I first wrote this post under the title of "2017 in Review" and was talking about the classes I had taken. Both as a way for me to remember what I did and record my notes, but also to show people what I had been doing.
It's now been almost a year since I last posted something, and that was only the second class of over a dozen for 2017 alone. I'm adding to them again, but I'll be dating the posts for around the last day of the class, which will mess up the blog order. So, I'll add links to each one in this post.
What follows is the original "Intro" to the series from November 2017. I've since renamed the series The Great Blade Pilgrimage; since frankly I've traveled across this country and into Canada as well as learning from foreign teachers and that sure sounds like a pilgrim's journey to me.
As always, this won't include the laundry list of online classes I've taken in between the physical classes, because it's not terribly exciting to talk about or read about. Thank you for reading this, and I hope you find my pilgrimage of interest.
Michael Allenson, November 2018
"Wits must he have who wanders wide." Havamal 5:1
Japanese Swordsmithing 2016
Japanese Bladesmithing 2017
The Forging 2017
This will be the first post in a series about my classes, events, and travels for the year of 2017. I'll wax a little nostalgic and get into my reasons and logic behind the decision to run myself into the ground with education, and then go into analyses and pictures (what could be salvaged from my phone) of the individual classes.
Every year comes with its own series of hardships and problems, as well as victories and accomplishments. Simply boiling it down to a "good year" or "bad year" is insufficient. So I want to explain that it was the "bad" of 2016 that prompted me to run myself to the very limits furthering my education. A little background might help, so let me wax nostalgic.
I had been reading and making BSOs (blade shaped objects, aka poorly shaped mild steel) with stock removal or MIG welding as long as I could remember. I first researched blacksmithing in elementary school for a report on "future careers." A now ex-girlfriend of mine when I was around 16 or so bought me a copy of Complete Bladesmith by Jim Hrisoulas as well as Renaissance/Medieval Swordsmanship(s) by John Clements.
I started physically smithing and knowing what I was doing in 2009 after my father died. I quickly made it routine to take yearly blacksmith workshops in Camp Verde with Gordon Williams, and Knifemaking ones with Ray Rybar, starting in either 2010 or 2011. It was at this point I realized that all the theoreticals I could read weren't worth squat compared to a weekend of hands-on training with someone who knew what they were doing, and more importantly, what I was doing wrong.
Armed with my new knowledge and experience, I dove into the deep end and bought myself a forge and anvil. Needless to say, I could make a functional knife with a handle and did so for many friends. They weren't pretty, but even those early attempts are still in circulation and nobody has broken one. I even taught the little bit I knew to close friends who would come over and play in the little smithy I set up. I kept taking classes, learning from Frank Christensen (more on this guy and his glorious facial hair later), Ken Sparks, and Sam Troxell via the Mesa Arts Center, and driving down to Tucson to spend a couple weekends learning from Tai Goo. I could write another long series about my experiences there, maybe another day, moving on now.
Fast-forwarding to 2016, I was just starting to join the online smithing community on FB when Forged in Fire did an open casting call. I was encouraged, to a point of not really being given a choice, to apply and see what happened.
Spoiler alert? I was accepted and you can see me in Episode 3 of Season 3. I think it's been a broadcast episode long enough to avoid further spoiler warnings, I was the first man voted off the island. It was the correct call by the judges, and I completely agree. Thankfully, I was not in a position where the prize money would make or break me, and I feel it definitely was more useful to one of the gents I met on my episode.
That didn't make my losing any easier, though. At first, I was proud that I had managed to get on an episode and finish a blade with the time constraints and challenge requirements laid out. I made the mistake of dwelling on it and internalizing the failure as a personal character fault, and was not in a good head space for a while. I did learn, for good or ill, I was very much my father's son: sheer bull-headed stubbornness both allowed me to finish and kept me from finishing within requirements. Even Dave Baker called me on this, and all I could offer was a helpless shrug and "risk verses reward." comment.
As it always seems to, it took a few outside perspectives to break through the fog of my malaise. I now had a benchmark to measure against, something I had lacked just making blades for friends and family or my own amusement. Once I pulled my head out of my own ass, I decided I was going to learn everything I could from whoever I could. My failure wasn't actually a failure, it would be the boot-to-ass I needed to get in gear.
