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owen bush

How to become a Bladesmith.

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I wrote this article as a reply to all the "I want to be a bladesmith" or "can I be your apprentice" enquiries I recieve. I wanted to put together a more comprehensive answer to send to people. Its mainly aimed at the UK where our resources are a lot more limited than in the USA. The general gist is pretty much universal.

 

 

 

 

How to become a Bladesmith by Owen Bush

 

Here are some ideas if you are keen on getting in to Bladesmithing.

 

I get a lot of people asking me how they can become a bladesmith or sword maker. Many enquiries are often asking whether there are apprenticeships in sword making in the UK, or whether they can come and shadow me in the workshop or help out in exchange for some training.

 

Due to these frequent enquiries I thought it was about time I have a cohesive written answer to give to people.

 

As you can imagine there is no simple answer to this, nor indeed any simple path to follow if you want to be a bladesmith. Being a bladesmith in the UK requires a lot of self-motivation, ingenuity, hard work and get up and go. Don’t expect it to be easy. Bladesmithing is hard, dirty work with it takes long hours and years of practice to become good at it.

 

I started out wanting to make blades and ended up training as a Blacksmith. I then worked as a blacksmith for a decade with my bladesmithing being paid for by my blacksmithing. Blacksmithing and bladesmithing are not the same thing, but the two crafts do share a lot of skills and tools. If your passion is for working metal (in general) then there is more profit and work available for a fabricator or welder, Blacksmiths are more specialized than fabricators and bladesmithing is incredibly niche (with sword smithing being about as niche as you can get). It is a lot easier to survive as a craftsman if you can multitask or if you can start out part time with the saftynet of a paid job supporting you. During the last 22 years as a metalworker I have been a blacksmith, engineer, coppersmith, welder and bladesmith. During this time I kept pushing at the bladesmithing until it finally had enough buoyancy to float to the surface.

 

In the UK there are a small number of colleges that will train you as a blacksmith, with artist blacksmithing degrees now available. This is a great way of getting a good basic training in the craft of blacksmithing, if you are able to devote the time and money to it. I did a year at Hereford College completing a restoration blacksmithing course and loved it. It was a great start to a career in making stuff from metal. It is worth remembering that blacksmithing and bladesmithing are in fact very different crafts and a course in blacksmithing will normally only touch upon the very basics of making blades or tools. It’s also worth remembering that blacksmithing is a much wider trade than bladesmithing. A lot of the tools of the trade of the blacksmith also cross over into to bladesmithing. I worked mainly as a blacksmith for almost 10 years before managing to establish myself fully as a bladesmith. During this time I managed to hone my skills and gather the specific tools of the bladesmithing trade. Getting good at making things takes time (and money) and hard work.

 

If you are interested in bladesmithing as a path as opposed to blacksmithing,

the situation is far more limited. A lot of the blacksmithing colleges are openly negative to bladesmiths and bladesmithing. I was told when I interviewed for college that I could be taught everything there was to learn about bladesmithing in a week, so to forget about it whilst I was at college. Well I didn’t forget and 22 years later I am still learning! If you want to go to a blacksmithing college I would advise that you do not overplay your passion for bladesmithing, or indeed expect to get any real and useful education in it. I hope that this will change in the future. Bladesmithing is slowly reemerging as a viable craft but its relationship with blacksmithing and blacksmiths can be strained at times. I think a lot of blacksmiths are fed up of people asking them “Can you show me how to make a sword?” However a sound training in blacksmithing is a great start to being a bladesmith.

 

There are now a few people offering privately run classes (obviously I am one of them have a look at http://www.owenbush.co.uk) This can be a great way to get a taste for the craft and help decide if you really want to pursue the craft or not. Shorter classes can be a good way of concentrating your learning and with a private class you can pick your tutor and even specify exactly what you want to learn. I teach a lot of smiths and farriers bladesmithing and they are able to get a lot from an intensive one to one class. Private classes can be a way to learn the craft and fit the learning around your current life, by taking weekend or the odd weeklong class. The downside with private classes is that they can be expensive.

