Wednesday, August 28, 2013

June 2013: Two weeks with Petr Floriánek

The passionate journey I have been on for the past three years pursuing knowledge, craft, and community has already lead me thousands of miles away from my home both East and West.  The fulfillment I have found and the hunger I have for more only reaffirm this as a lifelong journey, which is interwoven with the rest of my life's tapestry in ways I may never fully realize, but can always feel pulsing under the surface of things.

Petr assuming the guise of Grímnir
With the sale of my first sword and the generous invitation of the brilliant beacon of creativity Petr Floriánek, I was able to purchase tickets for a two-week trip to the Czech Republic at the end of June.  The agreement we made was that I would stay with him at no cost to either of us, and that we would work side-by-side on our respective projects.  Obviously I realized the immense amount of observation I stood to gain from.  Petr's work has been a constant source of inspiration for me, and I do not use that word lightly in any sense.

The pieces born in his mind and formed in his hands come not only from there, but also from elsewhere.  There is an impressive amount of study and experience behind Petr's design and craft, but there is also a certain element that cannot be accounted for among waking life.  There is a channeling, a tapping of ancient things beneath his pieces that are not entirely tangible.  Anyone can make a blade incorporating wrought iron, carve some Salin style II serpent-ornamentation on the antler handle and call it "period".  There is a harmony beyond subtlety that transcends technical perfection and artistic style.  This sense permeates Petr's work.

With a buzzing sense of excitement growing in my spine, coupled with the heady surrealism of being in a country whose language you do not speak, I arrived in the Czech Republic.  A cobblestone road lead from the palpably post-Communist outdoor train stop into Petr's small village on the outskirts of Prague.  It was nearly evening by the time Petr and I arrived at his village, after a bottle of top-notch local lager (which I spilled in my nervousness), and we proceeded to his house where I was introduced to my free quarters for the next two weeks. 

There is a cobblestone street in his town where a small stone barn and a smaller stone house huddle next to each other among newer houses, separated only by a humble swathe of grass leading into a shady yard.  The house belongs to Petr, Baška, and their two children.  The barn is his shop.  As we walked between them, I marveled at the dark, weathered wooden beams between the stones, sturdy but looking like moss would not have been out of place on the old timbers.  I was delighted to see that the round backyard was surrounded on all sides by impressive stone slopes--twenty feet high!  In the middle of the quiet, breezy, protected clearing stood a table, chairs, and a spacious linen tent: my bedroom for the next two weeks.

An avid Viking-age reenactor, Petr is outfitted with highly functional and comfortable Viking belongings.  I can barely describe how deliciously cozy it is to sleep outside on a wooden bed under a linen roof swathed in rabbit fur for two weeks, many nights in the driving rain, sometimes in the gentle whispering of trees. 

That night I sat under the stars at the table by my tent with Petr, Baška, and two bottles of good wine, exercising our cross-cultural conversational skills while discussing politics and spirituality, a habit that did not lessen throughout my stay (though the tension around it did, considerably).  In the wee hours we retired, all of us working the following day, but it was the beginning of a friendship that I was both excited to pursue and eager to see what fruits it would bear.  Baška, Petr, and their incredible children gave me their full selves, open and unabashed, and I can't put into words my gratitude for the time and spirit they showed me.  I can only contribute to the growth of our friendship which will last for many years to come, hopefully in many forms and adventures!

Needless to say, the majority of my time was spent sharing Petr's shop with him, and often using it alone when he spent time with his family.   Somehow, we managed to fit lots of conversation and adventures into the times between making, and that's what this blog post is for--the work can wait.

The first weekend of my stay, Petr took me out into the majestic Slavic pines, where he and his Viking group own some idyllic land surrounded by fields, forests and the great dome of the sky.  The weekend's work was to build the frame of a small Viking house, spearheaded by his hardworking friend Mira, whose progress can be found here.  We spent long days chopping down and cutting up trees (all with axes), carrying them a distance, stripping them of bark with draw knives, charring the ends of vertical beams, planting them with rocks--by the end I was sore and tired and not much help anymore.  But we were well rewarded with a bright fire, good bread (everywhere in the Czech Republic), meat, cheese, beer, and strong, clean air. 

