Technology And Bladesmithing Is the craft defined by the product or the process?
Posted 21 June 2012 - 07:08 AM
I thought it might be interesting to start a discussion on technology and its involvement in bladesmithing. So let me set the stage for the discussion and we can see where things go. Just remember to be polite when you respond because I would expect this topic to engender some differences of opinion.
Premise: This is an old craft dating back thousands of years. Bladesmithing has history and lore surrounding it. The very essence of the ABS is to maintain the knowledge and skills of that craft and make sure they are not lost to future generations.
Background: While at the Blade Show I had some very interesting discussions with smiths who are using all sorts of technology to produce their blades and damascus patterns. One smith told me that he rarely uses a hammer any more relying on jigs and dies to accomplish most of what a smith would have done 100 or even 25 years ago. In some cases I was told by another smith that the pattern in one of his damascus blades would be distorted if he actually forged it into its blade shape, so he grinds the blade shape. Many smiths have fairly high tech equipment and there are all sorts of computer aided machines to produce a blade from a block of steel to a finished product.
Proposition: I am slowly acquiring all these tools and pieces of equipment over the years. One of the better tools I bought a few years ago was a nice surface grinder. There is no question that having perfectly parallel surfaces has improved the fit and finish of my knives. When it comes to heat treating I have been using salt tanks for almost twenty years. I program into a computer that controls my salt tank temperature the sequences of heat that I desire for a particular knife and steel. I do not design my knives on a computer, but I have. I like most of the smiths in this field like tools and equipment.
Argument: I still love to take hammer to steel. Today, I could easily never pick up a hammer and still complete the blade. I could even do it faster and possibly with more precision if I did not use a hammer. Still, I pick up the hammer and forge the blade shape and bevels as best I can. I cling to that one part of forging a knife that goes back throughout history. In that moment I am no different than the smith in Denmark/Norway/China/Japan, etc. across thousands of years. We heat the steel and with the strength and skill of the smith force the steel to take on the shape and form of a knife or a sword.
So, am I a bladesmith if I never take a hand held hammer to hot steel? What defines us?
Posted 21 June 2012 - 08:19 AM
I'm very interested in hearing others opinions on this subject.
What defines us as a Bladesmith ?
I feel the use of modern tools is irrelevent to our classification as is the skill level of the induvidual.
In my humble opinion-
What defines us as bladesmith is our desire to gain the knowledge and experience needed to forge blades and reach a minimum competency in the art of forging blades. Such as a title earned through education like BA, MA, or PHD there is no expiration of the title bladesmith.
Are you still a bladesmith if you don't hand hammer your blades ? Absolutely. So long as you have the ability too if you wish.
So what really defines us... Knowledge
Posted 21 June 2012 - 08:26 AM
Wiki defines a BladeSmith
As I often tell my clients ( I work in the IT field ) technology can be a curse and a blessing and often the overlap is diverse, wide and very confusing. Without technology we would not be having this discussion on this forum. With technology we can do great and wonderful things. Because of technology we as a society have become distant, loosing physical social interactions and alienating ourselves from each other. Because of technology many art forms and techniques have been lost/degraded/threatened, i.e. damascus, wootz, forging, photography, penmanship, sketch artist, music, calligraphy, books, etc.. the casualty list is always increasing.
Having said that I also like to tell people that technology is just a tool and should be used to help educate, with knowing the history we understand and appreciate things on a much deeper level of enlightenment. One simply can not appreciate the beauty of power steering and power brakes until they have driven a vehicle with out those features.
One of the most troubling arguments I have seen, most recently in fact, was one person claimed stock removal was better than forging yet folding steel is still shrouded in myth and many people claim steel has to be folded. I think the answer to your question will get a very wide range of reply's but keep this in mind there will always be many degree's and levels of the answer. Some will say true smiths will make their own steel and never need electricity others will say you can do minimal forging and the rest stock removal.
Posted 21 June 2012 - 09:25 AM
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Posted 21 June 2012 - 09:31 AM
The world we live in in ever evolving, and along with that, just about every aspect of that world evolves too. Bladesmithing is no different. I believe that each individual must set their own standards and "rules" for how they do things, and what they use to do them.
