The Sword Geek

It's all about the swords. Except when it isn't.

Medieval Reproductions? Not so Much.

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I refer to my work as ‘in the style of’ the medieval and viking period, rather than as reproductions. This is because I don’t do precise reproductions of specific medieval or viking era pieces; I make pieces that largely reflect the style and conventions of these pieces. Blades that by their appearance, weight, balance and handling are consistent with medieval swords, knives and daggers but do not precisely duplicate a specific piece or the construction of the originals.

The fact is that almost nobody, and certainly no sword manufacturer, makes reproductions of medieval swords, knives and daggers. Most frankly don’t know the difference, but for those that do claiming otherwise isn’t intellectually honest; it is disingenuous at best and deliberately deceptive at worst.

OK, that’s going to require some clarification. I used to refer to my work as reproductions, and at the time I honestly thought that the term was appropriate. But as the years went by and studies progressed it became obvious that what I and other makers were doing were not really reproductions. We used modern materials, modern methods and seldom precisely copied an existing period artifact directly. Small features like the way the base of the blade merged with the tang, the way fullers terminate and other fine details did not reflect medieval practice, and to some extent the market would not have tolerated it if they did. Many medieval features would be seen as sloppy craftsmanship rather than a reflection of historic practice.

Take an average medieval knife, the sort carried by commoners. Modern reproductions are made out of tool steel forged and/or ground to the form of these blades. A medieval knife would have a wrought-iron blade with a thin strip of steel welded to the edge, or if it were intended solely for eating might have a blade made entirely of iron. Many recreators would love to have such an authentic blade, but unless one sets up a production line and develops efficient ways of creating these they would be very expensive. Some modern reenactors would pay this, but most wouldn’t.

The finish of these knives was typically quite crude; medieval technology to produce a fine finish existed but was expensive, and these knives needed to be affordable by the masses. Handles were finished with files and rasps; few modern customers would tolerate the resulting appearance. It would be viewed as crude and badly crafted, and by modern standards it was. But it got the job done and was affordable at the time. Finishing a handle with files and rasps is more labor intensive and takes longer than using a belt-grinder or other modern tools. More added expense.

To do a proper reproduction of a medieval commoner’s knife would mean the result was expensive and by modern standards crudely finished. This is not what the vast majority of modern customers want, or would buy.

With Medieval swords it gets even worse; they were made every which way in quality ranging from barely adequate to excellent even by modern standards. Typically the tang and first couple of inches at the base of the blade were fabricated from wrought iron, scarf-welded to the (nominally) steel blade. Modern swords are made from a single piece of steel, which requires changes to the design of the shoulder of the tang among other things. Properly peening the tang over the pommel is hugely more difficult with modern steel than it was with wrought iron, and necessitates heating the steel to, essentially, forge the peen. This introduces all sorts of problems, but we manage.

Reproducing the medieval construction of the tang alone is problematic; last I checked genuine wrought iron was expensive and hard to come by. Then the welding, and blending the weld… things are getting expensive again. It’s when we get to the blades that things get really expensive…

There were a number of methods of producing steel blades for medieval swords. That’s a subject for it’s own article, if not a book or two. Suffice it to say if these processes aren’t done on an industrial level they would multiply the cost of swords. The term ‘ruinously expensive’ comes to mind. The end result would often not be satisfactory to a modern user either. So, hugely more expensive and in all likelihood not as good. The market for such things is extremely limited, and blade makers and manufacturers have to pay the bills just like everyone else.

As a result what we modern makers do is an approximation, not a reproduction. That’s the bad news. The good news is that properly done modern swords, knives and daggers are better than their medieval equivalents. If you reproduce all the functional qualities and use better materials, better heat treatment and tempering and a better finish the result is, well, better.

Mind you there are individuals working to do truly authentic reproductions, and I applaud their efforts! Such work is valuable and informs our understanding. What it is not is commercially viable; these efforts are are undertaken for the purpose of experiment and education, and we should support and appreciate the efforts of these individuals. They are truly making ‘reproductions’ and we all benefit from their work.

As for modern swords, knives and daggers they can be very good indeed. They can mimic the form, weight, balance, edge-geometry and dynamic qualities of medieval blades with superior materials and finish. At their best they are modern, improved approximations of their medieval counterparts. But reproductions? Not so much.

