When you devote yourself to the ancient and noble art of sword-making, you are partaking in the history of the art at its latest evolution. With all the cutting-edge fanciful techniques we have today, the process of crafting a sword still bears a striking resemblance to what medieval bladesmiths did. So, what are the crucial phases of making a traditional sword? Dive into our step-by-step guide to learn the knightly art.
First comes choosing the right steel for a sword, which is very crucial. Very hard steels will not do, because a kind of abuse a normal fighting sword will be exposed to will make a hard steel chip or crack. Unless you want your sword hang on a wall as a decoration piece, you’re going to use a really tough and durable steel such as a high carbon steel. Damascus – pattern welded steel composed of many layers of metals with different properties – is a good choice, as this pattern is known to provide utmost reliability, strength and endurance of the blade. You can buy a ready-made Damascus blade, or forge weld your own if you feel like ready for the task.
The alloy used for a real fighting sword will almost always be some form of carbon steel. How much carbon a bladesmith wants in the steel will depend on the characteristics required in the blade. A certain amount of carbon is always necessary for the blade to be tough enough and retain a keen edge. However, too much carbon can decrease the plasticity of the blade and make it brittle (as too little carbon will), so a good proportion is crucial. Leading bladesmiths recommend a steel with a carbon content of around 60 to 70 points to make an excellent sword.
Before starting the process, prepare your tools and materials. You will need some basic smith’s tools:
And, depending on the complexity of the process you apply, you may need some additional tools and materials, such as:
Before actually starting to forge your sword, you need to figure out what you want it to look like. It is good to sketch a design for the blade and determine its most essential characteristics. It is understood that blade’s parameters will be closely related to the blade form: a broad sword will require great strength and toughness, while a slim sword like a skewer needs to feature great plasticity. It is always good to do some research, to study historical examples and to explore what advanced sword-smiths of today are offering. You may be not so careful for the service properties when making an ornamental sword that will just decorate a wall. However, utmost care is required for a fighting sword that will be subject to real rough operation.
Unless you have a pre-made blade, you have to forge a blade for your sword. Start heating your forge. It may be a coal forge, gas forge, or electric forge – it doesn’t really matter, as long as it is capable of reaching a temperature of 2,100 to 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Grip your steel with tongs, put it in the forge and heat it to the proper temperature for shaping the blade – which is when the steel turns yellow (this shows that the steel has reached around 2,100 to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit). After the steel is heated, you start what is called drawing-out. As you draw out a steel bar, you are flattening it into the shape of a blade.
Remove your steel from the forge, set it flat on your anvil and flatten it with your hammer to draw it out. Then shape the corner into the shape of a sword. It is important to taper both sides of the bar evenly. Then bevel the edges of your blade with a hammer to create a cutting edge. Don’t forget to flip the blade on the anvil and hammer the other side as well. The both sides of the steel must be even.
Once your steel has started to look like a sword, you might think about what blade cross section you want. The fuller – a narrow groove that runs most of the length of the blade – is an important aspect of the cross section. The fuller is not a channel for blood to run along, as the popular belief says. Actually, the fuller decreases the weight of the blade without sacrificing strength or structural integrity, while less material is used. The blade becomes lighter and stiffer as well. The increased stiffness is produced by two reinforcing ridges at the opposing sides of the fuller.
The sword fuller is made using a blacksmithing tool (also called a fuller), a form of a swage. The tool is placed against the metal bar and then struck with a hammer to make the tool’s rounded nose spread the metal.
Forging your steel will subject it to a lot of stress. Hence, if you don’t want your blade to warp, you have, at some stage of the forging process, to normalize the steel. That means that the steel is heated up in the forge again and then is allowed to cool slowly. During the normalizing procedure, the steel is heated to a temperature that makes it austenize (that is, iron and carbon molecules begin to conjoin). Then, the steel is removed from the forge and air-cooled. This procedure relaxes any stress and irregularities in the steel that might have emerged due to forging and hammering, and smooths the grain (crystalline structure) throughout the blade.
Normalizing is usually done immediately after you have forged the shape of your sword. The procedure is as simple as that: grip the steel with tongs and heat it to non-magnetic temperature (about 1,420 degrees Fahrenheit). Then let it cool off at room temperature. Once the steel does not have any red color left, place it back in the forge. Repeat the procedure three times.
Before the grinding and polishing phase, the blade is also annealed. The annealing procedure looks similar to normalizing; however, it has a different result. First, the steel is brought up to the required temperature for it to austenize. Then the steel is cooled down very slowly – normally, using an insulating material, to secure very gradual, smooth cooling. Annealing makes the steel pliant and easy to grind or cut.
