“What would you like for your birthday?” It’s a big one in base 10 – so time to ask for a big present. “I would like a hand-made, bespoke, and personalised straight sword please.” “Shouldn’t be a problem.” And so the Saga begins.
Your story-teller is FWC Instructor Timothy Stevenson.
“A couple of years ago, Chief Instructor Dennis asked Sharon what she wanted for her birthday and after some [very little – Sharon} thought she asked for a bespoke sword. The mark of a true leader is the ability to delegate, so Dennis said, “Tim – make it so.” I contacted Owen Bush, the man who taught me swordsmithing, and he agreed to forge the blade.
The sword was to be a straight sword (jian), not the curved broadsword (dao) that we use in class. Dennis lent me the Chinese jian Sharon uses for practice as a pattern and I visited Owen to discuss the weight and balance of the blade. Owen’s place is a collection of workshops full of forges, power hammers and grinders, with knives, swords and axes in all stages of completion. It’s surrounded by a corrugated iron fence cut into sharp points at the top and is the ideal place to be in the event of a zombie apocalypse.
The blade for Sharon’s sword is ‘mono steel’, that is, it’s not folded or laminated. It is unromantic but true that modern industrial processes can produce reliable steel with consistent qualities that will make a sword blade as good as a laboriously laminated or pattern-welded one. So, although I would like to tell you that we had to take the perilous journey on foot to the Iron Hills, there to barter gold from a dragon-hoard for the precious ore that would be forged into a wondrous blade in the flames of Mount Doom by sturdy, bearded dwarves and quenched in unicorn’s tears by the light of the new moon, honesty compels me to say that Owen got a bar of carbon steel from Sheffield and did a lot of the work with a power hammer and belt grinder. He is, however, both sturdy and bearded, if that’s any help…
However, the skill is not just in forging the blade, but in tempering it by heat treatment. Poor heat treatment could leave you with a brittle blade that snaps just as Sauron treads on it, leaving you only a shard with which to strike the One Ring from his hand. Or, tempered another way, the same piece of steel could be too soft to take an edge, and would bend uselessly instead of skewering your enemy. Owen, on the other hand, knows his stuff and I’ve seen his blades bent to 90 degrees and then spring back straight when tested, and they take a razor edge.
The next thing to consider was the guard and pommel. We could make plain ones in iron or steel, but that wouldn’t work for the sculptural designs I had in mind. Carol and I wanted to use the project as an opportunity to learn bronze casting, so we booked ourselves on a one week course out in the countryside. It was great fun learning the techniques, especially because the other people on the course were such good company and the surrounding countryside was beautiful. I cast a rabbit for the sword pommel (Sharon is a Rabbit in the Chinese Zodiac). The man running the course said that if we designed the fittings for the sword, then he would cast and polish them. When bronze castings come out of the mould, they are quite rough, and it takes a lot of time and skill to make them smooth and shiny.
Since our style is White Crane Kung Fu, I decided to alternate rabbit and crane designs on the sword and scabbard. I designed the pommel and guard, Carol designed the scabbard fittings, and I carved all the designs in lime wood. Lime (or linden) is a soft wood which is ideal for carving intricate designs without splintering. The bronze caster will then cast a soft mould around the wooden carving, peel it off and then pour hot wax into the resulting mould to form a duplicate of the original carving. The cooled wax model is removed from the soft mould and coated in layers of ceramic slurry which are left to dry and then fired in a furnace. This hardens the ceramic and melts the wax out, leaving space to pour in molten bronze. Once the bronze has cooled, the ceramic shell is cracked off, leaving the bronze to be smoothed and polished.
I posted the carvings off to the bronze caster and waited. And waited. From time to time I would email him for a progress report and he would come back with an excuse. After six months, he sent me the bronze fittings. I opened the parcel in great excitement to reveal some badly-finished lumps of bronze that caused Dennis to ask “Is he a plumber?” when he saw them. They were appalling and I sent them back.
At this low ebb, the community of makers came to my aid. Anthony Scala at Richard Wagstaff’s club told me about a top-quality firm of bronze casters just around the corner from me in Brockley. They are called South London Foundry, and apart from their more artistic work, they spend a lot of time casting baby hands and feet in bronze, for proud parents who want a solid memento of what their little darlings’ tootsies looked like before they grew up to be rugby players and such. I digress, as they are also artisans of the first water. I went around to see if they would be interested in the project. They were very enthusiastic, and especially their technician Witek, who would be doing the work. He said “I have made a sword myself – have you heard of Owen Bush?” After that, we got on like a house on fire. Witek is a real perfectionist and an accomplished sculptor in his own right. He’s also not afraid to give his expert opinion. He looked at the rabbit pommel that I had cast and commented, “It looks scared.” He was right – that would never do for a sword [or for Sharon – Sharon]. He gave me some blue modelling wax and showed me techniques for sculpting it. I took it home and carved another rabbit, trying for a calm but alert expression that would pass the Witek test. Witek put a lot of extra work into the fittings and did a superb job), a world away from the plumbing fittings that I had rejected from the first bronze caster.
Then it was back to Owen to put the sword together and get the blade and hilt balanced so that the sword would flow properly when used. This called for some delicate grinding of the blade to reduce weight and thickness, followed by polishing.
And finally into Tim’s workshop to make the scabbard and grips out of the same piece of walnut, so that the grain would match. The scabbard opening, or throat, is important – the sword must fit tightly enough not to rattle, but not so tightly that you need a friend to help you draw it in an emergency. Done properly, the sword will whisper out of the scabbard when drawn. The “schwingggg!” noise you get in the movies is a Hollywood invention. The scabbard fittings hold the wooden sides of the scabbard together. They must be really tight, so the scabbard has to be shaped to within fractions of a millimetre to get a snug fit. That way, the scabbard will hold together whatever happens. Having a scabbard fall apart as you’re drawing a sharp sword can ruin your whole day – and hand.
Then the really nerve-wracking part – presenting it to Dennis and Sharon. Would they like it, or would I have to commit ritual suicide with the sword I’d just made, to atone for my failure? They liked it! Now to see if I can raise my Kung Fu to the same level…
This really was a team effort, so thanks to Carol, Owen and Witek for making it happen.”
And now it is up to the person who has the sword to bring it to life…..
Cooking up a Sword.
For the blade, you will need:
- Carbon steel 1-2kg
- A swordsmith
- A forge and workshop
- Virgin’s blood and unicorn’s tears for quenching the blade (optional)
For the fittings, you will need:
- A designer
- A sculptor
- Sculpting materials (wood or wax)
- Bronze 1.5 kg
- A bronze caster.
- A furnace and workshop.
- A very patient crane and rabbit to pose for the designs.
For the scabbard and grips, you will need:
- A woodworker
- Suitable wood (walnut goes well with bronze)
- A shed full of woodworking tools
Kids – don’t try this at home without a responsible grown-up supervising.
Throw all the ingredients together in a large mixing bowl and stir well for several months. Add money. Pour into a lightly-greased baking tray.
Forge the steel at 1230oC (2246oF), Gas mark 59 (Insanely hot oven)
Temper the blade at 180-200oC (350-400oF) Gas mark 4 (moderate oven).
Allow to cool and serve, garnished with apologies for the length of time it took to make.
Want to know more?
The BBC made a great programme recently called ‘Handmade’, showing Owen forging a Damascus steel knife – you can watch it here.
There are a lot of myths about the ‘best’ sword. This is a link to Albion Swords “Sword Facts and Myths”, which deals with some of them.
South London Foundry have included their work on this sword on their website