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Christopher Price

Knifemaker Interview Series, a biography workshop

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Actually, I do like interviews that begin with a good introduction...

This is my pal Ben Abbot, who was on Forged in Fire with myself and Matthew Parkinson. He does some amazing work, some of which can be seen as a pinned show and tell topic on a viking sword with really nice wire inlay.

I'll let him introduce himself the rest of the way, to the extent that he wishes!

Ben, would you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into the craft? Please feel free to post any pictures of work that may serve to orient us with your work!

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Thanks Salem, and sorry it's taken me so long to figure out that we'd started!

 

As a little background, I was born in England, and moved to America in 1975. We'd go back to England every few years to visit family, etc., and I remember seeing all the cool castles and armour and swords, and thinking: "cool, I want that stuff!". I came back from one of these trips when I was about 13, and I figured that the time had come to do something about it. I got a section of leaf spring that I found in the road, and made a forge using a galvanized steel bucket, some Kingsford briquets, and a hair dryer. I quickly learned what it meant to "burn" steel, and I found that leaf springs crack to hell when you keep quenching them in water. That was more than 30 years ago, now. Over the intervening years, I picked up knowledge bit by bit, until the internet was invented, then I started drinking from a fire hose! I've watched tons of youtube vids, emailed masters, and looked at innumerable pictures of other peoples craft. I have taken a few classes in blacksmithing, but I have never taken a bladesmithing class.

 

I love to make things that are historically inspired, and I love a good challenge. One that forces me to think about the process for days before I feel confident about starting. It is a trait of mine that I won't even start a project, if there's a step in it that I can't figure out. I prefer to make all of the mistakes in my head, rather than on the anvil, and that sometimes works out! I love to make tools, along with blades and ornamental ironwork, so there's never a shortage of things that I should be working on. I do have a day job, so finding the time to work on these projects in a challenge, but I do get 2 evenings in my shop per week to make an impact.

 

Forged in Fire was a complete trip. I was on the show twice, and the final swords account for 2 of the 3 swords that I've ever made. I make a bunch of knives, and I think the one style that I've made more than any other are kitchen knives. I prefer to use 1095 for them, as I can make them sharp, tough, and easy to sharpen. This is a picture of an early pair of my standard kitchen knives:Kitchenknives.jpg

 

Lately, I've been putting a hand-rubbed finish on them, and making them more durable with stabilized boxwood handles, and a new way of applying the bolster.

 

I'm also a big fan of patternwelding, and I've been branching out on that quite a bit for the last 3 or 4 years. My patterns tend to be relatively simple: twists, random, ladder, and multi-bar composites of those. I do want to try some crushed W's, and feather patterns, but I just haven't gotten around to it yet. A couple of shots of some of the patterns I've done:

 

Filipino Barong (light laddering):

Barong.jpg

 

Viking Sword (multi bar twist and random edge):

VikSword.jpg

 

Claymore (2-bar opposite maiden's hair twist):

ClaymoreTwists.jpg

 

 

So that's about all I have for now, I look forward to some more questions!

-Ben

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Hey! No worries, obviously this thread moves at a pretty leisurely pace! It's good to get started.

 

I know what you mean about the internet being a firehose of information. It's incredible the amount of fairly new makers with advanced skills, that one sees these days. I remember the tail end of when it was just books or personal interaction that one learned from...

 

I find the net quite empowering in a lot of ways, but the sheer time it takes to be an internet knifemaker can be a lot.

Would you care to make any observations about the Craft in the internet arena, and any speculations about what the future holds from that standpoint?

Edited by Salem Straub

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I find that I have a four-stage learning process when it comes to books, classes, demonstrations, or things I find on the internet (which include youtube, WIPs, or website tutorials). The first stage is the "I know nothing" stage. I don't have any questions to ask beyond: "how do you make...?", and I'm interested, of course, in learning. The second stage is the "what the hell did they just do?" stage. This is where I see them do something, but parts of it make no sense at all. The third stage is the "give it a try" stage, where I try my hand at the process, and things start making more sense. The last stage only gets to happen in some media. This is the "informed questions" stage (otherwise known as the "what the hell did I do wrong here" stage). In interactive media (classes, WIPs, and some youtube channels) I'm afforded the opportunity of asking questions of the demonstrator once I've tried it for myself. This, to me, is the best part. In other media, you can sometimes watch it again, or re-read the chapter, but a direct question is the best way for me to learn. Also, finding information on some of the more esoteric processes involved in metalworking is now vastly easier than they used to be. (Anyone remember Inter-Library Loans?) For example, when I was a kid of about 12, I had the fool notion that I wanted to make riveted chain maille. How could I find out how this was done? I went to the library and read the 2 books that mentioned the process, but none of them made any sense. I then contacted the curator of the Metropolitan Museum in New York (I was living on Long Island at the time), and asked for a meeting. I brought a shoulder bag with my failed attempts, expecting the "what the hell did I do wrong here" stage of learning. I met with an assistant curator, who eventually told me that they had no clue how it was done, beyond handing me a scholarly article that was referenced in one of the books that I had read. Same confusing pictures. Now, there are 2,160 youtube channels on how to make riveted chain maille! The answers are out there, if you know what questions to ask. Mosaic damascus, stainless forge welding, welding the core to the edge steel on a viking sword, Viking wire inlay, almost any process that you want to learn is available on the internet, and we get all mad if it takes 30 seconds for it to download!

