Behind the Scenes: Blacksmithing R&D

Going into blacksmithing, I knew there would be a number of experiments to perform, trial designs, and failed ideas. After a few experiments over the past few months, I thought I’d share a few with you.

==Project #1: Ring Knife==

A week after I took my first blacksmithing class, I visited my mother for Thanksgiving and decided to show her the end results. Being that I nearly failed wood shop, I thought she’d at least be interested.

My first two blades from November, 2014.
My first two blades from November, 2014.

The first words out of her mouth were “Where’s mine?”

Her birthday was in September, and after all of my classes were done (and after some discussions with other smiths on different ideas), I decided to try my hand at a ring knife. Tim sent me a few photos when he first met me, and while a fun idea, it was put off until I had more experience and tools.

Once I had the experience and a few extra bits of metal, I decided to give this a whirl, if only to make something for her. The biggest challenge was improvising on the tools, as most people have a set chisel, a mandrel, or a sharp anvil horn to forge the ring. Most people also do something bigger than a kitchen knife for this, so making something that started as an inch wide probably didn’t help matters.

To make the ring, I started with cheap chisel I’ve since destroyed, but as it was an octagonal base and my anvil horn is blunted, I couldn’t get a clean circle. Luckily, I found a large spike at the local farmer’s market, and was able to use that to finish the hole and round it out a bit.

Once it was finished, I hammered the ring slightly to elongate the handle and to provide a better ring to hang the blade from.

In the end, my mother enjoyed it, and it’s been sharpened enough to cut into paper with ease.

First Ring Knife. Forged August 2015.
First Ring Knife. Forged August 2015. Forged from 1084.

==Project #2: “Blacksmith” Knife==

One of the basic projects for an aspiring bladesmith is to make what’s called a “blacksmith,” “bush,” or “viking” knife. Depending on the purpose, it can also be called a “woman’s knife.” The basic idea of this is to forge a knife without attaching material for a handle, as everything is forged as one piece.

The method for this is to take a bit of metal, stretch it to a set length, and bend it in some way to create a handle. I made something like this before, but the handle was too thin and brittle for the application the knife was designed for. Most of these blades are for general use, such as around the kitchen, as a general eating knife, or for standard utility purposes, but my first one was a chopping knife, making my original handle design a problem.

After some research and discussions, I found two designs that work for the purpose of the knife (and one that could still work if needed), but needed to determine materials. The challenges I faced here were length of stock material to begin with, as well as working with the metal to avoid what it called a cold shunt (metal folded in on itself and not welded together).

Once I had the ideas mapped out and a discussion with a friend who was looking for that style of knife, I got started.

The first one completed didn’t meet the expected standards, as I didn’t give it enough material for the handle. It made a nice looking blade, and I think it would make a nice eating knife for the SCA.

Now to make a matching fork and spoon... TO THE FORGE!
Now to make a matching fork and spoon…

After realizing my first idea was off for the original goal, I added another inch to the material for the handle, removed an inch from the material for the blade, and got started again. I was sadly unable to finish it due to running out of fuel and a minor issue: while twisting the handle, my wrench locked into place, and the only way to remove it involved snapping the handle.

Lesson learned: twist faster, detach sooner.
Lesson learned: twist faster, detach sooner.

The latter approach leaves me with a smaller blade, but even with the break I still had a big enough handle. It took a bit of creativity, but I was able to work on it.

Second practical knife. Rescued from the problems!
Second practical knife. Rescued from the problems!

I’ve learned a great deal about needed materials for this. My next approach, should I have the chance to make one, is to start with a slightly bigger stock (5″ instead of 4″) and work that route to get the best of both worlds (and a thicker blade).

There are a few other designs similar to this I want to try out, but I need to have the time off to work on them. Maybe there will be another R&D post to discuss it!

==Project #3: Ashandarei==

This one is honestly a rather odd project and the geekiest on the list, so if you’ve read this far, congrats!

A friend from the convention circuit reached out to me recently and asked if I would be willing to make this costume piece for him out of mild steel (metal for general, non-bladed projects). Who am I to say no to a challenge?

