Wednesday, April 27, 2011

My Final Project: Part I

Well, I'm making something called a schmalsax. "Schmal" means "narrow" in German, and "sax" (sometimes "seax" in English, after the Anglo-Saxon) is a knife carried by, apparently, most men during the so-called "Germanic Migration" beginning around the 4th century, and seeing use through the Caroligian Empire of the Franks and into the Viking age. It is where the tribal kingdom of the Saxons got their name, and still lives on in the northwestern German province of Sachsen.

Archaeological examples range far and wide in size, shape, quality, construction, decoration, and pretty much everything else. A few criteria are agreed upon, however, and those are these: the sax is an instrument of war, not a tool, and it was usually shorter than a sword but no less important. Many Frankish graves, like that of Clovis of the Merovingian dynasty (ancestor of Charlemagne), feature both a sword and a sax, indicating that a man of import would carry both, equally decorated. They are mentioned in Norse myth; one hero, Grettir the Strong, prefers his sax to his sword.

I made a narrow example called by some the "schmalsax" from a file, a piece of high-carbon steel, hardened, which I annealed to soften for working. I forged the tip and kept the blade a uniform width, only beveling one side on the sharpest edge of the anvil I could find. It took maybe four hours of hammering to get the blade-blank shape you see below:

This, above and below, is the view I assumed regularly, as checking the straightness of the edges and the uniform tapers is absolutely paramount when forging a blade. Mine had a very gradual but steady distal taper and little or no profile taper until the tip.

I drew a line from the center of the tang at the shoulders (where the tang and the blade meet) to the tip of the blade, and intended to use it as a general guideline for my bevel.

I assumed this position often as well, checking for the uniformity of my bevels from the belt grinder. Grinding took probably half as long again as forging, and I used belts of increasing grit, beginning with 60 and going up to 400.

The idea was to grind out the hammer-marks I accidentally made when forging, but in the end I had to keep some to keep from grinding the blade too thin.

I cannot say that this process is without spirituality; later that night I took the blade with me on a walk in the fields and sat with it stuck in the ground to absorb the atmosphere in its presence, and to pay homage to the earth from whence my material came.

Coming soon: handle design and heat-treat!

The Rest of the Class

Essentially, the rest of the class was spent making our own designs, and carving them as a large final project. Mine was this entirely original intertwined-beard-hair man, inspired by the general spirit of wise, old bearded traveling men or gods, such as Odin, who is sometime similarly

After the layout, I began to carve away the negative space, leaving my man and his hair-tangle flat.

After that I rounded it. This is so incredibly simple to explain, it feels, but it took my several days, with at least six hours of solid work in each day. It never felt like work, however, letting my muse drive me and the company of my fellows cheer me.

Later, I got to see some more of Owen's masterpieces, including this pattern-welded blade of otherworldly beauty:

This seax blade is beyond comprehension in its complexity and wonder:

The week culminated in Owen's annual Forge-In, where smiths and other craftsmen from all over the world came to talk, eat, exchange ideas, and do demonstrations of their craft. Once again, in an unbelievably short time, I learned an unfathomable amount.

One demonstrator was Leo Todeschini of Tod's Stuff, a jack-of-all-trades as it were, at least in the area of medieval crafts. Below is a 15th c. German knife called a bauernwehr he made, with scabbard and by-knife and fittings and blade and handle an all.

His demonstration was in scabbard making. He showed us to wet the leather, but not soak it, shape it roughly to the blade, cut it, sew it with waxed string and a thick needle, score designs with a razor and then amplify them with a hard but rounded piece of bone or plastic, and sew it all up. He added designs by scoring and deepening and also using little stamps he cut himself.

Another demonstrator was the supremely talented Petr Florianek of the Czech Republic. He demonstrated his carving with bone and antler, remarkably similar to ours with wood, but with a very differently grained medium. He used some chisels but primarily wielded the Dremel, and then rubbed his carvings with some kind of ochre to emphasize patterns.

One ongoing event which people attended and helped with as they pleased was the smelting of pig iron from iron ore by one Jeff Pringle, a talented sword- and bladesmith in his own right, and a veritable authority on Iron-age and Viking industrial techniques. He is a bladesmith with whom I hope to work this summer in Oakland, CA, where he and my uncle both live. I have known him for many years and he was actually the first swordsmith I ever met!

It was with a heavy heart that I left, but with a mind so full of ideas and a passion ablaze.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Carving: Day 2

On day two we met in the yard and by ten o'clock we were on the train to London, in order to visit the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, both of which have huge collections which concerned our work greatly.

