Bladesmith

Bladesmith

Bladesmithing is the art of blacksmithing that relates specifically to creating knives, swords, daggers and other blades using a forge, hammer, anvil, and other smithing tools. Bladesmiths employ a variety of metalworking techniques used by blacksmiths, as well as woodworking for knife and sword handles, and often leatherworking for sheaths.

Bladesmithing is a branch of blacksmithing, thus most, if not all, blacksmiths will be familiar with bladesmithing to some degree.

Related trades

Many blade smiths were known by other titles according to the kind of blade that they produced:

  • A swordsmith is a smith, blacksmith, or bladesmith whose expertise is working on swords.
  • A cutler is a smith making knives and other cutlery.
  • A scythesmith is a smith making scythes.
  • Also awlbladesmiths, razorsmiths, sicklesmiths, arrowsmiths, and so on.

Modern Bladesmithing

Modern bladesmiths use a variety of steels to produce their blades, most commonly high carbon steel, such as ANSI 1075/1085 or ANSI 1095 (the '10' representing the 10-series carbon steels, while '75' '85' and '95' reflect the carbon content of the steel), tool steel such as O-1 or A-2, or other tool or high carbon steels. Stainless steel, such as 440C, is also used for knives that require high corrosion resistance; however, stainless steel is unsuitable for blades longer than knife length due to its hard and brittle structure in comparison to carbon steel. Despite this fact, it is often used commercially for mass-producing dress swords that are not battle-ready, advertised incorrectly as 'sword steel.' The stainless steel Wilkinson sword that a U.S. Marine wears as part of his parade-dress uniform can be impressive, but is never meant to be used in an actual sword fight (nor are Marines ever taught sword-fighting).

Swords and longer blades, in modern times, are often crafted of 5160 carbon spring steel, which is not as hard or brittle as a high carbon steel (such as 1095), but is more durable and less prone to breakage, and therefore more suitable for longer weapons. 5160 carbon spring steel is sometimes used for leaf springs in trucks, making it readily available from many junkyards.

For further clarification, 5160 spring steel is more durable than 1085 or 1095 high carbon steel, but does not hold as sharp an edge. 1095 high carbon steel is harder and more durable than 440C stainless steel, but will rust much more easily. Stainless steel is more brittle than both 5160 and 1095 carbon steel, but is still very useful due to its resistance to rust and corrosion.

Many advanced bladesmiths are able to forge a special type of steel using a technique called pattern welding, producing a metal sometimes referred to as Damascus steel. Note that modern "Damascus steel" is not the same as the true Damascus steel used during the Middle Ages. Modern pattern-welded steel is highly decorative as well as durable (if welded in certain ways with proper steels), and is often used in custom knife- and sword-crafting.

Typically the bladesmithing process begins with the forging of the blade itself, followed by the crafting of the handle out of wood, bone, antler, micarta, or any number of other possible materials. The handle is then affixed to the blade using various techniques that depend on the type of blade and the preference of the smith. In some cases, the sword's furniture—the guard, the grip, the pommel—are removable and can be disassembled and refitted if major work needs to be done on the blade.

Factory vs Custom

A vast majority of factory-produced swords and knives are of inferior quality. Some of the most common flaws of factory blades include usage of the incorrect steel, improper or nonexistent heat treating, and usage of partial tangs.

Though it is often thought that the best swords were made in pre-modern times, there are in fact many skilled custom bladesmiths producing high quality swords and knives in the present. Given the advanced techniques, tools, and steels available in modern times, it is probable that swords made today are at least as "good" if not better than swords of old.

Historic Bladesmithing

Historically speaking, bladesmithing is an art that has survived and thrived over thousands of years. Many different parts of the world have different styles of bladesmithing, some more well-known than others.

