The Batson Blade Symposium
by Bob Heath

Published in the July 1999 Issue of Anvil Magazine

The 11th annual Batson Blade Symposium was held at Old Tannehill Furnace site near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on April 9 - 11. This event is named after Jim Batson, a retired rocket scientist who lives near Huntsville, where the Marshall Space Flight Center is located. Jim is an avid knife collector and expert blade craftsman. He recently authored a book about the life and times of the legendary Jim Bowie and his famous duel on the sand bar in Natchez, Mississippi, that established the frontiersman’s reputation over 150 years ago. Batson is one of the founders of the Alabama Forge Council, which is one of the largest chapters in ABANA (over 700 members). This year, over 100 people attended the symposium that featured those listed below for the demonstration events. Daryl Meier, Bill Fiorini, Michael Bell and some of the others listed here are among the best knife makers in the world: Japanese Swords - Michael Bell; Repousse´ of Knife Mountings - Kirsten Skilles; Wagon Wheel Damascus - Daryl Meier; Knife Design - Rob Hudson; Knapped Flint Knives - James Gibson; Build Your Own Air hammer - Mark Linn; Scrimshaw - Mary Bailey; Engraving - Billy Bates; Leather Sheaths - Kenny Rowe; Bader Grinders - Dan Johnson; A Knife from Start to Finish - Alex Daniels; Old Timey Knife Making - Ed Small; Hands-On Bladesmithing - Don Fogg and Chuck Patrick; High Art Folders - Don Heathcoat; Hands-on Bladesmithing - Jim Batson; Damascus Pattern Forging - Bill Fiorini; Fancy Folders - Steve Schwarzer; and Beginning Bladesmithing - Gaven Harris.

Each demonstrator explained what he or she did in each of the specialties presented. The two who seemed to particularly capture my interest were Kirsten Skilles, a sculptor and blacksmith from LaCrescent, Minnesota, and Michael Bell, Japanese sword maker from Coquille, Oregon.

Kirsten demonstrated her skill by performing expert renditions of repousse´ in sheet steel and copper. Her techniques were most interesting and currently the craft of fine repousse´ work seems to be a hot topic at many metal-crafting circles across the United States. Results are beautiful if the process is carried out properly. She uses approximately two dozen small, three-inch long, chisel-like tools to accomplish the work. She first bumps out the metal from the back and melts it in a special pitch compound into the hollow to take the stress off the tools on the convex front surface of the sheet. The tools are struck with a small hammer to produce the image on the front which had initially been outlined with ink guidelines. She likes to use 16- to 18-gauge steel sheet because it will take a lot of stress before the metal strain hardens near its rupture point. She says that when the steel sheet begins to get a shiny look on the worked surface, it indicates enough strain hardening is set up in the metal and it’s time to cease working it before rupture occurs. The pitch is then melted out in preparation for annealing the piece for further working.

The pitch is a combination of pine rosin, fat or vegetable oils, and fine grain dirt mixed together, and it has to be of the correct consistency to perform well. The metal is first bulged out with a hammer on the end of a wooden stump that has a depression burned into the end. The pitch is heated with a propane torch to make it viscous enough to flow into the back hollow of the bulged-out metal cavity. The metal has to be annealed first before the bulging or repousse´ing is done to get it as malleable as possible in preparation for the surface work, which she refers to as “chasing” the design on the metal. Some people refer to the surface work as “embossing.” The pitch acts as a cushion that dampens the force of the tools and allows the metal to be bent and pushed at specifically controlled locations. The ends of the tools are tapered to fine, chisel-like points, but are not finished to a cutting edge since they are used to move and bend the metal against the undercoating of pitch instead of cutting through. The pitch can be melted out of the work and reused over and over as the need to anneal arises from time to time. For ordering pitch, she recommends getting it from one of two sources: Allcraft at 1-800/645-7124 (Note: Order only the red German pitch and not the nasty black, sticky jeweler’s pitch) or Northwest Pitchworks, 360/715-1772. (Order the medium-grade pitch. The hard is too hard and the soft, too soft.) Kirsten likes pitch rather than melted in lead as a backing because lead represents a toxic hazard that pitch does not have, and lead is needed for heavier forging in the repousse´ process. Lead is stiffer and therefore can take a harder lick. She adds vegetable oil to the pitch from time to time to replace the oil that volatizes out of the compound when it is heated.

Kirsten also performs repousse´ on sheet copper as well, but she reports that copper is so soft that it tends to tear much more easily than steel. She likes gold the best, however, because it is so malleable and strong. But it is expensive. During her demonstration, she “raised” in repousse´, a beautiful image of a small leaf about 1 1/2” long. This small piece of art can then be soldered or riveted to the top of a small jewelry box or other object, such as the pommel of a knife handle.

Michael Bell’s Japanese sword-making demonstrations were fascinating because so much of the detail of the process was presented. He attempted to give a complete overview of the entire process both by lecturing and actually forging at the anvil or crafting a sword handle with boiled shark skin wrapped with silk cord. Michael, who now lives in Oregon, is originally from Canada and is of Scottish descent. He moved to San Francisco and studied for five years as an apprentice under a Japanese master sword smith, who later moved back to Japan. Michael said it usually takes eight years to gain a journeyman level skill at this type of sword making.