Petr, Mira, me, and Ráďa (left to right), definitely exhausted.

The next weekend, the family Floriánek/Floriánkova took me to a town called Kutná Hora, which houses the grotesque and fascinating Sedlec Ossuary: a church that houses the artfully arranged skulls of some 40,000 victims of the bubonic plague and the Hussite Wars.  Today it is an unassuming museum, cool, damp, and dusty.

It was almost difficult to comprehend where I was and what I was seeing: the gravity and implications of 40,000 skulls is not something grasped easily within my own cranium.  I felt like just another skull, honestly.  On every wall, bundles of bones hung like dried flowers, and muted light from the windows cast everything in a sort of gray.  The ornamentation hovered somewhere on the border of  morbid and ironic.  Such a dichotomy may have been symbolically alluded to in the intersecting circles playing across the vaulted ceilings (there's an architectural vesica for you, Peter Johnsson!).  Lately I have been reading about the proliferation of witch-hunts in Europe in the 17th century, and the driving force seems to have been a combination of severe repression and crushing boredom among the religious and illiterate, which encompassed practically everyone.  I can only assume that such a situation could be what drove priests to exhume tens of thousands of skeletons and arrange them like so many Lego bricks. 

This is just one of the ancient and alien places we visited, and I don't if I'll ever comprehend the nature of places so long built upon by humans.  The film of civilization seems transparent by comparison in most parts of America, but often more vulgar.   I think I feel it most in churches: those in Europe know more of the struggle and secrets of the spiritualism of a people.  I am not a religious person but there's something to feel in those stones, as with so many other things so intertwined with the past.

St. Barbara's church and Prague Castle were awesome to behold, filling your body with the presence and ideas of countless people of the past, slipped between the stones and hovering in the shadowed corners waiting to be found.  As breathtaking as grand scale is, I usually find most joy in the smaller or more out-of-the-way things, details, or coincidences.  One of my favorite adornments of St. Barbara's was this fresco in a window alcove.  Though huge (possibly 20 feet tall), it could not compete with the majesty of the whole church, and enjoyed its muted sunlight in quiet contemplation.  It portrayed a raggedly-dressed man, bearded and barefoot striding across a stream with a great walking stick.  There was no explanation, but my mind went instantly to a Wanderer archetype, an Odin or Berggeist or Grímnir forever seeking, like Petr's grim visage at the top of my post.

But that is not the image that stands with me when I look back on my trip, particularly of Petr.  I think mostly of crouching over my work at the jewelry bench, with him behind me at the grinder, in our own worlds of creation and handwork, or else on the way to a place I could not imagine, blissful in the surety of seeing something incredible.  But I think the most rewarding and hopeful experience was being part of a rich and full life, with equal parts maturity and childishness, intellect and intuition, seriousness and play, embodied by Petr and his family, and responsible for the quality of his work and his life, to which I am honored to have borne witness. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Kard - Persian-inspired knife

For this post I will open with pictures of my work, and leave the inspiration and process for later.

I attempted in this blade to capture what the essence of the characteristically Persian kard (کارد; Farsi for "knife") is to me: a deviously slim blade presence with graceful lines and a refined handle that makes you itch to grasp it.  I think I was more successful in the former part than the latter, but I am utterly infatuated with this blade style and fully intend to develop my own knowledge and interpretation of it further in geometry, history, and materials.

I've always been very attracted to blades that I perceive to be the "everyday knife", but not in the way that a buck knife is.  Rather, I loved the idea of the fashion knife, the heirloom, the functional knife that's part of the costume.  What's wonderful about the idea to me is that it is still an everyday knife, but it's not a nobody.  The idea may be different, but in my paper about the sword as a subarchetypal character in Germanic myth, I liken some named swords to heroes.  Similarly, the 'heirloom knife' takes on a character, passing as it does from owner to owner, from land to land, from ship to shore, on the bodies at the belts of people who are doing things to change and connect the world.

