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Knifemaker Interview Series, a biography workshop


Christopher Price
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Sorry I couldn't post yesterday. We had a small farm situation which occupied my whole day. We have a mini farm with sheep and chickens. At 6 am yesterday I discovered one of our ewes had just delivered triplets. We had not even realized she was pregnant until late last week. We had gotten her from a lady who was getting rid of her flock and had no clue of her condition. Surprise! This happened about 10 years ago to us and me and the wife said never again, but here we are mommy and daddy once more Unfortunately only one of the triplets survived. One was born dead and the other lasted only a couple hours. The vet said it was just as well as he was deformed and wouldn't have made it anyways.

Well, so much for farm and sheepy news. Where was I now.

After deciding to learn to make Japanese swords I immediately realized that I knew absolutely nothing about blacksmithing. I didn't even know how to start a fire. So, I enrolled in a blacksmithing craft class at Greenfield Village. ( This is an old time village set up by Henry Ford along with a fantastic museum). I took a beginners and 2 advanced classes to learn the basics and how to forge weld especially. I became good friends with the instructor and he let me experiment a little. The first time I tried to weld high carbon steel in class, I got it up to a yellow white heat ( like we did for mild steel) and when I hit it, it exploded and sent molten stuff all over the class room. Both me and the instructor learned something that day.

This was around 1974. With my new found knowledge I was on my way to fame and fortune. LOL. I set up a forge in my garage and started making damascus blades. I knew I had to get that technique down before I started on the Japanese stuff. For the next 3-4 years I made a lot of damascus, learning from books and magazines and not seeing a real piece of damascus other than mine except for some gun barrels in the museum. In 1978 ( I think) I saw an add in the Blade magazine that Daryl Meier was having a workshop at his home. At last I can meet someone else doing this. Needless to say it was probably the best workshop I ever attended. It not only solidified my desire but gained me a life long friend.

After becoming confident with damascus I decided to try the Japanese techniques. Again my only knowledge was from books and magazines ( which left a lot to be desired). I learned real quick that writers are story tellers and that reality usually doesn't make an interesting story. ( A few years later Yoshindo Yoshihara told me not to believe anything I read about making Japanese swords. I think that was the main reason he wrote his book. To set the record straight). Anyways I slapped some clay on a blade to dry and was ready to go. Unfortunately when I checked the blade the next morning all the clay way laying on the floor. It had shrunk up and fallen off. Wow, I was really bummed out. Luckily my wife had been a potter in one part of her art life and clued me in on a ceramic binder called GMC gum and I was back in business.

In 1980 I attended the ABANA conference in California where Yoshindo and Shoji Yoshihara were demonstrating. That was my first time seeing traditional Japanese work. During the conference I got to meet them and show them my work ( Thanks to Daryl Meier) . I doubt if they were too impressed but at least they knew I was serious and trying. I then realized that if I wanted to do Japanese work I had to do it the same way as they did. This led to a few years later when I was invited to attend a private workshop with Yoshindo in Dallas Texas where he made a wakizashi. There I acted as his hammer man and I think gained a somewhat modest bit of respect. After that I attended another public demo he gave in Dallas and one in San Francisco where I was one of his hammer men and moderator for the one in Dallas. During these 3 weeks total of demos he answered all my questions and showed me anything I asked. So, this was my apprentiship for forging Japanese swords. From then on it has been learn as I go with trial and error ( a whole bunch of error).

The next best thing that happened was teaming up with Jim which opened up a lot of new doors.

Basicly that was my beginning, I tried to keep a lot of years concise without getting too carried away.

Will be back tomorrow if there are any questions.

