Saturday, October 31, 2015

Forged in Fire ??

So - I started watching 'Forged in Fire'

"Each week, the best blade makers go head to head…"

Well, maybe not so much 'the best'…

I have started watching these mainly for a number of reasons:
1) I am getting a rush of requests for 'beginner to bladesmith' courses. Kind of 'can I come make a sword in two days' things. Needless to say, I was wondering where that particular brand of misconception was suddenly coming from.
2)There has been a general buzz about this. I have been getting a large number of general 'have you seen it and what to you think' comments.
3) I had been contacted about a year ago by a production team putting together a new program for the History Chanel, which was described as 'seeking professional blacksmiths'. (The exact name or theme was never described by the way.)  Then it turned out they did not want a copy of my actual CV - but wanted me to send an 'audition tape'!  I knew this was not something I really wanted to be involved with. Forged in Fire might have been the result?

I should preface this by stating that I think 'reality TV' is nothing like real life - and is basically stupid.

Contestants are given 3 hours to forge a bar into a blade profile, which then is supposed to be 'tempered' (as I will elaborate on, this is in fact quench hardening only).
Sometimes they start with a fixed material not shown until they start, sometimes they can select from several types.
At this point the rough blade blanks are examined for required size, checked to see if there are major flaws. One individual is eliminated at this spot.
The remaining three then have an additional three hours to potentially correct forging errors, finish polish, and apply a handle from provided materials.

What I have watched so far:
E1- Katana
E2 - Chakram
E3 - Viking Axe

(A note on the links : History Channel has decided that to view any of these clips, they want you to have virtually the latest version of Flashplayer to have them play correctly. I was assisted here by my friend Neil Peterson, who ended up having to provide me several different file versions before I had one I could view on my 'not newest and greatest' computer.)

In these programs the amount of time when actual forging is seen is extremely limited. There is more time allotted to polishing, especially if there are sparks involved. Stress is placed on bad working process, especially if mistakes or flares of anger are involved. Most of the footage is of the 'function' tests - one picked for 'hacking', one picked for 'slicing'.

Two individuals of the four are eliminated during the in studio segment (total 6 hours available) making a 'blade of their own design'. First goes after three hours, when the rough forged to first polish and heat treating (?) is checked. The next goes when the 'finished' knives are subjected to the functional tests mentioned above. (Exactly what test is used changes every episode.) The final pair then go to their home workshops and have five days to complete a version of a historic weapon type. This is hardly an even playing field there! Episode three was the most dramatic example of this, one individual was fully equipped with a power hammer and a lot of specialized tooling - the other was working with a forge made from a cast iron pot with a hair drier.

Forget actually *learning* anything about actual bladesmithing. Everything is paced and created for drama - including almost anything people are seen to be stating.

Generally I find the language used by the 'experts' vague and often incorrect.
The commentary / narration is even worse. (A mechanical hammer using for forging is NOT a 'trip hammer' - certainly not the small mechanical hammer used!, etc, etc. etc.)
Some particularly bad repeated examples:
a) Substituting 'temper' for 'hardening'
This comes up continually, when contestants are being told they need to submit a 'working weapon' which needs to be 'tempered'. Yet the process looked for is quenching from high temperature - which is *hardening*. (more on this under 'methods').
b) Incorrect description of carbon content in 'found object' source materials.
Primarily here in E3, when 'rail car spring' was described as 'high carbon tool steel'. Coil springs, especially 'old school' types like the ones shown, are in fact a *middle* carbon steel, most typically a 1045 (so roughly .5% carbon).

Heat treating? What heat treating??
- Near as I can tell from the video, *none* of the twelve so far has been seen to pre-anneal their starting material. This is especially a problem since most contestants are working with 'salvaged' materials - which are sure to have unknown (undesirable?) qualities as they start. (To be fair, it did appear that in E1 and for some in E2 they were able to use 'standard bars' - but did they know if those came pre-annealed? It was never stated this was so.
This, coupled with the error of forging cold bars, has most certainly been the result of cracks to failure seen so often part way through the first 3 hour forging segment.
- Only one of the twelve has been seen to 'heat cycle' or otherwise anneal their finished forgings. They almost without exception are seen to plunge right into the grinding and polishing phase (This might mean a limited attempt to air cool?).
Only one contestant has been shown to use a kind of 'zone quench' - carefully quenching the cutting edge and letting the back air cool (E3).
At least once someone did the quench and pull out flaming move - which certainly is dramatic, but is just bad method period.
Usually exceptionally aggressive grinding as well, suggesting to me at least over heating of the forged blanks. (Yet again another possible reason for major cracking, and certainly destroys hardness.)
Not one of the contestants has been seen to actually draw the temper back after the initial flattening and first polish step.
It should be remembered that for fully SIX of the initial 12 contestants in the first three episodes, major cracking to total break failure has occurred.

In the first three episodes, in my opinion, only ONE of the 12 contestants shown has illustrated clear understanding of the actual *forging* process (E2)
 - Almost uniformly, the hammer techniques used fall into the 'bash the crap out of it with a big hammer' method.
- The designs being chosen are straight line, typical, 'heavy hackers' - which might as easily be ground out of the starting bars as forged at all. This suggests to me very conventional concepts about design. Almost all the blades being produced are standard bowie / clip point or hunter types. The two variations from this have been one seax and one tonto profile.
One of the prime strengths of forging instead of straight grinding is the ability to create more dramatic blade profiles. I am not seeing this done.

