Autumn seems full of secrets. Flame colored leaves cast the forest in a different light than the clear light that touches the fields. Mist hangs over the trees where the hidden brook wends its way through the valley. It’s a time for bonfires and gathering the last things in— stacking wood, pulling carrots from the garden hung with clumps of dirt. When my children were younger I would read to them from a book about a family of ground hogs gathering winter supplies. “Winter is coming,” the parents would tell the children in the story, “can you smell it?” I can smell it— it smells like frost and fallen leaves and mushrooms. It smells like the mold under the woodpile, and the damp cellar where the wood is stacked. It smells like secrets.
You can almost hear the ghosts rattling the leaves, stirring under the dark water in the river. It’s a time of year when ancient cultures in Europe honored the harvest and their ancestors. It reminds me of what the world must have felt like when we didn’t know why things happened, when we were hemmed in by unseen forces, and luck was very, very important. What if someone then knew why the leaves turned the colors of flames, could speak to the rustling ghosts, harvest the smell of mushrooms and the sound of leaves? Old stories are full of these people, they tell of Väinämöinen, finding the reasons things happened, Myrddyn Wyllt meddling in the affairs of princes, Gwydyion, Merlin, Cathbad, the völva. These stories of men and women who can create wonder and terror through secret knowledge have passed into modern myth making, with Gandalf and Ged, Jonathan Strange, Bayaz, Howl and Tiffany Aching. Wizards harness the unknown, the darkness, and they change the shape of the world with nothing but their words.
This week I’m working on a wizard’s dagger. I heat treated the blade making it hard and flexible, I quenched it in hot oil and then tempered it in a kiln. Then I made a scabbard.
The scabbard core is constructed from several sheets of yellow birch wood veneer.
The scabbard is lined with fur and painted in urethane to prevent it from absorbing water from the wet leather I’ll be wrapping it in.
I cut the leather to shape and darken it with ferric nitrate. A wizard’s scabbard should be elegant with grey-black leather and silver fittings.
I paint the scabbard and the wet leather with wood glue and begin sewing the back shut. I’ve drawn a line on the wood so I can keep the seam straight. This is a nerve-wracking process as the leather and glue are drying while I try to stitch a neat seam as quickly as possible. After the first few stitches it begins to go smoothly but even as I sew the last loop I’m mindful that I could screw the whole thing up by slipping and scarring the leather.
Once the scabbard is sewed, I rub the seam down with a bone tool my friend Petr Florianek made me, then I let the scabbard dry. I leave the blade in the scabbard for this process to keep the wood from warping as the leather shrinks around it.
When the scabbard is dry, I trim the excess leather away from the throat and cut lines along the sides, then I rub it smooth with a bone tool.
The scabbard becomes a light, hard, composite material built of fur and wood and leather and stiffened with glue and twine. I learned the technique for making scabbards this way from my friend Peter Johnsson who is a truly inspiring swordsmith, artist and illustrator — peterjohnsson.com
Now it’s time to make the hilt and scabbard fittings— silver and horn and ebony — then polish the blade and bring out the pattern in the wootz steel, but that will wait till next week.by