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Advice for a large messer


Timm Nawrocki

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I'm planning on attempting my first large blade over the next two or three months. I'd like to make a large messer and would welcome any tips on the approach, especially in regard to a few questions I have. I aim to produce a piece that is historically inspired, but not a reproduction. I'll outline my plan in sections below. I'm willing to spend a little extra money to invest in tools that will make it easier for me to create large blades, but I have to work within the constraint that I have very limited electricity and an outdoor work space (so I couldn't use a heat treat kiln, for example).

 

Over the past several years, I've made several seaxes with blades around 550 mm and 6.3 mm thickness with little distal taper. I'm happy with how they've turned out, but I generally founnd the hardening step to be the most difficult part of the process. At least, hardening is the part the process for which I have the least certainty. I think maybe I'm heating the blade too hot before quenching?

 

Dimensions and steel

Steel: 1075 from NJSB

Overall length: 1400 mm

Handle length: 400

Guard length: 350 mm

Blade length: 1000 mm

Basal width: 60 mm

Basal thickness: 9 mm

Distal thickness: 3 mm

Curvature: Tip 20 mm above the top axis of the handle

Notes: I'm aiming for a total weight of around 2.3 kg. I'd like the blade to be fairly stiff. The design I'm referring to is the bottom sketch in the attached photo.

 

Equipment

I have a two-burner Hell's Forger propane forge. I think this is adequate for my forging needs. I plan to forge only a basic shape and then do much of the shaping by grinding.

1. I wonder if I should get a second one of these so that I can put them end to end (i.e., to make a four-burner forge) to cover the most of the blade when attempting to get an even temperature for normalizing and hardening. Or will I be able to achieve an even heat just by moving the blade back and forth through the two-burner forge?

 

Normalizing

I have a lot of trouble judging steel colors. Even in the evening with a color chart ready for reference. I'm sure it's a skill that comes with experience, but I need to work up to being able to read the colors. Will I do more harm than good by overheating the blade during normalization. In other words, is it better for me to err on the side of underheating the blade, rather than overheating the blade during the normalization cycles?

 

Hardening

For the hardening step, I plan on building a quench tank out of a 5 ft (sorry for the inconsistent units!) section of galvanized steel stove pipe with a 6" diameter supported on a wooden frame. I anticipate quenching in canola oil. A few related questions:

1. Is canola oil adequate for such a large piece? Should I use a different medium? I'm aiming for adequate rather than optimal. I'd be willing to invest in Parks 50 if that seems like a far better option than canola oil, but the shipping to my location in Alaska is extremely expensive. I only want to invest in Parks 50 if all other options are inadequate.

2. Should I try to find a larger diameter quench tank so that the oil doesn't heat up too much?

3. Is it worth aiming for a lower heat, such as right at non-magnetic, for the quench?

4. I plan to leave a 3 mm edge on the blade for the heat treat. Does that sound reasonable or is that too thick for a shallow-hardening steel?

 

Tempering

For the tempering step, I plan to modify a large charcoal grill so that it can fit large sections of the blade. Then I will temper the blade in multiple sections for 1 hour twice with a quench in the oil tank in between each cycle. Edge retention is far less important to me than toughness. I plan to temper the entire piece at 600 F or as close to that as I can achieve in the charcoal grill.

1. Is there a problem with inconsistent tempering time, where some parts of the blade will overlap between tempering sections (e.g., some parts of the blade could be tempered for a total of 4 hours rather than 2 hours).

2. Is my target of 600 F good or should I adjust higher/lower? I'm not sure I can get the temp of a charcoal grill higher but see #3.

3. Is it worth me tempering the spine by torch after the tempering cycles in the charcoal grill to bring the spine back to a higher temperature?

 

Scabbard

I have Covering the Blade (Volken and Goubitz 2021) as a reference for building the scabbard. I notice that Volken and Goubitz state that glued scabbards became more common in the 15th/16th centuries, but they offer no further elaboration. I plan to build the scabbard similar to the scabbard for Peter Johnsson's bollock dagger with a parchment lining, a 3 mm hickory slat on each side of the blade, a linen wrap around the wood/parchment, and a 2 mm (~5-6 oz) leather cover over the linen. I anticipate using Titebond III to glue all parts.  

1. Is a glued leather construction appropriate for circa 1490?

2. Volken and Goubitz also state that parchment linings were common. I have goat parchment on order. For a large blade, should the parchment be glued together in sections?

