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Robert Earhart
Fight Captain & Blacksmith


We normally work in one of three

metals for blades:

A) A-36: A mild carbon steel, available

in any thickness, very forgiving,
easily and cheaply acquired. and fast
to work. Quite tough for a mild
carbon, but not really temperable at
all, will take on at best a slight
case hardening (surface gets harder)
thru heat treatment. Not particularly
hard, and while somewhat flexible, will
bend and stay bent if flexed past
its limits. Actually, most weapons over
most of the steel era were made of
similar quality metals... Also benefits
most from the carbon packing effects of
forging; essentially creating a layer
of high carbon steel at the surface.
Rarely were swords bent, and if it
happened they were easily
fixed by flexing in the opposite
direction. Maintaining a cutting edge was
not a high priority, these were
not tools- use them for a few hours, then
take your time and remove the nicks
if you lived thru the battle. Better
steels- Sheffield, Toledo, etc.- were
rare and justly famous.

B) 1095: A very high carbon steel

which will get quite hard, hold a fine
edge, and will temper to a decent
springiness (returns to original
shape if bent). Carbon content is
so high that forging is actually
likely to cause carbon migration
outward, creating a mild carbon exterior!

C) 4140. Another high carbon alloy,

decently hardenable, with an amazing
springiness when tempered correctly:
I put a rapier blade (31", tapering
from 1" to 1/2" along the length,
with a 1" tang extending another 7
inches) between two stumps and stood
on it, then bounced up and down with
all my weight, the blade came out as
straight as it was before I started.
Robb, who's 250 lbs. outweighs me by
100, was able to impart a very slight
bend with effort, had to flip it and
repeat to bring it back to true.
Available only in 1/4" or thicker,
which adds to the toughness at the cost
of some added mass.

D) 5160. A spring steel, Springier

than 1095, Harder than 4140, but not
contrawise as Hard as the former
nor as Springy as the former.

None of these are likely to break

under normal use. We have managed to
break them all eventually by repeatedly
slamming them onto a stump with the
pommel (holding the blade in a
gloved hand) as hard as we could for half an
hour or more. We also run other tests;
the Stump bounce above, for example,
or lending the Jousting troupe four
blades and telling them to try to break
them (they managed to break two in
8 weeks of three shows daily, so we
reworked our welding techniques...)
By and large they will hold up to any
legitimate use, especially if you
chose a steel suited to the design of the
blade and the stresses it is intended to accept.

All three of the latter are

significantly more expensive
than the first, due to the cost of
the metal, the added difficulty
of working, and the added time and
expense of tempering. Also, there
will be an extra couple weeks for
1095, as we haven't any in stock.


Stainless steel, usually an alloy

with a high chromium content, extemely
resistant to rust and corrosion.
Most stainless steels are tough but not
capable of holding much of an edge,
nor particularly springy. The exception
seems to be the 400 series,
of which a good many commercially available
blades are made, typically 420 Stainless.

440C: a high carbon stainless,

good edge, decent spring, does not rust or
corrode. Difficult to work,
though, very hard even in its untempered form.
I have done very little with it,
since it is inauthentic, and hard to
acquire in convenient shape.
Nevertheless, it is thus far my stainless of
choice, and I will continue to work
towards acquiring a working knowledge of it.