2017 then became my year abroad, and it's already planned to bleed over a little bit into 2018 but definitely not so severely. I spent at least as much time traveling and in class as I did at home, and this put a strain on my relationship with everyone back home. I want to take a moment, though, to thank everyone for being supportive and excited on my behalf during this process. I probably would have died of exhaustion in a random airport terminal without you.
So, this little series of blog posts will serve multiple purposes. I want to highlight what I've learned for posterity, selfishly so I can say "I've done this." as well as to promote the teachers and institutions that I was able to learn from. As well I want to share some of the stories and moments I found touching, and call out the friends I've made along the way.
7th Dragon Knifeworks Review
I had the opportunity to test a pair of knives, courtesy of Michael Kerley from 7th Dragon Knifeworks. I want to start this review by saying that I know and like Mike, we play Star Craft together (he's vastly better than me, which I don't like). Obviously, there is some bias towards positive attitudes, but my opinions are based on physical tests and usage in my own home and kitchen. I feel it important to mention that I was not paid for this test, both blades are actually making a circuit around the US with a dozen or so different folks and I was fortunate enough to be on that list.
That being said, lets start at the very beginning. I received the box containing the two knives pictured from the previous gentleman in the circuit, wrapped up in some plastic-wrap with what looked and smelled like cosmoline beneath it. I carefully cleaned both blades (read: vigorously scrubbed with a scotch brite and soap) to make sure they were cleaned of residue. During this time I was impressed by how thin they were made and how comfortable they felt in the hand. Also, keep in mind, these had seen use by Mike and a handful of guys in circulation before it got to me.
I'm going to break this down into an individual review of each knife, especially because I tested the gyuto against one I have from a teacher of mine.
Straight from the wiki entry: "The chef's knife for professional Western cuisine. For vegetables, it is used to chop or thrust cut like a nakiri near the heel, to rock-chop stiffer produce in the belly, and to make fine cuts at the tip. For meat, it is used to saw back and forth for large cuts, to pull cut for softer meats and for a better surface finish, and to push cut for more sinewy meat. There is usually a slope from heel to the tip which causes the wrist to point down and shoulder to raise up to make cuts."
I was excited to try a gyuto from Mike because I, as previously stated, own one from my teacher Taro Asano. This was an excellent chance for me to compare an American and a Japanese interpretation of the same knife. Below are images of the knives from
7th Dragon Knifeworks (https://www.facebook.com/7thdragonknifeworks/) and
Asanokajiya (https://www.facebook.com/taroasanokajiya/) respectively.
As you can see, Mike's gyuto has a much more rounded and gentle shape to the blade, with a sharp and angular handle. It's made from 1095 monosteel and there is a hamon present (despite the poor quality of my camera) and the blade was evenly ground and etched to show this. By comparison, Taro's gyuto has a sharp and angular blade with a rounded and more gentle handle. While there is an appearance of a hamon, it doesn't actually possess one. This is because only the cutting edge was polished, leaving the back half to two thirds evenly forged but retaining forge scale. Additionally, the image barely shows that there is a third transition right at the cutting edge itself; this comes from the gyuto being made of a Japanese laminate steel called shirogami.
Aesthetic choices of the craftsmen aside, both knives were comfortable to hold and use for the duration of whatever cutting I did. Not being a professional chef, I would claim based on my experience that both performed equally well except for one instance: Taro's gyuto would cut a loaf of bread without crushing it as much as Mike's did. With meat, vegetables, packaging (both plastic wrap and cardboard) both knives cut like a laser.
Result: serrated knives are bullshit and making a single edge to cut bread is not easy. Taro's gyuto is slightly better in that regards. Sentimentality towards teacher trumps sentimentality towards friend?
I asked Mike what exactly this knife was, and he told me it was a prototype for a line he's calling "gliders." I honestly couldn't give it a better name because it did just glide through everything. As it was explained: "The idea is to pinch the blade with your middle finger in the groove, and just enough handle for the other two fingers. Makes them stupidly light, and have great control for light duty use."
If I thought that gyuto was sharp, this little knife was terrifyingly so. Also, light duty? I did everything around the house I needed except chop firewood. Now, there are some admitted flaws in the prototype design direct from the maker, things I believe he's already addressed moving forward. For example, you can't really chop from tip to heel because the shape of the handle makes the knuckles hit the board a bit. For slicing cuts when you're pinching the blade though, there's nothing better.