 

Seeing someone else do something, of course, does not a master make. It sure does speed the process up, however! There was a reason for guilds to keep their secrets. It kept the knowledge (and money) with those who innovated the crafts. These days, there are so many hobby bladesmiths (kinda me too, at this point) that possibly lucrative, feed-your-family knowledge is disseminated for free to any that care to see it, and the keeping of trade secrets is looked at as antiquated and weird. Selfishly, however, this common mindset has truly helped me learn some things that I might never have even attempted, so I feel beholden to give back as I have received.

 

One thing I agree with is the time it takes to be a knifemaker on the internet. You've got your facebook account to monitor and keep fed with content, new instagram content is expected of you often, emails must be answered promptly(ish), and you have to spend some time checking out what everyone else is doing (though sometimes we don't think of this as "business research", it often is). After all that is over, you can finish your coffee, and light a forge! (Or extinguish your forge, and finish a beer).

 

I think that the future of bladesmithing now that the internet is such an routine part of everyone's life, is that we are probably headed to a new level of "average" that is higher than it used to be. I think the ease of knowledge flow, coupled with the access to schools and instruction that have popped up because people can reach their website, will really raise the bar for an entry-level knife that one can sell for any measurable profit. If you are a Luddite that eschews the new-fangled interweb, you will likely be overrun by those that milk it for all the tips and tricks that can be learned. It has become imperative to at least pay attention to what's out there, and this will only increase with time, I would guess. It can be as simple as seeing a measured drawing of a knife vice that, once made, can save you 1/2 an hour per blade. This savings suddenly could make you more competitive than you ever could have been before.

 

On balance, I'm fer it. I think that I couldn't have ever been the bladesmith or blacksmith that I am without the internet. The good news for us is, if the internet ever goes down, and the common man loses his shit, we'll have a bunch of knives around to defend ourselves!

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Yeah man! Good stuff there, thanks for the thoughts.

 

You said-
"These days, there are so many hobby bladesmiths (kinda me too, at this point) that possibly lucrative, feed-your-family knowledge is disseminated for free to any that care to see it, and the keeping of trade secrets is looked at as antiquated and weird. Selfishly, however, this common mindset has truly helped me learn some things that I might never have even attempted, so I feel beholden to give back as I have received."

 

I totally agree with that. If we benefit from this incredible dissemination of knowledge, it is hypocritical not to pay it forward in turn.

That turns me to thoughts of teaching, something I'm currently learning to do. I am curious what your thoughts are on some aspects of teaching.

In no particular order, then:

 

What do you find to be the hardest thing to teach? How have you been able to improve with this? For me it's grinding...

 

I think that "those who can't, teach" is BS. What do you think about that? What have you been able to learn most by sharing the craft?

 

Do you think the concept of "apprenticeship" to be dead- i.e., is there a modern and practical way for a bladesmith to be able to take a long term student? Or, is that even necessary for pilgrims these days, with the abundance of free information...

Feel free to disregard any questions you wish...

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Thanks, Salem. This is quite fun!

