Friday, December 29, 2017

Layered Steel / Global Markets (1)

American bladesmith Bill Moran had pioneered techniques for creating layered steels, in the late 1960's. Working through trial and (much) error, Bill had recreated methods used historically to create dramatically patterned surfaces by stacking differing iron / steel alloys, welding to solid billets, then folding / twisting / distorting the stacks. During the early 1970's first his, then an number of other 'master' bladesmiths slowly introduced this work to the blacksmithing community. Those who had figured these techniques out, were most typically pretty vague about exactly how it was done.

I first picked up the hammer as a student at Ontario College of Art, about 1978. (Initially almost accidentally.) It was not until later in 1979 that I finally managed to learn how to successfully forge weld. In those days, one of the marks of 'knowing the craft' was to be able to reliably create layered steels. After a single year at Black Creek Pioneer Village (1979), my access to a forge was limited. It would not be until I returned to BCPV in the late 1980's and into the early 1990's that I would really start developing my own skills with the layered steel techniques.

Some early layered steel knives - about 1993.
Bottom is flat stack (Damascus), Far right is twisted stack (Pattern Weld).
Long blade is antique wrought iron.
I was always most interested in the distortions created in the stack lines caused by the effects of hand hammering. Initially all my work was done entirely by hand - and always working alone. In these early days of the Wareham Forge, (in my mid to late 30's), it would take me a single working session of 2 1/2 hours to prepare, weld, draw out a knife sized billet. I could physically manage three such work sessions over two days - having to rest up the final half day. Typically starting with a 9 - 11 layer stack, that would yield me a billet of roughly 250 layers - large enough to make the two smaller blades seen above for example.
I have forged a lot of blades over the years, 'one forge session' for two or three knife blade blanks (again depending on size and profile).
In the early days, I did not have much shop machinery. I was doing my shaping and polishing on a 6 x 48 'wood worker's' belt sander. It typically took me two days to polish, heat treat, finish for hilting.
I never had a lot of interest in decorative hilts (the 'male jewellery' aspect of high end custom knifemaking). For the simple kind of slab hilts seen above, add another hour or two.
So - taken altogether, the two knives seen the image above represent :
- Investment in a basic forge and shop tools
- Development of about five years (trial and error) experience
- Total of 7 days (specialized and often exhausting) work
- (support of workshop, 7 days + expended materials and sundries)
= Two roughly 5 inch long finished knives.

I was charging $40 per blade inch back then, so (assuming they sold) = $200 each / $ 400 total.
That's $ 57 (gross!) per day.*

Now, things have changed, both for me personally, and most certainly within the 'artist blacksmith' community over the last 20 years :

1) For bladesmiths, the use of power equipment has increased dramatically. Air hammers had been uncommon when I started. Either people had to rebuild (often cranky) antique mechanical hammers, or invest $40,000 for a German built air hammer.
- Small user built air hammers are common today, at a *tenth* of the cost above. (see David Robertson)
- First Turkish copies (@$10 - 15,000), now low end Chinese copies (below $10,000) of those self contained air hammers are available.
- High speed, long belt sanders (incorrectly called knife 'grinders') are widely available. Typically in the $1000 range. Plans for home builds easy to find.

2) Techniques, based on new equipment types, have both changed and become widespread. Primary is the use of hydraulic presses to replace the actual hammer.
- Because a press gives a perfectly even compression, it becomes simple to produce perfectly even, straight layers. This makes the creation of geometric patterns (classic Middle Eastern 'Damascus') much, much easier.
- Use of thin shim stock and metallic powder for the starting layers, coupled with the flat compression of a press, allows for extremely high layer counts to be created in a single heat / compress / weld step. (200 - 400 layers in one cycle!)
- One of the latest trends is the production of large die stamp plates for presses. This allows the creation of perfect geometric patterns into those same high layer blocks - in a single compression.

3) Within Industrial knifemaking?
Large hydraulic presses + large propane forges + 'sheet & powder' + die stamps = creation of huge 'bricks' of starting layered material. High layer plates are cut off like slices of bread from a loaf. Coupled with water jet cutting, hundreds of individual blade profile blanks, machine ground to blades, can be quickly produced by totally mechanized methods.

"One-of-a-Kind 14" Custom Handmade Damascus Steel Bowie Hunting Knife"
Selling price $125 CDN
Coldlands Knives - via Amazon

Now :
- I have invested in a small (50 lb) air hammer. One of David Robertson's very first builds. Plus the large sized air compressor to run it. This tool allows me to do the work that exhausted me as a younger man, working by hand, both much faster and with less effort. What took me a half day session in 1993 I can manage in about an hour today. (Balance that against 2 1/2 hours being about all I can manage in the actual forge for a 'productive' shop day)
- I have invested in an 'industrial build' high speed sander. I'm still learning to use this tool to its best advantage. Still, I can complete in about two hours the work that in 1993 took me two days to accomplish.

With better experience and equipment, working against slower (older!) working ability? I could make those same two 5 inch knives in about 5 days now (although I have never tracked it). So - again taken altogether, the two knives seen the image above represent :
- Investment in a basic forge and shop tools, specialized machine tools
- Over 30 years accumulated (and specialized) experience
- Total of 5 days (specialized and still exhausting) work
- (support of workshop, 5 days + expended materials and sundries)
= Two roughly 5 inch long finished knives.

I'm still quoting $40 per blade inch = $200 each / $ 400 total.
That's $ 80 (gross) per day.**

I don't make those kind of knives any more :
- My interest in simple commissions - 'making other people's stuff' has almost completely disappeared.
- I'm not at all interested in fighting with people who do not understand 'the Iron Triangle' (pick ONE of cheap / fast / good - and ONLY one!).
- I'm fed up with dealing with people who have 'Reality TV' and 'True Facts' as their understanding of the world.

'Ramsay Wedding Knife' - 2007 ***
Pattern welded with carbon core - bog oak handle.
One of my last commissions - the customer had realistic budget, generous design requirements
'Hector's Bane' - 2012 ***
Bloomery iron with carbon core
Extension of earlier work :
Highly decorative but functional cutting edges
One piece blade to full handle
use of bloomery iron

The upcoming increase to Ontario Minimum Wage was part of the incentive for this piece.

* Note that I'm just giving the 'in the forge' time here. More typically at that point, I was averaging 90 hours total business related work per 'week' (6 1/2 days work over each 7).
$400 / 90 = $4.45 per hour
In 1993 the Ontario minimum wage was $7.25
That 'shop wage' is also the GROSS - it does not take into account the actual cost of 'keeping the lights on' for the workshop. 

** Again - that is current 'in the forge' time here. I typically spend 10 hours 'work' per day (attempting to limit to 6 days work over each 7).
$400 / 60 = $8.00 per hour
On January 1, 2018 the Ontario minimum wage will be $14.25
The current 'shop cost' ('keep the lights on' - 2016 figures) works out to $4 per hour ($40 per day).

*** With work * I * want to make, pricing is a bit more 'realistic' (??)
- Ramsay Knife - took about 5 days to make. Made as single object. Bog oak specially ordered for this commission.
Total was $450
- Hector's - took about about 5 'days' to make. Uses half a bloom, which alone requires $300 raw materials, ideally assistant for one day. Made as one of pair (other had dramatic failure, never completed).
Asking Price = $1000

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

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