 

When I finished my year at blacksmithing college, I did an intensive 6 weeks of classes at a private bladesmithing college in America during that time I did more hours of actual forging in 6 weeks that I had done in a whole years worth of college education as a blacksmith. If your time has a value then it can be cheaper to learn the craft privately. Either way college or private tuition are really only the beginning of learning a craft. The basics of bladesmithing are simple but honing your skill takes time.

 

If you were looking to book a privately run class with a UK Bladesmith or Knife maker there are a few questions I would ask:

 

Does the maker make knives (or swords or axes) that are of the type you are interested in or want to learn to make?

Do they forge or do they make their knives by stock removal (grinding)?

How long have they been making?

 

Whilst it’s true that there are some talented young smiths out there, part of what you are learning from a craft-teacher of any kind is to learn from their mistakes so that you can have a tried and tested path to tread as you learn the craft. Understanding the finer points of making takes time and normally quite a lot of failure along the way.

 

Is the tutor any good at his craft?

This can be a harder thing to find out especially if you do not know that much about the craft. Look at their previous work, follow them on social media: Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. See how other makers in their craft relate to them. In the end this is probably a personal thing as there are many ways to be good at skinning a cat!

 

Last but not least, is the tutor any good at teaching their craft?

The skills needed to teach a craft can be quite different from those needed to be a successful maker. A bladesmithing tutor has to actually understand what it is that they do and be able to explain it in a way that students can understand.

This can be a hard thing to assess when looking for someone to teach you. Does the tutor get a lot of repeat students? Personal recommendations are probably one of the best ways of assessing if a knifemaking teacher is any good.

 

I should point out at this stage that classes, be they long or short are normally just the beginning of the journey if you want be a full time bladesmith. I initially trained as a blacksmith for a year and then traveled to America to train for a summer with bladesmiths. Since then I have made many journeys all over the world to learn from people who are representing a specific side of my craft. I am 22 years in to my bladesmithing journey and still learning. Sometimes the lessons are from other people and sometimes they are learnt by undertaking projects that keep me challenged. To find a bladesmithing class search the internet for, Sword making class ,Knifemaking classes , knifemaking courses, bladesmithing class , Making a knife and any variable version thereof.

 

Apprenticeships

 

Obtaining an apprenticeship in bladesmithing in the UK is something that’s very unlikely to happen, unless you are incredibly lucky with your timing and circumstances. Official apprenticeships do not exist for bladesmithing (or at the present time for blacksmithing, but hopefully this will change soon).

Most UK bladesmiths work alone and having an apprentice (even a skilled one) can be quite an encumbrance, both financially and also as far as using up their limited time. Unless the bladesmith is doing repetitive processes work i.e. only making one kind of knife over and over again it is almost impossible to train someone up to the standard where they are actually productive in a workshop that makes one of pieces.

 

I often get people asking if they can come and help out in the workshop in exchange for training. The basics of this do not really pan out. Unskilled work has a very low value and assuming that a bladesmith actually has enough low skilled jobs that need doing, the exchange rate for unskilled workshop help (at around £50 a day) and skilled workshop rated (at around £300 to £500 a day possibly more) mean that you would need to work six to ten days to earn one days worth of training.

And remember if you are asking someone to train you for free, that you will be costing them money. If they are a self-employed bladesmith, that’s unlikely to be an attractive proposition and may even effect their financial survival.

 

If you want to try and find some experience helping someone in their workshop, there are a number of things you should consider.

I would recommend trying to get some useful skills that you can offer. Most local colleges will have part time welding classes. Being able to run a welder and use an angle grinder are probably the best basic skills needed for any kind of metal work, much more useful than being able to forge in most cases.

Jewellery is also something that has lots of available local classes and lots of skills that marry well with bladesmithing. It is also one of those crafts that is not too tool intensive and can often be done at a kitchen table (with the right care).

