Autumn’s Arcana

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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.

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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.

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The scabbard core is constructed from several sheets of yellow birch wood veneer.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

7 Comments:

  1. Awesome — evocative writing and great work as always!

  2. Thank You for sharing your techniques.

  3. Allready casting spells with it. Im enchanted.

  4. Christian Münch

    Hi Jake!

    Thanks for this post! I enjoy your musings as well as the in-process description of your wonderful pieces.

    Would you be so kind and shortly elaborate the step of creating the wooden core? How do you form the veneer in shape? Do you steam the wood?

  5. Winston R. Weaver

    Beautiful work as always Jake. It is rare to find a swordmaker or artisian who does everything himself. In the old days, a maker would specialize in one thing…making scabbards, or blades. But you do it all, and do it all very well. Each piece you do is as much a work of art, as it is a solid and real working sword or dagger. Very Impressive, love seeing your post….keep them coming

  6. Thank you everyone! Thanks Winston, believe me when I say I often reflect on this fact with some chagrin 😉 There’s a good reason they compartmentalized production— because it’s more efficient; but I like to maintain creative control and skilled karls who are willing to work for food and lodging are hard to come by these days. 😉

    Hi Christian, in order to form the veneer for the scabbard, I made a clamp out of two pieces of wood from which I cut the negative space of the blade shape. I then clamped the veneer over the blade with these wooden forms. I clamped two pieces of veneer on each side and put them in a kiln at 400 degrees F for ten minutes. the veneer is thin enough that by leaving them clamped for two days, it had taken the form permanently. After that I cut and applied the hide scabbard lining. At this point the veneer still had flanges that overlapped the blade profile by about an inch. I glued the flanges and clamped the scabbard over the blade again. once the glue was dry, I cut away the flanges leaving a very fine seem, once the leather is glued and stitched it holds the whole thing together very well.
    This is how they made scabbards as far back as the bronze age.

  7. This is a first time encounter. While I am an artist and carver I not nothing of bringing metal to life. Your mastery of all mediums leaves me in awe. The magic
    spirit of each piece moves me deeply. Thank you for sharing your remarkable drawings and writings as well as your artistry with wood, metal and natural materials. The world is a far better place in knowing you are creating your magic.

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