Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fall 2013 Demos at Hampshire College

You may or may not have gathered that I attend Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, which is a beautiful, wonderful school between fields and forests that I'm so fortunate to attend, and beyond lucky that I can simultaneously study history, mythology, and archaeology, as well as practice the crafts that I love with my whole heart.  It's actually unbelievable, but I try not to walk around smacking myself in the head out of incredulity and instead make the most of it. 

Don the 18th century sutler!
We have an incredibly well-equipped and accessible fabrication shop, which in particular houses a wonderful array of smithing tools in good shape, thanks to our legendary shop-master Don Dupuis.  In some ways, I might say "you've probably worked with someone like him", if you've spent any time working with craftspeople or in any kind of shop where people care about their work.  On the other hand, I'd also say that you've very rarely met anyone like him.  I'm so grateful for the support and encouragement I've received almost constantly over the past three years, but his has been some of the most constant and welcome.  He's absolutely awesome.  He'll give you anything you need and answer any question, but he'll do it in a way that makes you figure it our for yourself at the same time.  He's one of those.  He's a great teacher and a great friend, and he'll always be those to me.

Don holding a spring fuller for Jack McAuliffe
Thanks to him, our shop is great and we have a strong blacksmithing collective which buys most of our equipment and materials with school funding (awesome).  Our freedom and opportunity is rare and almost unheard of, but the trade-off is that we as a group need to teach ourselves most skills.  That's a wonderful way to learn, but for my own part, mentorship and teacher-student relationships are hugely important in craft, and community is one of my favorite things about it.  So, I've taken the initiative to contact several local smiths and bring them into our shop to do paid demonstrations, so the Hampshire blacksmiths can absorb skills, witness the techniques of experienced craftspeople, and network in person.  It's what makes this such a real and rewarding practice: sharing work and ideas with other people and riding the wave of collective creativity.  It's one of those few things in life that's both addictive and can't do you any wrong.

Derek addressing our small group of smiths!
So, the first person I contacted to come and teach our group is Derek Heidemann, owner & operator of Resurrection Ironworks in Millbury, Massachusetts.  He's only a few years older than me but he pulls weight with the old guys.  He's been a blacksmith at Old Sturbridge Village for a long time, and when it comes to the accurate production of 18th and 19th century tools and hardware, I'd say his work is not only of incredible quality and execution but also distinctive in its style, which is definitely something to say about someone who's in their mid-20s!  The first demo he came to do was a rose-head nail-making demo, which was impressive in his efficiency, accuracy and speed, but also marvelous in his exhibition of toolmaking: his steeled wrought iron nail header is not only a beautiful take on an historical object but also a fully functional and intuitive tool.  That's pretty representative of Derek's work: he loves old things because they work, not just because they're old, and he knows how to bring both of those out in beautiful harmony.  

Derek's custom tongs
Last year I contracted him to come for a nail-making demo, just to sort of get used to the shop and feel out the whole situation.  This time, we planned a little better, invited more people, and did something a little more exciting: tong-forging.  He brought an impressive array of tongs, all of which he had made, and in a fast, controlled, and coherent demo, he forged a pair of tongs in front of the small assembly, taking care to explain the objective and parameters of each step, and the anatomy of the product: jaws, reins, and rivet.  Derek is an excellent teacher and craftsperson, and I'm always happy to share a shop with him, absorb his experience, and share his unquenchable spirit of pursuing the craft and having a good time doing it.  

Explaining Japanese geometry
Our next demonstrator this month was Matt Venier of Lancaster, MA.  I met him in March at Baltimore Knife & Sword's Fire and Brimstone hammer-in, and was blown away with his intense attention to detail in the Japanese tradition, his great presence, and his proximity to my home (but wished I'd known he was driving instead of paying for the train ticket!  Oh well, I love trains)!  His exploration of Japanese blade geometry is exciting and honestly tempts me, but his primary pursuit is the elusive hamon: the ethereal line between the hardened martensitic edge steel and the unhardened spine.  Being among a student body interested in blades and certainly enchanted by the legendary Japanese aesthetic, and knowing Matt's passionate knowledge about it, I thought a demo on heat-treatment and a Japanese-style take on aestheticizing it would be perfect.

Applying clay for differential hardening & hamon!
So that's what we agreed on, and showed up with his whole home-made heat-treating arsenal: a furnace made from an old propane take with two strategically placed thermocouples, a horizontal quench tank filled with Parks 50 fast-quench oil, a small clamp table for blades and a few jars of black Rutland furnace cement.  With these tools, he taught us how to prepare the blade for claying, how to clay it for basic function, and how to augment it to achieve certain aesthetic details in the hamon.  Under his direction, each of us who had blades ready for heat treatment clayed up and hardened them.  His strong working knowledge of the properties and behavior of certain steels is very valuable and resulted in a beautiful hamon on my blade (I was using Aldo's 1095), but unfortunately some of the blades were mystery steels and we had to just sort of wing it.  Some still got some activity, some didn't, but overall it was a massively informative and clarifying demonstration, especially for those who had never heat treated before at all.  Matt's demo was an awesome follow-up to Derek's, in that he's an equally talented craftsperson working in almost exactly the same materials but with entirely different objectives and pertinent knowledge sets.  Having these two demos back to back really displayed the harmony and discrepancy between blacksmithing and bladesmithing, and the exciting and compelling levels one can pursue them to.

