Does it really count as a "blade" pilgrimage if I was taking classes making armor? Sure it does, what do you protect yourself from blades with? Armor!
When we last left our intrepid hero (that would be me, for all you new people) he was making the soul-crushing drive from Montreal, Quebec to Floradale, Ontario. Ok, the construction and traffic sucked but the scenery wasn't terrible at all. I kept the AirBnB folks posted on my delays so there was no surprise, I knew it would be a bit late. GPS quotes you so many hours of a drive but never takes into account that vehicles need fuel and people need to eat and/or use the filthy gas station head every couple hundred miles.
I also stopped at a UPS Store midway so I could ship everything from the Japanese bladesmithing class back home. Didn't want to deal with the weight on a flight, or humping the crate around for another fortnight. Packed up my steel, my blades, and my stones as carefully as I could and dropped them off.
Once more I'm in a small town, in another country, but one that's familiar enough by now I feel comfortable and at home. Work some metal for the daylight hours, Bonnie Lou's Cafe for lunch, and zip down to The Old Heidelberg for dinner; it's like I was falling back into the routine all over again. Probably because I was.
I tried to reserve a room at the Brubacher Homestead for this trip, as I had the year prior, but they were blocked out. Instead, I ended up with another family, the Fishers, who were just as nice. They had a cat, who ended up hanging out with me (and probably was supervising the "outlander" on behalf of his family) and a duck. Seriously, a pet duck! It was awesome. Once more, a stay I highly recommend if you're in the area.
On to class the first morning! I arrive about 10 minutes late (probably should have paid more attention to my body telling me it was burning out, but oh well! That's what sleeping for a week back home is for, right?)
But once I get there and "check-in" for the first class I find out that I'm the only student. Seriously, nobody else had signed up. I'd find out later that a last-minute addition DID sign up for the third class, but the first two were solely me and the guys at Thak. I know everyone wants all the nitty-gritty with pictures about how to make armor and maybe steal my templates, but I have to ramble on about the guys at the shop first.
You've got Allen Rozon, who's like an attaché; he was generally my point of contact for the classes at Les Forges De Montréal and Thak Ironworks in 2016 and 2017. He's a really chill guy overall, and easy to just banter with and not realize you've been doing it. Allen's responsibility, as far as students were concerned, was photos for later promotional material. I also have this tiny feeling he was watching to see if I heat stroked AGAIN or not.
Next, there's the apprentice: Ryan Fish. I knew him a bit from the 2016 class, but this time around I really got to hang out with and know the guy a lot better. Since he was working on shop builds in the same area I was doing class, it ended up feeling more like "another day at the office" than taking a class. I don't mean that in a bad way, either, just to say that everything was instantly familiar and comfortable the entire time. He was building a fireplace screen and I literally would help hold a rivet set or hand back tools I had "borrowed" from his area without thinking.
Last, and certainly not least, is Robb Martin; Thak himself. While I could say a lot about him (all good, I promise) I'm going to settle for one fact and one anecdote. Fact: he's old enough to be my father but both looks and IS healthier than I am. Pretty sure he's going to live forever.
Anectode: I get to class and we're setting up. One of the first things he does is turn on some tunes on the shop stereo. Now, I'm not sure the type of students he used to having, but I like having some music to jam with while I work and keep me from going insane. But what I found was interesting is that it was all heavy rock and metal (including something that ingratiated him with me forever: the original Conan soundtrack!) He turns on the music like it's nothing and walks away; I look confused when I recognize songs and he must have misunderstood because Robb says, "Do you like metal? Doesn't matter because that's what you're listening to."
I laugh because it's all my kinda music anyway, "I'm not shocked by the music, just that somebody else has good taste. This'll be awesome."
We spend some time talking about the helm design for the first class. He breaks out a few examples in-house and lets me inspect them and get an idea of an end goal. The template folders come out and it's time to get to work! Anyone familiar with making armor knows this part and it's tedious but necessary: you draw all the patterns (including any pieces that are duplicates) onto a sheet of steel and then cut them out. Then the sharp edges need to be cleaned up so you only bleed a minimum on the project.
Once the pieces are cut out of the sheet steel and prepared for the work, there are a couple things that can be done depending on the project. For the spangenhelm I was making, the next step was marking for and getting the rivet holes all punched into the frame (the spangen of the name, as it were, the frame/brace.)
With the spangen cut out and drilled for later rivets, it needed to be roughly shaped. This was done by hand, literally bending with my hands, over an anvil horn until it matched the circumference and peculiar shape of my dome. Two more holes were made at this point to attach it together at that dimension and then held together with screws and nuts.
