Swordsmithing – an ancient art

From The World Newspaper, Coos Bay, Oregon

By Jo Rafferty

Michael Bell started up the electric motor on a gigantic press he uses to shape the blades of Japanese swords.

“Bam! Bam!” The dies clanked together on the approximately 3-foot-long flat piece of steel, turned red from the heat of the forge fire.

“It’s 1,500 degrees, but it will go all the way up past 2,000 as it warms up,” Bell, 61, said loudly over the hissing of the forge, which sounded like a heavy wind storm.

The warmth of the fire quickly spread throughout the cold workshop.

The press is one way of shaping the hot metal. The other is by hand, using a hammer on an anvil.

Read the rest of the article online at The World Link.

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2 Responses to Swordsmithing – an ancient art

  1. donald keeth says:

    I have ben trying to make a sword out of a steel cable and every atemp has ended up the same. The wire spreades or the metal just flatens out and does not weld together. can you help?

  2. Gabriel Bell says:

    Dear Donald Keeth,

    Our process for forge-welding cable is as follows:

    We begin by burning away all of the grease and grime that is found on cable (especially is has been used). Warning: this is a stinky, smoky process so make sure that your smithy is throughly ventilated for this. We like to do this as the fire is beginning to warm up. Once all the visible grease is gone, we will give the cable a few taps against the anvil to knock out any remaining impurities.

    As soon, or even slightly before the wires begin to glow red, be sure to begin thoroughly coating the cable with flux, as one does not want fire-scale (iron oxide) to begin to form.

    Properly fluxing the cable is probably the single most important factor to producing a cleanly forge-welded billet of cable. We use anhydrous borax as flux, which can be had from knife-maker suppliers. It comes in two forms powdered or granular, and both types will work just fine. We have used both, but we tend to prefer the powdered form.

    For the piece of cable to be considered thoroughly coated in flux, we like to describe it as having the appearance of being coating in melted butter. We will slowly rotate the piece of cable in the fire to allow the flux to penetrate every bundle of wire to the center.

    Once the piece of cable is properly fluxed and has reached welding temperature, we put it in a vice and twist it up tighter, once on each end, cleaning off the flux with a wire brush and reapplying more in between. At this stage, the wires should already begin to forge-weld. Continue to brush off the older flux and reapply new, and (with the cable at welding temperature) forge the piece with a hammer (we use a power hammer at this stage). When being hammered to a square cross-section, the individual strands have a tendency to flare at the corners, so we will hammer obliquely on the first pass to keep the wires from spreading out of control.

    Once the forge-welding in complete, the smith can stop applying flux.

    Also, be sure your fire is a neutral or slightly reducing atmosphere during the welding process to prevent fire-scale from building up, which can happen if the fire is oxygen rich and will prevent welding.

    I hope this response has been helpful and that your next attempt at forge-welding cable is more successful. Please feel free to contact us if something is unclear. Do not be discouraged, cable can be a difficult material to work with even for experienced smiths, until they have gained enough experience. However, the potential difficulties are strongly outweighed by the resulting toughness and aggressive cutting edge of blades forged of cable, which we strongly believe to be a superior material for swords.

    For an unique chance to learn firsthand under the guiding eye of an experienced swordsmith specializing in forging cable blades, we strongly suggest attending one of our Basic Forging Courses, if possible, at our swordsmithing school, Tomboyama Nihontō Tanren Dōjō, Dragonfly Mountain Japanese Sword Forging School.

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