Jack talking with Brendan and Paolo in the background
Our third and final demonstrator this month was one of my oldest friends, Jack McAuliffe of Worcester, MA, where he bases his bladesmithing/teaching endeavor Underhill Edge. Recently, he's been bravely and successfully exploring the making, refining, and forging of metallurgically historical steels, particularly his own hearth-melted steels with varying levels of carbon.  This lends an intimately historical knowledge to his work like Derek's, but in a different way: not only is he incredibly faithful to historical construction but also to vital material, giving him an intensely real idea of the techniques and frustrations of the ancient smith whose work is he is trying to emulate.  Working mostly in charcoal and coke forges with primeval materials, Jack's experience of welding and pattern-welding is ingrained and he had much to share.

Straightening a 6-bar hearth steel spatha
His demo focused on the techniques for forming traditional weld joints and ensuring their success.  He went over steels for welding in historical tools, material and forge preparation for welding, the use and behavior of flux, how to know when you are ready to weld, setting and finishing the weld, which weld joints require certain hammering,  how to know if your weld failed and how to save it if you can.  He demonstrated butt-welds, lap-welds, scarf-welds, and billet-folding, and talked about twisting laminated bars, multi-bar construction, and the consequences of weld failure, which is not a pretty sight!

This demo was, in the words of friend and fellow student Paolo, "quite the game-changer" for those who have forged but never forge-welded.  I'm probably a bit biased in that it's the basis of all my ironwork, but on all account's he's right.  To be able to almost indiscriminately bond immovable pieces of incredibly strong material into bigger or more specialized shapes is beyond useful: it's magical, and no matter how much I learn about it, my wonder and enchantment only increases.  Magic and science are not mutually exclusive; I think that from the vantage point of the human experience, they rely on each other and cannot exist without some measure of the other. 

Endless thanks to all these awesome people for sharing coming and sharing their knowledge, experience, and excitement, which we can all feed off and become inspired by!  Also I want to acknowledge how unbelievably awesome all the Hampshire blacksmiths are: Sam, Andi, Peter, Emiliano, James, Paolo, Brendan, Rhett, Allxie, and just everyone else who's in the shop all the time: damn, you are cool people to work around.  Definitely good looking folks all around, too.

But to Don, I don't think any of us would be sharing this space, community, and thirst for knowledge if it wasn't for you.  Thanks from all of us, students and friends past, present & future. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Oakland Axe 'n Sax-In

First: many thanks to Jim Austin and John Page for letting me use their photographs.  

In the fantasy-land of California, between the Great Bay and the Hills, there lies Oakland, and in it the Shangri-La of shops, to my mind: Alchemy Metalworks, where James Austin grapples with metal and the higher meaning of materiality.  It was here, in his incredible shop-creation and presence, along with that of Jeff Pringle, where I first witnessed serious and passionate craftsmanship that has affected the whole course of my life since. 

My feet having tread the pathways of the space many times, my eyes having gazed upward so many hours at the dust-motes drifting wearily in the light-shafts of the ceiling windows, for all the world like a forest of cement and steel, chipped and ancient paint replacing bark, but clean in the way a forest is before autumn.  It was in this familiar place, where I first discovered the many-fold transformation of elements within my power, one day in October, a number of individuals from all over the world gathered to feel the same thing in their own way and communicate it through a common tongue. 

Petr's excellent design
Though I wax poetic, the Oakland Axe n’ Sax-In 2013 was a specific enough event on paper.  Few will argue that Jim Austin’s work in re-creating the Viking-period axe-forging process is unparalleled in its results, based only on his examination and rumination on original artifacts with Jeff Pringle, and his experience with traditional forging techniques.  It was only fitting that he host the event and hold forth on the subject into which he has such respectable insight.
idea was a celebration of the making of the two most unique, fascinating, and beautiful feats of Iron-Age Germanic metalwork: the axe and the sax.

As for the other focus of the event, I have spent much time meditating on the sax and its implications as an object in Iron-Age Germanic society, but the bottom line is that the ubiquitous freeman’s war-knife is basically a simple, wonderful, and broad playground for discovering historical pattern-welding techniques, experimenting with historical blade steels, and familiarizing oneself with historical forging geometry, finish, and much more.  That’s why sax-forging is such a rich and exciting field for me, and is a great skill-builder with a higher success rate than sword-forging, at least where I am. 