Not only do we evolve based on the available tools, but in many cases because of society, marketing, and production. For example, I can remember a time when customers would ask if a milling machine had been used to produce any part of a knife, and many considered it taboo if a milling machine had been used. Later came the issue of laser and waterjet cutting parts. Not so many years ago, Bladesmiths were very secretive, or would outright lie about using either. As generations come and go in the knife world, mindsets, and thought patterns change from "unacceptable" to "the norm". Waterjet cutting being one of those. Let's consider the "tatical" knife market. To even be remotely competitive it's almost a necessity to utilize waterjet cut parts. In fact I have often heard over the last few years...."Who waterjet your parts"....as if it is expected.
While I still cling to my hand held hammer, and use it, there are situations, dictated by any number of circumstances that cause me to embrace and use the "modern technologies" too.
A final thought.....as I get older, I am fully aware that my body will not allow me to swing a 3-4lb hammer all day long. In the interest of being able to keep doing what I love, for as long as I can, I own and use an air hammer, a forging press, as well as salt tanks, and various other "modern technologies" BUT, without the knowledge and experience I have gained over 25+ years of Bladesmithing, none of them would be of much benefit. All the "high tech" tools and gizmos in the world will not make you a Bladesmith......only time, effort, experience, and knowledge can fill the void.
Posted 21 June 2012 - 09:53 AM
I've seen amazing blades made both by forging and stock removal, I see no real advantage to either as far as performance, so it seems to be an issue of what you like to do. Like I said before, my favorite part is working with red hot steel so I will stick to forging.
Posted 21 June 2012 - 10:17 AM
A fine topic to ponder and the most sweltering day of the year so far, out of the forge and into the frying pan.
To answer your final question, No !
We know that the term Smith is clearly defined as one who strikes metal by hand to form it into useful objects, knives are useful and if one is to forge them by means of hand striking the material or even to use a power hammer/press and refine and define the shapes by hand; then I would vote them a smith of blades. The use of the term based on its lore and history as a marketing tool is something the entire craft of “smithing” has dealt with for many years and we will most likely continue to see it used for these purposes. This fact does not worry me too much as when one is asked to prove their mettle, those who can’t fall short.
The forum to prove your mettle is where the ABS is unique. By the levels of skill defined by the ABS, require one to prove their ability to smith or forge a knife. To do this well and with any form of consistency requires the skill to be honed to the point where by your peers deem you to be of adequate skill to be a Journeymen or Master. I am happy to be apart of this group who has the nerves enough to hold people to a standard. I also hope other associations move towards this routine for those who wish to hold a title of competency. It often means you have to be willing to ruffle some feathers and hurt some feelings, but there are no subtle ways to tell some one,” you are not good enough yet”.
Your question about the use of technology however is a muddier stream to see through. My feeling is that this is and can only be a question to ask if there are alternative methods. Were we asking this question 200 years ago, pre salt pots, pre hydraulic press, power hammer, surface grinder? At what point would we define the basis of “traditional” weather its bladesmithing or blacksmithing it’s always popped up as a defining question. Unless we are pressed into marketing ourselves as strict traditional smiths, the use of new technology will always work its way into the field, it’s the nature of any industry to improve if possible and to not employ new technology would be to specialize in “traditional” methods.
I see no right or wrong in either case but would rather see the sincerity and integrity of the methods used within the highest level of craftsmanship possible. The choice of methods or technology one chooses is what defines them as a craftsmen, it’s the premise I live by and run the school on. No matter what your methods are, they have to be used neatly and properly.
The rate at which one removes themselves or their hand work from the craft has to be closely monitored to maintain this integrity. Is a knife designed solely by CAD, machined by CNC, heat treated by computer still hand made by the person who skillfully touched and ran the machines ?
Posted 21 June 2012 - 11:52 AM
Nice and very thoughtful responses on this topic. Obviously, I have my own opinions on the issue which I would prefer not to express until later. Josh indicates that what defines us is knowledge and search for it (sorry if I am taking liberties with your words). I kind of like that in sense of the open sharing of information that the ABS supports as an educational organization. It is about knowledge but certainly that is not the only thing that defines us. Obviously, there are many knowledgeable and open stock removal makers who share knowledge and seek the knowledge. Yet, we are different.
Ed's response includes a useful definition for our discussion and I believe Ed's personal description begs the question of where along the continuum does technology take over. If the steel was hot forged by a stamping machine, ground clean and polished, inserted into a machine cut handle and it never touches a human hand until it is time for a quality control inspection, is it forged? What if the inspector is a bladesmith?
