Viking/Norman Sword: Having fun with an open commission.

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I was asked by my Grandmother to make her a family sword for her birthday. It was a really nice commission as I normally deal with sword junkies who know exactly what they think they want (but do often need some practical guidance). To most (normal!) people though a sword is a sword so I had really free reign to make anything I wanted.

I decided to go with a transitional Viking/Norman style of sword, as they are shorter than later swords and much easier to display. They also often had wonderful decoration and I really need to work on my inlaying skills, so I threw caution to the winds and chose a design that would feature simple but extensive inlay. Did I mention I am not a very organised person? I had three weeks to make it! In the end it took about 50 hours squeezed in over weekends and around work.

Technical info: The blade is heat treated EN45 carbon steel, the crossguard and pommel are both made of mild steel which is the closest analogue I had to hand for medieval iron. The grip is cored with oak and covered with veg tanned leather stitched over leather risers.

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Here the pommel has been formed and tested for balance, then I laid out my design and ever so slowly started cutting in the lines with gravers. Slowly shaving off layers of steel I cut the trenches about 2mm deep and then undercut the edges to grip the copper. Then I heated my copper wire to dull red and quenched it in order to soften it, at which point it becomes much easier to deform. I then hammered it in and polished the whole thing.

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This is the crossguard, hot forged to shape and with the tips carved into a fishtail shape. I inlayed it in exactly the same way as the pommel, but I got a bit carried away and came back later to add more. Grinding down the second layer destroyed the undercut lip that was holding the first layer (seen above) down, and it fell out! I had to recut the lines, lesson learnt.

As I was in such a hurry, I didn’t take too many photos of the making process, but I made sure I took a lot of the end result as I am pretty happy with how it turned out. So here it is in all its glory, weighing in at 1100g and with the balance and feel of an excellent cutter. I’m happy with the inlayed and punched decoration, but I still want to get more practice in!

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Every sword is still an exciting journey!

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File Knife Seax pt.2 Etching! With acid!

The reason I was making the file knife in the first place was to try out some etching. We don’t do etching at the forge but its something that I wanted to learn so I just went for it.

In between this and the last post I hardened the blade by heating it to a bright yellow and then dipping the edge into oil. Bright yellow is pretty hot and was a risk as I could have easily cracked the blade, but as I don’t know what the steel is I wanted to be sure that I had taken it past its critical temperature. If I had failed to do this it would have remained as soft as it was before heating, or have gotten even softer. By dipping the edge into the oil rather than plunging the whole blade, I reduced the shock as only the edge would suddenly contract. This gave me a hard edge with a softer spine to balance it out, and also meant that I might get some cool patterning at the edge called a hamon (more on that later).

To do the etching, I decided to use ferric chloride in an aqueous solution. Its quite easy to get from electronics stores as it is used to etch circuit boards. The first time I tried it, I only masked off the pattern I wanted and left the rest of the blade bare. This was a big mistake as by the time I had started to see the pattern distinguish itself the rest of the blade was deeply and horribly pitted. Oh dear, back to the grinder to remove the worst of the damage, then try again:

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This time I blocked off the entirety of the blade to protect it from the etchant and sliced out the pattern with a sharp knife. The resist (purple bit) is cheap nail varnish and the black is where I used a permanent marker to tidy up the edges as the marker stops ferric chloride from eating the steel. The hearts are a classic pattern, although not on seaxes, and the text is a snappy bit of an occult phrase.

I plunged the blade into the etchant and left it for a couple of hours as ferric chloride is pretty mild to steel. I got a light etch, but I wanted something bolder, so I bought sulphuric acid from the hardware shop. That sounds hardcore, but its actually a fairly extreme drain unblocker! I diluted it and stuck the blade into the new solution. The steel immediately started to bubble and after about a minute the resist started to fall off. I quickly pulled it out and neutralised the acid with bicarbonate of soda. Once again, the blade had some random pitting and the edges of the design were a little ragged, but I think that a double coat of resist might sort that out on the next blade or i might make a wax/tar mix which is much more hardcore. Here it is with the resist removed and a bit of a polish:

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Its a nice etch, about 3/4mm deep and with a rough base in the deepest areas. I’m pretty happy with it as a first go, although the next one should be a lot better.