It is very difficult to judge working forges (temperatures) via video. (Cameras see deeper into the infra red / heat than your eye does, so any estimate on temperature via colour is most certainly incorrect in video. The forges used appear high efficiency, three burner models. These certainly appear to be running flat out - at the highest temperature they can produce.
Two things are clear however:
1) Several contestants have been seen to have overheated and burned their metal bars. This is a non recoverable error. It happens when you have the forge set too high - or you just plain are not paying attention. As this is happening during the primarily forging phase - there is absolutely no reason to be this sloppy.
2) Several contestants - about *half* in the first three episodes, have had major cracking to their blades. When forging processes can be seen, many times metal is being worked with no visible colour. Forging any carbon based alloy 'below critical' results in this same non recoverable error. Again - there is no reason to have done this. (This assuming the worker has any experience with or knowledge of, correct working methods with blade making materials in the forge.)

Look - I have yet to see *any* of the first 12 finish their forging process in less than 90 of those 180 first minutes. Most are taking closer to 120 minutes.


As a comparison ...
I undertook this exercise / demonstration for my co-op student as an illustration.
- My chosen starting material was a standard farriers rasp - so 1095 carbon steel. This was the same as was offered in E2 as a possible choice (and was selected by the contestant who won that round btw). The starting piece (not counting the small tang) was roughly 14 x 1 3/4 x 1/4 inches.
- As with E1 & E2, my  required blade length between 9 and 11 inches. (This requirement given by my student btw.)
- My design was chosen to be based on the historic 'kopis' - originally a bronze weapon used by the ancient Greeks. I wanted a full tang with an integral wrap around the hand, which would use flat slabs for the handle. (Design phase, three minutes.)
- My stated objective was to forge the blade to rough profile, including some 'heat cycling' and shortened annealing - in no more than 60 minutes.
(It should be noted that my gas forge does *not* produce the same high temperatures as the competition models. It can get basically a 'bright orange' temperature. The hotter the metal, the faster it can move - and the longer it remains at correct forging range each heat cycle. Both result in more work accomplished in a shorter time.)

This is the result:
At the end of the forging process.
As you can see, the total blade length at this point is 10 inches. There is the desired length to the handle - which will end up being about 4 1/2 inches (intentionally tight fitting) when grind profile is completed. So the total length of the finished forging is 14 1/2 inches long. It is about 1 7/8 inches at the widest point (which may be reduced slightly when the edge is ground to a smooth curve.)
I intentionally did not add any taper in thickness over the blade, which will serve to increase the weight forward for a heavier strike. I decided on this material also to leave the surface markings from the original file remaining - as a design feature. (This to add to the overall 'historic' appearance of the finished knife.)

My process (so far)
- The starting file was air annealed for about five minutes.
- It was then MIG welded to a longer handle to ease forging. (Note that several contestants have been seen to to this.
- To speed the process, the rectangular tip was cut off at about a 45 degree angle using a zip disk on an angle grinder.
- The required  blade measurements were marked in chalk to the side of the anvil. this allowed for rapid check for correct length during the forging.
- The blade was forged *first*. This was done to ensure the required length. (Noting that the tang type could easily be modified if additional material would be required.
a) the point was forged
b) the base area of the blade was reduced in width / converted to length
c) the overall shape was curved to the edge side by an estimated amount.
d) the cutting edge was carefully forged down.
e) after checking for correct blade length, the arc of the handle (front area) was forged down (using a combination of a crowning hammer and the base of the horn).
f) the overall shape (curvature) was adjusted as desired
g) the welded handle was cut off at an angle with a zip disk
h) the curved hook at the base of the handle was forged out and curved
- At this point the overall blade was checked for rough accuracy, and several small wobbles in the edge were corrected.
- the finished forging was taken through two heat cycle / partial annealing phases.
Total elapsed time - 60 minutes.
I was working effectively - but not *rushing*.

I decided to undertake one longer anneal phase, from just about critical (magnet check) and air cooled on the top outside of the forge. Elapsed time here - another five minutes. (If this was the actual competition, I would used this time for a drink and to gather the needed polishing equipment.

My normal practice would be to let the finished forging cool until I can handle it with bare fingers. I then give the edge and back a very fast 'smooth profile' on the grinder. This allows me to examine a bright smooth edge against the fire scale darkness of the meat of the blade. This makes spotting any major flaws in the forging much easier. If required (seldom is) I can then quickly re-heat and tap the distortions out.

A small amount of twist to the edge through to the back remains, but this slight enough that I am not intending to fuss with it. 

Complete expenditure of time from selecting material, design, forging, simple annealing : 65 minutes.
click for life sized image

Now I do *not* have a $2000 high speed knife sander / polisher  - like the ones seen in the competition. Even so, I am quite sure I can profile, and surface grind, sand flat / first polish, quench, *correctly* temper, and sharpen the bare blade in the remaining 115 minutes.

stay tuned for hours two and three...

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

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