If you notice in the picture, there's a chip out of the edge about a third of the way from the tip. This happened while it was in my care and I felt bad, but it was also a learning opportunity about the knife and maker. First thing, when I told Mike what happened (cat knocked it off, landed hard right on the edge) he wasn't really concerned or mad. Secondly, it told me that his differential heat treat on the blade was done very well. After falling three feet only a small portion of the edge chipped; the blade didn't crack or shatter.
Not only did it only break that small section, but I just steeled the blade a couple times and went on to cutting and it didn't negatively impact the performance. It remained, literally, sharp enough to slice a cardboard box with no effort (think Blue Apron delivery service size).
My only complaint about the blades is aesthetic, I'm not a fan of acrylic for handles. They are well shaped, fitted, polished, and the colors go well together...but it's still acrylic. I loved having them here at the house to use day-to-day until I dropped them in the post on to the next gentleman in line.
If you're looking for a good kitchen knife that will do whatever you ask, that looks and feels good, and won't break the bank then go talk to Mike Kerley. I've already commissioned two.
We leave the study of nihonto behind and move, once more, into the realm of armor. I had been a member of a facebook group for armorers called the United League of Armorers. Every year they put on an internal convention called The Forging. It's as much a get together as a sharing of knowledge, demos, and small classes. But, long before I got there, a few problems cropped up.
The first was domestic, and not entirely unexpected. It was near the end of the year and I had already been gone at least as often as I was home. Krista was feeling the effects of loneliness and there were some arguments. I asked if she wanted to go to The Forging with me, then, spend time at my next class.
She waffled back and forth about if she actually wanted to attend, but she wanted to go. The difference being, mainly, she was tired of being home and going to work and returning to an empty* house (apparently pets don't count?)
So instead of driving out (which would have been smarter, and you'll see why in a little bit) or flying out, we decided to take a couple days to ride the Amtrak out to Michigan for the event. I'd rent a car and she could drop me off in the morning and pick me up at night; during the day she could go play tourist and do touristy stuff in Grand Rapids.
The left the problem of what to do with all the pets while we're gone for the week. Ask a friend to watch them, right? Have to have friends who live in the same town who are reliable when they give you their word, though. Nobody died, so it all worked out well in the end.
A fun thing on the final leg of the trip to Grand Rapids itself happened. Krista and I were talking about Forged in Fire and there was only like...one other person in the seating area with us. So, he overhears and pipes in about the show as well. We're talking and I finally peak over and mention that I was on it, and he recognizes me. Cool, right? We took a selfie so he could send it to the misses and make her lose her shit.
Train was delayed over the course of the trip so I can't pick up the rental car when we arrive (they closed at midnight and it was like 00:30 when we got in.) No worries, I get an uber to take us out to the hotel near The Forging.
Did you know uber will take you to places that they then won't have service in, and thus can't pick you back up? Yeah, they will. Couldn't get uber, lyft, or even a cab to come out there. Never been literally stranded somewhere before.
Those of you who have been on my friends list a while might remember me reaching out with this. I needed to get back into Grand Rapids to pick up my rental and that was a 40 minute drive from the hotel. Not exactly walking distance, eh?
So I made a post about being FUCKING STUCK, and shared it to every group I was in. Plus asking people I knew if they had any connections in the area that could help. Lots of "No"s in return for that.
But, friends shared it. And it was through Travis Wuertz sharing my post that a FiF fan in the area saw the post and volunteered to extract me from the scary middle-of-nowhere hotel. I may sound flippant right now, but I about cried at the time. Tiny bit of faith in humanity restored.
So, up rolled Marcie and her son Parker (last names left out for privacy) to my rescue. I found out later that Parker recognized me from Forged in Fire and his silence was from being excited, not being shy. They got me out to the rental car safe and sound, and refused all attempts by me to thank them beyond the words "hank you" but that's ok, because I got them back later.
All the drama aside, I was able to make it to the forging in time (showed up quite a bit early first day, actually) and had a blast. Here's some of what went down, and some photos of historical pieces brought to the event by Wade Allen of http://www.allenantiques.com/ who is just a little knowledgeable about stuff.
There were 3 classes in a block, and 3 of those big blocks before dinner and then some smaller blocks. So much was being offered it was impossible to cover everything in a single visit to the event, even over all three days. Fortunately, I went again in 2018 and grabbed a few things I had (sadly) missed in 2017.
As always, my cell camera is kinda crappy. I'm rough on phones, so it's not that they're cheap Chinesium (or is it?)
