This year I will be teaching a class on the making and use of a common type of tool steel which was forged into tools and weapons in the Viking era. It is now often called “Shear Steel” to denote its high quality, i.e., suitable for demanding use in the blades of shears. The process will give the students a fascinating look into the relationship between heat, carbon, iron and steel, which is the fundamental basis for the Iron Age. The material we produce will have all of the characteristics we would want in a simple, modern carbon steel except one – boring homogeneity. It will be very close to the the tool steel a Viking blacksmith would have been familiar with. One of its remarkable and historic qualities will be its watery, layered structure – not seen in any modern steel. When welded into the blade of a tool or knife, then hardened and polished shear steel will have a beautiful grain like fine wood which is both decorative and evocative of the lively and earthy materials created and used by our ancestors.
Over the last couple of weeks I put some of my free time into forging a small, horned anvil with my friend Jonathan. I chose a simple form reminiscent of some of the horned anvils of the Viking era – basically a squarish anvil with a tapered base and a small, flush horn off of one face. The idea was to gain some skill with assembling an anvil body with a horn and to face both the body and the horn with one plate of steel. For the body and horn I chose mild steel and for the face I chose 1060 steel which withstands forge welding quite well and is nicely hardenable. To join the body and the horn so I could heat them together in a coke forge I borrowed an idea that I got from a random picture I saw on the internet. It was a copperplate engraving which showed the horn tenoned through the top of the anvil – probably from the Diderot encyclopedia. I scarfed the horn so that I could blend the seam of the weld to the body and it worked quite well. The steel face was tacked on with a few TIG welds to keep it on during its welding process. When it all survived the quench to harden the face I was very relieved! The anvil weighs 4.7 kg (10 lbs 6 oz) and is a little over 7 inches tall.
Below are pictures of the process and here is a LINK to video footage of welding the horn.
Date: September 3rd, 2016 (Saturday / 10am – 6pm)
Location: Wrought Academy / 2440 Adeline Street / Oakland CA 94607
Free Event / All are Welcome!
If you’re curious about the shop and the classes offered at Wrought Academy this is your chance to drop by and see what’s going on! We will be forging throughout the day to give you an idea of some of the skills taught here. Class projects will be on display as well as pieces from Jim Austin’s collection of forge work and tools. See you at the forge!
These pictures show the action at a recent blade-smithing class at Wrought Academy:
This year in May I got the opportunity to return to the Hjerleid Craft School in Dovre, Norway to teach a one week class on forging hammers in the Viking tradition. The year before I had taught Viking era axe forging - also at Hjerleid. Benjamin Kjellman-Chabin, the regular instructor of these students during their one-year blacksmithing course, was gracious enough to open this possibility to me once again, and the director of the school, Helle Hundevat, was generous enough give it her blessing. The students were a fine, enthusiastic lot and all succeeded in forging hammers by a historical and fascinating set of techniques.
I’ve been trying my hand at larger forge welding projects and decided to make some simple anvils in a style common to the Viking Age. The anvils were presumably mortised into stumps fairly deeply to give them good support for hammer work. The main challenge in anvil forging is to weld a high carbon steel face plate to a body of mild steel. The weights of the anvils shown range from 5 to 8 kilograms (11 to 18 pounds). The forge welding is done in a coke fire with the high carbon steel face tack-welded on the corners to the mild steel body. The most important thing is to be patient and get the pieces evenly heated to a very bright welding temperature without burning the steel face. Anhydrous borax is used as the flux. The welding is done with striking hammers wielded by two-man teams – usually myself and a friend. It typically requires 8 or 10 heats to finish welding and shaping a small anvil and the work is hot and strenuous. Nevertheless, we are gaining experience in heating larger masses of metal and learning different methods to get the welding done. The videos show short segments of the welding work. Someday I hope to turn out similar anvils with horns so I can forge Viking style axes with the proper tools!
Since watching Mattias Helje forge a beautiful, traditional carpenter’s axe in Sweden in 2015 I have done several trials of forging this axe myself. At first I concentrated exclusively on the eye and socket – the hardest part of the axe to understand. Recently I began to forge and understand the axe as a whole. In the forging process all of the features of the axe are interrelated, and these relationships have to be understood just as well as the forging techniques. This takes a LOT of practice. Numerous axes were started to answer just a single question about a measurement or choice of technique, and there were many questions to answer. At last it looks like I’m getting close to my goal – there are only a few points to clear up about the forging of this piece before I get ready to demonstrate it in April for the California Blacksmith Association.
This axe is 7.25″ long, has an edge length of 4.75″ and weighs 1270 grams. The body is mild steel and the edge and poll are 1075 steel.
Here are a few pictures of axes I made in the last couple of months, as well as some pictures from the Sonoma Coast and an amazing sunset as seen at my shop in West Oakland. The customer for one of the axes requested that I overlay some silver runes onto the poll. It was a gift for one of his commanding officers in the Army.
After some preliminary research on forging dimensions (stock size and fullering-layout) I began test-forging Swedish axe eyes using the information I’d gathered from Mattias Helje. The first order of business is to learn to forge the eye since it is used on several types and sizes of traditional Swedish axes. The axe below represents my second try to form the eye and my first effort to forge a complete axe in the Swedish tradition. It has an edge and a strike plate of 1075 steel. I managed to include all of the features of the eye that I was striving for, but I need to do a lot of work on the proportions of the eye and start to work on the blade shape. I think it’s a good beginning though.
From Oystein’s smithy I made my way by train and bus back north in Norway to the small town of Trysil on the border with Sweden. The next blacksmith of my Scandinavian axe journey, Mattias Helje, picked me up there and took me to his home and smithy in western Sweden in the town of Lima. Lima is in Dalarna county, which is steeped in tradition and has a long history of iron smelting and blacksmithing. With plentiful, clean charcoal fuel and pure iron ore, Sweden has long been famous for the quality of its steel. This steel was highly sought after in Europe for tool making for centuries – I recall it being specifically mentioned as the most prized material for anvil faces at the Refflinghaus anvil smithy in Germany in the 1980’s when I researched anvil forging tradition there. As I had hoped, Mattias forged a socketed axe for me of a type that is widespread in Sweden. He referred to it as a “carpenters axe” and told me that it hailed from central and northern Sweden. It was developed in the late 19th or early 20th century and was used through the 20th century. The particular axe that he reproduced for me was originally forged by Nygårds Martin Olsson (1859-1925). The unique, socketed eye is beautiful in form and, in Norway, is called a “Swedish Eye”.
After I left Hjerleid Craft School in Dovre I traveled to the coastal town of Sandefjord south of Oslo. Here I met and spent a few days with Øystein Myhre. Øystein forges axes and other traditional Norwegian tools in the very cool smithy which he built on his property. Based on his own collection of historical tools and tools brought to him by handworkers and museums, Øystein forges accurate, high quality replicas. Many of the axes and other tools he forges are put directly to use by timber builders for the construction and restoration of old buildings – some as old as the middle ages. On the first day of my visit Øystein forged a large ryarbile, which is an axe used to hew logs for house-building. Øystein explained that there is an enormous variety of axes which have been forged over the centuries in different parts of Norway. The Ryarbile axe was developed in the 1700′s and was particularly common in eastern Norway. Starting about 1860 it was produced on an industrial scale by the Mustad factory and sold all over Norway. It has an edge length of 5″ and weighs a bit over 4 pounds (1900 grams). In use it will be fitted with a straight haft of birch about 22″ long.