Common Questions On Sword Crafting
I want to learn to make traditional Japanese blades
The first thing to learn is to forge weld, forge weld and forge weld. Practice making stacked billets then cutting them apart every half inch or so and inspecting the welds. Every one must be perfect. A single inclusion is failure. Then weld the pieces back into one and repeat the process. When you can do this all day your welding and hammer skills may be ready.
The traditional method of making Japanese blades starts with smelting the iron then making the steel in the forge. It is a long slow process. Many make Japanese style blades but few make truly traditional blades.
In the West most makers start with stock iron or steel and then blend them into a something similar to the traditional material. But it is NOT the traditional material or method and therefore the RESULT is not traditional.
Much of the traditional process requires helpers to work as strikers. Since nobody in the Western world can currently afford that kind of labor except for demonstration purposes, machines are used. Most shops use power hammers, forging presses or rolling mills.
So what is traditional? Who's traditions? When?
How long did it take to make a sword in medieval times?
In medieval times having a blacksmith make a sword all by himself would be as common as having a heart surgeon today do an operation all by himself. A single person blacksmith shop is an oxymoron in historical times.
Also why would a trained smith waste his time grinding and polishing and hilting a sword? Having the capital tied up in equipment that you did not use full time was not likely either---grinding was usually water powered and that means a lot of building and equipment with high maintenance costs. ("The Mills of Medieval England" discusses the high costs of running water powered equipment; or the Guru can speak of maintenance costs of working where the floods occur...)
The typical work flow was that the smith with probably 2 strikers would forge the blade. It would be sent out to a different shop for grinding and they would send it to a third for hilting and a fourth for making the scabbard---*THAT'S* the reality. Often the hilters would be the "primary contractor" and sub out the rest of the work.
Fiction hardly ever gets it right as the reality gets in the way of the story...
Don't forget that when you buy the metal from the merchants who bought it from the smelters that you have to test each piece for quality and carbon content...
As for time: pattern welded or not? Does the smith have to carburize his own steel or can he buy natural steels or pre-carburized metal? (see the steps used in traditional Japanese blade smithing above.
The basic forging---with help---is not too tedious ranging from a couple of hours to a couple of days depending.
Grinding will take much longer than in modern times---though the blades being forged to shape will help some. Say a couple of days to a week depending on the equipment and the complexity of the bladeshape. Hilting will take some time as the pieces will have to be forged and then filed/ground/polished and then *FITTED* to the blade. I would expect it to be a couple of weeks if it's a fancy set up---more if engraving and the setting of jewels is required. Scabbardmaking will take a week or so *if* the material is to hand. There will always be special cases in both directions. and Where and When makes a big difference!
Now assuming hed did it alone: 7 years apprenticeship to the smith, 7 years apprenticeship to the grinder/polisher, 7 years apprenticeship to the hilter and 7 years apprenticeship to the scabbard maker---so *if* he had access to all the equipment I would say he would start off with needing 28 years to maike a sword on his own...
- Thomas P - Tuesday, 11/15/05 12:07:28 EST
I read somewhere that a Japanese bladesmith with strikers hogged out and shaved (with a push-shave, a "sen") about five blades a month and of the five, he usually kept two. The reason given was that the throwaways were either physically flawed or that they did not "feel right" when swung. The keepers were sent to the polisher.
- Frank Turley - Wednesday, 11/16/05 00:07:26 EST
Thomas mentioned a few of the skills going into a fancy blade and hilt, there are others.
Engravers are almost always specialists. A few craftsfolk do their own but really first class engraving is an art and is often the most costly part of a presentation piece.
Plating is another specialty. If a blade is to be gold, silver or chrome plated it is sent to a plater. Same holds true for blueing and blacking. Metal finishing has long been a specialty especialy where strong chemicals and odd shaped heated tanks are required.
Thomas also mentioned jewels. Do you cut your own diamonds, saphires, rubies, crystals of any kind? This is always a specialty and those mounting them are also often specialists.
Tanning the leather for a leather grip or scabard is another specialty. Yes, you could do this yourself but you do not.
Drawing wire for wire wrapped grips is yet another specialty. Small shops such as jewelery shops DO draw their own wire in precious metals, but only when they need a special size or specific alloy.
Doing it ALL yourself would mean mining the ores, digging the gems, obtaining the fuel, smelting the iron, copper, tin, gold and silver (each specialties), cutting and polishing the gems, making the steel from the iron, forging it to suitable bar sizes, alloying and casting the brass or bronze, drawing the wire, cutting the tree, seasoning the wood, forging the sword, grinding the sword, heat treating the sword, polishing the sword, making the furniture, fitting the grip,
Mankind has been a cooperative society for hundreds of thousands of years. The earliest known history of man is evidence of trade and specialties, mining, loging, smelting metals. Artists and craftsfolk have taken advantage of others specialties for a very long time. The weaver has traded with the spinner and the smith with the smelter. Each doing a job more efficiently and better than the other. Making a sword was this way with many specialists involved. Cheap labor did the work of modern machines. Today's blade smiths probably do more in house than the bladesmith of just a few hundred years ago. Machinery and modern cutting materials has replaced much of the drudgery work that was subbed out in earlier times and some of the specialists may not be available.
SO, How long does it take to make a sword?
It depends on how much of the job you include. From digging the iron ore form the ground to the user's hand there are MANY stages and each has delays. It could take a year or more. To simply forge and grind a simple blade using purchased materials and modern equipment could be done in a day by an expert. In fact a good hand at the power hammer can produce near net finished forged blades by the dozen a day. Custom blades often take from a few days to a month or more to complete not including advanced pattern welding.