June 14, 2005
|This 11.375-in. blade was forged from 1095 steel; the habaki* is made from 40 percent shibuichi, gold-plated nickel silver seppa, and Damascus tsuba.*See glossary at the end of the article for swordsmithing terms. Photo courtesy of Don Fogg.|
What is it about forged and polished steel sharpened to an edge only a few atoms wide and hafted with exotic wood shards that so totally captures the imagination? I am speaking, of course, about custom blades—those born all alone in the hell-fire of a bladesmith's forge; beaten from a pedigreed high-carbon tool steel sliver; shaped by the smith's imagination; heat treated; polished; and furnished with oosik, fossil wooly-mammoth tusk, desert ironwood, or a thousand other materials most people have never heard of. This is the custom bladesmith's world.
In previous articles I have explored modern blacksmithing, which led me to want to learn more about bladesmithing. Most blacksmiths consider bladesmithing the highest art of blacksmithing. Within the bladesmith community are even more elite artisans—the swordsmiths. The blacksmithing Web sites mentioned over and over again Don Fogg Knives, so I paid a visit to www.dfoggknives.com.
Don Fogg is among the grand old men of custom blades. He began his professional career in 1979, when he attended his first show in Birmingham, Ala. Before that Fogg operated his own blacksmith shop, but always was interested in swordsmithing. He estimates that there are fewer than a dozen professional swordsmiths working in the U.S. today. A search of the Internet easily would return hundreds of custom knifemakers, but few swordsmiths. The obvious reason for this tiny swordsmith population is limited demand. I asked Don the same question that I asked blacksmiths: How do you stay in business? The answer, like the man, is complicated.
First, we need to understand that swordsmithing is almost lost in Western civilization and barely surviving in the East. Second, it is not a business, as most think. Swordsmithing truly is an art form. It is incredibly labor-intensive, heavily dependent on artistic skill, imagination, and a little help from your friends.
Don Fogg works at his power hammer.
Fogg moved from New England to set up shop in rural Jasper, Ala., to be near his friend and mentor, Jimmy Fikes. It also helped that Alabama's cost of living was more attractive and the climate more inviting than New England's. In 1981 he received his Master Bladesmith accreditation from the American Bladesmith Society by passing a difficult and comprehensive test (go to www.americanbladesmith.com/ABS_MSTest.htmfor details).
Fogg built most of his own heat-treating and forging equipment, including a 20-ton hydraulic press for making pattern-welded Damascus steels. He also operates a 50-lb. mechanical power hammer (see Figure 1) and an assortment of lathes, mills, drill presses, band saws, and grinders. However, he uses these power tools sparingly and with discretion. His work retains the look of intense hand labor, as it should. He does most finishing by hand with scrapers and stones.
The blade of the short sword is made from 1095 steel. It has nickel- silver fittings and a carved ebony handle.
Sword blade forging and finishing processes can vary from one smith to another. Generally, a blade begins as a piece of 1-in. round 1070 to1095 steel (see Figure 2), although other grades are popular. A short section is heated to a forging temperature of 2,300 degrees F; the tip is forged to a blunt point and then the round is forged flat successively. The blade then is counterbent downward, into the edge, to offset the bending that takes place when the edge is forged.
Next, the edge is tapered, leaving the spine at the full cross-sectional thickness. As the edge is thinned, it expands in length, causing it to bow against the bend forged previously. If done correctly, the resulting bow tilts slightly upward, as is generally desired. After the forging is completed, the blade is annealed to soften it for further finishing. It is scraped, ground, and polished to the near-final condition.
Many swordsmiths heat-treat their blades in a manner similar to traditional Japanese methods. They apply a thin clay layer to the blade's back and sides and leave the edge exposed. As the blade is heated and quenched to harden it, the clay slows down the quench on the sides and back and prevents these areas from being hardened. Consequently, the edge is very hard, but the sides and back are fairly soft. This provides a tough support for a hard, brittle edge.
Macadamia Wakisashi—The hand forged high-carbon steel blade is selectively heat-treated and polished to show a very active hamon. The blade length is 21.5 in.; overall length is 29 in. The habaki is forge textured copper, as is the fushi kashira. The handle material is macadamia wood that has a braided silk wrap.
After tempering, the blade is polished and etched to reveal a hamon, which is the transition line between the hard edge and the softer side. A properly produced hamon is considered a thing of great beauty (see Figure 3). After final polishing, the blade is fitted with the tsuba, or guard, and woven handle. The smith may or may not make the scabbard.
I asked Fogg a few oblique questions about his business, and he answered them with easy directness. His business relies on people with disposable income. His work is much sought after and does not come cheap. However, profit is not his primary motive.
This handle is carved ebony. The pin is shibuichi with Fogg's gold logo.
Fogg no longer goes to shows because of a family illness. However, his Web site generates sufficient business to maintain a comfortable backlog. Including traffic to its bladesmith forum, the Web site generates about 700,000 hits per month. For other master bladesmiths, as well as beginning knifemakers, the Web site is a fountain of practical information, camaraderie, and encouragement. Visitors to the site are welcome. Posted pictures showing blade work being done around the world are amazing.
Fogg's work has the qualities of fine jewelry—crisp lines, high polish, elegant design, and expensive materials (see Figure 4). I asked him why he does not make more jewelry. He said he makes some, but his first love has always been steel. His love affair with iron is a malady widely shared by the blacksmithing community.
We talked at length about what it was that drew us into smithing, what visceral emotion kept us so enthralled in this most traditional human activity. We both understood the attraction, but found it difficult to explain.
For Fogg, knife- and swordmaking is a process of self-discovery. "For the last five years, I have been working at learning how to create hamon, or temper lines, in the steel. To do this, I produced quite a few small blades so I could run more numbers. I really don't have a preference, nor do I have any model lines. I follow the thread; each knife raises questions, and the next works towards the answer."
I asked Don where he goes from here. He replied, "I will not live long enough to do all the things that I truly want to do, so I am learning to focus on what I might reasonably be able to accomplish. I am interested in teaching and writing and hope to spend more time on that as I get older. I do believe in long-range goals and try to have a plan for the next five years, so I can move in a steady direction. The plan is always subject to change, and I will try to stay flexible. The real feedback comes from the work and my interaction with it." Fogg has many friends and admirers who will be following with interest his continuing journey of discovery.
Glossary of Terms
Damascus: A mixture of high- and low-carbon steels forgewelded together to form intricate patterns and textures
For a complete list of Japanese sword terms, go to www.reninet.com/shoshin/glossary.htm.