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ONE SWORD'S JOURNEY

 

From high in the mountains the black, iron bearing sands are washed into the river.  Containing little of the sulfur and phosphorus that contaminate most iron ores, these sands are pure and clean.  Washed down stream, the heavy sand is deposited in the slow moving currents of an inside bend of the river.  Men, who have done this for generations and know how to look, find this hidden treasure and remove it from its watery cache.  Thus found and recovered the iron sand begins itsí long journey.

A pit is dug.   Deep and wide, it is suitable for the foundation of a small building.  First, a layer of pine logs, on top of that layers of stone, gravel and charcoal.  Then, a deep layer of clay fills the rest of the pit.  Into this layer of clay a smaller pit is dug and filled two-thirds full of charcoal.  On top of the charcoal, logs are stacked and set on fire.  As the fire burns down, men stand on either side of the pit, and in the sweltering heat, flail at the embers with long poles, pulverizing them into a fine ash.  All this, and only the base has been built.

Now it is that the furnace is built.  Wet clay bricks are stacked and formed so that a long cavity is formed.  Near the bottom, a row of holes connects a series of lungs so that this monster might breathe. Wide at the top, narrow at the bottom, this is the crucible were the iron sands will be thrown.  All is in readiness.  A layer of fist size pieces of charcoal are placed in bottom and lit.  Slowly,  the bellows pump life into this inferno as more charcoal is added.  When the entire pit is glowing, men in black masks to protect them from the searing heat,  shovel a layer of iron sand upon the coals.  Immediately, this layer is followed by a layer of charcoal setting a pattern that will be followed every thirty minutes for seventy-two hours.  As the heat intensifies, the iron becomes semi liquid and runs down through the burning charcoal picking up carbon on its fiery journey.  When it reaches the bottom, the iron it is no longer iron but steel, and the impurities that have traveled with it could not stand the heat.  These contaminates have totally liquefied and run off through holes provided for them.  For three days this thing has lived, consuming all it was fed with an insatiable appetite.  Now, it is left dormant for a day, allowed to rest and cool so that it may give up the treasure lying at its heart.  Men tear down the walls they so laboriously built and drag the steel from its womb.  Giant hammers crash down upon this mass and break it into smaller pieces.  These pieces are in turn attacked by men wielding sledgehammers until only fist-size pieces remain.  Now it has a name, Tamahagane, Royal Steel.

Carefully, the Smith sorts through his latest shipment of Tamahagane.  The very nature of its manufacture assures that the quality and carbon content will vary widely from piece to piece.  It is this variation, this very lack of a homogenous nature,  that is its strength.  Tamahagane is sword steel.   It is the infinite and minute variations of hardness and softness that result in a combination of flexibility and rigidity that allow a sword to withstand the stresses of combat. Having selected suitable pieces, the Smith heats each one in his forge.  Upon reaching a bright cherry red, he flattens them into small plates.  He reheats each one, quenches them in water and them breaks them into small pieces.  One plate he leaves intact, and to this plate he welds a long steel handle wrapped with rope on one end.  Methodically the Smith sorts through all of the small pieces. 

 By eye alone he separates them according to high and low carbon content and begins to stack them on the remaining plate with handle welded to it. First a layer of high carbon then, a layer of low carbon.  He continues this stacking until the pile weighs nearly six pounds.  Carefully he wraps the pile in rice paper and covers it with a slurry of mud.  Into the fire he lays this assemblage of steel and paper and mud.  Heaps of charcoal are shoveled on top and the Smith sits back upon his low stool to pump the bellows with an even hand.  For twenty minutes or more he rocks back and forth as he breathes life to the fire, waiting for the mass at its heart to reach a welding heat.  Then the mass turns the color of just about to melt butter and the sound of bacon on a hot griddle reaches his ears. Tiny sparklers begin to erupt from the fire as with the utmost care he grabs the water soaked rope handle and withdraws the embryonic sword from itsí fiery womb.  Using a delicate touch he places it on his anvil and with light even blows, hammers the mass together.  Back into the fire for a second welding heat and a second hammering.  The third heat is only to an orange red before the Smith withdraws the steel and places it on his anvil.  