 

I may think up more questions before I begin work, but hopefully this is a good start without being too overwhelming to answer. Thanks for any help that anyone could provide! I've already learned a lot from these forums. I really owe Jeroen a big thanks for putting so much information on seaxes onto this forum. I wouldn't have succeeded in my past projects without those resources.

 

If anyone has good reference material to suggest for large messers (books, articles, etc. in any language), I would also be grateful for the recommendations.

 

References

Volken, M., and O. Goubitz. 2021. Covering the blade: Archaeological leather sheaths and scabbards. SPA Uitgevers. Zwolle, Netherlands. 300 pp.

messer_sketch.jpg

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I'm sure others will have more detailed advice but we can start here:

 

  1. A two handed sword is not just a large blade, be prepared for a lot of hand work (filing and sanding) as well as more critical heat treatment (particularly stress relief before the hardening step)
  2. Research building a Don Fogg style heat treatment forge (55 gallon drum, 1" ceramic fiber blanket insulation, 1" propane NA burner, thermocouple assembly). This will heat significantly more evenly than a double Hell's forge.
  3. Choice of proper quench media is a function of type of steel selected.  Know your steel and test your process before committing to heat treatment of a large blade.
  4. If you are going for a charcoal fire for tempering, why not build a trench forge and temper the whole thing at once?  I've seen a demo (Phil Baldwin?) where a trench charcoal fire was used for a large blade temper, and the air source was a cardboard pizza box fanned by hand.  Kind of an art more than a science.  Of course you could substitute a piece of pipe with holes along the length and a small blower pretty easily.
  5. Bluing the spine sounds prudent to me, particularly if you have a question regarding your temper cycle.  I recommend doing it edge down with the edge covered in damp sand. 
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Dan makes good points.  I will add

 

1. yes, overheating during normalization is bad.  Underheating doesn't refine grain, though, it just anneals.  You need to practice until you can see decalescence.  1075 is also one of the few steels a magnet is good for. Use that and watch for the shadows, only on a rising heat.

 

2. Canola is fine, just heat it to 130 degrees F or so prior to quenching.  As long as your stovepipe will hold the oil, you're good.  Well casing is much better, if you can scrounge some.

 

3. it is possible to evenly heat a sword by stroking it through a small forge, it just takes skill and patience.  I second Dan in suggesting a trench forge.  That's what I used for my first few swords. You can even use the embers of a large bonfire as long as the temperature is even enough.

 

4.  3mm is way too thick.  0.5 - 0.7mm is better for 1075 in canola.  Maybe 1mm if you're really worried about warping.  Speaking of which, it will take a significant nosedive in the quench, say 10mm or so.  Adjust your curvature accordingly.   

 

5. you want a full spring temper with an end hardness of around Rc 50- 55.  I like 575 F for 1084, but be aware you can be in the blue-brittle zone between 500 and 700 F, depending on the steel. Drawing back the spine is good. If you can get Tempil sticks, use those to judge temperature during tempering.  You also aren't going to get a full hour soak in charcoal.  So do several short soaks.  No need to quench in between.  Look up the specs for tempering 1075 to Rc 50 and that's your target heat.

 

6. you will not get a successful temper by doing it in sections.  All or nothing. Trench fire again.

 

7. Do not use titebond unless it's the original.  II and III cause rust.  If you can't get hide glue, Elmer's wood glue will do.  And yes, glued scabbards are fine for the period.  

 

8. See Dan's #1.  Reread that many times.  Do as much work as you can prior to heat treatment.  

 

 

 

 

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I'd also add that 2.3 kg is pretty dang heavy for this type of sword, 9mm is pretty thick and 60 mm is pretty wide for the base of the blade.  Reducing the width and thickness there would save a bunch of weight and make the sword much nicer to use.  

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Ooh, good catch, I was thinking pounds.  Yeah, even the big two-hander should only be about 1.5 Kg max.  The two-hander messer-like object I made long ago came in at 900g, and still swung like a baseball bat.  

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59 minutes ago, Alan Longmire said:

Ooh, good catch, I was thinking pounds.  Yeah, even the big two-hander should only be about 1.5 Kg max.  The two-hander messer-like object I made long ago came in at 900g, and still swung like a baseball bat.  

