process references were Jack's teachings from Anton, my observation of Jesus Hernandez's hearth melts in Baltimore in March, and online tutorials by Zeb Deming and Lee Sauder.  We had, of course, plenty of steel scrap to melt, mostly mild steel cutoffs and railroad spikes, and were more or less going for blade steel, so we positioned the tuyere as best we could imagine would foster the correct reducing atmosphere to allow the nearly-molten steel to absorb carbon from the charcoal.

Contoocook River bog iron
We were working on this in the town we grew up, where I'd also like to say that we found some pretty good chunks of what's definitely bog iron in the river about a tenth of a mile from my dad's house.  We didn't use it as we weren't doing a direct-reduction bloomery smelt, but we'll use it for that eventually, especially considering that bog iron is the most historically-corroborated Scandinavian Iron Age source of iron ore. 

Our first run was pretty inconclusive due to a bad tuyere height, so the right part of the furnace failed to meet the right temperature.  We fixed that on the next couple of runs and came up with several very solid, dense remelt pucks, which we compacted with a sledge on a stump and split up to bring back to our respective shops down south in Mass.

Me standing on our third stack
One of the awesome things about hearth melting is that it's a completely historical process, using simple technology to achieve fascinating ends.  It's absolutely essential to consider in thinking about pre-industrial steelmaking and blade production, because it allows the recycling of scraps which were once much more valuable and scarce than they are now.

The other incredibly cool thing is that its product is entirely indistinguishable from bloomery material.  Hearth-melted steel, heated with charcoal and air in a stack of organic matter, is going to be exactly the same as anything made in an iron-age furnace.  It's an easy way to practice the working of period material without the humongous learning curve of direct-reduction bloomery smelting from ore. 

Dense hearth puck and old NH-made wrought/steel axe
Here is a photograph of our second hearth-puck which we split to experiment with individually.  Like I said, it was very solid for its size, which was a great thing to feel.  It's about five inches in diameter and 1.5" thick, shown here next to a #2 Underhill Tool Co. wrought iron splitting axe with a welded-in high-carbon bit, made in Nashua, New Hampshire sometime between 1850 and 1890.  It was a pretty awesome find Jack made at our local flea market.  Because of the connection and obvious awesomeness of the axe, Jack has called his bladesmithing enterprise Underhill Edge Sword Co.  Below is a sword blade of his inspired by the ambiguously Roman or Germanic pattern-welded spathae, probably from the 4th century, discovered in the Nydam Mose bog burial in Denmark.  It features what's called a 'piled' high-contrast core and stacked san-mai edges of steel in wrought iron jackets.  Pretty badass and authentic. 

And, as I promised, some tantalizingly coy model shots with the irresistible axe:


For those of you who can't get enough, here's one more:

Sunday, October 6, 2013

BUT ALAS: The Story of a Failed Sword Blade

I should talk about failure.  It's a big part of craft.  It hurts a lot, and it's absolutely the most poignant way to learn.  If this blog is a record of my learning, then it's gotta include some serious mistakes.

3 bars of 1095/15n20 ready for more patterning.
My big project going on last semester was not the kard I made, nor the other knives I finished.  On-and-off for March and April I was working on an historically conjectural langsax design.  I love the idea of a langsax; don't get me wrong, I love swords, but there's just something so awesome about a sword-sized knife.  "War-knife" is a pretty compelling and intimidating compound, but still doesn't truly encompass the nuance of the sax. 

When it comes to modern re-imaginings of the langsax, I see that it's pretty common to follow the direction of the Viking-age single-edged sword-hilted type like those found in Norway (landmark examples being Jake Powning's Vidirhrafn and Helvegr, as well as J. Arthur Loose's Sword of Ice and Elding and Petr Florianek's Hafuthupnari) and embrace the swordy-ness of the langsax. 

JD Smith's sweet twisting jig.
 The other route, it seems to me, is to follow the enticing Owen Bush-esqe example of the oversized (and definitely historical) broken-back seax.  Owen himself is of course expert in the BBS of all sizes as evidenced by his great portfolio of work, but his langsax versions are beyond impressive.  I love a big broken-back with a pronounced clip, but the ones I like to make tend towards the much more understated shape of the continental and Scandinavian saxes.  The lines meet more symmetrically at the point, but there's still a palpable asymmetry in handling and play of light with its triangular geometry. 

So I knew what I liked, and I wanted to scale it up.  I started with a big billet of 11-layer 1095/15n20 and used the band saw to cut it into three bars.  I put opposing interrupted twists in two of the bars and turned the third so that the striations of lamination would show on the flat of the blade.  Then I forged out a few thin bars of wrought iron and aligned them so they'd border the twists on each side, and the edge bar on one side.  This composition was specifically inspired by Luke Shearer's blade for his collaboration with Myles Mulkey

So on the left is one of my twisted bars, re-squared for core welding after the twisting.  Lots of my free time at MassArt was spent on this, but one weekend in March the bars left Boston for Baltimore and came back entirely different. 