After I had it clean, I decided to throw caution to the wind and break out the ferric chloride for a further surface etch. I outlined my original etched pattern to give it a bit of protection as I was a little worried that I would undo what I had already achieved. Here it is as I started outlining:

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As I had only quenched the edge during the heat treatment, the edge is hard steel and the body is softer. When you etch a blade with different hardnesses you can get a nice line at the border between each hardness. This is what I was referring to earlier, the hamon. The most instantly recognisable example of this is on a traditional Japanese Katana:

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This is a random image from Google, the hamon is that wavy line just behind the edge of the blade. The hard steel is paler. One of the main things you need to get a good hamon is the right manganese level, and I think my file wasn’t quite right (or my etching was a little poor). You can just about see the hamon I got on the edge of the blade:

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My one is a bit like ripples in water, I may have knocked the oil tank as I quenched the edge. Still looks pretty cool though.

Next up: Engraving and inlay on the blade! I will try to take more step by step photos.

Making a File Knife Seax pt.1

As I like to have little projects to work on, especially ones where I get to try out new techniques, I have started making a small Anglo-Saxon styled file knife. What is a file knife you ask? Well, its pretty simple, its a knife made out of an old file. Its how a lot of knifemakers begin in the trade as files are the most easily obtainable source of high carbon steel. Very high carbon usually, which is great for making a knife with a really keen edge, but it also makes the metal a bit more tricky to work as it is much harder and more brittle than lower carbon steels. I like to make them every now and then as one of the first steps towards serious knifemaking is to buy named steel in bulk as it is then much easier to get a consistent and reliable hardness. File steel varies enormously and there is usually no chance of finding out exactly what steel you are working with so it can be a bit of a leap of faith when you come to the heat treatment phase, it is all to easy to mistreat the steel and end up with the blade you have slaved over for hours snapped into pieces.

The first thing I did was chuck it in the forge and heat it to a medium red glow to remove the previous heat treatment. If “medium red” is a bit vague (and it is, the colours are almost impossible to describe) you can hold a magnet to the steel at intervals. As soon as the magnet ceases to be attracted to the steel, pull the file out and put it to one side to cool slowly. This will soften the steel so that it is much easier to work and doesn’t destroy all your abrasives and grinding disks. It is possible to work it in its original hardened state, if you keep it cool you can grind out a blade whilst keeping the original heat treatment. This would make for a dead sharp and hard blade but is tricky to do and the blade would be prone to snapping as the raw file steel is very brittle. I like to soften them and then risk re-heat treating as it is much faster to rough it out this way.

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This is the file I started with, I picked it up at a boot fair for about 50p. Its is really dull and rusty, but its a good length (about 9″) and as I will be making a stock removal blade, I need to consider the tang length as well as the blade itself. The tang is the bit of the blade that goes into the handle. A good trick here is to use the file’s tang as the end of the knife tang, so you can get as much blade as possible.

I marked out the profile I wanted onto the file in permanent marker, then cut it to shape with an angle grinder and started to grind it down into a wedge section. As I was excited I didn’t take any photos, ho hum, I’ll have to do another tutorial at some point. Fortunately I have a number of old files kicking about! Here it is after rough grinding and smoothing:

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I have chopped the point off to give it the seax shape, and ground it to have a slight reverse taper (fat towards the tip) as lots of historical seaxes had these features. I then cut the tang as at this point I only had the file tang. If I had done this sooner I would have had less grinding to do, but I am pretty experienced so it actually doesn’t make too much difference. If it is your first knife and you are going slowly, cut first:

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There it is, a perfectly serviceable seax blade in a high carbon steel. Historical? Hardly, the steel is too good. Cool?

Hell yes!

Progress on my new Buckler

I have continued to work on my metal and leather buckler, I have now made the leather rim for the steel boss. The leather in 6mm thick veg-tanned shoulder I also use to make singlestick basket hilts. I find that at this thickness the leather loses a lot in the way of flexibility but when it is hardened it can be really tough. I started by plotting out a 12″ diameter circle on cardboard, then measured the inner rim of my boss to determine how big a hole to cut in the middle.

