The ancient traditions of weaving iron and steel into swords have been shrouded in myth. Twisted cores, and folded edges were thought to lend the wielder strength and power in battle. Blodida, one Poet called these patterns- “Blood eddies”. “The Knotted Wyrm” is a reference to these poetic descriptions of the thousand year old Germanic process as well as to the Northern European artistic traditions, which depict woven serpents and gripping beasts. Swords are symbols, as well as objects. In my work, I hope, not to reproduce, but to ignite the same feelings as can be felt in the objects made by long-dead craftsman. I invite you be the judge of whether or not I succeed….
I contacted fellow bladesmith Myles Mulkey with the idea to collaborate on an Anglo-Saxon seax from around the 9th or 10th century. I wanted to make a pattern welded blade, so I took a four bar core from a failed Norwegian langsax project and welded it to a high carbon edge bar of 1084 steel.
Here are the billets prepared for welding:
To fire weld them, I wire the two billets together tightly and repeatedly heat and hammer them together in small sections.
In the fire:
Once this has been done along the whole length of the proto-blade, I let the it cool to room temperature to relieve stresses built up from the forge welding process.
I then forge the blade closely to shape…
The tang is left short because the material produced this way is hard-earned and precious. Later, an extension of soft wrought iron is welded on.
I grind down to white metal with an angle grinder to analyze the welds.
After that, I flat grind it with an extremely coarse 36 grit belt.
Seaxes are traditionally quite thick knives. We can only speculate exactly what they were used for, but those of this size were most likely used for fighting in addition to daily chores.
At this point, the blade is ready to be heat treated. This is done by carefully heating to the point where the steel becomes non-magnetic. At this point the iron molecules have austenized, or converted from a “body centered” cube geometry to a “face centered” cube. In this configuration, the carbon atoms can move freely into solution. When rapidly cooled, small hard crystals are formed called “martensite”. This microstructural quality is what makes the blade usable.
After the blade is quenched in hot oil, I polish a section and temper it at 500 degrees. This slightly softens the blade so that it will not snap or chip out and makes it flexible.
The process of polishing is long and tedious, sanding with repeatedly higher grit abrasives. But it is not entirely unenjoyable. I listened to Beowulf, read and translated by Seamus Heaney.
To reveal the pattern latent in the steel, the seax is immersed in a vertical tube of ferric chloride (FeCl3), a weak acid formed by “killing” hydrochloric acid by dissolving iron in it. Because the blade was welded up of multiple different types of steel, the acid will eat away at the layers at a different rate, creating a topographical effect on the surface.
To accentuate the pattern, high grit sandpaper is used to hit the high spots and emphasize the contrast:
The seax has been sent to Myles to be outfitted with a grip and scabbard, carved with woven Germanic beasts…
I’ve recently been contemplating the beauty of stories. It wasn’t until quite recently that I began to understand that I’ve loved stories my whole life and what good stories look like. Stories tell us something about the world we live in, but not by a cognitive or rational communication, but in a visceral, subconscious way. While I usually think about the universe in a scientific, didactic, overt way, I must admit that the story has an equal or greater power to influence my mind than the syllogism. The concept that the fiction genre or narrative art is childish is a very postmodern, incorrect assertion. In Fact, I believe the story to be the greatest incarnation of all art, and the aspiration to which all other art would be wise to point.
Well-woven stories are popular. The best ones are not esoteric. They don’t appeal only to intellectuals who were educated a certain way, or to an enlightened few. They appeal to people as people, not as scientists, scholars, or artists, not as professionals, but as people. I don’t think I fully grasp the reason for this affinity the human race has for stories, but it’s in our blood. It’s there. You tell a story and it reflects what you believe about the universe. Tragedies say life is sad, comedies that life is humorous, epics that the life is a quest. Good stories have layers; they are subtle, you don’t necessarily catch everything the first time and you weren’t meant to; they have symbolism, metaphors, analogies, allusions, depth, color, beauty…
Conversations with my friend Dave DellaGardelle and listening to Tim Keller prompted me to read Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” recently, a great essay which I highly recommend; it has wonderfully clarified the idea I have had in my head for some time that the story is essentially the prime or pinnacle form of art. We’ve told them as a species for at least ten thousand years, some of which we continue to tell today. Likewise, other forms of art, such as music, drawings, and even, maybe especially, swords, that display a narrative quality, represent the highest forms of art. It is difficult to describe this quality as it is often, perhaps best, done in as way that is not overt. Its hidden, buried. Look at the paintings done by John Howe; listen to a movie soundtrack from a movie you’ve never seen before; look at the swords made by Jake Powning. They suggest narrative, adventure, story. They feel like they’re going somewhere. These are not merely decorations, though, they may contain plain ornamentation as one of their layers, which is built upon by others to produce something greater. The difference can only be explained by contrast. Compare Howard Shore to Johann Bach. Older Baroque era Classical symphonic music is beautiful, but it sounds like “decoration”. I don’t hear a story very strongly. Narrative is visceral; it strikes a chord; its deeper and more satisfying, adding a new level of complexity.