Five bars tack-welded on the ends to hold them until welded.
Matt and Kerry Stagmer own and operate Baltimore Knife and Sword Co., a wonder of a beautiful rural shop on the more distant outskirts of Baltimore, MD.  With a great menagerie of steel workbeasts and constantly impressive characters such as New York's own Sam Salvati and the talented armorer, cutler, and painter and intellectual Ilya Alekseyev, it's the perfect place to host a hammer-in. 
Janky/awesome power hammer
Just like in any other wonderful shop, the tools came in all sizes and varying degrees of functionality and riskiness.  I got well-acquainted with lanky custom-built power hammer whose bolts needed constant tightening to prevent the (250lb?) ram from falling out of its tracks.  But as long as you did that, it worked a wonder!  Smooth and powerful action, and very controllable results. 

My welds went swimmingly, my drawing smoothly, and my excitement with the process mounted.  I'd never had such success with such ambitious designs before!  I took care not to draw out my twists too much and to leave enough thickness on the back for a solid spine and enough on the edge to allow me to keep everything aligned in the grind.

It was an absolute pleasure to draw out and forge in the profile and bevels by hand, on a stout and timeless sawyer's anvil, using a traditional bladesmith's weight-forward hammer made by Sam Salvati and owned by Matt Venier, fellow New Englander and incredibly talented maker of  'Japanese inspired traditional and modern methods', in his own words. 

 It was an awesome experience to be creating in the midst of a bustling hub of other people creating, all sharing enthusiasm and momentum, admiration and criticism.  The whole atmosphere was heightened by the crisp day framed in the subtle greys, browns, and greens of the Northeast that I love so well. 

Besides a great number of top-notch Bader grinders, the BKS shop houses an unfairly high amount of (near) perfect anvils, well-used and well-taken care of.  This one on the left I lay the sax on to think about what I would do next.  I wanted to maximize the amount of visible pattern-welded finished product and to not obscure any twists with the handle, but had left myself little space at the top of the blade, so I decided to go the most historically accurate route and forge a stub tang from the blade material and then forge-weld on a longer tang of soft and pliable wrought iron.

Before I did that, I allowed myself a quick grind and a test-etch:

Tang-welding, credit John Page
After that, it was weld the tang on, the specifics of which I gathered from the lovely picture tutorial by blacksmith/bladesmith Josh Burrell in The Second SwordJosh's bone-knowledge of the craft and the form of the material runs deeper than most people today experience in their whole lives, and I would take his word for the authenticity of an item over that of any intellectual; his knowledge is also vast but his practical sense truly lights the way for anyone who would see into the past through this craft. The tang-welding went flawlessly and I took the langsax triumphantly home to Boston where I ground away for hours on end in the MassArt metal shop, under the watchful eye of JD Smith.  I was very pleased with the grind and began wondering how the sax would fare in heat-treatment.  I was so in love with the symmetry and cleanliness of my unfinished product that I dared not normalize it or quench it without careful deliberation.  My past experiences with the heat treatment of single-edged blades have shown me that warping is more or less inevitable.  I have never made a sax that did not dip forward in the quench (or "nose-dive" in bladesmithing terms).  I began to research the subject more, familiarizing myself with the Japanese term 'sori', which refers to this blade curvature in the quench, a cultivated attribute of Japanese swords.  The word has been borrowed by the bladesmithing community and differentiated by "positive" and "negative" sori, meaning backward and forward sabering, respectively.

My research revealed that negative sori usually occurs in oil quench and positive in water (traditionally Japanese).  The reason it occurs at all is the relative rate of crystal change and degree of cooling contraction in the thin edge and the thick spine.  I thought perhaps I'd normalize it to induce a negative sori (which happens for the same reason) and then quench in water to counteract it.  I proposed this on Don Fogg's Bladesmithing forum and was informed by such senior members as Peter Johnsson that it was not a good idea.  Owen Bush threatened to "personally can my tomatoes" if I water quenched it. 

Back to the drawing board.  I decided to try to equalize the masses of each side of the blade by grinding a deep fuller into the thicker spine side.  I knew it would dig deeper into my twists to reveal the twist pattern I desired, and I needed the practice, so I went for it.  I was visiting the workshop of Jim Austin in Oakland at the time, and went for it with his little old grinder with a one-inch contact wheel, on which I had first been shown how to grind a fuller by Jeff Pringle.

It went beautifully.  I stoned it intermediately with a rough stone, which kept things straight but dug deep into the steel.  The deep scratches it left, coupled with the small diameter of the wheel were my undoing. 

All of a sudden the middle of the fuller went black as I passed it over the wheel.  That made no sense.  I held it up to the light.  Against all my disbelief, light shone through a crack.  I was still in my grinding zone, and managed a few moments of complete denial, bringing it back down to the wheel for a few more passes before I turned off the grinder and beheld my mistake with mind-numbing clarity. 

I laid it down on the table and went back to my uncle's house.  When I came back the next day, I cut the shoulders up above the crack and sacrificed one of the four twist sections and about six inches of blade.  I went back to the grinding wheel to even things up but it was already doomed.  I went through the fuller again, and lost another twist section.  I felt like I was just going down in flames. 