Tool steel is the name of a variety

of steel alloys which temper to a
superior hardness. The desired
characteristics are hardness, toughness, and
rigidity. Since the ideal characteristics
for a knife are hardness and
toughness, tool steels are quite
good for many knives. Thin bladed knives,
and more so most swords, on the
other hand, need flexibility and even
springiness, rather than rigidity.
Also, tool steels are quite difficult to
work: not very ductile even when heated;
resistant to abrasion ( sanding
and filing) even before tempering;
and prone to breaking before heat
treatment. Most tools you buy in a
hardware stool are made from a tool
steel, either poured into a mold of
the correct shape, or "drop forged,"
which consists of heating the metal,
then placing it in a form and dropping
a ten ton weight on it, instantly
forcing it into the desired shape.
Nails are made of relatively soft metal,
hammers of hard tool steel. When you hit
the nail with the hammer, its surface
flattens a little, while the surface
of the hammer is not affected at all.
If you've ever used one of those
$1.99 hammers from China, you may have
noticed little dents in the
hammerhead developing with use.
This is because an inferior steel was used,
or because the steel was not tempered,
or most likely both. The forging
process also packs the molecules in tighter
,and those bargain specials are
likely to have been cast rather than drop forged.
Black smithing hammers
and anvils must also be hard and unyielding;
but the metals they are banged
against are likely to be as hard as they are.
Heating the working steel
makes it softer and more ductile,
however, so the hammer and anvil, left
cold, are hard enough not to be damaged.
Hot forging is also far easier
than cold forging, since the very
ductility that saves the tool surfaces
also makes it easier to move the work
surfaces into the desired shapes!
Damascus: Actually describes any
number of mixtures of steels. Metal is
surface welded together in layers
to create the basic billet from which the
blade is created. Originally, layers of
essentially identical mild steel
were pounded together, the result
folded or cut in half, repeated, again
and again. Because of the surface
carbon packing effect, each treatment
created layers of high carbon,
resulting in a low carbon blade shot thru
with mild carbon layers.
Much of the benefit here is lost now that better,
higher carbon throughout steels are
available-this technique was developed
in Damascus, and in Japan,
where poor steel quality made this show the most
improvement. Still, there is some
benefit to having two metals of differing
character- the blade may take on
the better qualities of each:
this is the usual method today;
layering high and low carbon, or even more exotic
nickel alloys with carbon steels,
all the better to show off the intricate
patterns in the layered steel.
Also, a new technique relies on placing a
bundle of rods together and welding
and hammering into a sheet- I have seen
metal with writing imbedded in the steel!
A further benefit, the differing
layers handle sharpening differently,
creating microserrations in the edge,
an effect similar to the steak knife.
Actually, due to the time, expense,
and technique involved, I do little work
in this, mostly knives and
daggers: the price I must set is usually
prohibitive. As an interesting
aside, it would appear that the case
for the steel we refer to as Damascus
may not have ever been made there.
The iron deposits available for steel in
that area were in Lebanon, and seem
to have been depleted quite early.
Damascus was however a major trade nexus
between the West and the East, and
it seems likely that the strange
technique developed in the east simply
funneled thru Damascus and was thought
to have originated there by western civilization.


A finished sword generally consists of

a blade fitted to a crossguard,
handle, and pommel at the end.

The crossguard can be made from

a single piece of metal with a slot cut
thru it for the tang, or from
several pieces fit together to surround the tang.

Pommels are generally welded to

the base of the tang, but can also be
drilled and tapped, and the tang
narrowed to a rod and threaded, then
screwed together.

The handle is most often wrapped in rope,

then in leather. Another option,
however, is to create a hollow slot
thru a wooden handle, and slide the
tang thru: this method can only be used
if the pommel is not to be welded
on, and is the best method for affixing
a crossguard which cannot be welded
on, as the pommel can be made to create
pressure on the entire handle by
screwing it in tightly. A third method
is to rivet two flat pieces of wood
onto the flat sides of the tang, known
as the "full tang" method, as the
tang extends the full width of the handle.


A blade itself is a flat piece of steel

generally running from the base of
a tang; the rectangle of steel the hilt
assembly will be built around,
widening to the base of the blade proper
at the shoulders, then running for
a distance before tapering to a point,
and sharpened to create an edge at
least partway down at least one side,
sometimes with a fuller.

The tang of many commercially available

swords consists of a 3/16" rod or
1/4" wide strip. This makes drilling
thru the handle a simple process, and
saves a little on material.
Unfortunately, this rod has a great deal of
difficulty standing up to the stresses
imparted by combat or use. Most
sword damage consists of a break or bend
in the tang, which is always the
weakest part of a sword. Our usual practice
is to use a tang a full inch in
width, heat treated along with the rest
of the blade if applicable; this
lends the greatest possible strength
to this area of the blade while still
allowing a comfortable grip.
With rapiers and daggers we most often use a
3/4" tang, as the stresses are lower
on such lighter pieces, and a narrower
grip is desirable.