What if I use a vast amount of technology similar to the machine made description above and never hold a hammer, am I still a bladesmith? Suppose I forge out an oversized blade with hammer, files and grinder. I then take my oversized blade and use a pantograph to cut out and shape the final blade? What makes us what we are when we say we are bladesmiths and we forge our knives?
Posted 21 June 2012 - 12:00 PM
I consider myself a bladesmith. So far I have avoided using the stock removal method except for folders. I say "avoided", because as a bladesmith, I want/need to forge the blade and, sometimes, the fittings. It's something I have imposed upon myself as a challenge. You could say it's a philosophy. It has no bearing at all on what I think others should do.
The problem with philosophies is that they sometimes require time to fulfill all of the "necessary" qualifying elements. For instance, sometimes stock removal would be faster, but I feel this need to forge. So I forge. I want to get good at it and that takes time. It has it's own set of pitfalls if you are not so good at it, but you persevere and get good at it eventually.
The need to save time affects most of us. Time is money, right? It's just that some are willing to be a little slower to satisfy that urge to do as much as possible to make the knife in a more traditional way. I have discovered that I like traditional ways. I choose hand work over machine work when possible. I add subtle ergonomics, even in places where they were not traditionally put. I believe this influences the "look" of my knives and can be recognized by an experienced eye.
I think that your philosophy shows in your work. If you have a machinist's back ground and you think in such terms and use the machinist's tools to do most of the work, you will make a knife that is technically very precise, but may suffer in other areas, such as design or flow. On the other hand, precision is part of what makes a knife a good knife. The balance point has to be decided by each smith. I personally stress the forging and hands on methods. Does the fact that I have very little machinist's training influence my approach? Sure it does. That's why neither is frown upon. It is what it is.
I do see a trend that I believe puts some at a disadvantage. Some makers favor the frontier look with rough forged finishes. While they look great when done well, I believe newer makers, for their own good, should avoid getting distracted by this style. At least till they get better at turning a forged blade into a finished knife with hand sanded finish and a fit that is consistantly well executed. I believe this style is a time waster when viewed from the standpoint of someone who is planning to test for their stamp. Besides, I will venture to say that someone who does good fit and finish can do a better job at the frontier look anyway. Fit and finish is that important. Just something to consider.
Bladesmithing places a responsibility on me. I start the design with the first hammer blow. How I forge the blade influences the whole project. That makes me, myself, a more integral part of the process of making a knife. It makes it more personal to me and this responsibility carries me through each part of the knife till the whole thing is finished.
Posted 21 June 2012 - 12:03 PM
I certainly like the discussion and I think each person who responds is adding to the shared concept of who we are. I personally do not think it is about money, physical ability (my own aging begs me to use more technology), but how what we do defines us as a class of artists and craftsmen (btw those two terms may be redundant). I think this kind of dialogue is useful and requires revisiting as technology changes. In the long run our definition of who we are will likely change, but for now this discussion helps us "forge" our identity.
Posted 21 June 2012 - 12:14 PM
Thanks for sharing some really cogent and insightful ideas into the dialogue. For example when you say, "It's something I have imposed upon myself as a challenge", I resonate to that idea. This is not an anti-technology or tool discussion.
"Bladesmithing places a responsibility on me" is another comment that I certainly agree with strongly. I choose to use a hammer and that influences some aspects of the design. If it were all about reaching a predetermined design, then maybe I am an artist/craftsperson/machinist, but that does not mean that I am a bladesmith.
There was a time when bladesmithing almost died out. Stock removal of stainless steels was quicker and sold more knives. Use of alternatives to forging with steels not conducive to fire and anvil became the direction most took. Many who forged their knives quit and took the other path. It is not a wrong path, just a different way to go. It was and is not today, the same path that most bladesmiths follow. Is there a lesson to be learned from that history?
Posted 21 June 2012 - 01:36 PM
I aimed my 1st response towards the question "who is a bladesmith" in reguards to the person not the product of that person's labor.
What exactly constitutes a forged blade ?
Is forged to profile shape a forged blade or must the bevels be forged in also. How about tapers and clips ?
Focusing specifically on the knife, or more specifically, the blade itself adds another dimension to the discussion.
Is any blade made of damascus considered a forged blade ? My logic tells me this is not the case otherwise we would consider any damascus blade a forged blade and any maker who uses damascus a bladesmith.