Michael demonstrated how a Japanese sword blade is forged by starting with raw ore to gain the metal to work with. He described the traditional Japanese smelting process and showed some half-inch steel giblets which were the result. Once the raw material comes from the smelting process, it is further treated in three separate crucibles in a forge. The three crucibles contain varying amounts of charcoal and smelted iron/steel to impart varying qualities to a finished sword. Two of the three crucibles are brought to near-melting heat, but the contents are not melted. A carbon cementation process seems to occur in these two. The third one has contents that are actually melted and used. Once this process is finished, the material — various grades of steel and iron — are broken up into the giblets which are welded into the sword. The whole process is much more complicated than told here, but it gives some idea of just how involved it is.

Michael recombined the half-inch steel giblets into a solid piece of steel again by forge welding them in the fire. The problem of holding, heating and welding together small bits of steel was very neatly solved by placing a handful of giblets on an iron spatula that had been specially forged to help in the welding process. The spatula is a 4” x 4 1/2” rectangular piece of iron about 1/4” thick. It has a handle attached to it for control in the forge. First, ash derived from rice straw is placed on the spatula to act as a flux. Rice straw ash has fine silicon in it, which is the fluxing agent. The steel giblets are then placed on the spatula and coated with a liquid slip of clay. The clay is just common clay that can be dug out of just about any hillside or road along the highway. When the clay sets up, it holds the giblets in place and acts further as an additional fluxing agent when welding is done. The whole arrangement is then placed in the forge and brought up to welding heat for forging. When that layer is confirmed in a solid weld, further layers are added until enough metal is accumulated to make one of the billets that are used to make the sword. Several of these billets are made and used in a single sword.

Later in the day, Michael was demonstrating the techniques of wrapping a silk chord in the manner that the Japanese use to make a sword handle. He stuffed small, glue-covered balls of rolled-up paper into the wrappings to get the knots and wrappings to stand out with more of a three-dimensional effect than would have been otherwise achieved with just silk cord alone. He used dozens of these little pieces of paper in the process that were hidden under the folds of the cord.

During the sword handle demonstration, a young fellow from Alabama came walking up who had a Japanese sword in a scabbard, sandwiched inside a large notebook. He stood watching for awhile and someone asked him what he had in the notebook. He pulled out what appeared to be a very old sword and Michael caught a glimpse of it. He immediately stopped what he was doing and went over to the fellow to get a closer look. Michael’s eyes seemed to be bulging wide open at what he saw. It was indeed a Japanese sword, about 200 years old, and Michael was able to identify the style and school in Japan that made swords like this one. He removed the handle by taking out a small wooden peg that secures handles on all traditionally made Japanese swords. It was remarkable how similar this old sword looked to the modern one he was working on, even down to the exact details of the silk cord wrappings on the two handles. It seems that traditional sword making in Japan has not varied much over hundred of years. Only the old, established styles used for centuries vary from province to province and from school to school. When asked where he obtained the sword, he explained that an elderly lady he did some work for had given it to him; she had told him that her husband had brought it back home from the Pacific at the end of World War II.

There was one final topic of interest that was not listed on the program of events. When the demonstrations began to wind down on the last day, a few people wandered over to the blacksmith shop in an area located near where the blade symposium had been held and where a metal-casting cupola furnace had been set up. There is a new wind blowing out of Alabama that may begin to attract metal craftsmen and artists into utilizing new techniques. Several people in attendance kept talking about the new shift at Sloss Historic Furnace (located in nearby Birmingham, Alabama), away from just traditional blacksmithing toward metal casting in cast iron and bronze. Sloss Historic Landmark is the old blast furnace site in downtown Birmingham that has been turned into a museum, fostering industrial history, art, and craft. It was the site of the 1988 ABANA conference and has had a strong influence in providing a helping hand to blacksmiths in the forms of very convenient facilities to work in and conduct regular blacksmith meetings. During the time these events were progressing, another group of people interested in iron (in the form of molten cast iron) was attempting to gain a foothold by organizing their people into a unit that was similar to what the blacksmiths had achieved over the years. This has recently been established at Sloss, where regular events are now taking place. It has become so regular that the emphasis at Sloss is beginning to lean more toward the metal caster’s art/craft, which is appropriate for a facility specifically designed to produce pig iron 100 years ago.

The really important aspect of this new direction at Sloss is that it has become a goal to establish enough craft infrastructure at the old furnace site to support long-term metal -casting operations which can be undertaken at affordable prices on just about any project for a metal caster. An artist who has created a work of art hopefully can get it poured without having to pay an arm and leg at a commercial foundry to do the job. One knife maker at the symposium was speculating whether the metal casters at Sloss might pour a single anvil shape for him if he prepared a steel face and shell with attached studs on it. That is not an art project, but it points toward the greatly increased possibilities that such a facility could provide to all of the disciplines that are interested in iron work. A commercial foundry cannot afford to take on a small-scale work like this. This fast-organizing community of metal casters is coming together in conferences and meets at Sloss and now, too, at Alabama’s Tannehill State Park. In the future, they may be able to take on small projects such as casting knife pommels made of brass and finials for fences that blacksmiths can incorporate into their work, as well as many other projects that could not be attempted prior to this time, due to economic restrictions. It is an exciting concept that hopefully will continue to grow and expand to many sections of the United States, as has the art/craft of blacksmithing. The people who do the casting can operate a small, five-foot-tall cupola that uses industrial coke, only costing about $60 a ton. That is one reason they can produce liquid metal so economically. They preheat their cupolas with large propane torches for about two hours before full operation begins. It’s an exciting time for blacksmithing.

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