I finished what was left of the blade anyhow; the bottom half remained.  I brought it to Venier Forge when I was back in Massachusetts to harden it with a number of other blades.  It was so thin in the middle of the fuller that it ripped like paper in the quench.  I should also mention, ironically, that the fuller did counteract the nose-dive somewhat, but would probably have been better wider and shallower. 


Yeah so anyway, here are some pictures of the pattern.  It looks pretty alright, and my fuller's pretty straight.  Writing this, I've re-lived a bit of the pain of it, but really I feel much more entrenched in my position as a student and much more concrete in my knowledge.  When you sort of float from success to success, it's hard to know if you have any even footing to fall back on or if you're just a reckless Icarus who could come crashing down at any moment.  It's a pretty relatable human condition in the end, failure, and I'm glad to experience it doing something I really care about.  Too bad about the blade, but it doesn't mean what I did right didn't happen, and that I know one way not to do things in the future.  Bonus, right??!?


Monday, September 9, 2013

Four Saxes à la Petr Florianek (Part II)

The next project I had was more or less the centerpiece of my work in CZ and the hub of my learning.  It utilized my design skills and all the material and technical aspects of what I was trying to pick up.  The blade itself was an early experiment in multi-bar pattern-welding, and, while the manipulation of pattern is certainly less than dazzling, the geometry and proportions of the blade were pleasing to me, and I decided to use it. 

With a wide profile and a thick spine, I wanted the handle to echo that sturdiness and straight lines, especially with the parallel grooves I scraped out of the blade.  The materials I chose to meet my designs were elk antler and bog oak, both strong words in the mouth and stout things in the hand.  They also have strong intrinsic narrative properties, at least for me, and evoke ancient things when I touch and smell and admire them. 

The blade shape, construction, and features I had constructed were inspired by drawings I had seen from a record of Vendelperiod graves, and Petr's practiced eye placed them in the 7th century.  Following that judgement, I turned further to books full of period ornament to see what would flow from the page onto my piece.  The Salin style-II biting-beast chain I had drawn earlier fit perfectly around the waist of the handle.  I became infatuated with strange faces within ellipses that seemed to permeate the ornament, and I decided to incorporate them. 

 I brought my ideas to Petr to discuss application, and he suggested I try my hand at engraving, a common method of decoration for the historical work in question, as well as  particularly applicable and striking in the brass that I was going to use as the ferrule and butt-cap.  So, I rolled some brass out and squared it up, sizing to a paper mock-up.  Petr showed me how to attach it to a block of wood with a little bit of black pitch, which was then placed in an engraver's ball vise.  Next, he showed me his v- and round-tipped push gravers, and how to use them.  I spent hours and hours hunched over a small table in his backyard, filled with matched frustration and determination, constantly enraged by the loss of control when the graver slipped and the endless gratification of it making the exact cut you want it to.

My control got better and better, but my injuries did not turn around so quickly.  My hands were soon covered with scrapes and cuts from brass burrs and puncture wounds from the graver itself.  But it was worth it when my work yielded recognizable but strange moustachioed faces, staring pupil-less from the brass. 

The next step was to remove the antler waist and transfer my design onto it, which was certainly an exercise in eyeballing!  It went over pretty well, and I altered the lines to match the cuts I was going to make with the dremel.  I can't really convey exactly what it's like to cut antler with a dremel tool, but it's soft and grainless, and it's pretty much like cutting butter.  It's going to cut exactly where you put it, so you better put it exactly where you want it.  It's not like filing, where material is removed (relatively) slowly and you can plan it out while it's happening.  You have to have a plan and stick to it, because there's no following your groove and coasting along the cut.

That said, if you know what you're doing and have the feel for it, you can make it exactly as your heart desires.  It also means that its speed and power in antler make for very quick work.  Also antler just looks awesome, and I'm going to be using a lot of it, as well as carving a lot of it when I have the tools. 

 Project #3, really quick, was the re-hilting of an old sax blade I made in Worcester, Massachusetts with my good friend Jack McAuliffe of Underhill Edge.  I knew it was vaguely early-Frankish in design, and I knew that most Frankish saxes from that period have limited non-organic materials apart from the blade, so I wanted my principle elements to be wood, antler, and leather. 

I made a curving handle I felt complimented the design, and I ought to pay due here to the extensive research of Jeroen Zuiderwijk, a Dutchman whose work has really bolstered the historicity of the bladesmithing community.  He more or less started the trend of long, accurate handles. 

 I couldn't resist the new technique Petr had developed for texturing sheet, however, and I decided to do in brass what he had done in silver in this knife.  I also set risers where I felt they were ergonomically desirable, dyed some leather, and wrapped it all up.

With a lot more carving, steel-wooling, scraping, and banging things around to make them fit, I had four unfinished pieces but a lot of new things flowing between my hands and my head.  It'll be more hard adventure to finish it all up, but doors have been opened and I'll charge through them, messily at first but always getting better.

Stay tuned for finishing the handles, making the scabbards, and hopefully some more originality on my part!