The kard in particular embodies this romantic notion for me because of the Silk Road.  Persia, for many, many centuries under numerous names, rulers, religions, divisions, cultures, and empires, has stood at the geographical heart of Eurasia and seen passions and wars flow between the ends of the earth.  The Silk Road was the great artery of this heart, connecting across leagues, linking through people, carrying the fractal nature of action from one end of the world to the other with infinite consequences unknown to their perpetrators.

Ubiquitous among Persian archaeology is a knife that comes in many sizes, shapes, provenances, and qualities: the kard.  Most examples are exquisitely beautiful and luxurious, but show signs of use, perfectly exhibiting the dilemma of the handmade sword: simultaneous function and beauty; more abstractly, caring creation and brutal purpose. 

The blade on the left is my loose interpretation of the kard, with a very distinctive blade and handle profile. Mine is a more stripped-down version constructed of materials of my choice, rather than traditional ones. The blade is ~325 layers of folded 1095 and 15n20. The pattern produced by hand-hammering this laminated steel into the three-dimensional shape of a knife pushes the layers back and forth across their lateral planes and produces a wavy, swirly, eddying random pattern when the blade is ground flat. The visual effect, revealed after polishing by etching it in a corrosive, is a vaguely recognizable imitation of traditional Persian wootz crucible steel (pulâd, پولاد, in Farsi), which according to some may account for the highly confusing misnomer "Damascus steel". The blade is 8.25" in length and the overall length is 13.75", with a handle proportionally longer than most extant originals, and perhaps also narrower where it widens to meet the base of the blade.  The placement of the pins is less common but not unseen; some kard had tang constructions that were obscured by the handle and others were laminated between scales like mine. 

I have chosen some examples of originals to highlight the unbelievable beauty in form and decoration.  To the right is a 19th century Persian kard constructed similarly to mine, but made of wootz crucible steel and heavily carved, as well as inlaid and overlaid with gold wire, resplendent in graceful floral curves for which Persian craftspeople had an obvious eye; the form of their works and their written language itself attest to that.  It was very common for the koftgari wire overlay to contain verses from the Koran in Farsi, among other decorative calligraphy. 

The next original example is also a sublime piece of work.  Similarly constructed of pulâd, gold, and ivory, it would be an aesthetic triumph already even if it didn't contain some of the most incredible Middle Eastern steel carving I know of.  It's a technical masterpiece, but I am always amazed by how aesthetically partial I actually am to Persian art and craft regardless of technical complication.  I really like it.

I have to pay credit where it is due, of course.  Though I have admired the kard for many years, I will proudly and unashamedly say that what inspired me to make this knife was the very similar (but generally superior in all aspects and overall execution to mine) kard by none other than Kevin Klein, apprentice to JD Smith.  To the right is the only known photograph of it.  During my class with Mastersmith Smith, Kevin was his right hand man and taught me equally as much.  I was captivated by the grace and obvious lethality of his piece, and how it sat in my hand like it was alive.  His blade pattern was deliberately smokier, his finish fine and precise, and his signature filework exquisite and honestly unfathomable.  Needless to say, I wanted to make my own.

I can only say so much on the subject of crucible steel that is generally referred to as "wootz", and if anyone's interested I can personally refer them to Mr. Jeff Pringle of Oakland, California, who has experimented extensively with the smelting, forging, patterning, and finishing of wootz steel.  I have a negligible amount of knowledge on the subject despite his best efforts to educate me, and I'm afraid it will be some years before I can carry a conversation on the subject.  But I think it has an unparalleled ethereal beauty.  The above example is striking in subtlety and contrast both.  Having personally experienced the incredibly difficult workability of wootz, and with my struggles with carving and inlay, I have some serious respect for whoever inlaid this steel with that gold and beautiful calligraphy.   Kind of like I do for Jeff Pringle on his creative piece