Working leather, carving with a dremmel, whittling wood and grinding blades with a belt grinder or angle grinder are all just as useful as forging a blade.

Any kind of making is a good start and woodworking, leatherworking or any other related (or non related) craft skills can have a good crossover with bladesmithing.

 

 

 

 

 

If you are able to set up your own workshop, however limited, then this really is the best path to learning, even if its just a space at the kitchen table or work bench (with permission obviously if it’s needed).

In general someone who actually does stuff rather than dreams about it is much more likely to get a positive response from people when trying to get some work experience. Common sense is probably the most useful skill in the workshop.

 

 

Although I love the forging aspect of bladesmithing, if there was one thing I would recommend that people concentrate on if they want to get good at making blades it’s the grinding. Mastering the use of an angle grinder and belt grinder (linisher) really makes being successful in the craft more possible.

 

There is an old phrase ‘five minutes at the forge saves a hour on the grinder’. This can be true in some limited circumstances (if you have a power hammer), but it’s the grinder and speed at which you can grind that will dictate whether you are a viable bladesmith or not. It is often much, much quicker to make a blade by stock removal than it is by forging. Grinding is the No.1 skill of the bladesmith.

 

Every smith is different but if I wanted to try and get some experience in a bladesmiths shop I would try and do the following:-

 

Email and then phone. An email is very easy to ignore. A generic round robin email will almost certainly not be answered. If someone has seen an email from you they are much more likely to want to speak to you.

 

Remember to be courteous and write in full sentences, you are basically asking someone for a favour and they WILL be judging you by your email.

Show something that you have made. I would be much more impressed by someone who had had a go at making knives than by the aspirations of someone who had always dreamed of being a swordsmith. Actions speak so much louder than words.

Finally get off of your arse and have a go! Look on the Internet, there is so much information out there now, look on Forums, Facebook pages, look in books, watch videos from makers on YouTube.

Nothing in life is free but with a workbench, files, hacksaw and blowtorch you can make a knife very cheaply.

 

I am always happy to answer questions on bladesmithing, and I consider it part of my job. If you have the passion for it you will find a way. In the end we have to carve our own path through the craft. If you are very lucky you will get some help along the way, but in the end it will be up to you.

 

I have found bladesmithing to be a very satisfying craft to pursue, it can be hard to make a living from it and I am certainly guilty of earning a lot less than minimum wage from it for quite a long time. It can be quite hard to justify being a workaholic who does not earn much money from their work (to ones self or a significant other) …….you have been warned.

That said if you catch the bug there is nothing like making stuff for a living. I’ve been at it for 22 years and still love it. I am very luck to have found a Job that I get great satisfaction from. Bladesmithing has brought me a lot of opportunities that I would not have otherwise had, I have met a lot of people through the craft and have called my own shots along the way.

Being a bladesmith in the 21st century may be a bit of a strange juxtaposition but with the internet allowing people to easily share their work and the freedom of information there is a bit of a renaissance happening in the craft. I know a lot of knife makers who are doing well in their craft, I am happy to now include myself in that list. I could not have said the same 10 years ago.

There has probably never been a better time to be a bladesmith.

 

 

 

 

Good luck !

 

 

 

 

 

I have listed some resources below that may help you to find more information on bladesmithing or help with finding kit. the list is for Great Britain, If you want to see a nice list of US bladesmithing resources compiled by Wes Detrick have a look here:-

 

A US Addendum of resources for bladesmithing

 

Some good Internet forums are:-

www.britishblades.com - Look in the cutlers forge and big boys toys.

 

www.bladesmithsforum.com - Still the best bladesmiths forum on the internet, a great group of some of the worlds best makers.

 

www.iforgeiron.com - Lots of good info still on here but I have found often there is a very condescending attitude. Still worth a visit though but keep this in mind.

 

www.myarmoury.com - Lots of great info on historical swords.