But I was able to hit the Anticlastic forming, cased greaves, pauldrons and faulds classes while also dropping in and out to check out the others as much as possible. It's not really practical to go into exhaustive detail about each thing, because it was a simple demonstration and overview of how to make various pieces of armor.
Although I will point out that the anticlastic forming class, being hands on, was probably the most useful one out of the bunch for me. I know how to make metal move and form, it's learning all those fine details of historical accuracy that I needed to improve my work. Anticlastic, for those not familiar with the term, refers to having opposite curvatures in a single piece. Eg: a convex curve along the length and a concave curve along the perpendicular.
Why is anticlastic curvature important in making armor? Because the historical pieces weren't completely flat plates; there was subtle curvature and shape all over the place.
From the other classes I got to watch a piece of armor get fabricated, along with advice on what to do (and what not to do) as well as teacher-preferred tools. Plus, templates! Yay.
Did I mention that I played with armor a little bit?
I didn't take a lot of photos, and only some video, I mostly spent the time watching or being hands on when available. Especially the antique pieces when allowed; with white gloves of course.
In the evenings, during the smaller classes and demos, I picked up a bit of forging advice from Matt of Wasatch Forge in SLC, Ut. I also got to watch a little hearth refining display by "Iron" John as I was taking off one evening.
It was an excellent experience that I greatly enjoyed, and I think it was certainly the most relaxing of the bunch. I was free to wander and see, socialize, and ask questions. Hell, I ended up making friends just because of "Hey, what're you doing?" Thanks to George for hosting (funny enough, he'd end up being a fellow sword student of Peter Johnsson.) Thanks to Rob for putting up with my questions while planning the trip and being lost. Of course, thanks to everyone for the classes that encouraged me to come out and learn. Certainly better than just watching Peter Fuller's DVDs over and over.
It secured in my mind that I wanted to attend again in 2018 (which I did) and made the facebook community I was part of just a little more real. Picked up a ULA t-shirt to help support and commemorate my first attendance. Got one for Krista too. Picked up some forming stakes as well, and my apprentice is currently hogging them at the armoring station as he builds 2 sets of gauntlets in his spare time.
Oh, and remember early on how I mentioned "getting them back" about Marcie and Parker helping me while I was in need? Well, for Christmas 2017, Parker got a forge and an anvil. Hopefully his love of the craft spawned by Forged in Fire carries into a lifeline hobby that brings him great joy.
I know it has for me.
After my extended training month in Canada, I returned home pretty much exhausted and burned out. Well, in body at least, my mind still wanted more learning but my body was beginning to fail me after a steady diet of travel food and sitting upon mine arse driving. With all of this, you would think I would be smart and take some time to recuperate (eat healthy, work out, digest information, etc.) Most people would, right? I am either A.) Not most people or B.) Not smart.
I left myself just over two weeks at home before I needed to take off on my next journey, driving back to Dragonfly Forge in Oregon for two classes: koshirae and tsukamaki. For those of you reading this who don't know the Japanese terms, I'll explain, those who do can skip right over.
Other than taking three days to make the drive, instead of two, it was basically the same as before. I stopped in Reno, and had used some rewards points to get a dirt cheap room at Circus Circus. I'm glad I was planning to meet up with my buddy Mike Armour anyway, because it was a nightmare to wait in line and even get checked in.
It was good to see him again, but never try to match drinks with a professional sparky. At best, you'll want to die the next day. At worst, you won't remember the night and wind up somewhere strange. Not the best thing before 8 hours of driving. Still, it was R&R that I sorely needed.
As should be no surprise to anyone, I arrived safely. Probably because I couldn't write these if I died. Oh well.
I returned with the tanto I had previously forged with Fusataro (Japanese Bladesmithing 2016 article) and prepared the habaki and final blade profile under Mike Bell's oversight/instruction. Unlike last time, I wasn't the only student this time. But whereas I had a tanto, he brought an entire katana. Again, whereas I used the alder they had on hand, he brought a hunk of walnut. Now, to be fair, it was an absolutely gorgeous piece and I'm not so proud as to deny the overwhelming desire to take it.
But I didn't. I'm not THAT big of an asshole.