Its the lack of the pommel. But I think lots of original ones were lighter still. 

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Thanks Dan and Alan for the thorough points. I appreciate your help greatly. And thanks Jerrod and Jaro for your thoughts as well.

 

12 hours ago, Dan Hertzson said:

A two handed sword is not just a large blade, be prepared for a lot of hand work (filing and sanding) as well as more critical heat treatment (particularly stress relief before the hardening step)

 

It's a good point - I'm expecting this project to be more of a learning opportunity. Especially, given that I broke my first two attempts at seaxes while learning the basics of hardening and tempering. By stress relief, I'm guessing you're referring to normalization or are you thinking of something else? I'll plan for several full days of shaping work before getting to the heat treatment.

 

12 hours ago, Dan Hertzson said:

Bluing the spine sounds prudent to me, particularly if you have a question regarding your temper cycle.  I recommend doing it edge down with the edge covered in damp sand.

 

This sounds like a great method to keep the edge cool while torching the spine. I did wonder if tempering by torch would result in overheating the edge, but I forgot to ask in my first post. I will definitely give this a try.

 

8 hours ago, Alan Longmire said:

it is possible to evenly heat a sword by stroking it through a small forge, it just takes skill and patience.  I second Dan in suggesting a trench forge.  That's what I used for my first few swords. You can even use the embers of a large bonfire as long as the temperature is even enough.

 

I'll think about using a trench forge or a Don Fogg forge. At the very least it sounds like I need to experiment and practice on a large piece of scrap steel with a couple of different methods. The trench forge sounds like a good option, and I used a trench forge on my past seax projects. I'm nervous about sparking a wildfire from uncovered charcoal with a blower. Maybe I just need to figure out a better system for covering the trench and controlling embers. Are you typically covering the trench with fire bricks?

 

8 hours ago, Alan Longmire said:

3mm is way too thick.  0.5 - 0.7mm is better for 1075 in canola.  Maybe 1mm if you're really worried about warping.  Speaking of which, it will take a significant nosedive in the quench, say 10mm or so.  Adjust your curvature accordingly.

 

Ok, I suppose I confused myself regarding the edge thickness in the heat treat. I kept a 1 mm edge on my successful seax projects during the heat treat. Then recently I started to wonder if that was too thin. I'll aim for the 0.7 mm target you mentioned on this attempt. On a related note, am I correct in thinking that even at 9 mm, the sword should harden all the way through (rather than just a 1-2 mm from the surface)? I get confused as to what shallow means in shallow-hardening in relation to swords.

 

8 hours ago, Alan Longmire said:

Look up the specs for tempering 1075 to Rc 50 and that's your target heat.

 

Based on this chart from Alpha Knife Supply, it looks like 50 rc on 1075 equates to 750 F. That's higher than I anticipated. I'll try to draw back the spine to that temperature checking using the tempil sticks (thanks for that recommendation, I wasn't aware such a thing existed).

 

 

6 hours ago, Jerrod Miller said:

I'd also add that 2.3 kg is pretty dang heavy for this type of sword

 

I've had a lot of trouble finding weights on originals. I can find some examples with dimensions listed, but not weights. I based my 5 lb estimate on two reproductions that I found weight measurements for: 1) Arms & Armor custom messer of 5 lbs (see 0:49) and 2) Landsknecht Emporium custom messer of 4 lbs 13 oz (see video description). I imagine that these must both be skewed towards the larger/heavier side of the messer spectrum. It may also be possible that the Arms & Armor and Landsknecht Emporium pieces are heavier than comparable originals. But I tend to like swords on the heavier/thicker side of historically plausible. Even so, I'll make a full size wooden template first to see how it looks and adjust the width if it looks off. I sometimes find it difficult to judge what looks right (in my non-expert opinion) from the scale drawing.

 

4 hours ago, Dan Hertzson said:

Some of the originals may have also had a pinned pommel

 

I've been thinking of whether to do a pommel and if so what kind. My current sketch does not have a pommel, but it seems more historically plausible to include a pommel. On the other hand, I like the look of extending the wood handle all the way to the end of the tang. Regardless, a pinned pommel would be pretty easy and minimalist so that could be a great option.

 

Again, I appreciate all the help and suggestions!

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Stress relief=Sub-critical annealing cycle.  Some call this the last step in normalization.  All a matter of definitions, and I think you will find that folks don't always agree on those.