 

www.Edgematters.com -Another British knife forum .

 

 

Blacksmithing courses (full time)

 

Hereford College of Art

http://www.hca.ac.uk/Courses/University-Level/BA-(Hons)/Artist-Blacksmithing

Plumpton College

 

https://www.plumpton.ac.uk/

 

Plumpton College blacksmithing and metalworking department offer a wide range of courses from level 1 through to new foundation degree in creative metalworking.

 

 

Material Suppliers

 

Steel suppliers

 

My No.1 steel supplier is Furnivals Steel. Most steel stockists sell steel in sheets or full bars. If you want smaller bits you have to pay a premium and go to someone who sells cut up steel to knife makers. Generally speaking as the quantity of steel you buy goes up the price goes down. Precision ground stock is a lot more expensive that hot or cold rolled steel and is a waste of time if you are going to get the steel hot and bash it.

 

http://www.furnivalsteel.co.uk/ - Steel stockiest, sells EN45, EN9, 15n20, EN42 EN42J CS80 cs90 O1 52111 and other stuff. Andy normally sells full sheets.[OB1]

 

https://www.groundflatstock.com/ - Suppliers of tool steel and some knife making stainless in small knife sized pieces.

 

http://www.highgradesteel.co.uk/products - Sell full sheets and cut to size steel. 15n20, 1095 and O1.

 

Some other steel stockists who have been recommended to me by other makers:

 

http://www.phoenixsteel.co.uk/

http://www.argentsteel.co.uk/

http://www.barmondsheffield.com/

 

 

Gas Forges

 

I have made a lot of my own forges. I highly recommend these gas air mixers from Amal. I use a 1” long ventury [OB2] in my welding forge and ¾ or 1 inch in my others.

 

http://amalcarb.co.uk/downloadfiles/amal/amal_gas_injectors.pdf

 

Refractory[OB3] supplies from

 

http://www.castreekilns.co.uk/

 

http://www.vitcas.com/

 

 

Swann make very good gas forges. The signet forge (twin burner) is a great forge, very hot and economic. I would not use it for a lot of forge welding as the lining wont stand the flux.

 

http://gasforges.co.uk/

 

Becma make a lot of forges and I have heard mixed reports about them, some of the smaller ones are definitely too cold for bladesmithing. I know some professionals who use a larger of their forges.

 

http://www.oezwerk.de/BECMA-Forging-Equipment

 

Vaughans make a basic but rugged gas forge called the Champion or mark two. I have owned a few of these and have had good use from them (after cutting a through [OB4] hole in them.)

 

http://www.anvils.co.uk/alcosa-blacksmiths-forges.html

 

 

 

Thermocouples

 

Type K inconel (3 to 6 mm) remember to order a type K plug to go with the thermocouple.

 

www.omega.co.uk

 

Digital thermometers are now cheaply available and they need a type K thermocouple (as above) This be ordered directly from China or Hong Kong for a few quid.

Do a search on eBay for Type K digital thermometer TM-902C.

 

 

General knife supplies and tool suppliers

 

Both of these companies sell a lot of general knife supplies. Dictum has a very wide range of cool tools.

 

http://www.Dictum.com/en - Knife supplies and tools, worth having a look.

 

http://brisa.fi/ - Lots of knife supplies

 

http://www.axminster.co.uk - Axminster power tools lots of wood and metalworking stuff.

 

https://www.cromwell.co.uk/ - Very large supply of engineering tools

 

 

http://www.homeandworkshop.co.uk/ - Sidcup based second hand engineering stuff. Lots of lathe mills. They are great people to deal with, they often have smithing stuff (mention my name.)