It's actually a deceptively simple and tedious process to make the koshirae, but I don't say that to diminish anyone who does them. This is because each step has tons of very precise nuances and fiddly details to ensure you do right, watch out for, etc. The overall "do this, then that, and this" process is easily explained. Since this isn't a "how to master koshirae making" lesson, I'll attempt to use descriptions and pictures to convey the process as much as possible, and encourage anyone interested to find printed literature about the process further.
Koshirae - Japanese Sword Mountings by Markus Sesko. This isn't a "How-to" style book, but will examine and discuss mountings through the various periods. Useful if you want to identify something, or replicate a certain style.
To start with you'll need a piece of wood, preferably something that is soft and easy to carve. The Japanese prefer honoki/Japanese magnolia traditionally, thought I've also heard people mention nurizaya as well. Since I don't have a source for either of those, and I rarely see it for sale anyway, I don't worry about finding it. Dragonfly Forge uses alder, and the piece I had was a pleasure to carve. I've also been suggested basswood by Vince Evans, and watched him rough carve a scabbard core for a dagger in a couple of minutes. I've also been told poplar is a good choice and a historically used material in European scabbards.
Once you've chosen your material for the project (in my case, alder) you need to rough cut out a blank for the blade. Because the nakago of a Japanese blade doesn't run a full tang length, this needs to take into account the spacing for your hand on the handle, as well as the scabbard length for the blade. This blank should be free of cracks, splits, knots, and other gunk. You want a section with fairly even grain that runs a continuous direction as much as possible, so you're not carving and planing against the grain.
I worked a lot with Gabe Bell, while my fellow classmate (who I'm not naming because I can't ask if he cares) worked heavily with Mike Bell. I like the way Gabe taught me to do koshirae, because it was also shirasaya up until a certain point. Let me explain.
The blank is split evenly down the middle with a handsaw, specifically a ryoba pull-saw in this case. You want the cut to be dead straight and as small as possible: if you're cutting for a shirasaya it will remain unlacquered and the beauty is in the grain of the wood itself. Once the blank is split you need to make sure it IS true flat with a hand plane; the whole thing had to go back together with zero gap at the very end.
Now you have a split and flat curved piece of wood. You're ready for stage one of SOUL CRUSHING HAND CHISELING! Also, fiddely detail #1 comes into play here: you don't want the cutting edge to sit perfectly in the middle fo the two halves because it can then act as a wedge and split the saya apart. Instead, you carve the channel to have the cutting edge completely inset to one side.
Some of you may be thinking of the wood chisels you find at hardware stores, the kind you cut door hinges and such with. Throw that image out of your mind and prepare to be introduced to your best friend in the wood working world: the saya nomi.
This is a specialty Japanese chisel designed exactly for this task. It's a very long, relatively thin, paring chisel that can be bought or made in a variety of widths. It has an overall curvature to allow ease of use by hand, and is in fact designed only to worked by hand. The edge is also gently rounded so that it begins cutting at the center of the blade, instead of digging in the corners and creating gouges. I don't know about you, but I tend to make ALL THE GOUGES when I use a flat chisel.
Taken from the website I purchase two of my four: "They are traditionally mostly used to cut the slots in wooden scabbards for Japanese knives and swords. The edge is slightly rounded and so begins cutting first in the middle of the iron, enabling a cut that is soft and very responsive to your hands. The back of the iron is lightly rounded as well, and so you do not find the hollow-ground back one sees so often in Japanese chisels. The third, hardly perceptible curve is over the length of the iron. The shaft is bowed up about 12 to 13 degrees in order to protect your knuckles. The iron is forged out of two pieces of laminated steel, the edge laminate is hardened to about 63-65 HRC. The handle is in Japanese Red Oak. This chisel, because of its long, thin, curved iron, and lack of a steel bezel at the end of the handle, is designed to be used under hand pressure only, or only very light blows with a small wooden mallet. They are forged by the smith Kawasei in Yoita, Niigata Province, Japan."
Have I gushed about how awesome these are, enough, yet? Well, too bad, because I have one more tidbit to share. I carved a wooden core for a 36" blade in an afternoon with these.
I'm done tool fanboying, sorry, moving on.
Sorry, not sorry, they're awesome. Get some if you're doing classic wood-core scabbards.
It's also specific you need to carve this precisely, the blade shouldn't rattle around at all. The habaki should fit snugly once the two halves are together (you can check with clamps before gluing for ease) but allow you to completely seat the blade. It's also wise to leave a little extra space beyond the tip so that any gunk accidentally getting inside has a place to settle that doesn't involve contact with, and thus scratching, of the blade.