 

Didn't see the 1075 in the description in your OP.  Haven't used that myself, so have no recommendations there except to experiment before heat treating the sword.

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When it comes to shape and size, have a look around the forum too. @J.G. Elmslie hasn’t been on the forum for a few years now but he made a study of European single-edged swords (and created the typology for falchions). He has some work here including the one linked below.

 

 

Edited by Charles dP

"The way we win matters" (Ender Wiggins) Orson Scott Card

 

Nos qui libertate donati nescimus quid constat

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8 hours ago, Timm Nawrocki said:

Based on this chart from Alpha Knife Supply, it looks like 50 rc on 1075 equates to 750 F. That's higher than I anticipated. I'll try to draw back the spine to that temperature checking using the tempil sticks (thanks for that recommendation, I wasn't aware such a thing existed).

 

 

It's hard to find but here's NJSB's heat-treat schedule for their 1075. :)

https://cdn.newjerseysteelbaron.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/1075-Heat-Treat-7-20.pdf

 

Looks like they recommend around 650F for 50Rc

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11 hours ago, Timm Nawrocki said:

Are you typically covering the trench with fire bricks?

 

No, just using a windbreak as needed.  I don't run enough blast to generate many sparks, either.  It's an 8" deep trench with a 2" steel pipe in the bottom. The pipe has 1/2" holes every two inches.  It wastes a lot of charcoal, but when you really need a long even heat it's just the thing if you don't have a drum forge.

 

11 hours ago, Timm Nawrocki said:

On a related note, am I correct in thinking that even at 9 mm, the sword should harden all the way through (rather than just a 1-2 mm from the surface)? I get confused as to what shallow means in shallow-hardening in relation to swords.

 

If it's NJSB low-Mn 1075 it'll harden about 1.5 - 2mm deep from all surfaces.  So no, the part that's 9mm thick will not through-harden.  This is a good thing, it increases toughness.

 

11 hours ago, Timm Nawrocki said:

It may also be possible that the Arms & Armor and Landsknecht Emporium pieces are heavier than comparable originals.

 

This.  Almost all repro swords are heavier and thicker than the originals they copy.  Albion are the closest, since their design team (Peter Johnsson, cough cough) has studied enough originals to know how they really feel.  

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My HEMA longsword is about 55 inches and under 4 pounds.  And mine is considered a bit of a beast (SIGI Maestro XL).  As the reviewer on the Landsknecht Emporium sword mentioned, those specs make the blade a bit unwieldy and fatiguing.  It all depends on what you really want to do with it, though.  

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On 3/29/2023 at 9:34 AM, Jerrod Miller said:

My HEMA longsword is about 55 inches and under 4 pounds.

 

This is a good benchmark, Jerrod. At the other end of the spectrum, I see that Albion makes a 55 inch sword, the Maximilian, weighing 5 lb 1 oz (2.3 kg). I think you're right that 5 lbs is a bit heavy/fatiguing for what I want. I modified my plan to aim for an approximate mid-point between those examples of around 4 lbs (1.8 kg) or just over that. I have a modified Ronin Katana Euro 1 that comes in at 3 lbs 12 oz (1.7 kg) that I've enjoyed cutting with. I also have an LK Chen Chang Dao at 4 lbs 6 oz (2 kg) that is very pleasant to cut with. The relatively long handle offsets the weight, making it easier to wield than the Euro 1. I think a 4 lb sword with a handle several inches longer than that of my Euro 1 will make for a fun cutter.

 

On 3/29/2023 at 3:11 AM, Jaron Martindale said:

It's hard to find but here's NJSB's heat-treat schedule for their 1075.

 

Jaron, thank you for pointing this out to me. I feel sheepish now that I didn't find that originally (I see it now under "Heat Lot Certifications"). The 650 F target makes much more sense to me. I also see the sub-critical annealing cycle that you mentioned, Dan.

 

On 3/28/2023 at 8:17 AM, Alan Longmire said:

Well casing is much better, if you can scrounge some.

 

I was able to get a hold of some well pipe. I picked up a piece with 8 inch diameter, based on the discussion in a thread on quench tank volume. Lots of great information there. I decided that the extra volume of the 8 inch diameter might be helpful given the size of the sword. I was originally planning on a vertical quench tank, but I think now I'll turn the pipe into a horizontal quench tank based on some other past forum threads here since single edged swords are my interest and the horizontal tank seems much easier logistically (i.e., not having to countersink the pipe).