 

 

Grinders

EBay, search for linisher or belt grinder, useful ones do not come up that often. So you have to keep at it. The standard rule is 2 hp per inch of belt width (or more) and most people find 2” wide belt sanders the easiest to use.

http://www.surtech.co.uk/products.html - Surteck lots of good but expensive grinders.

http://www.hydrafeed.co.uk/additional-products/flexiband/ - Suppliers of vanco flexyband linisher , I have used these grinders for years - incredibly rugged well made grinders (expensive though) they some times come up on eBay second hand.

http://www.baileighindustrial.co.uk/belt-grinder-bg-248-3-1b - Baileigh 3 wheel grinder, awesome little grinder very versatile. If you buy one of these I would recommend buying some thread lock and undoing all of the bolts and re tightening them with the threadlock.

KMG (U.S.A.) - American made grinder used by a lot of PRO Makers

Bader - (USA). Make great grinders, the first kind I ever used. They also make the bader space saver, probably the best grinder in the world. They are US based but great to deal with.


Downland - https://downlandengineeringservices.com/ Maker of the Ali grinder. British made grinder used by lots of UK makers. I have never used one but people I know who have them like theirs.

 

Grinding belts

 

Ceramic are best for hardened steel and zirconium for unhardened the cheaper ali oxide belts do not last as long. You get what you pay for with grinding belts.

 

John Townsend, Ex-abrasive industry guy, can supply mixes packs of belts. Great supplier - john.mol@tiscali.co.uk

 

BND - https://www.bndabrasives.co.uk/ Abrasives supplier, can get belts to you very quickly.

 

 

Websites of interest

 

www.powning.com/jake/home/j_homepg.shtml - Jake Powning. Some of the best blade work out there.

www.baba.org.uk British Artist Blacksmiths association site

www.mvforge.com The website of Howard Clark; master bladesmith who ran a sword class at Bushfire Forge in April 2010

www.londonlongsword.com Dave Rawlings

www.to-ken.com To-Ken society of Great Britain. Japanese sword collectors society.

https://www.facebook.com/gullinburstiPF/- Petr Florianek

 

http://www.albion-swords.com/swords/johnsson/peter.htm - Peter Johnsson

 

http://doorcountyforgeworks.com/ - Ric Furrer

 

[OB1]Where do they sererate, who is Andy?

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This is a great resource for newcomers to the craft. Thanks for taking the time to write it, Owen. It is well put.

 

Dave

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I agree on many of those points. I think along the same lines frequently, thanks for articulating this and providing food for thought! Some reflections:

A person who is not willing to try to go it alone, build their own small shop, spend a lot of free time in there, is very likely not going to ever succeed at being a bladesmith. Self-starting is key.

Along those lines, it's much better to have the kind of student who learns at home while making things, and comes in from time to time for a short lesson in this or that aspect. There's no way I can have an apprentice around for the amount of time needed for them to learn everything. Aiding in self-study is best for me. Hell, I'll even help a student build a quick forge or even a grinder sometimes.

Just because a person is a skilled bladesmith, does not mean they have teaching skills. True! I've been learning to teach, much like I learned to make knives- paid little or nothing, when I can spare the time, for local youngsters mostly. It gives me an opportunity to develop methods and try different approaches.

 

I agree that grinding is the most useful basic skill, and also the most difficult to teach and learn. I have tried many different ways of teaching accurate grinding, and I find that each student normally needs a tailored approach. Thus, the real utility of having several methods.

I have to explain how the old apprenticeship system used to work, and how things are different today, not infrequently. From the old time standpoint, a person does not realize that they are asking for the privilege of working for me mostly unpaid but for possibly room and board, for years, starting with months or even years of doing menial, dirty, laborious tasks that I don't want to do. Most guys these days want to start with damascus steel! How about only hand sanding blades, cutting and prepping stock, and sweeping the floor for a year? So, things have changed- and for the student, only for the better. For the "master" there is very little to gain these days. Except, more experience in teaching, and the satisfaction of paying it forward.

 

Of those things, experience in teaching is actually quite valuable- I find a good teacher often understands what it is they do much more thoroughly than a person who does not teach, or is a poor teacher. Seeing the craft through a lens of inexperience all over again, or answering an oddly difficult basic question, can teach even the most experienced smith things that they missed or disregarded the first time around.