Now, one of the three apprentices standing by with sixteen pound sledgehammers, begins striking the mass with controlled blows.  His hammer falls always on the same spot as the Smith manipulates the block under the falling hammer.  A fourth time the steel enters the fire.  During the heat the Smith pulls the steel from the fire and rolls in the rice straw ash lying beside his forge.  This ash coats the block, protecting it from the oxygen in the air.  It is the combination of heat and oxygen that creates the scale that flakes off under the hammer, reducing the amount of steel that can be used.  Even with this precaution, the Smith ends up with only half of his original material.  Before he withdraws the block for the forging, the Smith utters a command and all three hammer men stand ready.  As the block leaves the fire, the Smith brushes charcoal and loose scale from itsí surface as the lead apprentice raises his hammer high overhead followed quickly by the other two.  The three set up a cadence as they smash their hammers down onto the red-hot steel.  In a short time the block is twice its length and the Smith lays a hot cutter on itsí surface as one hammer man strike the head of the cutter.  Nearly in two it is cut leaving only a small amount to act as hinge.  Swiftly, the Smith flips the block over as he dips his hammer in a water bucket by his side.  

Striking  with the wet hammer creates tiny steam explosions, blasting the new weld surface clean of any remaining scale.  With the surface clean, he flips the block again placing the hinge on the edge of the anvil.  One apprentice strikes the overhanging end and bends it to a right angle.  Once again it is flipped and the apprentice finishes folding it back on itself before it is placed into the fire to be brought to welding heat again.  Six times this pattern is repeated before it is stretched out and cut into three equal plates.  One other is added to these and all four are stacked upon the other, brought to welding heat and hammered together.  Once again the pattern of folding is repeated as many as seven times, refining the steel the same as bread is kneaded into a fine texture.  Finished, the Smith now has kawagane, jacket steel.  Now, shingane or core steel must be made.  Taking a fist size piece of medium carbon Tamahagane, the Smith folds and welds it in the same fashion as the jacket steel.  Picking up the jacket steel, the Smith and his apprentices forge the plate into a U shape, pinch one end together and weld it.  The core steel is forged to fit the cavity in the jacket steel and the two are welded together.  All this and only now may the sword start to take shape

Working at an orange heat the Smith and his apprentices form the sunobe, a stick shorter, narrower and thicker than the finished sword.  At this point, if any of the many welds fail, all is lost, for in this thin state the sunobe cannot be rewelded.  As the stick lengthens, the work is done less by the hammer men and more by the Smith and his hand hammer.  Finally, the sunobe is formed and the back of the point is cut so that as the tip curves up the back may remain straight.  Now the Smith begins to form the edge.  With hammer alone he creates this edge, produces an exact amount of curvature and keeps the whole mass straight.  Hammering both sides of the edge and back in a complicated rhythm, the sword grows under the hand of the Smith.  After many long hours the blade is formed and the Smith refines the shape using scrapers and files.

At this point if the blade was finished and mounted, it would be a thing of great beauty but posses no soul and be completely useless.  One more trial by fire must be done to set itsí nature and make it a sword.  Carefully the Smith applies a layer of clay to the preborn blade in a fashion handed down from one smith to another for a thousand years and allows it to dry.  As the Smith prepares the fire he prepares himself for here above all else there can be no mistake.  With the clay dry and the fire laid he fits the tang of the blade into a special handle and lays it edge up into the fire.  Slowly he pumps the bellows and the fire leaps up into the darkness required to see the colors.  Moving the blade evenly through the fire the metal begins to take on a glow.  Left and right hand work in unison to spread the glow throughout the blade.  Sparks fill the night sky and no sound is heard but the steady whoosh of air feeding the flames and the rhythmic clack of the bellows. 

 From dull-red to blood-red the steel radiates some of the energy pouring into it.  When the entire blade reaches a cherry-red, the Smith flips it edge down and quickly brings the edge and to an orange-red while the back remains a darker red.  Satisfied with the evenness of color the Smith pulls it from the fire and describing a fiery arc through the darkness, plunges the glowing blade into a tank of water.  The blade sends off clouds of steam and wails mightily as it gains the soul it lacked.  Sometimes the blade does not survive this drastic birth and all that has gone before is for naught.  If it survives from here it will go to polisher, scabardmaker and silversmith.  Fine as these artisans are they cannot make a bad blade good and they cannot give it heart.  A good smith leaves a piece of himself and takes a part of each blade with him. To do less is to simply make a piece of steel that will cut.

Daniel O'Connor  1996

Hopefully, all aspects of this story will be explored here on this site.
MAKING CHARCOAL BUILDING A FORGE

 

BUILDING A BOX BELLOWS

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