Arctic Fire 2013

 

 

The sun flares red across the landing strip, casting its long fingers down above mountains as I board my midnight flight leaving Anchorage, Alaska. On the 25th of May I arrived in the same airport in late afternoon. I had slept through much of the flight and woke to see rumpled mountains and snow. The landscape looked like a blanket thrown on the ground in a hurry, all peaks and shadows.
This was our second gathering. Swordsmith Dave Stephens, our host and the force behind Arctic Fire, had the idea to make an artifact that would be hidden somewhere in the world. The object would be created by a group of smiths, from Britain, Canada, the Czech Republic, Sweden, and the United States. We chose a piece with an obscure name from myth or fiction or history, to be created from start to finish over four days.

My concept drawing next to Peter Johnsson’s geometrical design blueprint.

 

Once we decided on a blade and its provenance, we worked out a design and researched ornamentation. Master swordsmith Peter Johnsson of Sweden used his geometrical design technique to make a finished blueprint and I made a drawing of the blade showing its ornamentation. To create this project in such limited time we would need exact measurements and blade blanks to simultaneously construct the hilt, scabbard, and blade. To make things more interesting (and much more difficult) we decided to make the blade material from smelted iron ore in an Iron Age smelter. We added two days to the project.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spent the first day collecting materials and building the smelter from dung and straw and clay under the supervision of master smelter and swordsmith Owen Bush from the UK.

Owen Bush builds the smelter.

 

 

 

 

The smelter in full flame around 2AM.

We kneaded clay spheres until our hands ached, then stacked them and grouted them into a cylindrical chimney called a smelter. We lit a fire in the chimney. As the clay dried we sculpted a face on the smelter, a homunculus watching over our work. Soon, charcoal and ore were added to the fire— flames waved like red and orange-yellow silk banners in the late arctic sunlight. Slowly the sun approached the horizon. The drift of ore diminished as we measured it into cups and fed it in the hungry chimney. Flames appeared to effervesce with yellow lines of charcoal.

As the dusk of summer night in Alaska descended, it was time to break open the smelter and retrieve the bloom. The ore had sintered down into a semi-homogenous mass at the bottom of the smelter chimney. Owen broke open the side and gripped the bloom with tongs J. Arthur Loose had just forged. I helped shovel the hot cinders away from the broken side of the smelter and Owen wrestled the bloom out. “It’s a boy!” cried Peter Johnsson as the fulgent iron thing emerged.  We struck at it with hammers breaking the slag from the iron. Then Owen flattened it. By the time we had the bloom we had been working on the project for at least sixteen hours. Time blurred, the summer night in the arctic is deceptive, it never quite reaches full dark. We had the first essential ingredient for our sword— iron.

Owen Bush breaks open the smelter to reveal the bloom.

Petr Florianek and I shovel hot charcoal cinders away as Owen Bush wrestles the bloom.

Flattening the bloom in a hydraulic press.

The bloom after being forged down a bit.

Over the next day Owen and Michael Pikula forged and folded the bloom, refining it into a material that a blade could be made from. In the kitchen, the rest of us stooped over velum designing the scabbard.

By the end of the second day we had a plan for the scabbard and the material to make the blade.

Plans laid.

Michael Pikula forging the bloomery iron blade.

The level of intensity of the next days is something I’ve only experienced previously in living through deaths and births— the anticipation, the joy and grief, the holding oneself together, and the exhaustion.  For a period of each day we were filmed and livestreamed on the internet, but we started long before the cameras and worked long after they stopped filming.  On day four the first blade failed due to a welding flaw.

Dave Stephens forging the core for the backup blade.

Dave Stephens forged a pattern welded backup blade from conventional steel with a hairpin core to make sure we had a blade by the end of the project. He was still hammering at 2 am.

Half way through day four the waxes are ready to be sprued and invested.

 

 

Peter Johnsson and I worked until three in the morning that night investing the wax hilt components I had carved to be cast into bronze, then placing the molds in the burnout kiln once they were set. Over the previous two days I had put twenty three hours into constructing the wax fittings for the hilt, carving them and fitting them to the blade.

 

 

 

The next morning, on the fifth day, Owen began the second bloomery iron blade, stacking the pieces of the first blade into a fresh billet and forge-welding it. Peter had constructed the scabbard and glued a leather skin over it. J. Arthur constructed sheet metal fittings while Petr Florianek carved an antler slide and shaped and ornamented the grip components from antler.

Space efficient carving.

 

The waxes assembled on the blade blank with Petr’s antler hilt components.

