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!

Four Saxes à la Petr Florianek (Part I)

But to the work!  As I said, Petr and I agreed that we would work side-by-side on our respective projects, and I'd be free to ask him for advice, instructions, etc., in which I did not hold back.  Being the open-minded teacher he is, he asked me for the occasional advice as well, but he's got a strongly guiding muse if anyone does, and usually has a very clear idea of what he's up to.  My mission was to soak up some of Petr's excellent sense of material and composition, where I had little experience.  In the realm of what bladesmithing is as a craft to me, I felt that my skills to forge and finish blades were sufficient for my current learning stage, and that my artistic growth lay in the direction of Petr's strengths: handle/scabbard/accent material, decoration, and aesthetic cohesion thereof.

So, in order to concentrate on those goals, I gathered up a small collection of pattern-welded blades I had lying around, unfinished, and resolved to dress them in handles to expose myself to the materials, processes and challenges of Petr and his work.  Fortunately, all the blades fit well with his somewhat specialized historical tangent: Vendel- and pre-Viking-period knives and saxes.  If you're a new reader and are unfamiliar with the importance of saxes in my life, check out this ancient post.  They're exciting and fascinating vehicles for the exploration of Iron Age Germanic art through the craft of bladesmithing.  I'd dipped into it in the forging, but the true shaping came with the handle-making.  Petr showed me the above trick (attributed to Jake Powning) of designing a handle by sticking the blade through the paper, because there is something about two-dimensional drawings that doesn't translate exactly right to three-dimensional work, especially with something as organic as a knife handle.

Petr set me up with books and PDFs aplenty and told me to look for designs that fit the spaces I envisioned filling, to pay attention to dates and provenance of artifacts for historical cohesion, and to just use my design sense in terms of density and spacing to adapt them to my piece.  If that doesn't sound difficult, it is.  I settled on the one to the right, a 7th century Swedish design, and sketched it out to see if I could get a sort of bone-knowledge of the lines.  I felt that I did, and showed it to Petr.  He said that was not enough: that one also must understand how the lines must interact with the material: how the lines will be made and defined, with what tools, and attention to the use of positive and negative space and degrees of depth. 

It was also challenging to draw the design to scale as it would appear on the piece, especially if it had curvature around the handle.  That involved little tricks like wrapping a piece of paper around the handle, sizing it, and drawing it on that.  But while I was working on the design for one piece, I was already making the simpler handle for another.  The small broken-back seax to the left (part one and part two) was promised to a customer who gave me a beautiful block of figured walnut for the handle.  I cut two slabs, dremeled out the inside (work with Petr was very dremel-heavy), and glued them together with a tight fit.  That was step one of something I repeated with all the saxes and still definitely stand to improve upon. 

After I had the handle roughed out, I had to choose a design for it.  I was stuck by some brass openwork, from either scabbard or shield hardware, of contemporary Anglo-Saxon origin, which I believed I could make work with the blade profile.  I set some boundaries on the top and bottom with brass ferrules, and decided the method of ornamentation would be dremel carving. 

 I decided on an antler bolster within the ferrule, and carved a recess accordingly.  I did the same on the handle butt, although I had a less clear plan about what that was going to look like.  Now the jewelrymaking skills I gained from my short class at Maine College of Art would be put to my first true test of applicability.  Granted, none of it was really difficult jewelry-wise, but I'm glad I had the grounding in preparing, working, and finishing non-ferrous metals.

I used a simple design for the first bolster that made a good tutorial: brass, rolled to thickness, cut and filed to size, chiseled with lines, soldered, cleaned up, and tight-fit.  It looked good, but the antler bolster had become so thin on the ends of the tang-hole that I decided to hold it down with brass tacks.  It was very helpful that Petr had a high-quality rolling mill for non-ferrous sheet and wire.  It was awesome to see him melt down his silver scrap in a small crucible, cast it into a flat, rectangular ingot, roll out the casting into sheet, and cut it into wire.  You only need a few tools and ingenuity, but these allow a lot of control and an incredible lack of waste in jewelrywork.

For the butt-cap of the handle I wanted matching lines with the lower ferrule.  I also wanted a brass ring hammered out of a piece of squared wire and twisted together at the ends  (one of Petr's signature accents).  I debated a few ways of attaching it and ended up looping it through a strap riveted inside the handle.  But before I could do that, I had to solder a cap onto the butt-end ferrule.

While I'm not ecstatic about the work I did on this particular handle, it definitely set the stage for me to expand my work on the next three.  Soldering, chiseling, hammering to shape, predicting fit and cutting accordingly: these were the skills that I knew I would need to improve, and I relished the challenge. Developing my technique with the dremel, of course, was the great task of my experimentation, being generally familiar with every other tool I used, and it was really only an introduction; once I get one I'm going to just have to put in the hours to get proficient at it. 

This was just the beginning of my introduction to Petr's vast array of skills and deep-running artistic sense, and it's obviously revolutionary for my work.  I can only continue to pay it the homage it deserves in bettering my own skills and sense, just as Petr does for the great unnamed artists of the past.