I cut it out, rounded the edges and gave it a light cuirbouilli treatment, enough to massively stiffen it without making it deform, crack or shrink too much. I could have used it as is, but its a nice sunny Sunday here so I sat at the kitchen table and did some really simple freehand carving that should make it “pop” a little more. I used a couple of leather gouges that I got really cheaply off eBay, and to be honest they aren’t bad at all. Here it is after carving:

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I included the circle cut out of the centre to give an idea of the different levels of colour the hardening gives. The disk is the colour it all started out as. The boiling darkened it to the mid brown at the tips of the petals, the lines were then cut into the lighter core. I also did some faded staining to give the petals additional volume. I used iron oxide (rust from the forge) in solution in water and painted on lots of thin coats to give a gradated finish. I’m glad I did as it took a pleasing design and made it fit with the boss in a way that it would otherwise have failed to do. Here they are dry fitted:

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I think the dark boss fits in nicely, I need to decide whether to engrave through the bluing or not. It would be cool, but I don’t want to make it too busy or spend a silly amount of time on what is a test run!

Here is the back, with really simple staining and engraving just to take advantage of the fact that leather is such a fun medium to work in. The holes are for the joining rivets:

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This buckler is quite a bit bigger than the last one, here is a comparison picture:

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Cant wait to finish it and have a go with it! Next time I’ll be fitting the handle and riveting the whole thing together. Any views on whether to engrave the boss would be welcome as I am really torn!

Bucklers!

I was recently asked to take part in a play organised by my fencing club, debuting at the Brighton Fringe festival. In the play I will be showing off the Early Medieval “Royal Armouries I.33 manuscript” which depicts sword and buckler techniques:

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This is the earliest known illustrated western fighting manual, the fencers depicted are monks but the combination of an early “arming sword” with a small round shield of between 9″-12″ diameter was very popular from the 13th century right through to the 16th century. The shields were made of wood leather or iron or indeed combinations of all these materials.

Their small size appears at first to be undesirable in a fight as they provide little in the way of cover, but with  bit of practice they can run rings around bigger, clunky shields as the are highly manoeuvrable. In addition, whilst a larger shield protects the side of the body and head from cuts and thrusts, it does little to protect the sword hand which must necessarily be projected beyond the shield in order to bring a blow to bear. Not so with the buckler, as during the fight it stays very close to the sword hand and constantly denies access to this tempting target.

By projecting the buckler forward, rather than holding it against the body, it denies access to a large proportion of the body as it creates an oft-quoted phenomenon, the “cone of defence”:

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The further the shield is pushed forward, the less avenues the opponent has to attack, much like when you put a barrier in front of a light bulb. The closer it is, the more light is blocked until it is all shrouded. This can happen with the buckler as well, if the fight gets very close it can be pushed into the opponents face to blind them.

Of course, in a more visceral way, bucklers make excellent knuckledusters for gaining an advantage, some originals even have sharpened edges and spikes to give the blow even more power. I wouldn’t fancy using a razor sharp shield though, too much chance of gashing the sword arm!

These are some antique originals:

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I found these pictures in an inventory of the Tower of London Armoury. I have many books on medieval arms and armour, but flicking through them I was surprised by how few had pictures of bucklers. In fact none of the others had photos, there were a couple of drawings but I always find it is better to study an antique rather than an author’s interpretation of an antique. Even a few internet searches have only turned up a handful of the more fanciful examples:

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The first and last are the only European ones I can see, the middle one is Turkish. They all demonstrate the type though, and I like looking at Middle Eastern, Indian and African examples as the former two seem to have a lot of surviving artefacts, and the African ones are far more recent and still show details such as leather and wood that have often perished in European examples. Form following function, although it is impossible to prove that European hide and wooden shields would have looked the same as later African ones I believe that it can be a fruitful route to study.

Anyway, onto pictures of the bucklers I have made for myself as practice pieces for my “show” buckler. The first one was a quick dummy run, to see what size of buckler I wanted to make. It is on the small side at 9.5″ as I think this size looks cool. I made it out of scrap metal, in this case an old boiler cover I found in the street. It is very thin, but I wanted to dish it quickly so I could get a feel for the weapon:

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The first one is a “before” picture of the finished buckler, roughly dished with little planishing or smoothing but a quick buff on the grinder for vanity’s sake. The handle is held on by two of the rivets, the other two are purely decorative. The rolled edge adds a little strength and eliminates any chance of sharp edges, but its still pretty flimsy.