For me, the hardest things to teach are the limitations of the steel. You can show, and tell your students all day that, hitting too cold will crack your steel, and they won't get it until they get it. How cold is cold? That comes with enough experience to see it before you hit it that one last time. Other limitations that are hard to teach involve "haptic feedback", the information that your brain receives from your hands. I taught an axe-making class where we split the mild steel head with a chisel to receive the high-carbon bit. I showed them the process, warning that it was important to sight down the edge, so you could see where the chisel was going and keep the slot centered. I was surprised how many of the students had a rough time. A few got so misaligned that they cut one of the lips of the split right off! It wasn't because they were bad smiths, they just had never felt with their hands the fact that the chiseling should get harder as you go in. If it starts getting easier, you're on your way back out again! Steel can only be pushed so far before it'll tear. Once you understand that feeling, your hands start talking to your brain almost as much as your eyes. Similarly, when punching a hole from one side on the anvil, there comes a time where the punching gets so hard, it almost feels like you're punching the anvil face itself. With experience, you know that it's now time to flip the steel over, and punch from the back. The hardest thing to teach also depends on the experience of the smith. The hardest thing for many new smiths is how to forge an even, square, taper. Bumpy, rhomboid shapes abound, for a while. It really takes practice, and a critical eye, and those things cannot be taught. They come with experience.

 

As for the "those who teach" idea, in blacksmithing, and bladesmithing especially, I think that the opposite is true. If you're gonna charge some student $300-$800 for a bladesmithing class, you better have some chops! If no one has heard of you, or they can't find your work online, who's going to spend that kinda money? It's not like a gym teacher critiquing the spiral pass of a quarterback that's about to go off to college on a huge scholarship. That kid has to go to school, and has to take gym, even though he knows more about football than the teacher. In our world, nobody has to take a knifemaking class from anyone in particular, they choose the teacher based on merit. Not only that, generally bladesmithing teachers are demonstrating each part of the process before the students do it themselves. You have to be able to do, in order to teach this stuff! All that being said, I must admit that I have never taken a knifemaking class. I have taken a few blacksmithing classes to learn ornamental ironwork, and let me tell you, Mark Aspery is freakin' amazing! I learned a lot from him about smithing, and other stuff, too! I have taught several edged toolmaking classes, and some private knifemaking lessons, but never taken one myself.

 

I know that, for me, the apprentice thing would be difficult. I live in a small house, my shop is tiny, and I have a day job. To have someone come and live with us for some extended time and want to blacksmith 5 days a week would be impossible. I do have some friends that are long-term students that come over about once every 2 weeks. That has been fun, and watching them progress is quite rewarding. I think the more beneficial arrangement, when possible, is for the student to have a home shop and to come by the master's shop every now and then for critique, and further instruction. The instruction, ideally, would build on the past and have a path forward, from simple to complex. Start by making some of the tools that you'll need: tongs, chisels, punches that teach hammer control and rudimentary heat treating. Then you can move up to simple knives, complex knives, etc. It is rare to find a teacher/student mix that is convenient and mutually beneficial. There's a lot of money that a teacher spends without really thinking about it: propane/coal, sanding belts, scrap or stock steel, etc. It can really add up, especially if they're buddies and you don't charge per class. An apprentice would need to bring something of value to the master's shop to offset these costs, you know? In the old system, that was paid by doing the monotonous, dirty work that the master didn't want to do. It's hard now to bring in a student and have them put points on 1000 rods, for weeks on end, just to make lousy tent stakes. They wanna make a sword on day 2!

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This is a great dialog. Thanks guys.

(Just in case you were wondering if anyone was reading it.)

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Definitely reading here. Very good dialog.

 

And Ben, there's a large population of indigenous Abbotts here in Blount Co., TN. (if ±200 years can be counted as indigenous)

 

And my son's name is Ben Abbott, so references to yourself always catch my eye.

 

There's even a Ben Abbott Road not far from here.

 

Sorry for the trivia break... carry on.

Edited by Don Abbott

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Don,

My wife's family is from the Northern Neck of Virginia, and there are a lot of Abbotts there, as well. Some of my wife's kin are descended from Abbotts, actually. When we started dating, I wondered why her grandmother was so interested in when my family came to America. She was reasonably concerned that we might be related! (Don't bother posting Virginia marriage relation jokes, anyone, we've heard them all.) ;)

Edited by Ben A.

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Abbot men go to family reunions to pick up chicks, eh? And here I thought you were a respectable England/California transplant!

Sorry, that's what happens if I'm told to refrain from making corny jokes...

Anyway. Where were we? Ah yes, the vicissitudes of teaching.

It's true, everyone wants to make a sword on day 2! But there's nothing for learning hammer control like making tongs, punches, chisels, twisted coat hooks etc.
I have been arriving at a model of promoting home study, as well. As you say, many mistakes one only learns fully to avoid, by making them. Pure theory is not enough!

 

I recall, when speaking with you a while back, your mention of a piece you had forged... a certification grill I believe, for the California Blacksmith's association.

 

Would you care to talk about that project, that organization, and journeyman blacksmith status? Any chance of a picture of that?