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Steel making. As I mentioned above I realized early on that if I wanted to do Japanese work I had to do it the same way. Before that when I first started out I was using 1045 and 1060 and laminating it on itself to develope a graining pattern. I was getting some nice stuff but I just wasn't getting all the temperline and other effects that I wanted. So I started making my own steel in my forge. I can't remember exactly the first time I saw it done but I think it was at the first workshop in Dallas with Yoshindo. I started by cutting up wrought iron into small pieces and smelting it in my forge which made some good steel but wasn't too consistent. I discovered a company called Hoegannes that made pure iron ( 99.9%) for the powder metalurgy industry and got a 20 lb sample from them. It came in granule form and worked really well. In 1984 I was fortunate enough to get a grant from the Michigan council for the arts to do 11 blades of different styles. With the money I got from them I bought charcoal and a large quantity of iron from Hoegannes ( I've got enough to last the rest of my life, LOL ) .Soon after the order I got a call from the local Hoegannes rep in Detroit. He was quite curious as to why some dink out in the country ordered so much iron and what in the heck was I going to do with it. After I assured him that I wasn't going to try and feed it to any animals to put weight on them for feedlot sale, he seemed quite interested in my real reason for the purchase. He came out and we made some steel which seemed to fascinate him. He took a piece for his company to analyze . He said it was around 2% carbon. This was quite surprising to both of us because he saw me working it under the hammer to flatten it out and it worked just fine. We both agreed that a piece of 2% modern day steel would have just crumbled. It was then that I really realized just how different this steel was from modern day stuff. In my forge it seems that I can make everything from wrought iron to cast sometimes in the same smelt. As consistent as I try to be it seems like every smelt comes out a little different. The best stuff I seem to make is when I use pine charcoal. I was using elm for a while ( I have a whole lot of dead ones on my property) and it was doing a fairly good job but the pine seems to be the best. One of these days I would like to set up a furnace just for doing steel but it seems like I never have to time to do it.

I think the main reason my steel is different from modern day stuff is that it has absolutely nothing in it other than iron and carbon ( Maybe trace stuff it picked up from the forge) where every modern day steel is an alloy of something. It sure is different stuff. The first time I made a blade with it I was really hesitant on hardening it in water so I did it in oil. The first time I got nothing, dead soft. The next time I got it to a high orange to yellow heat, dead soft again. I thought ,WOW, did I burn all the carbon out of it? So I tried in water and this time it was rock hard. I think the proper term for this kind of steel is shallow hardening steel.

It is a continual learning experience which is extremely enjoyable and frustrating at the same time. In the future I would like some day to try some alloying with my smelts but I need a lot more experience to be able to know if there are any real changes to the steel.

I think I covered everything if you have anymore questions Jesus (or anyone) just ask.

Out of time for today.

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Thanks Louie! Very interesting story. I think I got most of it in bits over the years, but it's fascinating reading the whole story. How do you think your steel compared with the Yoshiharas'?

 

Jim

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Snow! Man....we got about 6 inches last night and today. The flowers were coming up and my garlic was about 4 inches high. Everything is covered. I sure hope this is the last ,I am really really tired of winter this year.

My steel is absolutely no comparison to the Yoshihara's. When I was working with them in the early 80's they said they were using 50% tamahagane ( from the tartara furnace) and 50% oroshigane they made themselves. I imagine now, because of their status, they are probably using 100% tamahagane. The tamahagane they had was some really nice stuff. I am sure the stuff they got was really quality as the Japanese are pretty fussy when they sort it out at the furnace. The best craftsmen get the best stuff. It really welds up and works nice. Even at 50% it worked noticeably better than just plain oroshigane. After the second Dallas public demo they had some tamahagane left over and didn't want to bother to take it back with them. There were 3 of us working with them ( Me , Scott Lankton, and Kurt Lang) so they divided it up amongst us and we all went home with some tamahagane to play with. ( They probably just felt sorry for us, LOL ) Of course I used mine right away and Jim, if memory ( Right...LOL) serves me right , the wak we did together was with 50% tamahagane. Amazingly Scott didn't use his as he got more into damascus and then into an ornamental iron business. Just last year we did a trade and I got all that he could find he had left. Maybe this next winter when I get back forging again I will use some of it . I am really anxious to see how it works again after all these years.

Times up. I couldn't get into the forum this morning so I snuck some internet time this afternoon.

 

Louie

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Hello Jim, I'm enjoying this conversation. I hope you'll pardon me for jumping in on your interview as well to add a quick question for Louie. ;-)

 

Louie,

 

How important is it in your process to make the steel yourself? Is it a case of having to make it because it's unavailable to buy from a supplier or is essential to your process to have to make the material yourself?

 

Thanks!

