Saturday, October 27, 2012

'Secret of the Viking Sword' - Reviewed

As promised in an earlier posting, these are some comments on the recent NOVA feature 'Secrets of the Viking Sword', which aired on October 10.

Ric Furrer is a skilled smith, we have corresponded a bit. He is active on Don Fogg's Forum.
Note that I think Ric came off as a serious working professional, with good knowledge and skills.

The concept for this program was shopped around a couple of years back. I was approached myself in the early part of sourcing craftsmen. I knew it was beyond my specialties, and had referred the producers to Jeff Pringle and Jake Powning. 'Do it for the promotion' was mentioned at the time.  There is a good chance Ric will benefit hugely from being the featured smith - at least in terms of reputation. (If you were wondering, as I was, Ric said he was paid 'at least something' and he did get to keep the sword that was produced. His intent is to see that blade at auction. His web site suggests to commission a similar blade would run in the range of $7500.)

Much of the error in the program is by omission, and obviously at the hands of the producers.
The things they *left out* were more important than all those stupid live steel melee sequences they kept inserting. (Which were typical melee overview shots, hardly accurate or informative.) The narration was vague in many places, but at least the interviews carried many of the missing details. Paying attention to the visuals supplied information the narration completely missed:

- Ric was shown using fair approximations of VA equipment.
- He forged it all in charcoal, thought that was not mentioned. He did not appear to be sizing his charcoal, which we have learned from Mark Pilgrim at L'Anse aux Meadows NHSC greatly improves the performance of the forge fire.
- He was using a Japanese style hammer - which I did wonder about. (Completely unknown in VA Europe!)
- Not sure about the anvils he was using. For the initial compaction of the billet, it looked to be a Norse style (small block). You might have noticed that it was hardly bigger than the billet - which certainly suggests one reason that the time required was given as so long. Historically I suspect such rough and heavy work would have been undertaken using a more massive stone block. At one point it looked like he was finishing the forging using a Chinese style, small arched block (made from a small piece of rail track from the looks of it). Hard to be certain?

Notice that the bellows used was too small for our style high air volume smelts. Too large (really) for duplicate of the known smithing bellows. (Ric did tell me that his bellows re-construction was largely based on the information I had researched here.) The narration also did not comment on VA blacksmithing tools at all - which I would suggest are critical to the experiment.
(I did wonder if off camera, an electric blower was in place for the furnace. Our team certainly knows first hand how much labour is required for continuous bellows operation!)

Not so sure about the statement 'a sealed furnace equalling vastly higher temperatures' (??).
I did have problems with the way temperatures were so loosely shot around. Steel does not melt at 3000 F, closer to 2600 F. And any number of experimenters have demonstrated that our smelting furnaces can produce temperatures as high as 2800 F. So the narration here was just wrong. We have certainly produced liquid cast iron (melting at roughly 2300 F) any number of times.(Some furnace temperature data)
No doubt he achieved plus 2400 F - but I think the sealed crucible was so much more important. Note there was no mention of the material or building of the crucible itself! Likely the most critical component here, and not described.

Related to this, they were using some kind of special filters on the cameras. This washed down the colours. This most obvious when Ric did the forge weld at the end to set the inlay. That should have been a bright yellow, almost a white. This shift effected all the colours seen during the working process. Add at least two colour / temperature shifts up in truth from what you saw recorded (my guess).

They also did not even mention that the inlay was forge welded into place (only one mention of 'weld' - that only in passing too.)

One big absence - Ric is seen loading bloom iron for the material in the crucible:
- Where did that come from? And they didn't even mention it!
- I know Ric has done some iron smelts himself. This should have been mentioned, as it represents considerably more work for Ric.
- If you check Ric's web site, you will find a film clip of his normal smelting method, which is based on the Japanese tatara method. This does produce a quite different result that actual Viking Age bloomery furnaces.
- The source ore might be critical to the overall production method, and the quality of the resulting metal.
- Ric may have carefully selected specific quality fragments from his source bloom. The varying colour and texture of the pieces he is shown loading suggest this. Again no comment is made.

They obviously short cut in the whole polishing effort. If you watched close, you could see parallel grind lines on the surface (90 degrees to edge). This suggests the possible use of power equipment? Note that I understand this - and it really does not add that much difference to the result - just a massive time increase if using hand stones. Nice to see the use of large block stones too.
I thought the insert of the wheel grind stone intrusive - and completely wrong to the historic period.

Was not entirely sure about the illustrated technique with the hardening quench. The blade was held still, no spreading of the quench line on the tang. This would result in a shock line and likely a break there. He pulled the blade out of the quench while the tang was till orange - this would cause variation in hardness at the base of the blade. The 'flaming blade' was so obviously done entirely for the camera - and is NOT the correct method. I suspect that Ric re-did the whole hardening sequence a second time to get this done correctly.

The tempering process would have been more critical than the hardening. Yet that was pretty much glossed over. How? What temper colours? Where placed? Would have liked to have had both seen that illustrated and a commentary as well.

It is mentioned that acid is used to bring up the contrast between the inlay and the blade. What acids? Note that 'modern' chemical acids were not known in the Viking Age.

I had wrote Ric personally after the program was shown. He told me he was considering putting together his own 'Making of the Ulfberht Sword' video documentary. In this he intends to cover much that was missing in the finished NOVA program, with content with better information for other blacksmiths.

If you think I may be over critical here, I will say that overall, NOVA's 'Secrets of the Viking Sword' is significantly *better* than many other history based documentaries seen in past years. The trend has increasingly been to dumb down the content, often to the point that the base science presented is questionable. Happily, at least in terms of the observation of a general audience, this program is set to a higher standard. Although the narration itself is often simplistic and lacking in detail, a keen eye can learn much from the sequences of Ric actually working 'live' on the creation of the sword. To Ric's credit, he remains a knowledgeable and credible, obviously skilled professional throughout.

Bottom line - well worth watching!
Good work Ric.

Someone has posted the entire NOVA program on YouTube. This should allow all of us outside the USA to also view the program - if you missed it first time around!

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February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

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