The same logic, in regards to centering, also applies to the tsuka. With your tsuka and saya now rough carved out and fitted snugly, you'll want to glue them together so you can start shaping. Plain-jane Elmer's white glue is your friend here, though purists can always make a rice paste and go traditionally. A very light amount is all you need, this will be under pressure and any excess will squeeze out into the interior and interfere with proper sheathing. Clamp that sucker up and leave it, preferably overnight if you time it right.
If you oopsed and do have some glue inside, you can try and pick it out. They DO make a saya/tsuka file, I got mine from Namikawa Heibei Co.Ltd. Just be careful you're only removing gunk and not making the fit loose.
Your glued koshirae/shirasaya blank is now shaped. In the case of shirasaya, there is a specific "crushed octagon" shape it will need to be at the very end. Koshirae are rounded and have the oval shape most people would be familiar with.
As you can see, I was taught how to do the shirasaya shape first. Because I was going for a koshirae, specifically an aikuchi koshirae, this was a nice chance to see both shapes and practice. I also hovered at the other end of the shop watching the evolution of the walnut shirasaya; the work on that was very difficult as the wood fought every step. But it was also nice to be able to take a breather and just WATCH the process being done while I decompressed.
At this point, if it was shirasaya, it would get all the final work to the blade and saya done and have a mekugi fitted to hold it together. In my case, it was time to start breaking the corners of the shirasaya with the plane and make it into the oval final shape.
I've found that, with time on my side, I much prefer hand tools for precision. The grinder is great until a single wrong move or second of inattentiveness ruins the entire project and you have to start over.
With the oval shape complete, it's time to move on to making the fittings...fit. With this being an aikuchi style tanto I'm fitting, I didn't need to have a tsuba. It did, however, still get a fuchi. The ends of the tsuka needed to be trimmed down so I could fit the kashira (buttcap) and the fuchi (collar). The saya would be carved down to allow the koiguchi to fit. What might be more easy to imagine is that they are attached via mortise and tenon, the wood is carved down to be the tenon joint while the fittings themselves are the mortise.
The last piece to be added was the eyelet through which the sageo cord is tied. Now I'll move on to the tsukamaki part, prepping and then wrapping the silk around the handle. This I do have a book about that I like. It takes the place of my rather sparing pictures and notes (too busy actually working.) The Art of Tsukamaki by Thomas Buck is my reference guide.
There are two ways you can apply the same, the ray skin underlay, on a handle. One is to cut the same to the exact size of the handle so it wraps completely, and butts up to itself on the ura (back) side. The Emperor nodes of the skin should be on the outside (omote) where it will be seen while worn. The other style is to create two recessed panels of the same set into the handle; this is my preferred visual style because there is no seam running down the back side.
In my case, there was the careful cutting and shaping of the panels, so that I could then mark and chisel out the recess in the tsuka for them. The mounting hole for the mekugi pin should be in the tsuka by this point, before you apply the same. While it's not visible in the photos below, it is present.
The panels got glued down and allowed to set up for a little bit. With the same firmly on, the mekugi hole was reamed out carefully.
Mike had several colors of ito in his finish room, so we moved over there for a bit to dig them out and have a lesson about the silk wrap itself. I settled on a nice blue color that's still dark, but not plain black.
With a color settled on, the same tacked up, the next chore was to prepare a large quantity of hishi-game, little paper triangles that help lock in the shape of the silk wrap. It also gives support and backing in the areas around the menuki.
Infinity hishi-game prepared, came the long process of wrapping the ito itself. Thankfully, Mike had a little specialty clamp tool and some mounting jigs that made the whole process a lot easier on my hands.
The tang you see here isn't actually my blade. It's a holder that allows you to slide the tsuka-in-progress over and clamp in place. That way you can put pressure on the silk while wrapping it and not have an awkward monstrosity of silk and suffering held between hands and feet as you scramble to make it work.
The menuki visible there, even though it's wrapped already, is a dragonfly. Being as I was at the Dragonfly Mountain Japanese Sword Forging School this was very special to me; the dragonfly is their symbol. I'm not an apprentice of the school, or family, nothing more than an interested student taking a few classes here and there. Being permitted to use their symbol, and in fact the menuki came from them, meant a lot to me. But I'm a sentimental old fool like that.