This is a picture of Jake regarding a plaster cast of a doorway do the Urnes "stave church" in Norway, built of wood and intricately carved with curvilinear beasties, characteristic of this the twilight of pre-Romanesque Scandinavian ornamentation.

As we talked about the themes, motifs, styles and depictions, Jake also pointed out to us the marks of workmanship, and with out little bit of experience we could see how the wood had been carved.

This is the base of an Irish "high cross", showing influence of Viking and Anglo-Saxon ornamentation in its design, resulting from the Norse settlement of Ireland in the eighth through tenth centuries.

Below is a runestone of the blockier, swirlier, chunkier "Ringerike" style of Norse art, depicting intertwined dragons.

One find common in populated places which must have featured workshops are these so-called "trial pieces", pieces of bone or some other carvable material where craftsmen and students alike would work out patterns, practice techniques, and test new ideas, which we spent a considerable amount of time doing.

Later in the day we ventured to the Wallace Collection, still in London, which is one of the largest and most staggering collections of historical arms and armor in the world, predominantly blades.

The pictures below are both from there and from the British Museum. This first one is an Anglo-Saxon sword, probably pattern-welded iron and steel, although corrosion is not kind to ferrous metals. Most striking now is the bronze scabbard throat, wrought of bronze, most likely lost-wax cast by a Saxon craftsman.

These are some exceedingly beautiful bronze and gilded-bronze sword pommels. Their minute and exquisite workmanship puts them on par with the so oft-touted Irish metalworking like the Tara Brooch and the Ardagh chalice.

Below are iron Celtic swords of the continent, with beautifully preserved scabbards.

This is the exceedingly ornate boss of the Sutton Hoo shield, made of iron and covered with fine bronze foil, which was hammered by a master craftsman onto carved dies and then riveted onto the larger piece.
Blades from many periods and cultures congregated at the Wallace Collection, all with unique and equal beauty.

Carving: The Actual Class: Day 1: Continued

Believe it or not, that wealth of information I took in really only happened in about half an hour after morning tea. The practical element of the class began before that, when Jake presented us with our chisel and books. He said the first, most fundamental element of carving knotwork and other Celtic ornamentation was being able to draw it, because creating it brings your understanding to a whole new level, above that of just tracing it with your eyes or hands.

He introduced us to one of the most basic shapes: the trefoil knot, abounding in many forms throughout knotwork, appearing literally everywhere. It's a wonderful space-filler, whether part of a beast or as pure ornament. And it still looks awesome. He drew it, had us draw it, and then gave us each a slab of American walnut on which to draw it. Everyone's interpretation of the shape was different. The diversity of styles with such a seemingly simple shape was fascinating.

After that, it was pretty simple and went pretty quickly. Jake showed us first to use the skew chisel to carve pilot lines where we'd drawn, which would form the base for the rest of our cuts. Then we used the straight chisel at an angle to bevel the material on the outside of our shape, blending that with the initial surface of the wood. This is the essence of bas-relief sculpture, where the idea is the creation of an illusion of depth or protrusion by the use of shadows created by slight dips.

After that, he showed us how to help create the illusion of the diving under-over sections of the pattern, by chiseling deeply where one line is meant to appear to be curving under another. Finally, with these dimensions established, it was time to round the lines we'd carved, add embellishments, sand to smooth and deburr, and finally oil if we desired, which darkens the wood beautifully and defines contrasts and edges. Here is my trial piece after all but oiling: (Owen Bush carving away in the twilit background)

As you can see, I experimented a bit more with curves and shapes, but didn't finish that. That day's project ended around 5 PM and was followed by a much deserved group trip to "Fanny-on-the-Hill", Welling's local pub. I became used to this sight at sundown:

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Carving: The Actual Class: Day 1

So, my class was taught by the unparalleled Jake Powning who, as I've said, is a master of the shape and spirit of Hiberno-Norse artwork (meaning Irish-Viking; from Hibernia , Latin for Ireland, and Norse, referring to those Scandinavians who went a-viking). Here is a sample of his sublime work:

Yes, he forged the blade, and yes, he carved the wax and cast it into bronze. Yes, he is pretty much incredible. I worship his work, but he is, after all, a man.

So here is a picture of him cooking me breakfast:

Stories are for another time. On the first day at 9 AM, we all met outside in the yard of Owen's shop and talked about what we were going to do. Basically, he gave us each a set of six chisels by Lee Valley Tools and a book on Celtic knotwork by George Bain, purely for a source of inspiration. We then went inside and he showed us a presentation he'd prepared on Celtic and Norse ornamentation, called "Chasing the Serpent".