 

I attached some photos showing the blade now that I'm 90% finished with the rough grind. I reduced the dimensions to 51 inches (1295 mm) overall with a 37.75 inch (960 inch blade). I think I'll narrow the width of the blade at the distal end by a few mm on either side, and I still need to further narrow the tang. Hopefully I'll be able to finish up the grind and heat treat the blade in a few weeks.

 

 

 

 

rough_grind_1.jpg

rough_grind_2.jpg

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I don't know much about forging yet, but I do know a bit about swords! As far as I recall, it's rare to find any historical sword of any length over 2 lbs. Almost all long historical swords had a fairly aggressive distal taper to accomplish this, and the reason is to prevent fatigue carrying as well as swinging them, and to keep costs making them low as well! Sword steel has historically been fairly difficult to make, and therefore valuable. Even Bronze age swords top out at ~111 cm (~43 inches) and don't weigh more than 900 grams. 

 

That being said, heavier swords than this and swords without distal taper do cut better, since they have more inertia. There's always exceptions too, for instance Japanese swords don't have much distal taper. Generally European swords do though (expected to be more nimble). So it all depends on how historically accurate you want to be, and what you want to use it for. Personally I wouldn't make a sword heavier than 2 lbs.

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4 hours ago, Carlos Lara said:

As far as I recall, it's rare to find any historical sword of any length over 2 lbs

 

I can certainly understand personal preference for lighter swords. I believe that personal preference for various weights was a historical factor driving variation just as it is for reenactors/practitioners/collectors today. I disagree with the assertion that historical swords rarely weighed more than 2 lbs (0.9 kg). I've expanded my search to look at other 15th/16th century historical European sword weights, after not being able to find weights specifically for large two-handed messers. Here are some resources showing widely variable weights on originals, frequently over 2 lbs:

 

Royal Armouries article on two-handed swords

 

MyArmoury thread containing weights of historical swords

 

MyArmoury article on three sword weights from Higgins Museum

 

MyArmoury thread with Craig Johnson's observation that original messers can be as large as two-handed swords (no weights provided though)

 

Met German 15th century sword

 

Met ca. 1400

 

Met ca. 1400-1430

 

During the 19th and 20th centuries, it seems like there was a great amount of misinformation to the effect that swords were huge and unwieldy. I'm certainly not trying to push that view. Instead, I see historical sword weights that are variable between 1 and 7 lbs (0.45 kg and 3.2 kg), probably dependent on intended use and preference of the wielder. I'm not disagreeing with your preference for lighter swords though - I can understand and respect that.

 

It may be that a 4 lb, 51 inch messer would have been relatively rare in 15th/16th century Europe, but I think it can fit within the range of historically plausible.

 

 

Edited by Timm Nawrocki
Added some values/units that I left off initially.
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13 hours ago, Timm Nawrocki said:

but I think it can fit within the range of historically plausible

In my opinion: the best work I've ever seen has been made within the realm of "Historically Plausible", and it should definitely not be shoved aside just because "it doesn't match any historical finds".  I say let your mind soak in the space of a 15th/16th century craftsman and make something from it!

 

as an aside, maybe we'll see an appearance here from @Bjorn Gylfason and he can offer some assistance with weights and balances for Messers..:ph34r:

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Ooooh messers, I love messers 

 

While I'm absolutely no expert I do like messers more than the average person :lol: and have made a few with what I would like to think progressively better feel and handling as I fail my way towards the right results.

 

For that size and shape I would say a weight between 1700 and 1900 grams should be about right. 

 

I've pestered Elmslie in the past about all sorts of things regarding them and one of the best things I've learned from him is just how non linear the distal taper often is on these larger ones as that greatly helps with weight, balance and stiffness in the right places to the point the pommel caps are really much more decorative than serving any real balancing purposes, very often being hollow shells. The blade should feel good bare.

 

So just as a vague example a blade might go from 9mm at the base down to 6-7mm in the first 4-5 inches, from there a gradual taper from those 6-7 down to 4mm over the next 20 inches ( I like false edges and usually use them ss reference point) and from there they really start to become thin and knife like in thickness towards the tip.

 

But it's also so hard to say anything definitively with things like point of balance and weight as the originals are as varied as they are many 

 

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