I am a Christian. The good news of the Gospel (literally “good news” in Koine Greek, and it is wonderful news) is that, while the world is obviously broken, it will be and is being fixed, but not by us. We are far too weak and we know it. Tolkien used the word “eucastrophe” in his essay to describe the moment when all seems lost, good will not triumph, evil is too strong, and at the last moment, something there is a “sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears”. This is a popular concept. I am well and truly convinced this is because it reflects how the world really is, or at very least should be. Scattered throughout mythology and stories from eclectic cultures echo the gospel story, in which there is redemption, atonement between two warring parties, gods dying for there people and returning to life again. They all point to an underlying truth. The gospel is different because it is the underlying truth. Unlike the myths and legends, the gospel narratives, True Myths, as Tolkien called them, are accepted by most every respectable Biblical and historical scholar as being extremely historically reliable.
I want my work as a swordsmith and artist to reflect that story. That underlying story should be evident in my work as a product of this world. I want to strive for my work to be dripping with truth and encouragement, to rejoice in the truth of the Gospel. That somehow, the shapes and ideas embodied by my art will reflect the God of Beauty that invented the universe. It’s a lofty but infinitely desirable goal. No finite being could ever even comprehend the creativity of the mind that invented quarks, gluons and ten dimensional hyperspace. Finitum non capax infinitum.
The importance of the story cannot be underestimated. They entrance people. People learn and retain more information through stories than any other medium. Deep, beautiful stories stick in the mind, even more so, in the soul; they speak to our psyche’s need for an explanation of reality, therefore, those that reflect reality are the most appealing. Come to think of it…most of the people I am friends with or look up to have been saying this all along…Tim Keller, Jake Powning, John Howe, Dave DellaGardelle, I could go on…and I only recently got it. I look forward to see what happens!
The knife I welded up from scrap pieces is forged, heat treated, polished, and etched in ferric chloride, a weak acid, to expose the pattern. I wanted a weird shape to match the strangeness of the pattern. I will send it to fellow bladesmith Matt Waters for a handle.
Had to write this for my English class, 14 line of iambic pentameter…a Shakespearean sonnet. I had some fun with it. Almost makes me want to get into Old Norse poetry, such as fornyrðislag, like Myles Mulkey- http://mylesmulkey.blogspot.com/
I was out in the forest one cold day
And hewing some tall birches b’tween the fells
From nowhere, a horn blowing in the grey
Thought I, “From whence came that noise ‘mid the dells?
From a wayfarer assailed by brigands
Or merely a hunter calling his dog?
My work here cutting these trees; that contends
In my mind with what happens past the fog”
My ashen-hafted axe bit the icy wood
Like a devouring wolf, and I forgot
The bellowing horn till before me stood
A troll with a gory club, of oak wrought
I realized then, what had caused the horn
And fled from there, my birch logs left forlorn.
One of the greatest joys I receive as a blacksmith is recycling old steel that is beyond utility, into something both beautiful and useful. It is precisely this ability that gave the smith his near magician-like status in the ancient world.
I had been accumulating pattern welded scraps of various kinds, be it seax billet cuttoffs, or simply projects that have been abandoned for one reason or another, and decided to mash them all together into a single bar. Every piece in this new billet was to be pattern welded in its own right. Many contained wrought iron, which itself is ancient, and impregnated with slaggy silica, oriented like wood-grain.
The old blades and other scraps were arc welded together, still corroded. In antiquity, these might have been wrapped in paper and clay to hold them together and keep oxygen out until the weld was set.
The billet was then heated to 2100F , sprinkled with borax to eat way any oxidation, and hammered together.
A metallic bond exists when a geometric web of iron atoms has a few free electrons that is shared among the whole. This characteristic that all metals share is what makes them particularly efficient conductors of electricity, and allows me to fire weld them with heat and pressure. At high temperatures, the free electrons become excited, and with a bit of pressure, they will cross over to an adjacent piece of iron, completing the metallic bond. The pieces are one.
Here Ive folded the billet in half to consolidate the welds and homogenize the material. I have also ground one face down to bare steel to be sure everything has taken. Not perfect, but about what I expected. Further refining will erase the slag lines that mark the former borders between the strata.
Once the bar is drawn out, I will be able to polish and etch the surface with a light acid to reveal the underlying pattern….
This blade was forged from 1075/1080, with fittings of mild steel. The grip is walnut with a historically accurate leather wrap. The blade is just under 24″ and, while I am not certain of the weight, it is very light. Perhaps just over 1 pound. Despite its small size, I have never held an object that could cut as well as this. I was able to get through a 3″ diameter pine in just a single cut. This sword will be for sale as soon as I do the final polish and perhaps make a scabbard.