Chinese

Traditional Chinese blades (jians) are usually of sanmei (three plate) construction, which involved sandwiching a core of hard steel between two plates of softer steel. The central plate protrudes slightly from its surrounding pieces, allowing for a sharp edge, while the softer spine protects the brittle core. Some blades had wumei or five plate construction, with two more soft plates being used at the central ridge. Bronze jian were often made in a somewhat similar manner: in this case an alloy with a high copper content would be used to make a resilient core and spine, while the edge would be made from a high tin-content alloy for sharpness and welded on to the rest of the blade.

The sword smiths of China are often credited with the forging technologies that traveled to Korea and Japan to allow sword smiths there to create such weapons as the katana, though some dismiss this as a machination of the more powerful country of today. These technologies include folding, inserted alloys, and differential hardening of the edge. While the Japanese would be more influenced by the Chinese dāo (single-edged swords of various forms), the early Japanese swords known as ken are often based on jian. One sided jians from the Tang dynasty provided the basis for various Japanese forging styles and techniques. The Korean version of the jian is known as the geom or gum, and these swords often preserve features found in Ming-era jian, such as openwork pommels and sharply angled tips.

Korean

The Korea sword is affected by China and Japan. Korean swords include long swords such as the yeoh do, geom, and hyup do and curved swords such as Samindo. Other forms include the Haedon jingeom, the samgakdo, the double sword Ssangdo, the Samjeongdo, the Woldo, the Danwoldo, and many others often reputed to be fifteen in number. Metal swords have been found in Korean areas dating back to the bronze age, swords of double bladed leaf structure, obviously made of bronze. These bronze swords were around 32 cm in overall length, having the handle be short enough only for a single fist.

Obviously with Korea being in close proximity to both Japan and China (being invaded and invading many times), the three countries have influenced each other. Techniques have been passed around, if perhaps unwillingly as they were waring nations, withought one main contributor as many people think. However, the main streams (tradition) of swordmaking of each country has been largley been independent of others.

Japanese

Japanese bladesmithing stems from Chinese blacksmithing, and is often considered an extremely rigid, precise process, involving folding and forge-welding the steel many times over to create a laminated blade. In the past, it was typically assumed that more folds resulted in a higher quality blade. However, in modern times it is widely agreed that folding the steel past a certain point will actually decrease the effectiveness of the sword, resulting in a blade so thinly folded that it approaches the same effectiveness as a solid piece of metal with no folds at all. The number of folds that 'optimize' the blade toughness and edge-holding ability vary between smiths and between blade thickness and types of metal.

Often Japanese bladesmiths would forge their blades out of multiple materials, rather than simply folding and forge-welding one type of steel to itself. Wrought iron, which is very durable and less brittle than steel, would sometimes be used for the spine of the blade, with extremely hard high-carbon steel forming the blade's edge. This process creates a highly impact-resistant blade with an extremely sharp edge. However, under heavy usage, the edge would be more prone to chipping than its European counterparts, which were typically designed to deal with heavier armor than Japanese blades.

It is often mistakenly believed that two famous swords, the Muramasa and Masamune katanas, were forged in Feudal Japan also known as Medieval Japan. The mistake in this belief is that there were in fact multiple "Masamune" and "Muramasa" swords forged in Feudal Japan, as these were names of swordsmiths who produced various works, all of which could be called a "Masamune" or a "Muramasa" depending on which maker forged the blade. The sword most traditionally referred to as "The" Masamune is the Honjo Masamune, a national treasure of Japan.

Germanic

The Germanic Migration Era peoples also had extremely advanced bladesmithing techniques for their level of technology. Migration Era smiths would often forge-weld blades of multiple materials, and their blades were typically double-edged and straight. Migration Era blades were often forged with a hard steel edge wrapped around a pattern welded core. These swords are commonly associated with "Viking" culture, but it has been hypothesized that they were largely produced in the Rhineland.

