Friday, December 24, 2010

spark in the darkness

The year dims down towards its last gasp. Black mornings slowly merge into short days, but the work pace doesn't slacken. Some mornings I am starting the forge at six thirty and working in a bubble of light like a craft in an ocean of darkness. The open door gapes like a mouth into the early morning black, then the delicate deep blue emergence of proto-day. I twist the strands. Late one day I manage to light my forehead and eyebrows on fire with a 'wumf' of flame, I beat them out and don't receive any burns just more manageable eyebrows, and a shiny forehead.
Twisting the strands is surprisingly challenging. I always discount this step as an easy part of the process, but by not preparing a mental space for the work I leave myself open to being caught off guard by it. The twisting and straightening is a full weeks work. Once the strands are twisted and I straighten them and make sure the patterns match, I cut the tips off at an angle and forge them around so that when they are joined they will form a Gothic arch shape. Then I tie them together with iron wire and forge weld them.
When the core strands are welded together I bend the 600 layer edge billets around them and tie that in place with iron wire. Now I am ready to forge weld the whole composite sword blade, this will establish the final pattern in the steel and is the crucial weld. Once the billets are all welded together it is time to consolidate the welds and draw them out to the proper length and outline.
A nine layer strand in the vise ready to twist the next section.

A twisted section

Three strands twisted and ready to be straightened.

Two sets of matching core strands after straightening.

The strand tips cut off at an angle and ready to be forged into half of a Gothic arch.

two strands with the tips forged round so the pattern will follow the edge strand as it curves around the sword tip.

The core strands tied together with wire and ready to be forge welded.
Forge welding the core strands.
Two become one.
I consolidate each weld and give it a chance to mature by reheating it and lightly forging it again.

This core billet is ready to be cleaned up and have the edge billet wrapped around it.

I surface grind and then flat grind the surface of the edge strand that will be touching the core billet, this helps make sure I get a perfect fusion between the two when I forge weld them together.

The edge strand wrapped around the core.

Four composite billets ready for the forge.

First sword heating up to around 2200 degrees Fahrenheit. Successfully forge welding the tip where it wraps around the core billet is the most challenging part of this process.

The edge billet is forge welded in place, the pattern is set. Soon this will be a sword blade, but for now the forge welding is done, yuletide awaits.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Snow-Mist and Forging Strands

Late November brings snowstorms; the field behind my forge turns white and grey, obscured by pencil lines of snow. Ground freezes and propane is sluggish and recalcitrant in the mornings.

Then as the month turns, it becomes warmer, snow turns to mist, the ground thaws. Creatures come out of their dens and sniff the air. When it is not overcast, intense light covers the land in honey colours as the westering sun sinks into fuming spruce forest.

I am over half way through forging 158 lbs of steel from billets into long strands. It's challenging work, physically grueling, the edge billets grow to over six feet in length making it very difficult to get them in and out of the forge, and they get hot, burning my hands. Once I have drawn them out into long strands and straitened them, I can see hints of the pattern showing through the fire scale. The nine layer center billets are easier to forge out, but I have to be constantly aware that as I'm drawing them out I am also consolidating the welds. It's important to keep the steel at welding heat, this means keeping it in the forge for as long as it takes for it to be glowing yellow white. While I wait I draw and write on my anvil, forge and fume hood, eventually I realize having a sketchbook in the forge would be a good idea. Drawing wile I wait for steel to heat up keeps me creatively engaged, and I bring the fresh energy it gives me back into forging the steel out which can become daunting with a big project like this.

I wear a forced air fume hood like an astronaut, it keeps me from getting woozy from too much carbon monoxide and borax dust.

Five hundred and eighty five layer billet being drawn out into a strand.
I use a 25 ton hydrolic press for this work, each billet weighs approximately 20lbs and is around 2200 degrees Fahrenheit when it comes out of the forge.

straitening a long edge strand.

a nine layer center strand in the forge, you can see the layers.

If you look closely you can see the pattern in one of the high layer edge strands.

two edge strands drawn out and ready to be straitened.

The edge strands are over six feet long, the late sun is coming in the shop door and blinding me.

If you look closely through the forge door, sometimes you see strange things... in this case a copy of an Alan Lee painting of dwarves pinned to the far wall!