Most of the blades we make start with

a 1 inch wide rectangle 5-9 inches in
length (the tang,) then widen to
1 to 2 inches at a 90 degree angle(the
base,) then gradually narrow down to
to 1 inch wide over most of the length
of the blade (taper.) followed by
a much sharper taper to a point at the
end over the final to 1 inch (the tip.)
Often seen in artists renderings,
and some real historical swords,
is the non tapered sword blade, which is a
rectangular tang, widening to a base,
with no taper until the point, which
covers the full width of the blade in
the final couple of inches. I also
make a leaf blade style, which actually
widens over the taper, and a Celtic
blade which gradually curves out to
the midpoint and then back to the
point, like a pair of arcs meeting along
the center. The seax consists of a
blade with a straight back, and an
edge which gradually widens over most of
the length, then drops sharply to the spine.
Blades curved back along this
spine run from the scimitar shape (basically a curved seax) thru the Katana
to the saber or cutlass.
Beyond this are a wide variety of fantasy and
historical shapes too numerous to mention.
Blade shapes differing
significantly from our normal stock
will require an additional $90 for
design work, and we cannot vouch for
the practicality of the finished

Our normal edge is designed for

stage combat: 1/2" edge with a clear break
line, not actually sharp, but with that illusion.
For the Jousters, we
actually rounded that false edge
(I pioneered this edge on the dagger I
made for my daughter.) We can also
sharpen the blades, especially the
harder steels- they will however nick
more easily and stand a greater risk
of throwing a chip. For a diamond cross
section-edged all the way into the
center- we charge extra, as there is
a great deal more work both creating
and tempering the blade.

We can also run a fuller- an indentation

running partway down the center of
the blade on both sides, designed to
lighten the blade without taking away
its structural strength, for $50 extra on most blades


Blade rough with polished edges

Blade polished throughout

Blade blued (blackened with gun blueing)

Blade Burnished (polished before

tempered and the resultant blackening wire
brushed) to a flat gray

Hilt and pommel with any of the above or

Wax gilded brass, antique brass, gold, copper, or silver.


The steel itself is more important

than the forming method by and large.
There are some advantages to forging,
but I believe its adherents place too
much priority on them. Nonetheless,
here goes: By forging the blade, you
condense its structure, and add carbon
to the surface. This creates a blade
with a harder surface and a softer interior,
giving both a good edge and
greater resistance to breakage.
Unfortunately, since nearly all forged
weapons are finished by smoothing over
a belt sander or at least edged with
a file, this microlayer is usually
removed anyway. (note that the
carbonizing effect does not occur
in an electric forge, nor in most other
modern forges- it is a result of
heating while in contact with carbon based
fuel, typically a charcoal or coal
forge {not the charcoal used in the
suburbs, which has a sand content})
Nonetheless, the funny thing about steel
is its mutability. Heating to critical
(just prior to melting) temperature
changes its internal structure, and
the rate at which it is cooled
determines the structure which is locked in.
A blade formed by any of the
above methods and then tempered will
have roughly the same characteristics,
given the same steel. Heat treatment
is the single biggest determiner of
blade quality after steel; in fact
untreated 1095 (a good high carbon
steel) has roughly the same characteristics
as A-36 (a decent but
effectively untreatable mild carbon steel.)

Cutting the blank: the basic shape

of the steel can of course be formed
entirely by hammering from a raw chunk
of steel into any shape desired. In
practice, it is much more efficient to
take a bar of steel of the desired
thickness, cut it roughly to the desired
shape then work it into a blade.
Methods include:

Profiling: drilling a series of holes

close together, then hack sawing them
into a line.

Abrading: using a circular saw with a

metal cutting abrasive blade to cut
the lines

Profiling by abrading: for complex shapes,

cutting a series of lines in
tangential to the desired line, then
cutting the resultant cut ends to the
desired line.

Torch cutting: Preheating the surface

to red with a mixture of oxygen and
acetylene gases, then turning the oxygen
up high and burning a hole in the
metal. The torch is run smoothly along
the desired line, and the heat of
the burning metal at the tip heats the
nearby metal sufficiently to allow
it to ignite as the torch reaches it.

