Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Why I Use Wrought Iron: Materials Asking Questions

My early April return to the United States was somewhat unexpected.  I'd planned on finding a Volunteers For Peace program on an archaeological site elsewhere in Europe. My month at Owen's working continuously in a shop, exploring myself through creativity and my world through materials and tools, pulled me into something that I didn't want to break up by un-grounding myself again.  So, instead of continuing my travels, I decided to return to Oakland to the familiar shop of Jim Austin and Jeff Pringle, and to bring my new experience to the test and further exploration.

One of the ways I decided to do this was to introduce techniques I'd begun with Owen, using new materials.  Owen tends to buy lots of high-quality, modern, commercially-produced Bessemer steel for its predictability in working and heat-treatment, reduction of risk variables, and general superiority.  He personalizes it by pattern-welding and doing his own heat-treating.  Just because he prefers to use those as a craftsman and a businessman, his creativity and curiosity as an artist and a scholar have led him to the use of and experimentation with many older and homebrew steels and irons; wrought iron, bloomery iron and steel, shear and blister steel, tamahagane, wootz crucible steel, etc.  These older forms of ferrous metallurgy interest me immensely, and Jim and Jeff have quite a lot of experience in these, so I jumped in with enthusiasm. 

The above picture is the first piece of wrought iron I ever worked with, a very popular material among the bladesmiths of our movement for its textural expressiveness due to a varyingly visible grain-pattern.  The grain of wrought iron is a product of its very particular smelting process, which leaves an amount of silica slag in the metal left over from the original ore, which was not refined out during the process.  I love its texture, always having been moved by the natural grain of wood, but in something so seemingly immovable as iron, it's more mysterious somehow. 

The wrought iron I was using here was part of a large Victorian-era bridge that Jim and Jeff found in the Mojave desert.  I'm fascinated by the use of found objects and materials, because of the inherent story they evoke.  Sure, any material has a source or origin, and many of them are impressive and interesting if you understand them, but first the question must be asked.  Often, a homogenous commercial steel like 1095 does not necessarily invite a question as to its creation.  Every batch of wrought iron that was ever produced is different, and it has a characteristic of visible grain that encourages you to ask what the grain is, why it's there.  That question, that curiosity, is the seed of the imagination that allows you a story, gives a prior character to the object, because it had a life before it met you. 

That's why I use wrought iron.  Historically, it was forge-welded to pieces of higher-carbon steel to give mass to a blade while conserving higher carbon material for the edges of blades.  Wrought iron has a carbon content around 0.1% - 0.3%, meaning a few things.  It won't harden (meaning there is not sufficient carbon to for the crystal matrix necessary for that) and probably won't ever snap, but also can't temper, so it's very prone to bending.  With this in mind, you can decide on your ratio of steel to iron in a blade and what's important: cutting ability, mass, conservation of material, and visual effect.

I used it here in a blade construction generally called san mai, what I believe is a Japanese term for an originally Chinese technique, but which understandably originated independently wherever there was ironwork.  It's produced by sandwiching high-carbon steel between two other steels or irons, and removing material on the bevels to reveal the high carbon on the edge.  It's the first forge-welding I did with Owen, but the above billet is one I welded in Jim Austin's coke forge.  That billet yielded a few blades, like this double-edged one below:

I forged too much on one bevel before grinding and pushed the wrought iron onto the edge, which is an unfortunate occurrence. That was less of a problem in the below little broken-back sax, with which I was pleased with my ability to forge to a shape I designed.  I'm discovering that with practice comes control, and since there's no limit to imagination, the only limit to realizing it is practice.  So go get on that project! 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Grips, Inherent Potentialities, and Non-Vegan Swords

It was three quarters of a year ago that I was at this stage with my sword, but the point of this blog is to catalogue my journey, to honor my teachers, and to paint a portrait of my growth and my work, and how they fit into my world.  This stage of the sword's development takes it from the most raw object in which form it could be used (blade, guards, handle) and is a step in refining it.  So much of the work that is put into many swords, or indeed many made objects, are not intrinsic to the "base" of that thing; a sword does not need a high polish or a leather grip to be a sword, nor does a car need a chrome grille or a sweater a zig-zag pattern.  They are characteristics, however, that come naturally.

Even as I write this nine months after the fact, I am enrolled in classes at MassArt in Boston, Massachusetts.  In an article I read for class, "Why We Need Things" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, he writes
'An object with a specific form and function inevitably suggests the next incarnation of that object...human volition has less to do with this development than do the potentialities inherent in the objects themselves.'   
I will return to this quote in a more direct way referring to the evolution of swords as objects, but where function transitions to decoration is what is applicable to this level of making.

The grip is for comfort, no doubt, and the function of reducing the slipperiness of a sweat-slick wooden handle,obviously a function improved upon from earlier weapons.  But leather, being a much more malleable and historically longer-worked material than steel (obviously animal-part implements that survive count among the oldest of human-made objects), already has a tradition of decorations and uses, ways to be applied and bring new dimensions and textures to a base object.  The techniques of working leather, warming and wetting it, stretching it, drying it, sewing it, putting risers under it, dyeing it: these things are all "known" about leather, and as the crafts of swordsmithing developed, this other existing craft became a supplementary skill for a grip-maker.  Eventually I will also touch on what I learn of the history of swordsmithing industry, division of labor, and in the words of many of my mentors, dispelling the "myth of the lone swordsmith". 

The point is, decoration is an "inherent potentiality"; the designing mind sees spaces on swords and scabbards and belts that beg their space to be filled with texture and narrative, and that is where our craft meets our art, and where the craftsman is an individual. 

So, the first step was dyeing.  Then came a careful regimen (on Owen's kitchen table, no less) of exacto-knifing, spot-glueing, and very tight wrapping.  Risers were glued to the wooden grip beforehand, which is one of those steps that is largely functional (friction anchoring) and also largely aesthetic; I applied only one riser on either end, to give the handle a severe, stark look.  Other smiths and grip-makers choose to apply many in simple banding patterns, or tool the steel finely in intricate patterns and scrolls.  It's true that that work is not what I would choose to by my style right now, but it is also far above my skill, and as my skill changes, so will my tastes. 

Doused with glue, the grip was wrapped as tightly as I could.  The leather was supple but not stretchy, and responded beautifully but sturdily, holding its own as a material.  I believe I was using goat leather, Owen's leather of choice.  I must unfortunately alert any potential customers I have that this sword, and many other objects I make, are not vegan.  I use rabbit-skin (or fish-scale) glue, beeswax-coated thread (flax thread though!), deer and moose antler, cow horn, goat and calf leather for handles, and cow leather for belts.  Consult J. Arthur Loose for information on chicken feces in steel-making. 

There is a finality to tightly winding the grip with thread and leaving it overnight to cure and dry that gives you both satisfaction of completion, having worked your way down to such an easy and responsive material, and also a longing for the process behind you, a project that has tried and challenged you, and has forced you to think differently and to make different things; it has expanded your mental space and worked muscles in your physical form.  There's nothing like it, and I'll never stop. 

It's February, and nine months ago I was at East Wickham Farm in Welling, Kent, cool wet days permeating my life, a breeze stirring my hair and soul, and my head aswim in creation and possibility.  My warmest and most sincere thanks to Owen Bush and his fantastic family, for making a home for me in one of the most important and exploratory months of my creative life so far.  He is a great teacher and a good friend, and I'll be back his way.