From raw steel to a knight’s blade
This is the fifth part of a eight-part interview by Carlo Cavazzuti and appeared in its original Italian version on Narrare di Storia.
From raw steel to a knight’s blade, which materials, techniques and tricks does a swordsmith use? Today we dive into the process, and we’ll talk about techniques, curiosities and financials too!
Q12. A couple of years ago, I asked Rodolfo if he was able to make me an Indian Pata, a sort of gauntlet with the blade of a sword on it. Those who have seen Willow couldn’t forget it. He said no because he’s not an armourer, and I left with my project, which still remains to be completed. Can you explain to the less experienced the difference between blacksmith, swordsmith and armourer? Unfortunately, there are still some legends going around that say that a blacksmith who makes spades and ploughshares can make swords and armour.
Eleonora: Effectively, a good distinction must be made, even if today the only truly surviving craft is that of the blacksmith, in its different forms. The difference simply lies in what, today, we love to call “know-how”: a blacksmith will hardly have the necessary knowledge to make a sword, even if perhaps he has some of the tools that would allow him to try.
In fact, not by chance, at the end of the Middle Ages in Florence, blacksmiths belonged to l’Arte dei Fabbri (the Art of Blacksmiths) while swordsmiths and armourers belonged to l’Arte dei Corazzai e Spadai (the Art of the Armourers and Swordsmiths). Each profession, as well as each subsection of said profession, has specific knowledge and tools, such as, to start with the basics as an example, the hammer. The hammers used by a farrier are certainly not the same as those used by a sword maker and likewise, they differ from those of an armourer.
The great difference among the branches of the trade can also be seen in the present, If you ask a great blacksmith or cutler to make a sword, they could have troubles starting from the design, the proportions and the dynamic properties of the sword as an object.
Q13. Let’s talk about materials. There are many different types of steel, and usually even more alloys. How do you choose the best one for a blade?
Rodolfo: It depends on what performance is required of that sword for use in the modern world. We could write a treatise on a question like this! I could also tell you that by combining multiple steels, you can obtain excellent results.
The fact is that today we’re privileged. We know exactly how much carbon or manganese is present in the steel we choose through a chemical analysis.
We can also choose exactly the composition we like and we know exactly the parameters for the heat-treatment process. Nonetheless, that tiny annoying enthropy we are victim of turns out to influence the result. The steel is not perfect, as the heat-treatment can fail, and sometimes you know it before, sometimes not. It’s the risk of a crafting business like this!
Q14. Many people rave about the steel of Toledo, Salamanca, Solingen, as well as that of Damascus and Japanese steel. Why did they become so important? Is it true that they are exceptional for blades?
Rodolfo: Certain places of production definitely boast a reputation that is well-deserved: let’s not forget that it is not so much the steel itself that is good, but rather those who know how to work it. Specialised craftsmen with knowledge handed down for generations were able to obtain enviable results, even by today’s standards. Generally, I could say that the production centers that also function as centers of cultural relevance had a certain edge. (You didn’t mention Milan, for example, home of the Missaglia Armourers).
It is certainly true they were very important centers of production, as much as their legend still lives today, even if the sword production is not their core for obvious reasons anymore! Also, legends can sometimes be a little blown out of proportion, above all in the present time.
Q15. Are there forging techniques of the past that have been lost or that are no longer replicable?
Rodolfo: ... What is lost cannot be known or replicated; we can come close through the observation of artefacts with a sort of “retro engineering” but often what makes the difference, like in western martial arts of ancient times, is the oral transmission between teacher and apprentice. This oral tradition, having been interrupted, has brought us back to experience things that were probably taken for granted.
When it comes to replicate an artifact you always have to analyse the why and hows. Sometimes the right question, beyond materials, is: how can I replicate that detail to achieve the same effect? What modern technologies do I have at my disposal and what is the best compromise? Can I use a similar technique or have I to keep it more efficient? Because it’s also a matter of efficiency most of the times. We’ll never forge a blade for sport if it’s not strictly requested for some reason, we’ll go with the stock removal process to keep the costs more affordable. Or another example: the gilding technique was made with a risky process by using mercury. Today also safety and health reasons prevent us to use the same technique, so we’ll have to search for an alternative.
Q16. Let’s talk about vile pecunia. The idea that the sword was once a precious object isn’t wrong, in fact, quite the contrary. A sword is an object that, if well-made, had and rightly still has significant costs. Without having to deal with historical numismatics regarding Fiorini, Grossi, Testoni, etc. and sticking to the better known Euro, how much would the sword of a noble lord have cost, provided we can make that comparison?
Eleonora: The comparison is only possible if we know exactly what characteristics the sword has. If we’re talking about a blade of a great gentleman, perhaps to be exhibited, decorated with precious stones, gold and enamel, I believe it could cost as much as a luxurious car; what model of car would depend on the degree of preciousness.
In the past, as nowadays, materials, hours and skills have a budget. We’re like tailors when it comes to a custom work, so we are called to have the ability to cut and sew the dress – or the sword – on the customer.
So, from raw steel to a knight’s blade it’s a long way! And it’s a hard job but someone still makes it!
Keep up following us for other contents about the swordsmithing world!
Next episode coming soon 〉〉