Pepsi Generation Sword Making
or POOF! You're a Swordsmith!In response to a reader that didn't like a short answer about making swords
I'm sorry if I was too hard on you. I get your, "I've never done any metal work and I want to make swords" question at least twice a month. So I've gotten a little jaded with the question and was probably harder on you than I should have been. I've intended to write an article on primitive sword making and the various levels of technology required for about 2 years but haven't had time.
Sword making is very difficult. Even a soft steel wall hanger is a huge job to do BUT it is a good place to start.
To make even a half decent (real) sword takes a great deal of metallurgical knowledge. Most of the top sword makers (such as Daryl Meier and Jim Hrisoulas) have their masters or doctorates in metallurgy or engineering. Those that do not have higher degrees studied the subject to an equivalent depth and ALL will tell you they are continuously learning new things about steel.
Starting from a lump of steel and forging it to a "long drawn out" shape is a job that only the obsessed modern hobbyist would finish. Since the beginning of time this scale work has always been done done using either a team of strikers with sledge hammers or a water powered tilt hammer. The second oldest metal processing machine after the tilt hammer (which probably dates to sometime BC) was the rolling and slitting mill (sometime around 1000 AD).
Even in the small blacksmith shop it was necessary to have assistants up until the time that small steam engines became available (and were shortly replaced by electric motors).
It is NOT just a matter of dedication and hard work. A piece of steel will only remain hot enough to work for a few seconds. Then is has to be reheated. These are called "heats". Each heat takes it toll on the piece of steel. Material is lost from scaling (scale is hard oxide that flakes off). You can easily lose a significant percentage of the steel with each heat. Some references way 2% but it is much less in a small forge. The steel also absorbs OR loses carbon from the fire. In either case the steel is not what you started with and may be worthless when you are through. Each heat also presents a chance to burn the piece. Burning the steel is VERY common and once burned the steel is ruined. For these reasons it is imperative that the steel be worked as fast as possible and in the fewest possible heats.
Working the steel fast requires LOTS of power. Machines to do it from a block or lump sized billet big enough to make a sword weigh TONS. Check our power hammer page for the type of equipment necessary. The only option is to start with a long piece of steel produced in a steel mill. Even those that forge swords and knives using power hammers start with the nearest size/shape material they can obtain.
Your feeling that the hardware store bar was not the right material is probably right. It IS however the perfect steel for a wall hanger or far reenactments. In either case is the sword NOT going to be actually used.
The steel used by knife and sword makers varies greatly but all of the "good" stuff is high carbon "tool" steel. The exotic blades (even in medieval patterns) are made from high strength high alloy modern super steels. The MOST exotic are made from laminated or "pattern welded" steels. AND there is even a significant number of makers making swords from meteoric iron. . .
The thing all these steels have in common is that they take great care in heating, forging and heat treating. Heating a piece of tool steel too fast in the forge can crack it before you start. Working the steel too hot or too cold can ruin the steel.
Improper heat treating can result in a blade that can shatter or break catastrophically. There have been two instances of sword breakage that I know of. In one the sword broke off at the tang and scared the heck out of the demonstrator. The broken blade could have flown off and struck someone in the audiance. He was lucky. No one was hurt. He was using a cheap soft sword for safety but it was poorly designed and made.
Sword making is the high art of blademaking and blacksmithing. It takes lots of study and practice.
You start with common soft iron blacksmithing. As you practice this until you have forging and metal working skills you need to study references on metallurgy and blade making. When you can forge a small knife shape from mild steel in two or three heats in soft mild steel then you are ready to forge tool steel.
THEN try to make a GOOD small cooks or kitchen knife. The steps and construction are exactly the same as making a sword except the scale (size) is much easier to handle. Once you can make a really good small knife you will have the skills and knowledge to make a sword. You will also know if you are up to the task. Double the size of a piece of work and the effort to produce it increases 8 fold (the cube of the increase in scale). A short sword 4 times longer than a kitchen knife will be 128 times the work.
Generally I take the questions asked on anvilfire much more seriously than the questioner. You can find much of the information on the net but you will find as much misinformation. Especially in the area of blade and sword making. You would not believe how many people post "how to" based on what they have seen in a Conan or Highlander movie (its ALL Hollywood hype).
30 years ago you would be stuck with seeking out one of a dozen armourers in the world to find out about sword making. Today there are hundreds of very good books (videos too) on blademaking and swordmaking. Check our book review page or contact Norm Larson books (his address is in our Getting Started article).
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