Hammers thumped, grinders threw streams of sparks, Petr’s fingers were yellow white with antler dust. My jeweler’s saw made high ratcheting sounds as I cut out sheet metal forms for the sheath.
With the pace of the work the energy level was very high. Between carving and fitting and designing, Petr and I took time to be ridiculous for the camera. I sat on his shoulders as we carved fittings and we had several sparring duels with elk antlers while singing made up songs.

J.Arthur Loose at his desk, cutting out scabbard parts from sheet bronze.

By the late afternoon of day five we were ready to cast the fittings. Owen was well on his way with the new blade, but if the casting were to fail it was hard to imagine how we would recover in time to complete the project within the time limit.

Lost wax casting is always tense, because you destroy your model in order to create the mold, but in another person’s studio with unfamiliar equipment and with the finish deadline for the entire project one day away, there was palpable pressure. I rehearsed the motions of removing the mold from the kiln, pouring the crucible. Then it was time.

My face is burning!

I opened the kiln door, removed the mold, and poured the molten bronze into the sprue hole. The chrysanthemum liquid arced down into the opening then began boiling and spitting as soon as it entered the mold. Everything else was as it should be, but this was not normal. I felt my stomach contract— this could mean disaster. When the bronze was cool enough I took the mold to the sink and quenched it. The roiling bubble of hot investment hitting cold water rose and then fell and I submerged my hand in the milky bubbling water. I felt the warm bronze, the sprue cap felt bumpy and coarse. As I drew it out I saw that the top portion of the upper guard had not filled and a huge gas bubble had displaced the bronze so that the small beast head looked like it had been shot in the face. The upper guard was ruined. I had similar results from the next mold.
We took a break, jet lag, disappointment and exhaustion beating down on us like a black sun. Deciding there must be gas in the molds from an incomplete burnout caused by the kiln ceiling being too low, I repeated the burnout and managed to salvage the next castings by midnight. By the end of the fifth day we had a blade, a guard, ferrules and grips, and a scabbard with almost all its parts, but no pommel.
This kind of challenge is an important part of any craft that relies on the vagaries of reality. It’s not the failure that matters but how we react to it— failure is a constant, it’s part of the process.
The sixth day was a mad but increasingly jubilant rush as we began to realize that we would complete the project despite the failures. I polished and patinaed bronzes, J. Arthur set garnets and moonstones, Michael fabricated a rivet block, while Dave polished scabbard parts and narrated for the cameras. Petr did an amazing amount of carving, replacing the missing hilt parts with antler.

Petr Florianek

My bronzes with Petr’s antler carvings and J.Arthur’s garnets and moonstone set in silver bezels.

Petr and I hammer a shim to hold the guard in place before the final hilt assembly.

Checking to make sure we have the pommel the right way round.

Owen ground the blade to fit exactly in the already constructed hilt and scabbard, a feat which required precision within a fraction of a millimeter.Peter Johnsson was the architect of all this, problem solving and making sure that we sailed through the storms and came to a safe harbour.

Peter Johnsson sighting the blade.

By the end of the day we had glued the hilt and hammered the tang rivet so the blade was complete. The scabbard was glued and pinned and we had a finished artifact. It was hard to believe. Being solitary craftsmen and artists it was never sure how we would work together. In the end we became like a single craftsman with many bodies and we did what we set out to do.

Serious swordsmiths.

Help!

Within a day of completion we were all back in the air speeding away towards our different corners of the earth to sleep and recover and see how the experience had changed each of us.

The finished blade — bloomery iron, bronze, silver, leather, antler, stone.

 

 

Our part of the story is done, but there is a story in the artifact, and clues in its making. Maybe someone reading this will read the story written in antler and bronze and iron and clay, and guess its name. If you think you know the name of this sword and where in the world it is hidden, send  your guess to Jake Powning and you could win a trip for two to claim the blade. For more information go to ArcticFire2013.com

Special thanks to Shane Harvey, Van Clifton, and the entire Stephens clan for their tireless work and good humour. Having swordsmiths come and stay in your house for a week must be a rather harrowing experience! Also thanks to the great work of the camera crew, Tessa and Bianca Clifton, and Hunter Lottsfeldt.

Photo credits: some of the above photos were shot by Bianca Clifton, Peter Johnsson, and Devan Stephens.

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Jake Powning

Jake is a professional swordsmith, artist, and writer who explores the strange place where traditional culture and the land meet.

11 Comments:

  1. Thanks Jake. I really enjoyed watching the live event.

  2. Well Done! Beautiful! Congratulations!!!

  3. Loved the live event. Amazing looking blade. Big fan.

  4. Marcel Dierijck

    Jake, great story well told. I have no clue whatsoever where this piece is but the winner will be one happy camper for sure.