So the idea for the whole event was that a number of presenters, experts in their creative areas from Canada, Europe, and the whole US, would lecture/present/demonstrate for the attendees something they could get from nowhere else.  The first to present was Owen Bush, with whom I first learned pattern-welding techniques, an Englishman and peerless blade-maker, whose recent years of research have focused in great part on the historical pattern-welded sax, primarily in his native Anglo-Saxon broken-back style.  His presentation was in two parts: in the first he want over basic sax recognition skills, and the history of his own work on it, and introduced a particularly interesting original piece in the British Museum he aimed to loosely re-create.  The second half of his demonstration (on the final day) was forging this technically difficult and creatively challenging composite piece before our enchanted eyes.

The next presenter on the list was Petr Floriánek, that library of historical art styles and their material contexts, again someone I have visited abroad.  His scholarship focused on Iron-Age Germanic ornament and how it was traditionally applied to historical media, such as the carving, chipping, and scraping of antler and wood, the pressing of foil into dies to make pressblech, engraving, and much more.  He gave a chronological run-down of art styles from the beginning of Germanic art to the end of the Viking Age (roughly 300-1100 CE).  He also tag-teamed a presentation with Jake Powning on “decoding” Germanic abstract ornament, revealing ways in which one can scan for clues, for familiar shapes, that reveal the form of the whole hidden within the flowing lines.  One of the most interesting insights he shared was the method of thinking about the abstraction-of-form based ornament as a language, with vocal landmarks you can watch out for, just like in the structure of speech, from which you can make constructional headway to learn it.  For example, he pointed out similar portrayals of eyes, jaws, and hip joints in earlier art, and the application of tongues, tendrils, and other extremities in later art, and how their integration is the same but the styles themselves have completely different soundscapes, so to speak. 

There was also Jeff Pringle, whose extensive collection and long study of individual artifacts for personal examination and discovery has led to a truly deep insight into the intangible "authenticity" aspect, which is well-reflected in his own work. He spoke of how we examine original artifacts; what they tell us and what they don't tell us.  A piece tells us exactly what what the product of a smith's work was.  A corpus of work tells us what norms, trends, and anomalies existed over a given period or in a given area, provided they have some sort of correlation.  But there is more that the objects imply that is less straightforward.  For instance, types and amounts of material tell what was scarce or difficult to make, like ratio or iron to steel.  Overall, we can surmise that in the past material culture we were concerned with, labor was very cheap and materials were very expensive.  As someone who has witness his share of iron-making (with Jeff), I can tell you that even for the most experienced, it's a laborious and expensive process.

With this in mind about the material culture at hand, Jeff went on to address the research of originals: there are archaeological reports, many made between 1890 and 1950, published in Danish or German and accompanied by line drawings of varying accuracy.  These can be helpful or misleading when you are researching an object.  Another important concept Jeff covered was this: original artifacts exude a power over us, because they are material, empirical evidence of past persons, with whom we as smiths or makers or anyone who uses tools or as humans in general have a connection, which is alive in the piece, in the material, which has not changed since we first learned to work it.  Finally, he addressed the issue of blade culture and continuity, which is an important thing to consider.  He compared Japan, where swords and their making have remained culturally important continuously, as opposed to their complete oblivion in the West.  But there is an in-between: he had a beautiful pattern-welded spear in a very Viking-style, expertly made and highly functional with visible but cosmetic imperfections.  It was made in the Philippines in the past century. Just like the living tradition of bloomery smelting in western Africa, these new but undeniably original artifacts are miraculous windows to the past, even though they were made a thousand years and thousands of miles from our area of study.  That is the beautiful universality of iron. 

 Jake Powning contributed to Petr's first presentation, but had two of his own to execute.  His first was a deeply needed and captivating examination of, in his own words, "the world the axe and sax came from".  In my work, I try to remember that what I'm making is not strictly mine; it belongs to another time, another place, and what I'm trying to make is something that would have been made by someone with an entirely different mindset, an entirely different worldview.  He shed light on who would have used axes and saxes, by surveying what we know about class and weapon ownership from legal documents, literary references, and grave excavations.  He questioned our perceptions about warrior status, addressing the Anglo-Saxon linguistic distinction between "wæpnman" and "wīfman" (weapon-person and weaving-person, the latter which gave us the words "wife" and "woman"), which was a genderless dichotomy (man: person, cf. modern German man: one), the fact that swords, axes, and saxes are present in the graves of both men and women, just as with what is called a "weaving-sword", a wooden or bone slat for ramming down the weft into the warp.  He talked about who the smith might have been in Germanic society, respected for his skill but feared for his power, valued but stigmatized.  Jake went on to regale us with his own re-tellings of the Lay of Volund and the story of Sindri and Brokk, smithing tales both, and laid into us with magical storytelling, capped off with his own breathtaking illustrations.  It was transformative.  He continued with the tooling of the leather scabbard of a beautiful little broken-back seax he forged, for use in his demo and then to auction off for the benefit of the event!   

There were three more demos: the forging demonstrations of Jim Austin and Owen Bush, an axe and a sax, respectively, and the antler handle-carving of Petr Floriánek.  The impact of witnessing the making of these three master craftspeople is honestly too complex to explain here, and I will let pictures speak in what two-dimensional way they can.