Once the silk is all wrapped over the handle, it gets tied through the kashira and knotted into place on both sides. I have sketches and diagrams in my books about the knot, so I can reproduce it on other works, but I couldn't type out and tell you how to do it if my life depended upon it.
The saya needs lacquered and the sageo would need to be tied. Other than final fitting and adjustment of shape on the horn koiguchi that was the end of the class.
Other than probably butchering the Japanese terms I've used during this little article, I hope everything made sense.
I was really happy about how this turned out, and I enjoyed the small koshirae class and the solo tsukamaki class a great deal. It'll be in the 2018 content, but I did also head back there (so far) one more time and take a katana forging class from them. But that's another story...
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.
The second class I attended this year was a combination: kajioshi and habaki making for Japanese style blades. This one was held out on Oregon at the Bells' Tomboyama Nihonto Tanren Dojo, or Dragonfly Mountain Japanese Sword School for those of us not proficient in Japanese. Since I had the chance to do a week-long workshop with a Japanese swordsmith I thought it would be interesting to learn how to mount and finish it myself.
I'll talk more about the class with Fusataro in a later entry, because I was fortunate enough to have the chance to repeat the course in what would be his final time teaching in North America. Still VASTLY more convenient and affordable than going out to Japan and doing it.
Counting the combination class as its two separate entries, I've had the privilege of taking four classes over the combined time of a month. I'm going to restrict my pictures and my review to the first one to keep a semblance of a chronological order to this series.
I've made long trips in a car previously, but until this class, my longest solo drive was approximately 10 hours. So, unlike the relatively short drive to Albuquerque for the Mokume class, OR is about 21 hours drive from home. I decided to break the drive up into three days since I still had to take the class after the long trip. The drive consisted of starting in northern Arizona, passing through Nevada into northern California, and crossing into Oregon itself.
Nevada isn't a terrible place to drive through, and I intentionally didn't stay the night there or allocate any time to get into a casino. While I may not be a great poker player I do enjoy it, and time can vanish quite rapidly if I'm not careful. I do have family that spends some time at a house in Vegas, so I tried to meet up with them each time I went out to the Bells' for a class; managed to miss each other every time.
Northern California was quite beautiful and I enjoyed the scenic drive through it much more than I had thought I would. There's something refreshing about trees and lakes and limited human contact. Now, Oregon was absolutely gorgeous. I fell in love on my drive through and my time up there to a degree I would have moved out there in an instant if things had worked out differently.
After getting confused and turned around in the wrong driveway, I was able to locate the proper turn and get up to the house and shop fairly well; it's a rough uphill road and I was very glad to have brought the truck out for the class.
It was the encouragement and a "gentle nudge" from Allen Rozon that finally set me on the path to Oregon. We talked multiples times about his stay with Michael Bell and his respect for the man as both a craftsman and a person. Obviously, this lent me a positive bias towards Michael and his son Gabe; I was not disappointed in the slightest.
I met the Bell men first thing in the morning the first day of class, and they were immediately welcoming and friendly towards me. We sat on the couch while they finished the last bit of breakfast and some morning coffee, just socializing like old friends. A short time later I got to meet the family matriarch, Mike's wife Anna. It was lunch the first day before I met Gabe's wife Mia, but both of the Bell women were just as affable (if not more so) than their husbands.
Gabe and I had a little bit of an instant bond, as we were both former Forged in Fire contestants and able to jabber on about our thoughts and experiences from the show. He, like me, was the first man eliminated on his episode; but unlike me, he had a "redemption" episode and went on to take the prize there.
Part of the offering for their classes include homemade lunch, and it differed day to day. One day was curry, one was sandwiches, another pasta; but every meal was delicious. More importantly, every meal was like a family gathering with jokes, pleasant conversation, and good company. Since I was the only student in this class, this relaxed atmosphere continued on into the workshop as well but didn't interfere with accomplishing the tasks at hand.
There is a great deal of nuance and detail relevant to the water stone polishing process, but most of it had to be learned on a trial and error basis. One thing that I feel important to note is that my tanto had to be reshaped a little, having a hefty belly more akin to a skinner. At first, Mike was very gentle about suggesting that the blade should be reshaped "a little."
I told him that I was there to learn and he didn't need to spare my feelings, and then he was more comfortable in saying it needed some significant work. As suggested, we used a belt grinder and reshaped the cutting edge profile and then ground the new-found thickness down.
