The first class in my 2017 in Review series isn't actually the first class for the year; scheduled or completed. But I doubt there's much interest in reading about me doing online metallurgy, welding, and heat treating classes while listening to Netflix in the background. I posted my completion certificates from them and took pride in completing each class with nearly perfect scores.
My first scheduled class was one I was forced to miss by a circumstance of weather. It was the Sword Reflections with Peter Johnsson over at Zack Jonas' shop in New Hampshire, and I was really looking forward to it. I got into smithing in the first place because I wanted to make swords and armor, so I was extremely excited and nervous about this class. Sadly, it snowed the night before I had to drive down to the valley to catch a flight out of town, and my truck spun out. I still have the Type XV blank sitting at the house waiting for me to finish it on my own time.
Zack was extremely nice, considering I gave him a no-show notice the day before class started, and let me roll my tuition deposit forward. I was able to attend Sword Reflections (twice in a row!) later in the year, so I'll save storytelling about that until later.
The first class I did attend, the subject of this post, was Mokume Gane with the Masters, April 3-7 out at Rio Grande Supply in Albuquerque, NM. Said masters were Chris Ploof and Jim Binnion, and they were extremely friendly and approachable while still keeping the class on track working and learning.
I learned about the class because of a Facebook post by Michele von Bergen, who was excited at the chance to attend as well. 'Chele is an admin of several blacksmithing and bladesmithing pages, as well as an FB friend, so I didn't immediately dismiss the share when I saw it.
Delving a bit deeper, which didn't take long, I saw I was most definitely interested in going to this class. My experience with mokume previously was similar to many, using quarters in a stack.
After all the usual introductory dialogue and discussion, we got right into the class. I'm sure I could write a textbook just from the pictures and notes I took, so I'm going to restrain myself to an overview and shared images.
The first thing we did was to clean the copper and brass rectangles for our billets. This was done using water and Simple Green with the very fine scotchbrite pads, scrubbing until the water would evenly sheet off the little rectangles. They then got rinsed in clean water and rested in a tub of water and citric acid to prevent any oxidation during the rest of the cleaning process. Once every piece was painstakingly cleaned, they were dried and stacked in alternating layers.
We prepped the clamp plates with Boron Nitride paint, aka weld-r-white. This is very important, as it prevents the copper or brass sheets from adhering to the steel plates during the heating cycle. Also important, enough that I am going to do this in all caps: DO NOT USE WITE-OUT TO DO THIS. And once again: DO NOT USE WITE-OUT TO PREVENT ADHESION IN FORGE WELDING. The reason is that it contains titanium dioxide which is toxic especially when it off-gases at high temperature. Fun anecdote: when someone called to talk to the folks who manufacture wite-out and talk to them about its use as a resist they freaked out quite a bit and started repeatedly warning against doing that.
Cleaned sheets and resist painted plates combine to form...! More work. Once the alternating stacked sheets were clamped with the plates at high pressure, the whole rig was inserted into a bag made of heat treat foil. A tiny amount of charcoal was added, and the whole thing sealed up. Why you ask? The bag and charcoal act together to consume existing oxygen and prevent additional getting to the sheets and oxidizing them, which would inhibit the diffusion process.
The most tedious part of this entire class was the next step, cleaning up the billet. In the studio available to us, this meant cutting the billet into a roughly rectangular shape once more using a jeweler's saw. This was to make sure that any possible delaminations existing on the edges wouldn't make their way into the final piece once it had been rolled to thickness.
To fit inside the guides of the rolling mills available to us, we had to use the hydraulic presses to squish them down to just below the maximum thickness the mills could handle. After some pressing, the pieces would work harden and need to be annealed to continue working without introduction stress cracks. Less sad with copper and brass, because they're fairly inexpensive, but a billet with gold that cracks will ruin your day.
Roll, anneal, repeat. At this point, you can introduce patterning into the billet in an near endless variety. I chose to use a rolling blank to pattern one section with a flame texture, the whole thing was then ground flush, the other I just used a carbide burr to grind in a design of a starburst (which looks bad, but that was second to the point of the class). The piece I ground a design into was then rolled flat to raise material into the negative space.
The patterned final piece can be manipulated into whatever your final product will be; I left mine as vaguely square sheets because I intend to raise them into ride bells for bikers.
Now, this whole rambling post of mine gets condensed into "and then I did it a second time" because I had enough class time to make a billet of silver and shibuichi. Shibuichi is a rose-colored (at least the pieces of alloy I had were) alloy of primarily copper and some silver. This piece was rolled out about .25" thickness, I intend to do a manipulation technique called guribori for a guard and pommel. Guribori is basically carving away a design into the material, but leaving that negative space to have the stacked layers visible in the carving itself; it's a simple process that I find very lovely.
I'm fortunate to have taken the class, and picked up some equipment from Rio Grande to help me get a small setup going at my own shop. I knew I wouldn't have much time in 2017 to experiment with it, but I wanted to be prepared the moment I had an inkling and opportunity. Fortunate that I did, because I have a "potential apprentice" who wants to get into doing mokume with me at the shop.
That concludes, without going into exacting detail, what we did in class and my generally positive experience with everyone involved. I would suggest looking into Chris and Jim's work, they have some excellent pieces. If this strikes your fancy, maybe even take the class; I would certainly like to do it at least one more time with a clear goal of what I'm making and why.
Oh, and this is also when I started to realize I was known more for my pajama pants and chops than the actual blades I make. To each his own, eh?