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.
The day after I landed in Oslo I took a 3-1/2 hour train trip north to the Hjerleid Craft School in the town of Dovre. I spent the next 10 days there teaching a class on forging Viking age axes. There were 12 students in the 1-year class, which is run by Benjamin Kjellman-Chapin – head of the blacksmithing department. The enthusiasm of Benjamin and the students was awesome and each student finished an axe. Although I’d had some second thoughts just before I left about my commitment to teach a relatively difficult subject to so many students so far away, the class was a great success and a huge amount of fun as well! I miss them all and hope to return.
In early April I traveled to Norway and Sweden for a month-long trip to study traditional axe forging. Axes are still used there to hew and join logs for the construction and maintenance of beautiful, traditional houses. Below are a few pictures from my first day in Oslo. Both the weather and the scenery were amazing. Follow-up posts on this trip will show a class that I taught in Norway on Viking-style axe forging and my visits with several blacksmiths who taught me forging techniques for axes that date back to the Medieval era.
Last year I came across a couple of images on the internet which showed tools recovered from the graves of Viking blacksmiths. In both cases there were hammers of a particular, one-sided design which nowadays is associated with blade smithing. When I saw the first picture, which Matt Stagmer posted to Facebook from the book “The Vikings”, I was immediately struck by the similarity of the hammer eyes to axe eyes formed by wrapping and forge welding. Owen Bush posted his own picture from Norway of the same set of tools (second picture). In this case there was even an axe with the same eye. Another picture of a recent find of Viking blacksmithing tools from a grave showed similar hammers, albeit with simpler, rectangular eyes (third picture):
Following a hunch I decided to see if I could devise a method of forging these styles of hammers using welding procedures borrowed from early axe construction. My criteria were that I should get similar hammer forms which showed no traces of the forge welding used to stick them together. They would have soft iron bodies and faces of high-carbon steel. In brief here is what I came up with:
It took about 4 tries to end up with a hammer which showed no seams. The essential point was to weld at a sizzling hot temperature (almost to the point of burning the iron) and reduce the body down quite a bit to the final cross section (I reduced it by a factor of 2). From the standpoint of a Viking blacksmith using bloomery iron, a hammer forged this way would have been refined in both the eye and body sections due to drawing down their cross sections -thus giving a better orientation of the slag inclusions. This would not necessarily have been the case for a hammer with a punched eye.
One of my longest standing goals as a professional blacksmith has been to forge socketed wood working axes in the traditions of northern European examples. In my opinion these axes are quite possibly the most beautiful tools in the world. The forge welding in these axes is complex and requires a strategy, tool-set and control of form which showcases the extraordinary skills possessed by many traditional blacksmiths. After tackling asymmetrically welded eyes on traditional Viking axe forms over the last 4 years (by no means a finished topic for me) I have recently turned my attention to the techniques needed to produce socketed axes. I have researched various techniques and followed the work of wonderful blacksmiths in Scandinavia, Europe and the US to see how I might approach this. The pictures below show the progress I’ve made by my 3rd trial socket. It is produced by free-hand forging on a power hammer and was made without a mandrel. I learned a lot on this piece and in the work leading up to it. I hope to travel this year to meet some of the smiths I admire so that I can learn much more about this process from them and about specific axes produced for timber framing and carving over the last several centuries.
Two new 3 lb. Viking style hammers are on their way to customers today. One is going to a blacksmith in France and the other to a friend just north of me here in California. Both have low-carbon steel bodies forge welded to high-carbon faces and peens. The process is very time consuming but it is very satisfying to do. One advantage to it is that the punching and drifting of the eye is done in a fairly soft steel and is much easier to perform. This is a big help since the strong, asymmetric taper of this hammer profile makes it difficult to keep the eye-hole straight. These hammers should give many years of good service.
This pair of axes is ready to go to a good customer in the South East. He asked for a somewhat “matched” set to mount together so I picked out 2 pieces of similar size and heft which complimented each other from a small batch of axes I was working on. He wanted a finish with a bit of patina so I used the heat treating stage to reveal the steel bit with an “etch” from the furnace. The asymmetric joint is also subtly accented this way. To give a bit of color to the eye of the axe I used a finely filed surface to retain a bit of temper color. The overall effect is very nice.
At long last the DVD Tutorial entitled “Forging a Viking-Age Broad Axe / Traditional Asymmetric Wrap” is finished and ready to ship! A joint project with film maker Anna Geyer, this DVD has been over a year in the making. It is 62 minutes long, professionally produced, and covers in great detail the process of forging a broad axe by the asymmetric wrap technique which was the standard method of the Viking age. The process is carried out completely by hand with standard blacksmithing tools (plus a few special-purpose tools I developed) and the help of a striker. The cost of this DVD is $35 (the same as for my first DVD: ”Forging a Bearded Viking Axe’). As a special offer to the first 40 customers who purchase this DVD I will offer free shipping. After that a $5 shipping fee will apply.
I got the opportunity to teach a course in the Iron Studio at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. The name of the course is “Silver Overlay for Blacksmiths”. In it I will lead students in the forging of small articles of iron which they will then decorate with pure silver by the process known as Damascening or Koftgari. As an example for the students I just forged a Thor’s Hammer pendant and overlaid it with hair-thin, fine silver wire. The wire catches in a hand-applied texture on the surface of the steel and is peened and burnished to finish it. This technique is quite ancient, yet fairly easy to learn. It can add striking beauty to otherwise plain objects!
My friend Jeff Pringle has been using his own method to smelt magnetite sand from the beach into high-carbon steel for years. About a week ago we used a slightly new approach to make a small “biscuit” of very sound metal which was large enough to yield 2 knife blades. Here are some pictures of the process.