So, back to my piece!  My blade lies here, during its stoning and preliminary sharpening, on the back porch of my wonderful, beautiful Boston apartment that I loved dearly.  To the right are the lower bolsters I forged and ground by hand from ~200 year old wrought iron from a scrapped New Hampshire graveyard fence.  The handle scales are moose antler I purchased in Worcester, MA from a quirky and fascinating shop called Bones and Flowers, run by a wonderful woman called Tannin who wants to talk about leather and bone and horn and antler until the cows come home to be turned into craft material.  Seriously, if you stop in to see her, and talk to her a while, you're going to talk for a long time and then get some good deals on the things you've been eying while talking to her.  The people you meet on the journey of craft, as in anything you pursue to unusual places, are artful to say the least. 

I attached the bolsters mechanically with copper rivets; that is, without any adhesive.  The scales were epoxied and then riveted as well.  I have to say, it was totally a pain in the ass to try to rivet at that angle.  At the butt-end of the piece (see bottom photo), I embellished the tang with totally personal European-influenced filework, sandwiched between the protruding "ears" of the scales.  I felt the "ear" feature was appropriate given its appearance on some kard and pronounced ubiquity in the Turkish yataghan.  The filework was topically inappropriate but a good learning experience and fun artistic license.  I was very pleased with the color and texture composition of the piece, and felt that I had captured in a small way the refined aesthetic of the originals that inspired me.  However, my treatment of the materials and the way I decorated them leaves a decidedly European taste in my mouth.  In the end, that's what I am a product of, and I think I truly don't have the capacity to make anything else right now.  That said, this piece is a true representation of my aesthetic, aspirations (failed and achieved), influences, and progress so far. 

Stay tuned for the making of the sheath!

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Making at MassArt

In March, I wrote a little bit about my bladesmithing class at MassArt with JD Smith.  I wanted to write a little bit more about what I actually did in the class, what I learned from JD, and how my world of making has evolved. 

JD is a deliberate and clear teacher, whose strength as an educator perpetuating the craft lies in the universal respect he holds for his students and the standards he holds them to.  He treats his students like the next generation of craftspeople.  He speaks intelligently and coherently to them, expecting them to understand and to ask questions when they don't; to engage directly and honestly.  In this way, he is able to ask his students to push themselves, to follow their intuitions but also to respect experience and perspective.  The result is a knowledgeable and talented student base, with a great array of individuality in their work.  Anyone who has taken bladesmithing at MassArt is well-informed and interested.  JD awakes both artistic passion and the seriousness of craft in his students, and is an invaluable asset to the growth and life of bladesmithing.  As for his work, it's skilled beyond my ability to judge, and more something I stand in awe of.  I might  also add that he's a captivating storyteller and evident badass.  If you find yourself in Boston, meet him.  If you live there, take his class.

 Now to the technical stuff!  The materials we used in class were 1095, a simple low-alloy high-carbon steel, and 15n20, a steel that behaves very similarly in heat treatment and welds to 1095 very well, but contains a certain amount of nickel for contrast with the 1095.  JD truly taught me how to draw, cut, and fold billets efficiently.  We started out with eleven layers of laminated steel, and I decided that for my pattern, I wanted to fold it to about 325 layers and hand-hammer for random pattern.  On the left is a billet cut for folding at welding heat.

The billet was humongous, and I ended up cutting it in half.  The first half was used to forge a knife blank that I ruined irreversibly while practicing a difficult but later rewarding grinding technique JD showed me.   The second half was forged into the blank below, which was the first stage of creating a knife that is influenced, very much in form and function if not materials, by the native Persian kard (Farsi for "knife").

I'll go into more details about the artistic/aesthetic and cultural/historical details of the kard later, but right now I'm going to focus more on how JD's class has altered my style.  His forging is fast and efficient: he taught me that unless you have a specific pattern, there's no reason not to hammer the hell out of your billet on the fullering dies just to get the damn thing longer, because you have to do that quickly.  The flat dies are for squaring things up later, but they'll make everything alright, so you might as well get the quick and dirty stuff done.  Draw that billet out, square it, cut it, fold it, weld it, draw it out again.  He works hard to facilitate the rhythm of production, an essential part of making things.