September 25, 2016 Posted by | Podcast | Leave a Comment

Once More Into the Shop, Dear Friends…

On July 9th, 2015 the shop burned down and seriously damaged our home. We moved to a rental in Fife, WA. while our home and shop were rebuilt, and finally in February we moved back into our home. The shop had been fully rebuilt and due to a tragic error on the part of the contractor (*snortgiggle*) wound up being fully insulated and drywalled. This meant it needed to be painted to protect the drywall from dust. And of course to get all of our household goods moved in we needed to stage out of the shop, making it virtually impossible to get any work done until last Monday.

The shop was not ready for work; there were still boxes and boxes of books and other stuff, the benches from my van, an old stove, construction materials etc. but we needed income desperately and I was frankly going nuts to get started. I created a fantasy Dwarven hand-axe, and later in the week even got a sword-blade made.

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On Friday the contractors finally finished the shop by installing the storage shelves in the clean-shop. Yesterday I planned to rearrange things, clear the clean shop and get to work on the sword-hilt. I did get the clean-shop mostly cleared and the items stored on the shelves but after lunch something was wrong; I didn’t want to start working on the sword hilt or any other project. Something was bugging me, and after lunch I figured out what and set to work. I moved things around, relocated several items to the clean-shop and cleared the floor of the ‘dirty’ shop as best I could. In the end there was nothing extraneous left in the shop except construction materials and the antique stove we have yet to find a satisfactory disposition for, and the stove was moved to the wall and thoroughly covered in plastic. Then I swept the floor, made sure all the cooling buckets were full of water, took out the trash and was at last satisfied with the results.

The problem, it turns out, was that I wasn’t willing to do things half-assed. Some of you might be surprised that I would ever do something half-assed, but the truth is the old shop was a disaster area. In the nearly seventeen years I worked in that shop we never got the place properly cleaned out. The wiring was jury-rigged. The clean-shop was divided off by a plastic tarp and never got properly divided from the grinding area. It was never clean either. There was a giant metal office desk in the middle of the shop that had been there since we moved in. One entire wall was covered with shelves loaded with storage, mostly things that we put there ‘temporarily’ when we moved in. We relied on dump runs to take care of the trash- which we didn’t do. The floor under the workbenches was full of trash and junk, the floor was covered with dust and extension cord and plug-strips were everywhere. I hated having people in because it was embarrassing, but there was never time, money or energy to get it cleaned up and to keep it up.

We moved in in the fall of 1998, and in 2000 I started a long, slow downhill slide into depression. In addition to chronic migraines (finally diagnosed) it was a daily struggle to do what needed to be done, and I often failed. Naturally I was in denial about the depression, which didn’t help. In fall 2011 the birds came home to roost. Thirty years of unacknowledged, untreated PTSD, of secrets and denial exploded. I suffered what I can only describe as an emotional collapse. Life as I knew it effectively ended. I couldn’t work for weeks at a time, and had trouble managing to do anything constructive.

Linda was a champion and a saint; she got me hooked up with the VA for health care. My PTSD was diagnosed and treated. Years of therapy commenced and I was prescribed the appropriate mood stabilizers etc. It took a couple years, but I was eventually awarded a fifty-percent disability for PTSD- which pays the mortgage each month and that’s about it. Don’t get me wrong; not needing to worry about the house payment is huge but it’s not enough.

Things got better. Friends rallied around and helped. I began to be able to work more and more and started dealing with the wreckage of my life. In the spring of 2015 I caught fire again and was, for the first time in a very long time, feeling seriously passionate about my work. Then the shop burned down.

I won’t say the last seven months haven’t been a bitch, but through it all our friends and family have been there for us. Our landlord at our temporary rental actually built a garage for me to work in and I was able to generate some income. Moving back in was fraughtwith problems and expenses, but again our friends rallied around to help, and our insurance from Allstate has treated us very well.

Now, for the first time in many years our house is beautiful. For the first time ever we were able to design our color schemes, tiling, layout etc. to be what we really wanted; to reflect our taste instead of expediency. The house and shop are properly wired and finished, logically and entirely to code. Almost every upgrade we couldn’t afford, every improvement we never got around to, was accomplished. It’s time for a fresh start; we have the unique opportunity to design our lives to suit us, and By God I am not going to go about it half-assed. Yeah we’re still going to have to make do as best we can here or there but if it within our power to do it right it’s going get done right.

