Tuesday, August 26, 2014

An heirloom finished & a new craft (to me)

This is the blade I presented to Bridget Mohan and Ben Flanagan one beautiful summer night in 2014.  It's now theirs, and it could not have changed hands at a more joyous gathering.  It's inspired by 15th- and 16th-century Irish fighting knives called skeins, but with a blade of cut and folded carbon and nickel steels, and a handle of ancient Irish bog-oak, native New Hampshire moose antler, and simple copper. 

 The final presentation of the blade is on an antique mandoline cabbage slicer, putting the blade at home in the kitchen or by the hearth.  The old steel of the mandoline is rusted by age and air, the wood weathered and worn, and its strong lines and sharp angles compliment those of a blade that fits diagonally in the frame.  The whole piece is a marriage of old and new, honorific of heritage, home, and the land, and hopeful at the dawning of a new day with bright steel, a keen edge, and the joining of many hands.  

But alongside the making of this object, I have been exploring what are new avenues of creation to me, and attempting to delve deeper into the inexplicable but penetrating meaning I find in the hand-crafts. 

Since June, I have been working in the letterpress print shop of Bill Muller, who has been in the craft for over thirty years but currently does business as Big Wheel Press in Easthampton, Massachusetts.  Letterpress answers my craving for craft deeply, and Bill is an excellent teacher.  The weathered metal, dark wood, and mechanical movements of the shop are incredibly comforting and exciting to me, and to be additionally surrounded by breathtakingly beautiful words, letters, and graphics designed, arranged, and printed with such care and detail is frankly unbelievable.

Needless to say, I was enchanted, and began to exchange hours of work under Bill for his experienced instruction, practiced eye, and sweet materials & equipment.  I'll go into more detail about it all later, but my first real solo project was this one: a memorial certificate go along with the wedding blade. 

Rather than arranging classic moveable type into a chase (the frame pictured to the right), I used the Ludlow typecasting machine to cast entire lines of type for arrangement in the printing block.  The brass dies (pictured below &two pictures above ) were arranged in a composing stick and engaged in the Ludlow machine, where they were injected with molten lead and with a ka-chunk of a clamp-release, a leaden "slug" of type slid out onto a little tray for setting and printing.

Letterpress, when conducted with care, can look incredibly clean and refined.  I love everything sensory about it: the smells, sounds, & rhythmic movements of presses and typecasters, the organization and repetition of type drawers and the miniscule joy of finding the most obscure and perfect ornamentation, and the ever-exciting trawling through libraries of old graphic blocks. 

The only part I mind is having to keep my hands clean.  But I suppose I can compromise. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

An Heirloom in the Make

Back in December I was at a cozy farm in New Hampshire, sheltering from the snow with old family friends and talking about the coming summer.  Bridget, who I have known since childhood, and Ben, who I met then but instantly took to, were planning their marriage in August.  They had seen my work and asked me to make something for them, for the wedding: an object to enter their lives on that day that would be symbolic of the years and lives that had funneled them together, and the corresponding array of actions and story-lines that will spread forward from them in time.  Their awareness of and respect for the presence of a handmade object that can endure for even centuries when cared for means much to me.  Also their requests for symbolic use of material in terms of provenance and association were exactly the creative material I like to work with. 

With these inspirations in mind, I drew up a concept for a skean, an Irish fighting knife native to the 15th and 16th centuries, in honor of Bridget (Mohan) and Ben (Flanagan)'s shared heritage.  I included the materials Ben & Bridget had requested: oak (the sigil of the Flanagan family) and something native to New Hampshire (where Bridget grew up).  These I answered with Irish bog oak, which spent most of its 1000 years as wood submerged in a peat bog being slowly but fully tanned black, and antler from a moose that lived and died in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. 

 I also began to prepare a special steel.  I started with alternating layers of 1095 and 15n20, and folded these roughly to 48 layers.  Then I rotated the billet 90 degrees and folded again to 48 layers.  This was after asking Owen Bush how he goes about making pattern-welded steel that is intended to imitate the ethereal and indecipherable patterns of wootz crucible steel. I really did not succeed in doing what he does, but continued to follow his directions to make something new to me: this billet folded in two planes was then "laddered", which means many grooves cut into each side for pattern disruption and then forged flat again.

The surface of the material is then smooth but the currents within it are roiling and turbulent, like ink dripped into a glass of clear water.  Some semblance of this is visible in the fire-scale on the red-hot billet pictured above.

The next part is the less classically poetic but equally as enjoyable and beautiful to one who loves this process as much as I do.  It was careful, slow, shaping by abrasion: filing and grinding is like the action of glaciers over mountains, slowly scraping built up accumulations down to the white bedrock.  It is also like chiseling a statue from a block of stone: a million variations on a form are dormant in this block that can no longer be manipulated plastically, and you will choose one (or it will choose itself). 

I ground a single-bevel pointy blade with a false edge on the portion of the back by the tip (which is just a beveled bit on the unbeveled side)

From there on, the blade was a challenging but ultimately triumphant series of issues.  It warped drastically in hardening, but after tempering it, I was able to grind it back to straight and true.  Then I carved and fitted the handle of bog-oak, moose antler, and copper.  It was ready to be brought  to final finish, etched to reveal the pattern, and assembled.