The nights are cold again with frost spiking the windows and the darkness begins to come earlier. Apples hang ripe on gnarled trees, the wind carries the smell of wood smoke and change. The sun casts across the land at a low angle, it seems to be a deeper more saturated light, and combined with the leaves edged in copper and the frost, it brings me a sense of calm.
It’s time to begin the projects of the dark half of the year, the introspective work less harried and frantic than the long days of summer. This summer has been full of rushing and traveling and building for the future. Now summer follies seem to recede in the cool air as if they’ve lapped under the surface of autumn water.
I walk from my little old house down the half-mile of dirt road to my forge. The road is dusty, an old book about raising chickens from the 1800s I read talks about using this summer road dust as a floor cover to scatter under the roosts of laying hens. Summer road dust was an ingredient of life meant to be gathered back then. It reminds me of barefoot childhood, and days that seemed longer than weeks do now. It’s hot in the sun, and the hens that wander near my forge are intoxicated with it, sprawling in the hay at the barn door with legs stuck out carelessly like drunkards or the patrons at some rustic opium den.
On my anvil I have a short bar of steel, black from the forge. It arrived in the mail from Finland several months ago, and it’s only now that I have time to turn my attention to it. It’s a piece of handmade crucible steel called wootz. It was made using a process probably first developed in ancient India, in which iron and other ingredients are melted together in a crucible until they liquefy into a half round ingot. Once the wootz is forged out it has a beautiful pattern integral to the material, it looks something like running water with bits of ice floating in it.
This bar of wootz was sent to me by one of a very few masters of the craft of recreating this ancient technique, his name is Niko Hynninen. The patterns and properties Niko creates in the material are no accident but the result of years of study and experimentation. Considering he is melting iron and raw ingredients together in a pot in pretty much the same way they did a thousand years ago, but without the benefit of the tradition ancient wootz existed in, his ability to reliably recreate the same ancient patterns in the steel is extraordinary.
Forging is like magic — dark becomes light, hard becomes soft, and violence becomes and act of creation. I forge a practice blade out of modern steel to make sure I still have the knack— it’s been a while. I always feel like I don’t know how to do things when I’m not doing them and it’s a happy surprise to discover that I can actually draw after I’ve spent a few weeks away from my sketchbook. Forging, which has been the foundation of my inspiration from the beginning, is no different. It’s a joy and profound relief to find that I can still forge a blade to shape from a blank bar.
My body and the hot line of steel form a bridge of motion and intent between the rage of the fire and the calm of the anvil. I love this. Taking a hammer I hit the steel just so, but hard, and I see the mark where the steel has moved. Soon I’m stretching and shaping the bar until it is a thin sliver of blade slightly leafed in the center with a tapering point. I put the test blade aside.
Wootz is tricky to work with, and this wootz is alloyed with phosphorous which makes it even more difficult to forge— if I forge it when it’s too hot the material will crumble and be destroyed. I forge a blade from the wootz, careful not to overheat it. It’s stiff at first but soon the material and I reach an understanding and a blade begins to grow under my hammer— it’s like watching spring unfold into a blade of grass, but being the force responsible for its growth.
Now I grind the fire scale off and dip the blade in ferric chloride— an etchant. The pattern of the wootz jumps out like a grey sea filled with hidden meaning. My intention from before I started forging was to make a wizard’s dagger and seeing the magical pattern manifested by Niko’s alchemy gives me a shiver of excitement.
Once I have hardened and tempered the blade I’ll make a scabbard and fittings. I have a drawing of what it will look like, materials selected— silver and horn, ebony and fur and leather.
This is just one small project among the list of winter’s works, but it feels good to be back in the forge hitting things, playing with magic and touching the imaginary through my craft.by