“Develop success from failures. Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.” - Dale Carnegie
Early in 2016 I went out and filmed for Forged in Fire. While I immediately knew the result, it was a while before national television showed it an EVERYONE knew the result. The short version is I learned that I was technically and physically capable of the task of making a damascus knife in 3 hours. I also learned that, with a clock ticking in the back of my mind and Wil Willis shouting at me, I turn into stubbornness personified (see also: Mortarion). Not the best thing when you need to problem solve on the fly instead of just knuckling down and trying to force obstinate steel to bend to your will.
That being said, this post isn't about my experience on FiF. While I have a great many fun stories, I'm mentioning my failure as the stepping stone it was to start me out on my crusade of teachers and knowledge.
Someone, whom I unfortunately fail to remember, shared a link on facebook about a Japanese swordsmithing class taking place up in Canada. This caught my attention because I liked swords, and I liked katanas, and not having to spend the money to go and learn that in Japan was appealing. At any other time, how would one even make the connections to do that sort of a thing?
Off goes my e-mail, and then off goes my deposit, and I start getting ready for the class.
Off to Canada we go! Drive down from my mountain home to Phoenix the night before, and catch what sleep I can because the flight leaves at like 6. For an international flight, that meant I needed to be there at like 0330 which is stupid. I even have a vidlog I made that morning that very clearly states my opinion: "Whatever I had planned to say I only have one thing: mornings are bullshit."
Complete with long waits and plane changes, the flight up to Canada was rather long. I slept as I could, listened to music, and read ebooks. Once I landed and did the whole customs thing (complete with being yelled at for mispronouncing Elmira) I got to wait in line more to get my rental car.
They didn't have the budget car I initially rented, so I got a free upgrade to a fancier car. Stereo could bluetooth directly to my phone, the seats warmed themselves, and everything was buttons or dials. It's like I jumped from the stone age (power nothing, aux cables, and crappy heat in my truck) to the space age and I was probably a little more amazed and excited than I should have been.
I loaded up some saved tunes on the phone, cranked it to a notch over comfortable, and started the pleasant drive from Toronto out to Floradale.
I would be staying at the Brubacher Homestead for the duration, via airbnb, and I feel obliged to take a moment to talk about them (and thank Lavern and Marg). It was nice to have a home-cooked breakfast each day before I headed off to class, and someone back "home" to talk to about the day's events afterwords. Leftovers didn't hurt, either. Seriously, it was like staying with extended family. I would try to book them in 2017 when I came back to Floradale for some armor classes, but they were unsurprisingly booked.
If you're still reading this after all my talk of travel, don't worry, I'm soon to the interesting stuff. I just want to add that The Olde Heidelberg Restaurant and Tavern has really good schnitzel and sauerkraut.
Onto the class!
An important part of the first day of any class is the introduction. Waivers are signed, any important curriculum stuff is handed out, people get to introduce themselves and their experience...the list goes on. I am an attentive student and thus paid attention to everything my instructors and fellow students said during this time.
I love cats, and immediately upon sitting down I had a kitten in my lap. While I dutifully paid attention*, I also scritched ears and played with toe beans.
Each student was given their allotment of tamahagane at this time. Those of us who purchased the Extra Special Student Special Tool Kits also received that. This kit consisted of some useful tools: a dogleg hammer, pickup tongs, billet tongs, boxjaw tongs, signing chisel, and a clay applicator.
I figured I'd already sunk a good chunk of change into the whole course, what was a little more for the tools? Except one of the guys had the foresight to also special order a sen for the class. Why didn't I think of that? Damn. Worked like a charm, too. Even though it's not how you use it, I could scrape off smoking curls with that thing, it was awesome. That's a later part of the class, though.
The class facilitator and assitant instructor, Allen Rozon, had another surprise waiting for us after we got our raw steel and tools. He showed us some of the work of our instructor, Fusataro, including a very expensive shrine sword he had the honor of making. This sword was later purchased in 2017 by a fellow student of that class, but I won't name him here out of courtesy.
With everyone now PROPERLY paying attention, we headed downstairs for the first part of the classwork. Fusataro took a moment to bless the smithy and the tools with a sake sacrifice according to tradition. I'd like to think the spirits accepted his offering and watched over us, because my blade didn't explode into a million pieces. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.
With the smithy prepared by the respectful offering, and the students (hopefully) appropriately mindful, the next part of the ritual began. Taro lit the forge without using a torch, chemical propellant, or any normal western method. Instead, he cold hammered a piece of steel until it glowed a cherry red and used that to start a piece of newspaper, which was tucked into the charcoal and used to start the forge. He explained that, to the Japanese smiths, this was a pure fire and desired for maintaining purity before the forge, the steel, and the work.
With the forge started, the next step was to consolidate all of our tamahagane into flat and solid (but unwelded) pieces. One would be selected as the teko, a steel "plate" to be welded to the handle and which all of the other pieces would be stacked upon for the welding process. To do so, the handle and the plate would be stepped, then brought up to forge welding temperature and set into place with the hand hammer.
There's nothing special or significantly different about the process we went through as a class, than what you can read in any number of the books in print about Japanese swordsmithing. It did help to have access to some of the Kapp/Yoshihara books to reference, though, and I'd suggest Art of the Japanese Sword to interested persons not already owning it.