The vertical risers were folded over next, making the final framework that the plates would get rivet to and completely cover the head. This was fairly easy because they just got bent over and screwed together.
What was difficult, however, was dishing those plates to the correct shape. Of the four I think I dished a couple and raised the other two. For those not familiar with technical terms, I'll explain:
Once the plates were all shaped, fitted snug, I had to mark them to identify which went back to which quarter. Robb's method for this was to use runes instead of numbers, that way you get the benefit of the magic of elder futhark to help protect you. In all seriousness, it just looks cooler when the helm liner isn't in to see runic shapes instead of numbers.
With the plates marked and punched for mounting holes, and everything test fit together with screws, you'd think the helm was pretty close to done right? HAH! Not bloody likely.
Having the skeleton of a helm ready to go just meant Robb encouraged me to add more things to it! This style of helm sometimes had a chainmail neck protection called an aventail, and older styles had protective cheek flaps. Hell with separate pieces and flimsy dangling chain weaves, let's make the neck protected by STEEL. Might as well add a nasal to it at that point, right? So I ended up with a solid metal monstrosity the vaguely reminds me of the Coppergate Helm.
It gets better though, and I honestly really like the way this helm turned out. The protective peak needed to be made, so that was forged out and creased for a bit of an aggressive shape.
Now it's got all of its parts and could be riveted and finished, right? Again, slightly less bloody likely. With all the parts fabricated I ground, polished, wire wheeled, and otherwise removed the rust and smoothed the surface. Once all the pieces were clean and smooth(ish) they all got blued!
Simple brush and buff of liquid gun blue was added to darken the metal. That was then brushed and buffed with a coat of stove black. The plates, by contrast, had some leather dyed and glued to them before being riveted into place. For obvious reasons, this was done after the stove black so that my brown leather didn't turn black.
The whole helm was then given a coat of Renaissance Wax to protect it. Now, this is SLIGHTLY out of order because I was doing the bluing, riveting, and waxing on all three pieces of armor from the class. But I'll talk about those following; next in line is the gauntlet.
Fun fact, the templates I used for my gauntlet were modified from Robb's that he used in building a customer's Witch King Armor. Yeah, apparently my armor is part Nazgul...
I've already talked about the basic techniques of dishing and raising in regards to the spangenhelm, so I won't really cover those again here in relation to the gauntlet. Honestly, most of the work was done by hand over an anvil horn to bend the sides of the plates down. The nub for the ulna on the plate over the wrist, the thumb, and the knuckle plate were the only pieces that really had work done to them.
The wrist plate was dished with a small ball peen hammer over a stump, and the knuckle plate was hot forged over a form out of a strip of 14ga steel. The piece was as a rectangle and welded to the frame, then stuck in the forge and hammered to shape. Once it was removed, then it was cut to fit the rest of the gauntlet and cleaned up. The thumb was made by creasing it over a chisel stake to get the sharp line.
The vambrace, however, was given a little bit of love using a special fluting tool attached to Robb's power hammer. There were a couple experiments and some demonstrations before I settled on the straight triple lines. With it fluted, I also rolled the edges of the top and bottom pieces so I didn't end up with bloody gouges in my flesh every time I wore it. Defeats the purpose of armor if it hurts you, right?
Now, this isn't a gauntlet that was made to live-steel fight in, because the fingers are protected by scales riveted to leather strips. It also lacks any major anticlastic curvature that would give some strength and definition of shape. But, it's attractive enough to get attention and would really hurt to just bash someone in. "I challenge you to a duel!" *SLAP* "Oh, I already won..."
The scales were made using pre-cut blanks Robb had handy (although I did make some extra to replenish his stock because A.) He asked and B.) I'm not a complete asshole.) They were set on a form that had a concave depression, and a round rod of the right diamter was hammered down with a hand hammer. This curved the scales to wrap around the fingers quite nicely.
Each finger had to have a leather strip cut and holes punched for the correct number of scales. Then, each scale had to be cleaned and blued before being riveted into place.
With all these pieces fabbed, they needed to have the rust removed and be wire wheeled and prepped to get blued just like the helm. Same thing; blue > stove black > wax. The very last step was to dye the leather glove and use some leather weld to affix it to the leather of the finger scales. This results in a gauntlet you can actually wear!
I came back after the couter class and actually added a hinged plate to the vambrace so that it entirely enclosed the arm. Otherwise it just flopped around uselessly like tits on a bull.