Plasma arc cutting: Running a very hot

spark across a gap, and blowing gas
past it at high pressure; this creates
a jet of plasma which blasts a hole
thru the metal, run along the line at a
good speed this created a smooth
line and heats the remainder of the
piece very little.
Water jet cutting: A very high pressure
jet of water with sand particles is
directed at the metal and blasts a hole
thru, running along to create the

Shearing: The metal is placed along a

step line, and a very heavy weight is
dropped along the step line, forcing
the protruding portion to break off
and drop down. This can be used only
to create straight lines

Die Cutting: Similar to Shearing,

a die is formed with the complete profile
of the blade, and stamped down with
several tons of pressure to "cookie
cut" the shape out.

Milling: A rapidly spinning tool

similar to a router blade is moved along
the perimeter for the blade.

We commonly use a CAD

driven plasma arc cutter for complex
shapes, and a combination of shearing
and abrading for simple shapes.

The blade itself can then be shaped

in a variety of ways, which fall into
two wide categories:


Forging: moving orange hot metal

by repeated hammer blows on an anvil.

Drop forging: placing the hot metal

between two relief molds, then smashing
it into the form with a sudden multi-ton blow.

Rolling: squeezing a hot bar of

metal thru a set of rollers set at angles.


Cold forging: moving metal by hammer

blows against an anvil while at room
temperature. Only feasible with soft
metals, and at that much more force is
needed than would be at high temperatures.

Stock Removal : grinding away metal to

leave only the desired shape

LaForge generally uses a combination of

hot forging and stock removal to
create finished pieces.

Bead blasting is a process similar to

sandblasting; tiny beads of glass are
blown at high pressure at the surface to
remove the scale and create a
smooth finish. It is very quick, and no
skill is necessary, so the process
can be automated. The equipment is expensive,
large and loud, probably not
appropriate to small workshops.
It is superior to sandblasting in that the
beads are uniform in size and better behaved,
leaving a smoother surface.
The non automated version of the
equipment (which is all I have used)
consists of a large box with a lexan
window and two holes sealed around
heavy neoprene gloves. You pass a
piece of metal thru a door, and pick it
up with one glove while handling a
hose nozzle with the other. Switch on
with a foot control, and spray the
piece, moving it around until you have
blasted the entire surface smooth.
The box has a vacuum at the bottom which
sucks the beads back in and shoots
them out the nozzle again.


Tempering is the heat treating

process used to change the molecular
structure of a blade. For a simple
example of differing molecular
structure, consider carbon. At room
temperature, pure carbon can be found

Soot: completely non connected

individual molecules of carbon. Really just
powder, no cohesiveness at all. Dead black in color.

Coal: a loose conglomeration of

carbon with a fairly random structure.
Breakable soft rock in form.
>From flat to a glossy black, depending on the
actual structure and other minerals mixed in.

Graphite: molecules closely packed

in flat sheets, stacked closely
together. Pencil lead, as an example.
More solid and smooth, fractures
along planar levels.

Diamond: Molecules tightly bonded

in a close three dimensional array.
Clear, extremely hard, breaks along
cleavage planes.

Similarly, steels can be found in

a variety of structures while solid at
room temperature. The desired structures
can be bought into steel by the
process of heating to varying levels,
then cooling at controlled rates.

The part of the process with which most

people are familiar is quenching:
metal is heated to high temperatures,
as high as 2000 degrees or more,
depending on the exact steel alloy and
the desired characteristics; then
plunged still glowing into a liquid,
most often room temperature water, to
cool suddenly, locking the crystal
structure into the steel by passing thru
the other potential states too quickly
for the molecules to move into their
other patterns. Actually, different
steels have different ideal quenching
materials and procedures; A series for
example (like A-36) are air quench,
they cool properly left in room
temperature air. O series cool best in warm
oil, Salt water is used for many steels,
some exotic mixtures must be
cooled in a noble gas environment to
prevent oxidization.

Steels which have been quenched

are generally very hard, but often quite
brittle, a good tap with a hammer
and they shatter, not to mention what
would happen if crossed against another sword.
Thus, a second step, known
as drawing out, is used to toughen a
blade and possibly induce springiness.
The blade is reheated to somewhere
between 450 and 600 degrees, again
depending on the metal and desired
character, then cooled again, sometimes
by quenching, often air cooling,
sometimes even more slowly, leaving them
in the kiln and reducing temperatures
over as much as a full day until room
temperature is reached.

Robert Earhart
Fight Captain & Blacksmith