While making damascus is an operation that certainly requires forging I feel that when damascus is in billet form it's still a raw material. To transform the raw material into a forged blade it must IMHO be forged to shape. Otherwise it's a stock removal blade. Of course this has its place and produces some amazing blades I personally still wouldn't consider it a forged blade.
As to the use of surface grinders, mills, salt pots, etc I feel it's all fair play once the blade is forged to shape. It's still a forged blade made by a bladesmith.
Excellent topic Dan ! On other forums I would've passed on posting but if us youngsters are too carry on the ABS tradition it's important for us to interact and have a good understanding of our organization and roots.
Great discussion thus far. I hope more folks weigh in with their opinions
Posted 21 June 2012 - 04:32 PM
But, back to the question of what is a bladesmith? Must the blade be forged to shape with a hammer? If I'm not mistaken, the M.S. test Quillion Dagger doesn't have to be forged to shape. As I've understood it in other posts on this site, the forging of the damascus makes it a "forged" blade, then it can be ground down to retain certain patterns the maker wants to have in the finished knife. So, if the ABS sees a billet of damascus then put into a stock removal method as qualifying for a M.S. stamp, would that not be considered to be made by a "bladesmith"? (If I've misunderstood the ABS requirement, which is entirely possible..., someone please correct me.) Now, I suppose someone who orders a billet made by someone else and does no forging themselves, that might be a different case.
One thing I'm thankful for in the folks I've met/talked to among the ABS and those who forge knives is very little bickering/judgement of others over titles and terms. To me, if I start putting someone in a box for the way they make a knife, where would it stop? If they use super nice hydraulic presses or power hammers, are they less of a maker than the guy using some really old belt driven power hammer? Or is that guy less of a maker than the one only using files? Or how about the guy using a propane forge vs. a coal forge? I'd have a really hard time saying the guy who uses a power hammer or press, or computer controlled salt pots, is less than a bladesmith.
Posted 21 June 2012 - 06:17 PM
While the term bladesmith may be falling victim to this trend, I will elude to some other words that are much more suspect.
Driving a car -- driving was a term used for driving a horse or team of horses. Do we drive or operate a car?
Turn on a light. I may be dating myself, but many of the old barns around the area still had the light switches that you actually turned when I was a kid. Radios and TVs had the "turn on" stlye knobs as well.
Do we ever tell our kids to "sleep tight" when they go to bed. This is in reference to when bed frames were strung with rope and keeping the ropes tight kept the bed from sagging and allowed a more comfortable rest.
Sorry to go on and on, but my point is that words do not keep up with technology and maybe they don't need to as long as everyones preception of the word evolves with the process.
Not too many years ago a similar topic was discussed concerning hand engraving during the era that "power assisted engraving" became the norm and more recently, the definition of intergral knife was discussed at length. Both fall victim as well to the evelotion of the process yet the word gets left behind.
I still use the hand hammer and anvil and actually find it an enjoyable task that helps relieve the stresses of everyday life. I have also forged many Damascus blades completely with a hammer, but swinging a 12 lb cross peen all day will quickly wear out a body, so I evolved as well. Over the years I have made a press, rolling mill, purchased a surface grinder ect.
I know how I make my knives and prefer to discuss the process of doing so rather than use single words to describe the process because of the points I mentioned. I have even made up new terms like "ferrule type spacer" to accurately describe a component on my knife that served both functions.
Sorry again to run on, just some of my thoughts
Posted 21 June 2012 - 07:53 PM
I believe that a person should be able to forge a knife by hand if they are to be called a bladesmith. That does not mean that every knife they make has to be forged by hand, but they should have the skills to do it this way.
I like forging, it relieves stress for me, and I enjoy taking a plain bar of steel and creating art out of it. I guess you could say there is a certain romance to the image of the bladesmith standing in front of the forge with the anvil and hammer. As with Lin, I also consider it a personal challenge. If I have an image of a knife in my head, I really want to be able to forge that blade. Yes I can take a piece of steel and cut it out, but I think for me it loses something in the translation. That is just my personal feeling.
I do have tools that help me such as the power hammer for damascus, mill for guards, grinders, etc. For me they are aids to my craft. They speed things up. The machines and technology are there to help us, not make the knife for us. Yes you must have the knowledge to use this technology, but I think you also have to have the knowledge to know when to go back to the smithing skills that have been used for centuries.