  5. Richard Sullivan

    Watching this miracle unfold and recognizing the use of skills and team building I knew from my world of sport and drama, I am in awe and joy to have been so fortunate to witness this on line. Seeing your summary so well written and complete, along with the wonderful sense of humour and purpose that once lay dormant in the Raven, my awe and joy expand into a higher plain. Congratulations to you, Jacob and your colleagues who introduced me into a world previously unknown but now a part of me forever. True talent and perseverance molds many the success stories in life so carry on good artisan!

  6. Thanks guys 🙂 Thanks so much Richard! I’m glad you were there watching over our shoulders 🙂

  7. Very impressive, learned a lot, sorry I didn’t see it live, saw the link on Paul Fontaine’s site.

  8. Jake,

    As ever – I am in awe of what you and your fellow artisans create from fire & steel. I just went through your website after a long while and am again astounded by what you create. Every item…just beautiful. I especially liked (first) learning about your 2013 ARCTIC FIRE Event – and now will have to go through those videos.

    Question. Have you ever done a fighting axe? I saw a long hafted axe (a Danish Axe) in the background of one of your fotos but wondered if you put your skills towards making one to the degree of design you apply to your swords/scabbards.

    I have a candidate if you ever feel the urge.

    I assume you know the name of Robert E. Howard (Creator of Kull, Conan, et al)? Well, in one story ‘THE DARK MAN’ – a character ‘Turlogh Dubh’ is carrying a crafted ‘Irish’ axe. I would be interested in hearing your take on such a weapon. I think you – YOU – have the skills to craft this weapon, reading between-the-lines for the embellishments implied in its description.

    I hope this message finds you well. BTW – I sculpture of an Celtic Guardian Boar was finished this past July – and turned out very well. Happy to send you pics if interested.

    Best regards,

    Paul Hershey

    Title: The Dark Man
    Author: Robert E. Howard
    * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
    Excerpt: (in which the axe carried by Turlogh Dubh is described)

    Another man loomed up out of the veil of falling snow and drifting sea-mist. Turlogh Dubh stood before him.
    This man was nearly a head taller than the stocky fisherman, and he had the bearing of a fighting man. No single glance would suffice, but any man or woman whose eyes fell on Turlogh Dubh would look long. Six feet and one inch he stood, and the first impression of slimness faded on closer inspection. He was big but trimly molded; a magnificent sweep of shoulder and depth of chest. Rangy he was, but compact, combining the strength of a bull with the lithe quickness of a panther. The slightest movement he made showed that steel-trap coordination that makes the super-fighter. Turlogh Dubh—Black Turlogh, once of the Clan na O’Brien. And black he was as to hair, and dark of complexion. From under heavy black brows gleamed eyes of a hot volcanic blue. And in his clean-shaven face there was something of the somberness of dark mountains, of the ocean at midnight. Like the fisherman, he was a part of this fierce land.
    On his head he wore a plain vizorless helmet without crest or symbol. From neck to mid-thigh he was protected by a close-fitting shirt of black chain mail. The kilt he wore below his armor and which reached to his knees was of plain drab material. His legs were wrapped with hard leather that might turn a sword edge, and the shoes on his feet were worn with much traveling.
    A broad belt encircled his lean waist, holding a long dirk in a leather sheath. On his left arm he carried a small round shield of hide-covered wood, hard as iron, braced and reinforced with steel, and having a short, heavy spike in the center. An ax hung from his right wrist, and it was to this feature that the fisherman’s eyes wandered. The weapon with its three-foot handle and graceful lines looked slim and light when the fisherman mentally compared it to the great axes carried by the Norsemen. Yet scarcely three years had passed, as the fisherman knew, since such axes as these had shattered the northern hosts into red defeat and broken the pagan power forever.
    There was individuality about the ax as about its owner. It was not like any other the fisherman had ever seen. Single-edged it was, with a short three-edged spike on the back and another on the top of the head. Like the wielder, it was heavier than it looked. With its slightly curved shaft and the graceful artistry of the blade, it looked like the weapon of an expert—swift, lethal, deadly, cobra-like. The head was of finest Irish workmanship, which meant, at that day, the finest in the world. The handle, cut from the head of a century-old oak, specially fire-hardened and braced with steel, was as unbreakable as an iron bar.

    • Hi Paul, that’s a great description! I do have a few axe projects in the future, these will be Dane Axes however. I have a Dane Axe head by James Austin, and some nice iron-wood ready for the helve, when I get the time. Congratulations on completing your guardian boar project 🙂

  9. Your my favourite knifemaker…what else can I say?

    Cheers
    Owen.

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