Also, I'd like to hear what thoughts and interests you have in bringing a wider range of blacksmithing skills to bear in bladesmithing, above and beyond forging blades themselves or pattern welding. I was impressed by the forging you did, for instance, on the fittings for your second FiF winning sword...

Edited by Salem Straub

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Wow.  It's amazing the time that passes while you wait to: 1) be in your shop 2) have your camera, 3) remember to take pictures of stuff, all at the same time!  Anyhoo, I finally got that accomplished.

The certification grille is an ABANA institution that the California Blacksmithing Association uses as an ABANA affiliate for its Level III certification.  The measured drawing, along with some great grille-making videos by one of my heroes Mark Aspery can be found here: https://www.abana.org/resources/Grille/Grille.shtml

Here's my version:

 

 

WholeGrilleSmall.jpg

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That's the water leaf, and blown over scroll.  This, and other elements necessitated the creation of the tooling to make them happen.  Here's the stake that was made to crimp the edges of the leaf:

Stake.jpg

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For the welded knob, you have to go straight blacksmith.  You really do have to make a tool to make a tool, to make the thing.  First, you make the half-round bottom swage so you can take 5/8" square, and turn it into 1/2" half-round.  Wrap that around a round section of the upright, then make the pattern, to make the spring fuller that sets the weld.

The knob:

 

KnobSmall.jpg

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Even the center collar needed to be home made stock.  A bottom hardy needs to be made in several steps, then used to make the stock:

 

CollarTool.jpg

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Fort me, one of the hardest parts was the two blown-over scrolls.  Getting the negative space right was a real pain.  I tried many times to get it right!

BlownOver.jpg

FailedScrolls.jpg

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As you insinuated, I do use the skills that I learned from blacksmithing in my bladesmithing.  It opens up a whole other area of opportunity and creativity when designing blades.  If you don't know how to forge a square corner, for example, you either grind one in, or just never think of incorporating that element in your work.  Just the idea that you can stop and make a jig/fixture to help with a tough operation is liberating.  In the FIF claymore, I could have fabricated that guard by tig-welding mild steel, and it would have performed just fine.  Instead, I forge-welded it from wrought iron because I wanted to etch it, and see the uninterrupted grain pattern.  For anyone who's interested, here are some pictures of the guard build:

 

guard1.jpg

guard2.jpg

guard3.jpg

guard4.jpg

guard5.jpg

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Love it!  That was worth the wait.  Nice to see your swage tooling for creating the collar in particular, and nice work on the gate.  Those pairs of square corners are harder to pull off by far than anyone who's not tried it would even consider.

I have some questions that I need to mull over a bit to be able to fully articulate... but in the meantime:

Bladesmithing, a Golden Age now, what with advances in pattern welding tech (cans, etc), indoor lighting, pneumatic engraving, modern metallurgy- or, a craft experiencing a resurgence yet far removed from the un-matchable achievements of past masters?  Or, an irrelevant question?

To magnify, I have seen this debate take place elsewhere, whether the modern age is the best yet, and I do feel it to be missing the point a bit- I intend the question more as a springboard for comparing the two.  I know that often when I really look at Old Work, such as Mughal daggers or Ottoman swords, or Renjo clan iron brush sword fittings, I am just utterly humbled!

Edited by Salem Straub

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Salem,

I started to write a response to this several times, and actually had to stop and write an outline to get my thoughts straight!  I think that the reason that this discussion remains active is that the answer really depends on your level of romanticism.  Is the thing a thing, or is it a culmination of human knowledge, artistry, style (personal, traditional, or cultural), etc?  If someone were to 3d print a gorgeous tsuba, would it be worth less than a hand carved one by a traditional master?  I say yes, I think all of us makers would say yes, but there are likely those that think they're equal.  Or at very least that the traditional one is overpriced, seeing that you can get the "same" thing for $5.25.  I'm not equating 3D printing to a hydraulic forging press, for example, but it's the furthest extension of the point that I could imagine.  If I were to make a tsuba from wrought iron that I heated in my propane forge, forged it out with my power hammer, carved it with my pneumatic engraving tool, buffed it on a buffer, and then went back to traditional patination techniques for the final look, I'd personally be proud of the outcome (if it looked good).  Some purists might say that I cheated, and I understand their point of view.  For me, and this speaks to our modern times, I don't have the time to learn the correct techniques, let alone the time to use those techniques to make the tsuba.  I'll use the processes that I already understand to make an item as museum quality as the client is willing to pay for.