As the description was simply “sword blade in place of a spear point, slightly curved and single-edged”, I didn’t have much to go on. We went scouring through the net through various cosplay costumes and artist renditions of various shapes and sizes, and settled for this one as the baseline. I made a minor tweak to the design, but otherwise it’s pretty fun.

We agreed that I could easily hammer out the blade, but it would be up to him to find a proper staff for it. Once the agreement was made, it was off to the forge!

Hammering this thing to shape was harder and took longer than I expected. The first part was easy enough: a curved edge at the tip of the blade. Easy enough to do.

The makings of a curve!
The makings of a curve!

The two real tricks came about with that slight curve at the bottom (which includes a slightly different indent on the “back” of the blade) and setting the shoulders for the tang (which has to be long enough to rest deep in a staff, but thin enough to fit in said staff).

Shoulders set!
Shoulders set!

For the odd back end, I did a minor bit of work setting a small shoulder on the edge of the anvil, and hammered it in while having the opposite side on the horn of the anvil (to give it that little lip on the bottom). Then, using a guillotine tool, I set the shoulders of the tang and got to work flattening it out.

It was a bit of a challenge, as I was hammering a 2″ wide bit of steel (and 0.25″ thick) down to a space around half an inch. I also ran into a minor cold shunt, which I thankfully was able to grind out before the end.

That same guillotine tool was also used to add a fuller to the blade. While I didn’t get it as set as I had hoped (it’s the first fuller I’ve done), it still seems to work.

I ended the forging process by beveling the edge to at least have the appearance of a weapon before cutting it from the rest of the stock.

Completely forged and removes from the rest of the stock.
Completely forged and removed from the rest of the stock.

Once the item was cut, it was time to do a rough grind to clean up any part that didn’t come out as well as expected (like the uneven tang, for example) and to clean up the scale. About an hour later, I reached the point that things were where I needed them to be for the moment.

Initial grinding done! Measures 15
Initial grinding done! Measures 15″ from end to end.

My next step from here on was sanding. I used progressively better grits on my angle grinder before moving to sanding by hand.

Lookit the shine! Finished with 80grit sandpaper by hand.
Lookit the shine! Finished with 80grit sandpaper by hand.

As of the above picture, I had about three hours of forging and about two hours of cleanup into this. When I finished removing all of the scratches and polished it to a cloudy mirror, I was at the ten hour mark in total work (seven hours of sanding) with two cuts on my fingers and a large pile of used sandpaper. The finished product has been mailed out, much to the joy of the new owner.

==Projects To Come==

These are just the projects I’ve been tampering with when time and fuel permit (20lb tanks really don’t last as long as I’d like). The other projects to come are:

Viking Seax: Specifically the broken back style, but the curved back is interesting. Not great for kitchen use, but would be a fun type to play around with, especially with the “viking” style handles. There is one on the docket for a friend to make a handle for, so I’ll snap some photos as I go with it.

Unicorn Horn: My wife is a big fan of The Last Unicorn, specifically a scene of the book in which a unicorn is transformed into a man armed with a unicorn-horn style sword. After a visit to a store to buy some metal, she’s asked if I could make a larger unicorn horn to act as a paperweight or some other decoration. I have ideas, just need to implement them and hope my table will actually not tip when I do the twists. So far, it may not be possible for the large scale, but for a smaller project (like a keychain), it might be doable.

Eating Utensils: After that attempt with the one thin-handled knife, a few people commented that the style would be great as an SCA eating knife, so now I want to make a fork and spoon to go with it. The fork shouldn’t be an issue (it’s just a scaled down version of a BBQ fork), but the spoon is the real challenge due to my lack of tools. We shall see how this pans out.

Drinking Horn Holder: Before I purchased my first drinking horn, I had a conversation with the woman selling them. When she learned that I’m a blacksmith, she immediately began to ask if I could forge a holder to hold the horns when not held. Now that my horn has arrived (made it just in time for Faire!), I can begin playing with this idea. I have a few ideas on the docket and at least one proof of concept, but I need to try things out to see what works in the end with my current forge. I have a feeling I’ll need something a bit bigger, but I might have a way around that.

Is there something you’d like to see me try to make? Feel free to make a comment or reach out to me directly! I’m nowhere near the equipment or skill level of master smiths, but I’m always up for experimenting with what most would call “basic” ideas!


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