I ended up using it for a couple of classes and a tournament against longswords, arming swords, rapier and highland broadsword, and honestly I think it actually did rather well. There are some big dents in the boss and one of the sides is bent down but as the shield swivels and rotates during the fight it sheds the force of the blow and took very little damage. Considering the metal is less than 1mm thick I find it remarkable, and worth further experimentation to try out more light designs. Historically though, I doubt it would have put up a lot of resistance to a sharp blade thrusting and hacking at it!

After trying out the thin buckler, I love the speed and finesse of sword and buckler so I will make a couple of iterations to test out. This is my current project:

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This one is of thicker 2mm mild steel, dished out with much more care and planished before getting a rough surface grind and buff. Again this is just a test for a different construction technique as I want to rivet this boss to a leather rim and see if there is any effect in the performance. In idle moments at the forge I also turned a blunt spike for the front to use to catch and control blades, and gave the surface a basic bluing and oil sealing to carry on the flower motif. I will do matched rivet heads and I may engrave silver lines through the bluing.

The colour difference is stunning when viewed in person, to try to represent it I put the treated and untreated shields side by side. The surface is a pretty even blue, but I love doing it by hand as you get mottled purple veins in the blue, but I fear they are barely visible in the photos:

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It has really darkened! I will post pictures as soon as it is finished.

Making a Stock Removal Viking Axe Part 3

I have made a bit of progress with my Viking Axe project. I made my first attempt at inlay, and learnt a lot on the way:

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On the sides the inlay came out quite nicely, the annealed copper was fairly easy to hammer into the grooves. I used the ball pein on the back of my workhorse hammer, but next time I think I will also use a rounded punch to give really fine control over how the metal deforms. Another thing I think will help is choosing the right gauge of wire, the one I used was a tad thin and it was harder to get to to fill the entirety of the groove.

The really hard bit was continuing the inlay around the edge of the axe and into the eye, it seemed to have a mind of its own and it was firmly set on not binding to the graved lines. I think that in areas like this I need to go much deeper with the graving and roughen the surface with a hacksaw blade.

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I have started to smooth down the branch I want to use for the handle, I don’t remember what tree it came from but it has a lovely pale dense grain that I think will carve just below the head, maybe some knotwork? I cant wait to get going on this again!

Part 1

Part 2

Yew Longbow/Selfbow Project

My brother recently joined an archery club, and talking to him about it gave me a bit of a bowmaking bug! My walk to the forge takes me through some thick woods, and every time I see a fallen branch or sapling I have visions of all the things I could do with it. Usually I haft an axe or polearm, or make a singlestick sword trainer out of it, but for the last couple of weeks I have been keeping my eye out for a bigger piece of wood that could contain a bow.

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I picked up this sapling after the big storms this winter. I think it is yew, I looked up the leaves and bark and it seems identical, but who knows? I can readily identify about 10 general species of tree, hopefully now I can add yew to the total!

It was about six and a half feet long, with very few bends and knots. The entire thing had about a 2″ deflex curve, which is a curve towards the archer, but I think a lot of that will disappear when I trim down the ends to their final diameter.

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I rough trimmed the thicker base with an axe, then broke out my spokeshave to flatten the back and try to give it some flex. After a bit of freehand trimming I realised that I’d better make a tillering tree to check the draw weight, as I am used to testing the flex of sword blades and this is a very different beast, I want a heavy draw weight so my usual reflexes will be less useful. I do hope however that hours checking that a blade curve is smooth and even will come in useful when I can see the whole bow bend!

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Here is a view down the bow, there is a bit of twist at the ends but it should come out even as each ends twists in the same direction and the string should fall over the centre of the bow. I’m pretty sure that this isn’t the best method, and bow experts could give me loads of pointers, but hopefully it will come out ok and I can go shooting with my brother!

This blog is absolutely amazing, if you have even a passing interest in bows I heartily recommend it, I just couldn’t stop reading! bowyersdiary

Diary of an apprentice swordsmith