I think there are benefits to both times that make each of them interesting:

In modern, post industrial times we have some undeniable advantages: We have an inexhaustible access to information.  We can go on the internet and watch a master craftsman perform a technique that we can practice until we get it.  We have books, videos, classes, schools, etc. that weren't available to people of the past.  We have better tools and raw materials that make our lives easier.  We have a better, more scientific understanding of the "why" of things.  We can custom make knifemaking alloys, and free-flowing gold alloys that are a dream to work with, and they'll be the exact same next year as they were last year.  We have a better general education, and a much longer lifespan that allows us to keep learning for longer.

The advantages of older times may seem strange to us, but they're there:  They started their craft at a much younger age than we generally do.  All the while, they generally had a master teacher that was continually with them as they learned.  They had, at least in the museum examples that we drool over, rich patrons that would pay for the highest quality.  And the biggest advantage that they had, as far as I'm concerned, is that they were generally specialists.  The 8 year old would study until they were 25 to be a master bladesmith.  They might give the thing a foundational grind when they were done but then they gave the sword away to the rest of the artisans.  There were scabbard makers, people that made the handles and guards, other people that did the final polish on the blades, a jeweler that might engrave or set stones, or whatever.  Each of these artisans did this stuff every day, of course they're good at it! 

I feel like we get to do more of the processes ourselves because of our modern advantages, but I still think that we can't be masters of everything.  Some can, I'll grant you but they're super rare.  But even now you'll see a master knifemaker make a gorgeous blade and handle, then give it to a professional engraver to finish that part.  That feels like a bit of an outlier, however.

In terms of "what's better", again it depends.  What's the best car?  You might say Ferrari.  I'd say that is an awful car to take off road.  Okay then Range Rover.  I'd say that wouldn't haul 3 tons of cinder blocks, etc.  What's the best knife?  I agree that a wootz mughal jade-handled gold-inlayed dagger is damn gorgeous, but I'd trust the heat treat on an L6 camp knife more to split firewood.

All that being said, I personally am most impressed by the past masters for literally making up their art form, innovating their craft, and being the giants upon whose shoulders we now stand.  I'm sure that we can do the same, and we already are innovating and making so mush new cool stuff up, but I'd personally give it another 20 years before I'd rate modern smiths equal to our giant forefathers.     

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Quote

Salem,

I started to write a response to this several times, and actually had to stop and write an outline to get my thoughts straight! 

 

Ben, I want to thank you for the excellent and well thought-out responses.  Plenty of food for thought in that last one... I would say that I lie more firmly toward the romantic end of the spectrum, while happy to take advantage of modern tech to extend my capabilities.
You think we'll be there in another 20 years?  I guess I can think of a few who are "there" now, Vince Evans comes immediately to mind...

Here's a quick easy question (I think.)  What are you working on now, or in the near future, that you are enthused about?  

Also, for anyone else following along, feel free to chime in with a question for Ben if you have one!  I've enjoyed that added input a lot, from past interviews.

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28 minutes ago, Salem Straub said:

Also, for anyone else following along, feel free to chime in with a question for Ben if you have one!

If you insist.......;)

Ben, you touched on something that seems to be somewhat controversial among bladesmiths, and that is the idea of specialists. I have often said that the idea of sole-authorship is largely a modern one and many folks tell me that the guild system is responsible for exterminating the sole-craftsman and modern times brought it back. I think the notion of a single smith producing enough arms to outfit a small town in the 10th century is a romantic fantasy. It just doesn't seem feasible. So, when you speak of past masters, what time period are you referring to, and how much do we know about the methods and processes they used?

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Salem,

I am currently rather swamped with stuff I'm making.  I'm having trouble keeping on target with a number of projects.  One that sticks out, however, is a pattern-welded gladius that I'm making for an old friend.  It has a 200 layer core, with the welds being set by hitting from edge-to-edge, instead of the normal way of welding flat-to-flat.  This creates a pattern seen in Celtic swords that is often referred to as "streaky".  I wrapped the core with a bar of 1084, and welded the whole thing up.  stretching it wide was some work, and I'm currently finished with the heat-treat, and rough grind.  Making a flat-grind sword with a crisp and straight center ridge is not something I normally do, and it's taking me longer than it probably should.  Once the blade is done, I plan to make the handle grip from boxwood, and the pommel and guard from yew.  I think the color combination will be neat.  One other cool thing that I got from this project, is that I had a piece of the billet left over, so I did a bird's mouth weld to bring the edge steel around to the tip, and welded on a wrought iron socket, and made a spear head.  It came out pretty trick.

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