The presentation addressed the apparent origins of knot artwork, in the forms of Pictish beasts (stone carvings of stylized animals from Scotland carved by a pre-Celtic people) and the spirals and naturalistic ornamentation of the "La Tene period", the art and craft of Celtic-speaking peoples living across Europe during the Iron age who eventually migrated into Ireland, bringing iron-making with them.

Next, Jake introduced the art of the Anglo-Saxons. In the centuries surrounding and following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, millions of Germanic-speaking tribespeople began to migrate south and west of their boggy homelands, by land and by river and by sea, armed with finely wrought swords, nothing to lose and all of Europe to gain. The Angles and Saxons were two tribes living in the Northwest of Germany and southern Denmark, and their hearts led them west to the British Isles, which they swiftly conquered and settled, pushing the Britannic Celts westward where they remain to this day, in Wales and Cornwall. However, in spite of the war and conquest, Anglo-Saxon artwork suffered heavy attrition from the indigenous styles. Already avid craftsmen and incredibly talented artisans, the Anglo-Saxons immediately seized upon the wealth of Celtic art and sought to integrate it into their own treasures. This much is plain from nearly every Anglo-Saxon archaeological find, from Sutton Hoo to the Staffordshire Hoard. The point is, their conquest resulted in a fascinating amalgamation of two strong cultural art traditions, and produced one that has left an indelible mark on history.

We also spent some time looking at pictures of Irish art from the 7th to the 9th century, such as the Book of Kells, which represents the progression of Celtic art unmixed with Germanic influences, although alternately influenced by Christian art of southern Europe. Its illuminated pages show the undying attention to detail of the Celts, and preserve that abstract, surreal reminder of the Otherworld that predates Christianity in Ireland and is an unconquerable theme in Celtic art.

Finally, Jake brought us to Norse artwork. We saw pictures of Viking runestones scattered throughout the British Isles, Scandinavia, northern Europe, and the Baltic, as well as fragments of wood, bone, and horn from graves and bog burials. Most of the ornamentation would have been made on these organic materials, and an unimaginable proportion of it has gone back to the earth, but for the preservative properties of northern European bogland. We also looked at swords, a defining symbol of all Germanic mysticism and an archetype in its own right, as well as other weapons, all decorated with the reverence and beauty befitting a crown or a throne.

The presentation ended with the end of the Viking age, and the dissolution of their culture into the Christian culture that enveloped them. The final stages of the Viking era of artwork and ornamentation is attested in the wonderfully carved and preserved wooden stave churches of Norway and Sweden, where in the 11th and 12th century, the last remaining artisans and products of the Viking age left a final mark of their pride as an homage to the both the old North new North, for cycles and rebirth are the true, deep themes of all their art, from each curving line to the impossible end-products, as well as the true morals of their mythology and the crux of their spirituality.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A storm of posts to ensue

On the week of 27 March - 3 April, I was in Welling, Kent, England. No, not on a lark. I was at the house of one Owen Bush, a fantastically talented bladesmith, creative archaeologist, pattern-welder, metallurgist, artist blacksmith, source of knowledge on bladed weapons, gifted teacher, and a wonderful guy with a big beard.

His website:

But I was not just staying with Owen, though by the end of the course we'd developed a real friendship. I was there for a 'Celtic and Norse Woodcarving' class taught by Jake Powning, a master bladesmith from New Brunswick with a peerless eye for the aesthetic of Celtic and Norse ornamentation, produced by years of study and recreation. He was another all-around awesome dude.

HIS website:

The page for the class I took:

My reasons for taking this course were many, chief among them to gain the specific skill of woodcarving, and to develop my already strong love for Celtic and Norse artwork and further my appreciation and eye for it, as well as to integrate myself into a community of talented artisans whose work a totally admire, regardless of the little I've done so far.

It was so, so much more than that. I'll be more specific later, but in summary, I spent hours upon hours every day with my work on my lap, learning, talking, laughing, and experimenting with nine other people who were doing the same, with our creativity flowing uncontrollably and our passion running high. What with our work, the informal and intimate instruction, and the combined power of our parallel interests and loves, I learned more in that one week than I think I ever have. I gained the specific skills I hoped to gain, but most importantly I gained insight on the true spirit of craftsmanship and experienced the channeling of passion into work.