Over half of the billets drawn out into strands. Next week I will finish drawing out the nine layer billets, and start constructing composite pattern welded sword blades.

Friday, November 19, 2010

chickadees and fire

As I consider the rumpled clouds, (white, gray, blue) a clump of five chickadees whirs up to the barren rose bush I'm standing next to. They rush about from branch to branch yelling chick-a-dee-dee-dee. I go in the house and come back with my camera. They wait for me and continue their frenetic display, they seem curious, inquisitive, or maybe they are telling me to leave their rose bush alone. I love the little chickadees and wisht at them.

The weather is turning colder; flurries are forecast. The landscape is bare, shriven of leaves and coloured in a bruised pallet of purples and browns with hints of green lingering here and there. I start the day in darkness and before I have shut the forge down it is dark again, winter will begin soon.

This week I have been putting my head down and muscling through a bunch of heavy forging and grinding. By the end of today I'll have four billets of over 600 layers and ten nine layer billets all ready to be drawn out into strands for constructing pattern welded sword blades. It's an interesting process at the beginning of making a sword. Although it is brutish work, it's very important to keep track of making sure every billet is perfectly welded, or it will come back to haunt me weeks later with inclusions and ruined blades. I'm building the steely foundations of the next several months of work. I enjoy the hardness of this work, it is a nice balance to the delicate tedium of polishing steel and carving intricate patterns that will come later.

The wind rattles poplar and honeysuckle leaves about on the ground by the smithy door, a billet heats to glowing yellow in the forge, there's work to be done.

A thirteen layer billet cut up and stacked, ready to be re-welded into a sixty two layer billet.
A sixty two layer billet ready to be drawn out.
Drawing a billet out on the hydrolic press.
Cutting the sixty two layer billet up.
Sixty two layer billet stacked and ready to re-weld.
The billet is precariously stacked and heating up in the forge.
310 layer billet forge welded.
Two 310 layer billets stacked on top of each other and ready to be welded.
620 layer billet ready to be consolidated and drawn out.
620 layer billet after I've made sure it's welded and drawn it out a bit. I will wait to draw it out into a long strand until next week.

Billets loitering.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Forge

The wind is up, rain pelts relentlessly, and I am finishing the autumn's work and starting my winter projects. Over the last year I've been focusing on honing my drawing and painting skills, alongside my work as a swordsmith and sculptor. The act of painting an idea is a much more fluid process for me than forging, carving and casting. It starts out with a seed and then slowly progresses, until suddenly after a day of engrossed painting, I realize it's done. It's an interesting and healthy counter point to the obsessive process of bringing a sword from the folds of my dreams into the world of edges and balance and polish. The artifact of the dream is always a compromise, always a point where I realize reality has set into the object and there is no more I can do.
I've just finished a self portrait titled "The Forge". The flaming smith who forges the phantasm of dream stuff into ordered reality in the grove of my imagination.

"Helvegr" is another single edged Norwegian Viking sword I've finished recently. I love the acute bog grass like blades on these swords and the fact that they are rarely represented in contemporary depictions of the Viking Age. I made a pattern welded sword in this style last winter called Vidirhrafn - Willow Raven.

Now I go back to the forge to start fire welding a pile of nineteen billets, which I will forge out into strands for making pattern welded swords from. Some of them will be folded to high layer strands that will shimmer and refract light like figured wood once they are polished; some will be left at nine layers of contrasting steel which I can twist and manipulate to form bold patterns down the fuller of the sword blades. This will be the steel for all of next years work. I have ten nine layer strands fire welded and ready to draw out.

Forging is an opportunity to touch the place where the body and the mind connect in a visceral way. There is no place for language here, only the instinct that comes from familiarity with a process and material. In order to successfully fire weld the layers of steel, you have to communicate with the steel on a molecular level through controlled heat and force. It's a funny process, some days if you hold your nose wrong nothing will weld; success in forge welding seems to have to do with calmness.

Late autumn swirls outside, bare purplish branches dance and sway in the cutting wind. It is a good time to be in shelter by a fire. Frost softened pumpkins slump into withered jelly by the doorstep, and the nights come early, before the days work is done.