Redesigning our life means a lot of changes; Linda is going to work (tomorrow) in a job that she genuinely wants to do; it doesn’t pay well but she’ll be back to doing the work she loves and has always wanted to get back to. On top of that it is a job that will give her time to write (she’s well into her first ‘solo’ novel) and help maintain the house and pursue other interests. I’ll be working in the shop– but only on projects that genuinely speak to me. Linda is going to help make sure that I have the materials and resources I need; no more making shift and making do. I’ll also be taking time to write on the several novels that are in-progress (the backlog has gotten ridiculous,) continue my political and social commentaries and maybe do more cartooning. Squeezed in amongst these efforts we’ll be working on our hobbies; things that we never had room for before or that were never quite enough of a priority. And housework… what for too long has seemed like a nearly futile chore has becomeinto a pleasure in our new home.

It’s a new beginning, and a new life; one designed by us, for us that reflects what we want and how we want to live. Of course it’s not all going to go our way, but then that’s life, isn’t it?

So time to get the dogs fed, get some breakfast and get into the shop. Time to look forward and create the life we want to live.

March 6, 2016 Posted by | Podcast | Comments Off on Once More Into the Shop, Dear Friends…

It’s Only ‘Good for the Price’ if it’s Good.

I’ve said this all before but it bears repeating.

When I was about 13 or 14 years old we often took the family car and drove around to garage sales on saturday mornings. I’d buy paperback books, knick-knacks or whatever with my allowance. I was very big into drawing then, so I was excited when I found a professional drafting set- compasses, dividers etc. for only five dollars. It was in fairly poor condition, but I figured, ‘What the hell- it’s cheap!’ I didn’t have five dollars, so I approached my Dad and pointed it out, stressing how inexpensive it was.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s in pretty bad shape.”

I pointed out how cheap it was again and suggested it was good enough for the money. I’ll never forget his response. He said, “A dog-turd isn’t a bargain just because it only costs a nickel.”

Let’s pause and reflect on that for a minute. It comes to this: a thing is not a bargain if it’s not worth having, no matter the price.

I am so going to offend people with this post, because in our little world of swords there are a lot of dog turds out there, and there are a lot of people saying, “It’s OK that they are dog turds because they are cheap.” As if the price magically changes them into something other than a dog turd.

A lot of us spent a lot of time and energy trying to educate people about the qualities of swords and why they are important. Looking at today’s sword communities I sometimes feel that I might as well have spent those hours shouting down a drain for all the effect they have had. That feeling is not entirely justified; there are more people making good swords now than at any point since the middle ages. Promising new makers are coming along on an almost daily basis. The future of handmade swords looks bright. But in the production world it’s the same old same old. Offer a dog turd at the right price and people will swear it’s Prime Rib. How do they keep getting away with this?

Because the sword-buying community doesn’t demand better. They don’t vote with their voices or theirwallets. By and large theydon’t know what makes a good sword and can’t be bothered to find out- or worse they think they already know and can’t be told different. Not everyone in the market, of course- just the people buying crappy swords and telling everyone they are ‘Good for the Price.’ Seriously- how can something bad be ‘good for the price?’ It can’t; the best it can aspire to is “It’s crap, but at least it’s cheap.”

I’m not talking about easily corrected things like the cutting edge (unless it’s far too thick) or a handle wrapping. Things like weight, balanceand nodelocation. A sword that looks right but that doesn’t balance correctly, or that stings the hand when you strike with it is not a good sword. A sword that is too heavy for it’s type is not good sword. A sword that is too thick and does not exhibit the proper distal taper for it’s type is not a good sword. A sword with bad heat treatment is not a good sword. Price does not magically alter the physical characteristics of a sword. A sword is good or it’s bad, period.

Swordcompanieswill continue to make dog turds as long as we don’t demand that they do better– and if we don’t demand better we’ll deserve what we get.

February 23, 2016 Posted by | Podcast | Comments Off on It’s Only ‘Good for the Price’ if it’s Good.