Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Knifemaker Interview - Part 4

I'm going to take this chance to stick in a bit of impression / interpretation / personal direction. (Promise I will address Shel's actual question next)

There are some radically different situations that did exist that in turn have marked the work of ancient and historic bladesmiths in comparison to we modern practitioners.
Although at core the basic dynamics of fire, metal and hammer remain the same for all workers at all times and all locations, there are many changes in form and detail into our modern age.

During the Saxon and Viking Age (so Northern Europe, say 600 - 1000 AD) the framework was this:

- Anvils were small. Typically 10 x 10 cm blocks (4 x 4 inches). The largest artifact found is from Novgrod, Russia, at only 15 kg (so  33 lbs).
The assumption has always been rough forging was done on large stone blocks. I personally am not convinced of this, after trying just that a few times. I had a two versions of the Novgrod anvil  made up. The one I kept is mounted into a maple wood stubb that itself weighs about 75 lbs and allows me to work from standing. The stability comes from the stubb, not the anvil.
This most certainly changes the working ability, the complexity, of forging larger masses (axes) or longer objects (swords). I freely admit I personally have never attempted creating either using all VA equipment. I have forged any number of artifact sized knives quite effectively (typical seax blade is about 10 cm long btw).

- Forges are small. A side blast using charcoal, the fuel piled against a stone block to protect the bellows. Although this arrangement certainly can get hot enough for forge welding, the ball of heat is about 10 - 15 cm (4 - 6 inches) at maximum. In my (admittedly somewhat limited) experience, the challenge is keeping those temperatures up as the charcoal is so quickly consumed.
There is still a question to be examined in closer detail about how forges and anvils were positioned - and how this defines work stance. Stance will certainly effect work - how shapes might have been generated, ease of hammering, what kind of accessory tools might have been employed.
(Note to any looking for a PhD topic - it turns out that the bones of marked smith's graves, via the tools, have never been examined for stress / damage marks. There is a story about interface with archaeologists there, please cite me if you do a thesis.)

- Bellows are small. I have built a number of reconstructions based on the only references available from the VA itself. There are only two illustrations, no artifacts themselves survive (be so happy to be corrected on that!). There is the side view of working smith and forge on a wood carving from Norway. There is a top down view on a rune stone carving. Using the suggested sizes and proportions, the delivery volumes on the reconstructions are in the range of 120 to 130 litres per minute. This volume is perfectly fine for general blacksmithing using those same forges. (*) It is however almost an order of magnitude *less* than the air produced by the 'great bellows' system most of us are more familiar with.

- Source iron was inconsistent (!). This might be one of the biggest differences between Industrial Age, much less Modern, materials. The general progress through time in Europe is the development of smelting / bar production methods that were able to make larger volumes of more consistent quality metal (also with increasing efficiencies - thus at ever lower unit cost).
How easy was it to even access any carbon alloy iron?
I suspect 'standard' working practices of the Age might be as much a reflection of the random nature of every starting piece of metal, as anything else. Would you even be able to develop a normal method of heat treating - if every single piece of starting metal was completely different in texture and relative hardness?

One of the things that Ric Furrer's work has pointed out is that just what 'material processing' knowledge might have been available to a given Viking Age blacksmith is certainly *unknown*. How exactly were starting metal bars sourced? Were there Norse master swordmakers who knew about the deep hearth methods hinted at by Tim Young's Dublin finds? I've seen it suggested that the pattern welding process (here meaning 'twisted composite core') was in fact a process developed to take mediocre metal and create acceptable quality blades (rather than best to exceptional).

All things to bear in mind. More questions than answers!

Others have mentioned 'munitions grade weapons. Something to always remember is the 'accident of preservation' factor with any artifact. This can turn back to something asked / commented on by others : Will our current work survive us?
So much of what we know of about the past is shaped by the high quality, the status pieces, the master works. Luck aside, good quality work is treasured and protected.

Who knows, maybe in a 25th Century world of light sabres and blasters, those 'antique' blades (made by named and then unknown artisans) will come to vogue as sought after rarities...

(*) But if you build an 'accurate' reconstruction, those same bellows have not proved effective in producing a volume of air in an *iron smelting furnace*. At least not to be able to produce a bloom that matches the size, shape and density of those (admittedly few) found as artifacts from the VA. I think there is a big mystery here, and this question has been driving my own experiments for the last couple of years.

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

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