In answer to your original question, I feel that in order to be called a bladesmith you must be able to take the hand held hammer and forge a blade.
I am sure I will think of more things. Good one Dan.
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Posted 21 June 2012 - 07:54 PM
This is a great topic / discussion! And, like all great discussions, it will be difficult to reach a consensus. That being said, here are my two cents:
I see it as being very simple. We don't generally refer to a person working in a modern steel foundry as a blacksmith...instead, they are a steel-worker. I believe that there are knife-makers and there are blade-smiths. They both can make a fantastic product, and there are advantages and disadvantages to both methods. However, a blade-smith uses the forge fire, anvil, hammer, and a specific skill set that goes along with those tools to actually create his knife, while the knife-maker uses a different set of tools and skill set to reveal the blade hidden in the bar of steel, much like a sculptor removes the un-necessary stone to reveal the final statue. The blade-smith uses many of the same techniques as the knife-maker, but takes it a step further with the forge to mold the blade to his will. If you haven't guessed by now, I prefer forging. There is definitely a whole lot more to learn to forge a blade to shape, which is why I forge. After I learned to forge a blade to shape and then finish it, I had the skills necessary to make a knife by the stock-removal method, but if I only knew how to use the stock removal method, I would not have the skill to forge the blade to shape. I would need to learn that additional set of skills. I also believe that sole-authorship of the knife defines a blade-smith. A blade-smith is a knife-maker, but a knife-maker is not a blade-smith, IMHO. So, I guess it's another vote for deeper skills and knowledge being the difference. I hope I didn't ramble too much, or offend anyone.
Posted 22 June 2012 - 07:41 AM
I do appreciate everyone's comments. I also like the idea, which I believe is accurate, in that bladsmiths have a "skill set" that other knifemakers do not. It also sounds like everyone agrees that I can use all sorts of tools and technologies as a bladesmith. It also appears that everyone so far agrees that everyone who calls themselves a bladesmith should be able to perform all the hammer/anvil/smithing techniques to produce a knife from a bar of steel. This is a beginning only in this discussion if everyone agrees with my summary. This discussion still has many elements yet to talk about and share ideas.
I will throw in to the mix another argument by example as others have done. I am a traditional bowhunter. If you go to the magazine, "Traditional Bowhunter" or read the organization's description of itself, they define a traditional bowhunter from one who is not. The lines are somewhat clear: no wheel bows (compounds), sights, mechanical releases, etc. Longbows and recurves are the primary tools. They intentionally as a group restrict certain things and impose a challenge upon themselves (thanks Lin for the wording). Philosophically, across many authors they see a connection that ultimately leads to a more full understanding of the relationship between hunting and the natural world. They argue that it requires a better knowledge of wood/field-craft and human-animal relationship to be successful. I cannot shoot as far with most longbows or recurves and it takes more skill and practice to be functional in the field. Of course they also embrace certain technologies as long as those technologies do not interfer with development of skill and knowledge of traditional hunting. Similar to us they embrace a history and tradition. So most traditional bowhunters are fine with high tech laminations and even carbon arrows. They have defined themselves in a relationship to something they value and as long as technology does not interfer with that relationship it is welcome and embraced.
So do we have something similar?
Posted 22 June 2012 - 04:12 PM
To me a bladesmith must have the knowledge to forge a knife to shape by hand using a forge of some type and be able to complete finish it by hand, draw filing the blade, rasping the handle to shape then finishing it out to the satisfaction of the client.
Now, to be a bladesmith, that does not mean you will do this on each knife but the knowledge to do this should be there.
Being full time means I have to balance tradition and making a living. I use a gas forge instead of charcoal or coal because it is more economical.
I use a milling machine to fit the guard instead of punching the hole and filing it to fit the tang. I use a power hammer or press. As Ed mentioned they used power assisted hammers for centuries.
I have been studying a dagger made for Suleiman the Magnificent. As I understand them it took the originial maker 5 years to make this piece. After studying it I understand why. I want to do something similar but making a living I have to balance the use of modern tools.
More than anything else a bladesmith to me is defined by using a forge of some type to shape the blade. Its the same with the traditional bow. The long limb of the long bow or re-curve is the base of that tradition. Though I use aluminum arrows I still consider myself a traditionalist. The forge is our base, be it charcoal, coal or gas.
Posted 23 June 2012 - 08:01 AM