Guard, also known as cross-guard, serves to protect your hand from an opponent’s sword sliding down over the hilt. Guards can have various forms – a simple crosspiece, or a full basket that nearly covers your entire hand.
A variety of metals can be used for making a guard – steel, brass, bronze, titanium, etc. A huge variety of designs is offered by historical examples and nowadays sword-making. You can use your imagination and go creative to craft any shape of the guard whatsoever. The basic process is quite simple: you take a piece of metal large enough, drill holes in it for the tang to go through, and additionally work the piece with a file. Then you set the tang through the slot. You may fix the piece with a vertical vise and use the grinder to clean it. Then you can attach your guard to the sword by soldering it with lead solder and flux.
Pommel is a metal piece larger than the hilt at the top of the sword handle. The pommel prevents the sword from slipping out of the hand and provides some counterweight to the blade which is crucial for the handleability of the sword. There are plenty of pommel designs. You may use a simple metal ball to be soldered onto the hilt end, or craft a beautifully sculptured piece. In many ornate swords, such as ceremonial swords, the guard, hilt and pommel are richly adorned and serve as the artistic centerpiece of the sword.
Once the blade has been annealed, you can work out the edge and tip of your blade. Use a sander, or files, or sharpening stones to sharpen the blade. The easiest way of adding the edge to your sword is by using a belt grinder. However, you can apply a fine file or a whetstone to sharpen your sword blade. Sanding – on a belt sander or by hand – will smooth out the edges.
Even a carefully ground blade is not yet a sword: the steel is yet very soft and not capable of holding an edge, it will roll over or otherwise collapse if you try to cut anything at this point. The steel must be tempered to harden it.
Tempering, also known as heat treatment, is the crucial step that changes a shard of soft metal into a real strong sword. It is important to carefully follow the guidelines on tempering your particular grade of steel: instructions are normally provided in the manufacturer’s manual.
The tempering and quenching procedure hardens the blade by way of locking the carbon molecules inside the steel into a tight lattice network. Heating the steel to a nearly critical temperature results in carbon molecules spreading evenly throughout the blade, and then rapid cooling by quenching fixes carbon molecules within the lattice structure. Thus, excellent hardness and strength of the steel are achieved.
In order to temper a blade, you heat it again, however not to the point of austenization, but to a level below what is called the lower critical temperature (400 to 1,300 ˚F, depending on the alloy). It is important to start with a low temperature and increase it gradually in order not to overheat the steel and to secure a uniform heating of the entire blade. The steel is kept at the required temperature level for a while, then it is quenched.
For quenching, oil is always a safe option, as quenching in water can crack certain steels. To quench, dip the heated blade in oil as quickly as possible. Thus, the blade cools down and reaches room temperature quickly, which is crucial for the proper hardening and strengthening of your sword. Many bladesmiths temper a blade several times to get a proper level of strength.
After quenching, put your quenched sword in a forge and smoothly reheat it to a lower temperature. This will additionally ease the stress imparted by the quenching process.
The sword handle is also called the hilt. It can be made from leather, bone, metal, wood, wire, rope, or plastic. The hilt must be comfortable and cohesive enough to provide ease while holding the sword. In swords that have full tang blades, the hilt is riveted or glued on the tang. The simplest way is to cut out two slabs of wood, drill holes where you want to insert rivets, and then rivet the scales onto the tang.
A smith usually forges the guard and pommel simultaneously with crafting the blade. After all elements are ready and the blade is tempered, the bladesmith will assemble the hilt. The guard can be welded onto the blade or simply placed against the shoulders and fixated by the hilt. The pommel holds the hilt in place be either screwing on to the butt of the tang or by slipping over the tang (the butt of the tang is flattened out to hold the pommel on).
After the blade is finished and the hilt is assembled, you can proceed to the finishing procedures of buffing and polishing. Use a buffer or sandpaper to gloss your sword to the utmost level of perfection.
In order to achieve a mirror finish, proceed with sandpaper gradually: start polishing the blade with 60 to 80 grit, then move to 120 grit. Make sure you change the direction by 90 degrees each time you apply new grit. Continue to increase grit to 220, or even to 400, if needed, to eliminate any scratches. You can sand simply with your hand pressed against the sandpaper, or wrap your piece around a wood block. It might take some time, but the result will be worth it: in the end, you’ll get a shining glossy blade deserving the name of a sword!
Now you know how labor-intensive and time-consuming the sword-making process is. In case of a high-end ornate sword that is entirely handmade, the superior expertise and craftsmanship of an expert bladesmith is required to transform a shard of metal into a brilliant piece of art. Explore Noblie’s collection of custom swords and sabers to enjoy the knightly art of sword-making at its best!