Monday, September 9, 2013

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.  

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