The truly revolutionary part of the class for me was JD's well-explained and well-modeled grinding technique that gave me real insight on how you get an even grind.  I'll say that Owen Bush taught me how to grind a sword, but JD Smith taught me how to grind a knife.  Standing on one side of the belt, feet firmly planted, body relaxed, hands supporting but not truly gripping the knife, and constant, steady pressure (not too much!) against the belt.  Starting in the same place every time and slowly letting off as you get closer to the tip, which has less mass. 

One aspect of making things that I have struggled with (as a natural perfectionist) is failure and compromise with my work.  Basically, things rarely turn out the way you envisioned them when you're starting out, and it can be pretty heartbreaking.  I'm not saying veterans are immune to this either.  I had learned to do something about this, which was accepting flaws as an attribute of handmade objects, and to compromise with the object I was making.  

JD had something to say about that:

"Stop accepting flaws." 

That gave me a turn.  But I thought about it.  A lot.  And you know what?  Steel doesn't have a brain.  It's not going to outsmart you.  It's going to do whatever you want it to if you give yourself the time to think about it and the space to execute it.  It's not you against the material.  You don't have to compromise with it, you have to learn to speak its language and then you can say whatever you want. If you learn Romanian, you can write poetry in it.  How well is up to you.

The above picture does a poor job of illustrating it, but I was very pleased with the evenness and beauty of the grind (read  more of my obnoxiously spiritual musings on grinding).  The next step was clamping the blade up and hand-polishing with a grit-variety of waterstones from Falcon Tools, which JD and his incredible apprentice Kevin Klein converted me to.  I'm sick of sandpaper anyhow.  Stones keep things much flatter and do things more quickly, in my opinion.  There was much camaraderie among the students in the class at this point, as we all sat around a table with our blades clamped to it, stoning and talking away. 

But soon enough our blades were hardened, sharpened, and etched, and it was time to begin working on handle materials.  I learned some excellent techniques for flattening my surfaces and making everything line up, but I kind of love the freedom of making somewhat random shapes like the handle bolsters, much as I loved making the crossguard of my sword: they're three-dimensional affairs that you can really alter at will and aren't as automatic as grinding a blade.  It's very freeing, feeling the weight of it and constantly eying it up and gauging how to get it where you want with a little grinding here and there.

The picture to the right captures an interesting phenomenon that occurred during the heat-treatment of the kard blade: a hardness line that shows the molecular softness of the spine of the blade at the base by the tang, and the hardness of the rest of the blade running diagonally with it and in the rest of the blade.

With all the parts lined up before final finish and assembly, I had again made something that was enough of an object now to give me a start.  This thing is becoming real.  I drew it, I messed around with a bunch of metal, and then now there's this real thing that was just thoughts and two-dimensional drawings.  It was abstract made concrete.  That's magic, if anything is.  I don't think it will ever stop amazing me. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Inspiring Projects - SCOTT ROUSH // ZEB DEMING Merovignian Langsax

One thing I'd intended to do with this blog that I haven't yet begun was to talk about exciting and inspiring projects and ideas being put out there by other smiths, craftspeople, and artists that I feel both kinship and creative difference with.  I'll try to talk about why I think their work, ideas, and the questions they raise are important for me and how I would like my work to reflect my influences and give credit where it is due.  I'm also just really happy to share the work of talented and passionate individuals, for the amount of inspiration and excitement I get from others is incredibly awesome. 

So basically, I'm going to announce some stuff about other people's projects and provide links and pictures (with permission).  I'll probably talk about my perception of their work overall, hopefully without pigeonholing them, but their voices are strong, and I just wanna get the word out.  Here we go! 

The first project that's been on my mind lately and has made me whistle and say "awww yeaaah" is this excellent Merovingian langsax collaboration between none other than the Michigan iron-smelting maniac Zeb Deming and the Wisconsin blade wizard Scott Roush!

