Bladesmithing is a branch of blacksmithing, thus most, if not all, blacksmiths will be familiar with bladesmithing to some degree.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
HAYWOOD COMMUNITY COLLEGE, AMERICAN BLADESMITH SOCIETY TO HOLD GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAIN BLADESMITHING SYMPOSIUM & KNIFE SHOW
Feb 26, 2009; CLYDE, N.C., Feb. 11 -- Haywood Community College issued the following press release: Haywood Community College and the American...