And so that brings me to the last of the 3 classes; the couter. I'd later learn to design and fab the couter and lames using geometry from John Gruber at the 2018 The Forging event, but that's another post for later.
I've discussed fluting, dishing, raising and some finishing. Instead of repeating everything a third time, I'll give a brief overview of the couter build and close this post out with finished pictures.
This would also get a hinged plate over the forearm, but the upper arm section was left loose enough to slip my arm in while wearing a coat (to stand in for a gambeson that I don't own) and one solid piece. Two holes were made for tying it off in the upper arm, with brass eyelets set in place to protect the cordage.
With this class ending, I also ended my month pretending to be Canadian. This marked my first "official" class with making armor, even though I had the Armorer's Workshop DVDs (and templates) by Peter Fuller for years prior. Much like my solo-experience making blades, however, my prior attempts at armor were pretty bad but gave me a good foundation to ACTUALLY learn from.
All of this would be an excellent foundation for my experiences at the 2017 and 2018 The Forging events put on by the United League of Armorers. I'm looking forward to the 2019 one, but that's another story...
I left Oregon and made the drive home, allowing myself a luxurious two weeks off before having to pack up and head off to my next adventure. This one, however, took me to the terrifying foreign wasteland of Quebec. Unfortunately, my cell phone camera was broken and so almost all of my pictures are blurry, or partially blurry.
While I spent a month in Canada, I'm only going to cover the two classes I took with Fusataro on this particular entry.
Traveling up to Canada was about what one would expect, especially trying to enter a foreign country with a couple of blades to have your teacher take a look at. Yeah, lots of standing around waiting for security people to carelessly unpack my pelican case and open every single wrapping or box. After making me stand around waiting on them for an hour. That was fun. Oh, you need to walk off with some of my expensive stuff to talk to your supervisor? Yeah, I'm ecstatic about that.
Once I am officially allowed into the country with my tools, stones, and pointy objects there was the next challenge: the special hell that is Montreal traffic. We're not going to talk about how many wrong turns and reversals were needed.
I specifically arrived a day early, because the "first" day of class was an optional period of setting up the shop and helping to get ready. Really, that mostly means chopping an insane amount of charcoal to a proper size, sorting it into bags for the class, and blowing the black shit out of your nose for the next week. Honestly, this rather tedious (but necessary) chore is actually enjoyable if you have a bunch of folks working on it together and can socialize during the process. This would be my first introduction to some of the students as well as staff of Les Forges De Montréal.
Despite arriving late (again, we're not going to talk about the wonders of being lost in an unfamiliar city) I did what I could to help out until we bailed for the day.
The actual day 1 of the class was pretty laid back; Taro spent the first part of the morning talking about the overall class goals, the first day goals, and everything else. We all had a chance to talk a bit, and received our tamahagane (and anything else ordered for classes). I want to take a moment and point out that I bought enough steel to make a katana, but with the intention of making a wakizashi and having some steel to take home for later projects. I'm still hoarding this now, waiting for a special project to use it on.
Honestly, other than my pictures, I don't have a lot of recollection of the events of class besides specific details. There was a lot of evening drinking and celebrating, as well as a wonderful heat emergency mid-way through class. What I do remember is this:
The last day there was an event at Les Forges, so we only got an overview of the smith's polish and signature phases. But, I also got to watch and talk with a professional knife sharpener there for the event, which helped reinforce some of my existing knowledge base of stonework.
All in all, I learned a lot about the process and myself during the ten days of the sword forging session and successfully left with a heat treated blade and some leftover steel. Thankfully, I had done this (on a smaller blade intentionally, anyway) back in 2016 so having gaps in my memory and photos isn't as terrible as it could have been.
I remained at Les Forges for a second class with Fusataro, but this was a more sedate knife making class using shirogami steel. Since most of the folks were veteran knife makers interested in trying a new steel and learning foreign (hah!) methods, it turned out more as a collective jam session.
We forged a test knife out of 5160 to decide on a shape we liked. Then I spent a good amount of time with my nose stuck in some reference books deciding on the shapes I liked, and ended up forging 3 small blades for the class.
We heat treated them with a coat of clay, thinned to a wash, and quenched in water. They were tempered the same way as the tamahagane blades, over the forge using a splash of water to help gauge temperature. All 3 survived.
With no time to relax, I headed out the following morning from Montreal to Floradale, On which was a 7-hour drive. But before I left, I swung by and helped clean up the shop from our two classes, and gifted the guys beer and my thanks.