Zeb gazing adoringly at his iron smelting stack.
First the smiths: Zeb Deming is a daring, patient, and talented ironmaker who has taught himself well the methods of bloomery smelting (producing iron from iron ore) and hearth melting (melting iron in a small furnace to carburize/decarburize it at will).  He is also a proficient bladesmith and pattern-welder who has drawn attention to himself though the use of unusual and exciting steels and irons, such as his own bloom steel, hearth steel, and meteoric iron.  Not only do these materials lend his work an indisputable authenticity in fact and in feel, they give his pieces infinite uniqueness, a deeply-imprinted sole-authorship (see this post by Myles Mulkey) and intrinsic story (see this one by me).  He's also an incredibly nice gentleman; "Michigan maniac" only works because of the alliteration. 

Scott with his interpretation of a Norwegian langsax.
Scott Roush, one of the preeminent swordsmiths of the American Midwest, has a style.  Anyone who's seen two of his pieces gets it and won't forget: stark, bold contrasting blade steels; dark, earthy handles with a visceral feel of hand-made and well-used.  From the get-go, he made a deep impression with clever and skilled manipulation of texture and finish.  Recently, he has been breaking new and fascinating ground for himself like a wild man, fearlessly exploring techniques with impressive degrees of success: smelting, wire inlay, carving, and (particularly) casting.  I might add that his blade photography is top notch (considering his already impressive career as a photographer).  I've never met him, but I can say that he's an encouraging presence in the scene and a deeply inspiring fellow!

Now the inspiration: Scott cited the langsax to the left, which is attributed to the Merovignian-era Franks, as the major model for the collaboration, at least as far as blade dimensions, profile, and fittings.  Materials, decoration, and organic fittings were more or less up in the air, and I can honestly say I'm proud of what they're doing with this freedom.

Zeb's steel is so clean and even and yet still so obviously handmade.  A visible grain stretched from hours of folding, but so well refined and homogenized with care and practice.  Another piece of the same steel
has never been made, and no one will ever make steel exactly the same as Zeb's; it's truly as creative a process as the blademaking, but making one's own materials is different than making a piece or even the tools to make a piece.  It's like mixing your own paint from plants; not only are you connecting hands with centuries of people through a material: your hand is occupying the same space, moving with them, learning with them.  Zeb put a piece of his soul in this steel to merge with that of everyone who's ever done the same thing and gained the same knowledge that he has.

Scott has taken it upon himself, in finishing this blade, to bring it to a serious next level of existence.  I have already mentioned Scott's strong and flavorful sense of texture and finish-feel, but I can see that in this blade he is stepping beyond his already palpable style and integrating totally badass technique in a really tasteful and awesome way.  The inlay, first of all, is nothing outrageous or glaringly inauthentic, which seems to follow so often on the heels of skill acquisition.  The pattern clearly does not overstep the feel of the piece, which is a difficult thing to gauge accurately.  Next, it is clean and very well executed, and I really look forward to see Scott's development and use of this technique!

I'm a big fan of choice of materials for this sax, particularly in Scott's use of local native copper (below).  Copper is, to my knowledge, the only metal that occurs naturally in usable quantities, and the fact that he found and is applying this material as it would have been in ancient days is awesome. 

Another interesting element of this piece that shakes the imagination is the inlaid copper element that Scott has cryptically referred to as the 'ellefen head'.  Clearly it's supposed to represent some sort of otherworldly being without any real explanation of who that is or why it's there; however, the mystery of the thing really adds something to the character of the piece for me.  Scott fearlessly adds storytelling (or story-facilitating) elements to his pieces, and I appreciate it.  For more information on the concept of otherworldly visages in period art, see Petr Florianek's post on what he calls the "fierce face" motif.
The overall profile of the blade is slim and yet strong.  I'm getting to the part that's so difficult to explain about blades I love when I see them, but goddamn, the lines are right.  Everything about this object screams of a past age to me, or at least a past age of my imagination.  It grabs me by whatever piece of me wants to grab it, examine it from every angle, fall into it.  There's another world in this piece, and Zeb and Scott and dragging it out.