With our tamahagane consolidated and plates welded to handles came the stacking and welding stage. I'm taking a moment to make a shout out to Kevin King here, one of my fellow students. He had taken the class prior and his tanto had not been successful. He cut up the failed blade and let me use some of it in my billet, which gave me a little extra mass. I'd like to think that gesture also brought some goodwill to the project, and made my final tanto special to me in addition to the sentimental value from the class itself.
All of the pieces were stacked up, and Taro authorized a little sprinkle of borax for us westerners. The giant stack of wafers was then wrapped in paper and dampened down. Mine had a few characters of good fortune and success written into it, because I would take all the help I could get!
The dampened, paper-wrapped, billet was then coated in rice straw ash and a clay slurry before being carefully maneuvered into the forge. We all took turns throughout the class of using the traditional style forge and box bellows Allen had made and brought for the class, and I really enjoyed it. Despite being much slower than an electric blown forge, there was something peaceful and relaxing in the rhythm of using the bellows and listening to the fire.
If you weren't forging, needed a break, or were otherwise unoccupied you got assigned everyone's favorite "bored chore": cutting charcoal. We consumed a lot of it for the class, and it doesn't come pre cut to the sizes we needed for forging. So, grab your face mask and choppy-tool of choice and get down to it. Yeah, everyone was sneezing black shit out of their noses for the entire class. Except the teacher, because he had to do that enough during his apprenticeship. Man, I want to have an apprentice to chop charcoal for me...
What followed was a long, but extremely useful and educational period, of homogenizing and preparing the billet. We all helped each other reweld handles as they broke, and set the weld for each fold before moving to the power hammer. Each of us had a goal of six homogenizing folds for this class before the final fold and shaping occurred.
This final fold was a kobuse style, but we didn't use any core material; it was just folded that way to give us a solid "jacket" instead of having the cutting edge be the side of the original billet. All of this work was just to allow us to have a bar of steel that we could begin shaping into the blade.
I decided upon a hirazukuri style, which is just a flat bevel from spine to cutting edge. It's very similar to knives I'd made in the past, so it was easy to wrap my brain around. It was also a common enough shape traditionally. With the bevel design and approximate size decided upon, it was all familiar territory for me. The billet was worked down, thinned, and stretched to appropriate rough shape. The tip is cut off and hammered over to keep the jacket continuous through the blade's point. This blank is referred to as a sunobe, and is 90% final shape of the blade at an even thickness.
At this point the definition for the tang will be forged in, and the bevel will be drawn down.
Not much remains in the process before heat treating! Once we had it rough forged to shape, it was to the grinder to set the final profile and clean the forge scale off before we began out clay application. As always, Taro demonstrated for us before letting us have at it ourselves. I am...not an artist with clay like he was. I, however, do have my clay pattern saved in photograph so that it can be compared to my existing hamon and show me how the steel reacted.
The clay needed time to dry, slowly, so we finished them up and took off for a little while. We'd come back later that night to do the quench much after dark.
Slowly, the blade was moved over the flame above the charcoal in the forge to ensure it was totally dry before being placed into the forge. There it was heated slowly and evenly, spine down and edge up, to the correct color/temperature. The austenitized blade was then plunged into a tank of water for the quench. Viola, traditionally made tanto by people will the equivalent skill level of a second year apprentice. Because the first year is spent chopping charcoal before they ever get to touch hot metal. But, it didn't break, so yay me.
The blades were scraped clean of clay, forged tempered, straightened as needed, and we finished out the night. The final day of class also coincided with a hammer-in and Halloween party at the host shop.
We were given a demo of stone polishing and shaping, and allowed to spend as much time as we wanted doing this. With it being cloudy and rainy at the time, most of us elected to spend under and hour doing so.
Taro also demonstrated signing the tang, and I looked up what my name equivalent would be. I don't think I ever actually got around to signing my tanto, just on a test piece of mild steel.
The hammer in was actually interesting and a good way to wind down a long and intensive class. Rob, owner of the host shop Thak Ironworks, demonstrated forging an iron skull. Taro did a demo on a rapid smith's knife and a feather. Even got to see a localish craftsman cast a bronze celtic sword.
Ontop of all that, got a Halloween party. Food and booze I didn't have to pay for, yay! We played a Japanese drinking game that involved counting fingers, I mostly ended up drinking and don't remember the rules. Tried on some armor as a "costume" and played around. Had a nice bonfire at the end. I also got a ginger beer from our "dwarf" Tom Cosgrove, and it was amazing for the name but not so much the taste.
10/10 Would do again. Which is why I went again in 2017 for what would be (and so far remains) Taro's last class in North America.
A few links of interest:
Japanese Swordsmithing on wikipedia. As a wiki, take it with a grain of salt. But it had some of the science behind the traditional methods and materials I found interesting.
Thak Ironworks of Floradale, ON, Canada. Host shop for this class, and I also took several classes there the following year.
Iron Den Forge, now of Quebec, Canada. Formerly Tamahagane Arts.
Asano Kajiya: Hashima City, Gifu, Japan. Fusataro's website.
As closing note(s) I want to take a moment and make due diligence. It was mentioned to me that, in the past, there were students in previous classes who used the experience as a justification to claim they were a "Japanese swordsmithing apprentice." This is a fraudulent representation of the experience, and I don't make such a claim. I will, however, proudly claim Fusataro as a TEACHER because he did teach me many things; some of them outside the scope of swordsmithing as well.
Several of these images were taken by Allen Rozon of Tamahagane Arts/Iron Den Forge, they have the tsuba logo of his shop watermarked. I was given access to, but did not get permission prior to posting. They will remain at his sufferance.