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. 

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