Edited by Salem Straub

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I have certainly learned a lot about the craft and my way of doing it by having to explain it to students and TV crews....It can be interesting at first to find out that you are often not actually doing what you think you are!

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One more 'site of intrest' that I think is critical for the new maker is Kevin Cashen's, especially his heat treating pages. Demystifying heat treatment and showing the science around it and the steps is one of the most important things we can do to help makers get predictable and repeatable results. As a trained engineer myself, the science is important to grasp conceptually even if you dont know 'why' things happen. Very very well written Owen!

 

http://www.cashenblades.com/heattreatment.html

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This post is probably the most insightful thing I have ever read on this subject.

 

"There has probably never been a better time to be a bladesmith."

Nor has there been a better time to learn the craft.

 

"I would be much more impressed by someone who had had a go at making knives than by the aspirations of someone who had always dreamed of being a swordsmith. Actions speak so much louder than words." "If you want to try and find some experience helping someone in their workshop, ......... I would recommend trying to get some useful skills that you can offer."

These are the real ideas that everyone who wants to be an apprentice bladesmith or swordsmith needs to get firmly in their head.

 

 

I have spent most of my adult life (and more than a few years of my childhood) as, or becoming, a skilled tradesman. When I started to learn the blacksmith's trade, I had a huge step up because tools and machinery were a known quantity. After a year of making dodads and thingys at the forge, I decided to finally achieve that childhood dream of making swords and knives. There were only a few books on the subject and videos on Youtube were science fiction at the time. I had never heard of the ABS, or any other knife making organization, so I bought the best books I could afford (nod to JPH here) and started having a go. It was more difficult than I imagined. Then something happened.

I got really lucky.

A friend of mine whom I hadn't seen in years was at a party I went to. In "catching up" conversation I mentioned the bladesmithing adventure I was on. She said "Oh, my brother is a professional knife maker. I'll give you his phone number and you can get together with him." I was dumbfounded.

I'm thinking: "what do you mean he's a professional knife maker? There is such a thing?" So I called him and asked if he taught classes or gave lessons. I didn't expect to get anything for free. Quite frankly, it irked me when I thought about the fact that I had spent my whole life learning how to build houses (every trade, every part of the damn thing) and people would come to me and ask for a job so they could learn from me. I had to pay them while they learned what it took me a lifetime to acquire. Well, I got paid to learn it too, so it's fair I guess .

Then reality struck.

When I called him, he really wanted nothing to do with me. I got the impression that a lot of people asked him this question and more times than not, he was disappointed with the encounters.

Then I got lucky again.

I managed to convince him to meet me and talk about it.

I brought with me the stuff I had worked on and asked for his opinion. I asked to see some of his work and his shop. I told him about my shop and we started communicating as "craftsmen", and that was the key. I was not someone who thought it would be easy. I knew how hard it was and I knew I needed help. He agreed to give me a lesson. I paid cash up front. We made a simple stock removal drop point hunter with a flat grind and a stub tang.

 

I went home and started applying what I learned and came back to show him my progress. I asked to take another lesson on a full tang hollow grind. He upped the price of the lesson by 25%. I didn't even think about it before I accepted. Six months later, I had purchased the three pieces of equipment he said I absolutely needed and started going after it. When i called and asked if I could show him what I had done and get some critique, he agreed.

 

The rest is history. He started calling me one of his "apprentices" and told me I could stop by any time, just call first. His shop became open to me and so was his vast knowledge.

 

I had already acquired a skill set before I tried making blades or asking for a teacher. I knew how to use the tools. I knew how steep the learning curve was going to be. That made the difference between "No I won't " and "Maybe, we will see", and all I needed was the "maybe". The rest was up to me.

Edited by Joshua States
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Excellent.

 

Perhaps someone could put together a US addendum for suppliers, schools, etc.

 

I look for this post to be visited often.

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