This was when I was introduced to the concept of the circle diagram: taken from an older book called Sword and Same that shows said diagram. It explains that the parts and angles of Japanese blades line up to the circumference of a circle (though not all of the same diameter.)
What followed was a tedious but relaxing couple of days adjusting the final outline and thickness, as polishing to bring out the hada (folding and welding lines forming a pattern) and the hamon (differential phases of steel due to clay heat treat.) Routinely Mike would check on my blade to see if I was using correct technique, merely from the pattern of scratches made by the stone. As needed he would redemonstrate or correct where I was making mistakes.
I only reached a level of a "satin finish" I would do normally on a western knife during this process. During the habaki making there were a few more scratches obtained from my incautious handling and I had to start the polish over in my free moments.
Before moving on to the habaki-making phase, I did put the file texturing into the nakago. I didn't, however, sign the blade because I don't have a "swordsmith name" in kanji to go that traditional.
The habaki is a very important component of a traditional Japanese blade; it allows the friction fit of the blade into the saya and keeps it centered to prevent the blade from scratching on drawing and sheathing. Plus, it can be very ornamental as well, though mine was made from a simple piece of copper.
Making a habaki is a fairly simple and straightforward process, but missing a step can be disastrous. Just like the lesson of using a file instead of a belt grinder to shape metal; take your time and pay attention and it will come out well.
The first step is to make a paper template including a notch for the munemachi (notch between blade and tang on the spine) and fit that to the blade. When the shape looks accurate for the size of blade you're working with, then you have your template.
With the template, you'll go to the material you're using for the habaki and start to shape it. There are numerous ways to do this depending on the tools you have, your experience, and patience. In the case of this class, I used a block of copper that was hammered into the roughly rectangular shape of the template. A jeweler's saw and files did the stock removal to bring it into final (rough) shape to begin fitting.
What's really handy for that is a wooden v block and a chisel, so you can center the habaki-to-be and start forming it to fit over the nakago (tang). From the vblock, your u shaped piece gets fitted to the nakago by cycles of gentle hammering and fitting. While it's quickly described, it takes a good deal of time to do it correctly.
Once you have something that looks more like a habaki and is folded over the nakago, there's another piece you have to fabricate called a machigane. Basically, it's a small triangular piece of your base metal that gets soldered into place and acts as a stop for the hamachi (shoulder on the blade side) so the whole thing will sit even and not wiggle.
Habaki and machigane are fitted, fluxed, and wired together. Then you solder it into place carefully and cleanly which can be a pain depending on the solder you're using. How much of a pain, you ask? Until we switched to "better" solder I had to make three separate habaki because the first two would split during the final fitting. Good practice though!
Final fitting involves a lot of the same as before; gently tapping it with a hammer to get the metal to conform to your nakago and slide all the way to the machi. Once it's fitted into place in the proper location, and snug enough not to rattle, you begin to file it down more. This will clean up all the oxidation from soldering, as well as any loose flux floating around. But it also refines the final shape of the habaki itself, taking it down from your bulky (comparatively) staring thickness.
I enjoyed the class and feel like I got an excellent foundation of skills to continue mounting and finishing of Japanese blades in my own shop. The later post about the koshirae and tsukamaki classes will cover the saya making and handle wrapping respectively, and I'll be lacquering at home with a substitute for the traditional urushi (I like not being a miserable ball of itchy suffering so I stay away from the original).
Gabe and Mike were excellent to work around and spend time with while I have to admit there might have been a pleasant bit of mothering from Mia and Anna. If anything in their curriculum interests you, and you have the time and money to do it, I would suggest doing so. Afterall, I made the trip out their twice.
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?
“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.
Well, here it is: make your own shield in five easy steps.*
*Disclaimer: This is not actual a how-to guide, merely an overview of the steps used in the system I was taught. If there's interest, I'll make an instructional video and walk through the steps while making a demo shield.
Tools: While this could conceivably be done with hand tools, it would be very labor and time intensive. We took advantage of several tools to help with the process: drill press, band saw, chop saw, belt sander, orbital sander.
There are other things you can do based on your preference like staining, burning, scarring, painting, etc. I left that out because it's window dressing to the fabrication.
Originally posted: Monday, February 10, 2014.
Edited for repost: Sunday, September 18, 2016.
Bladesmith, fantasy author, martial artist, and outdoorsman.