Indian/Middle Eastern

Bladesmithing was common practice in India and the Middle East during the Middle Ages. A special type of steel known as Damascus steel was often used in these areas. This steel, created only in ancient times, has not truly been replicated in modern times. True Damascus steel should not be mistaken with modern pattern-welded steel; true Damascus steel is a high carbon alloy with tremendous edge retention, in addition to flexibility, due to its composition of carbon nanotubes and carbide nanowires, with a wavy surface texture originating from the etched crystalline structure. This steel was known as Wootz steel, mined in India but was mostly forged in the Middle East, and, according to many accounts, was the most advanced sword steel in all of Europe, Asia, the Middle East and parts of Africa for centuries; it was used for high-quality blades and swords throughout three continents.

Myths and misconceptions

A number of myths about bladesmithing have sprung up in the modern era due to incorrect depictions of bladesmithing in movies and other media, as well as a widespread lack of understanding of the art.

Movies

There are many incorrect depictions of bladesmithing in modern movies, which mislead their audiences into false understandings of the art.

For instance, in the beginning of Conan the Barbarian, Conan's father, upon forging his sword, quenches the orange-hot blade in snow. In truth, this action would probably crack the blade. Sub-zero quenches (that is, quenching a blade at forging temperature in a medium that is extremely cold, such as snow or liquid nitrogen) are useful for newer alloys, such as stainless steel, but most other high-carbon steels must be quenched in some sort of oil or a brine solution to avoid cracking or warpage.

Another incorrect example of bladesmithing is presented in the movie Highlander III: The Final Dimension. Connor Macleod breaks his Masamune katana and must re-forge it using a block of steel left by the sword's original maker. Some feel that it is implied that he 'fills in the cracks' of his sword blade due to the short amount of time in which he repairs his sword and the difficult shape of the steel block he uses as his material. However, realistically, in order for his blade to be full strength, he would need to completely remake the blade from scratch, and reset it into the handle. There is no way to 'fill in the cracks' of a broken blade with new steel short of forge-welding, and a forge-weld in the middle of a blade like the Masamune would arguably decrease its strength considerably. It is possible, however, that the movie intended for Connor to have re-forged his sword blade from scratch, as his actual smithing is vague in the movie context.

The same goes for the sword Narsil in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (film). As Elrond had ordered Narsil to be reforged, the swordsmiths of Rivendell were seen joining the red-hot shards of Narsil together and hammering to "seal" them. Again, the blade would need to be remade if this were a realistic setting.

A contrasting scene is seen in Richard Wagner's opera Siegfried, where a dwarf smith has failed to weld several of Siegfried's broken blades and Siegfried decides to do it himself: He breaks up the pieces, melts them down, adds new steel, and casts the molten steel into an ingot, then forges it into the final blade shape. He doesn't try to weld two pieces together, but remakes the blade anew, as proper swordsmithing would require for a full-strength blade.

Arrowhead myth

A common myth surrounds the making of cast arrowheads, claiming that cast arrowheads in the Middle Ages were made by casting liquid steel or iron into molds. Evidence of cast arrowheads in the Middle Ages is absent from the archaeological record.

Drop forging misconception

Drop forging is sometimes confused with casting. Casting involves heating metal to a liquid state then, pouring the liquid metal into a mold. Conversely, drop forging involves using mechanical equipment to push heated, non-liquid steel into dies or molds. The confusion possibly arises from use of the term "drop" which intimates drops of liquid, or dropping liquid into a mold.

Bibliography

  • Hrisoulas, James. The Complete Bladesmith: Forging Your Way To Perfection, 1987.
  • Hrisoulas, James. The Pattern-Welded Blade: Artistry In Iron, 1994.
  • Hrisoulas, James. The Master Bladesmith: Advanced Studies in Steel, 2005.
  • Weygers, Alexander G. The Complete Modern Blacksmith, 1997.
  • Weygers, Alexander G. The Modern Blacksmith, 1974.
  • Erik; Jones, F.D. Oberg. Machinery's Handbook 13th Ed, 1946.
  • Damascus steel
  • Legendary Swords' Sharpness, Strength From Nanotubes, Study Says
  • Damascus Steel: Archaeology

References

See also

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