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Yes. I feel that to do Japanese work you have to do it the same way as they did. What I make is just a straight carbon steel. All it is is iron and carbon nothing else. Every modern day steel you buy is an alloy of something . I never could get the same effects and look with a modern day steel as I can with mine. The 2 kinds of steel work a lot different from each other too. Modern day steels have to be welded at a lot lower temp than I do mine at. Even though mine has a very high carbon content ( I usually put in pieces of cast that I make in my billets too) it welds best at a high yellow sparking heat. No modern day high carbon steel I have ever used would survive that heat.

The only steel that I know available is the tamahagane the Japanese make, of which I have no opportunity to purchase at all. I just have my little stash I got from Scott . So my only recourse is to make it myself which is why I use pure iron to get as good of an end product as I can.

So, yes, it is both unavailable from a supplier and it is essential for the process.

 

Louie

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Very interesting. I don't know much about useable ore and sources, but I wonder if you ever found any source for local ore (say within 500 miles). Are there domestic sources for ore? This probably has been covered thoroughly elsewhere. (embarrassed smiley)

 

Jim

Edited by Jim Kelso
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I have absolutely no idea of where a local source of ore would be. For my small set up I don't think iron ore would be very viable or economically sound . Ore produces a whole lot of slag because of its low percentage of iron content. In my small furnace I don't have any way to tap it off. A long time ago ( sounds like ancient history ) my son got me some taconite pellets which I think are about 30% iron. When we lived near Detroit we were close to some steel mills and he picked some up for me along the railroad tracks. I smelted it down in my forge and got a nice little chunk of steel but I also got a heck of a lot of slag and it didn't seem to be worth the work and charcoal usage. The iron I have now being 99.9% eliminates all the slag and what little I have is either from the forge or from the steel burning up. So for me it is a whole lot easier to use the pure iron. Yoshindo told me that when they make steel themselves that they use what they call electric iron. It is essentially the same as what I have but just produced differently. My stuff is in a granule form where the electric iron is in a chunk form. A good friend of mine in Ann Arbor ( a Japanese gentelman who is a long time sword collector) who is a metalurgist and whose wife is also a metalurgist got me some electric iron. His wife worked at the Univ of Michigan and ordered some from Japan to do some experiments. The iron didn't work out for them and they were just going to scrap it. My friend thought of me and I now have a 20 gal drum full of it. I have used some of it for smelting and it does a real good job. I just have to break it up into little chunks for it to melt down or sometimes I end up with some chunks that don't.

This same person helped me out and encouraged me early on in my forging career. So when it came time for me to adopt a sword name ( my name didn't transliterate well into Japanese, too many L's ) I chose one character of his name for part of mine. ( The Yasu of Yasutomo )

 

Louie

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I had to learn to polish because of necessity. At the time I was starting out there was no one in the U.S. doing that work that I knew of. Even so if there was I would have no way been able to afford to pay them. It would have cost me more than what I could have sold my work for. ( What little of my work I did sell). The polishing techniques I learned were from books and articles at the time plus a lot of experimenting and trial and error. One of the first things I did was order a set of Japanese polishing stones which sort of included instructions. I used them for quite a while but eventually decided that I could substitute everyday materials for most of the steps and still end up with the look I wanted. I realized that the market I was going after ( here in the U.S.) wanted to see everything pop out at them and not have to sit and study the blade closely to see it. So I finally settled on what I think everyone now calls a hybrid polish. I use hardware stones to start and then 220, 400, 600 wet dry sandpaper and then I go to the hazuya finger stones. The hazuya stones seem to set the right color of the blade for the next step which I etch the blade using hot vinegar. I swab the blade with vinegar until it looks quite nasty and oxided and then take pumice and water to remove the oxide. I repeat this step about 4-5 times depending on the blade . Each time more and more pops out. I then use a kana hada solution to brighten up the soft area and remove the remaining oxide. This is just forging scale pulverized to a fine powder mixed with oil and poured into a kleenex ( Or Japanese washi paper which I don't have any more ) then dabbed on the blade and rubbed vigorously with a cotton ball. On a shinogi blade I go to 1500-2000 sand paper to give the mirror look finish to the shinogi area and back ridge. The tip portion I do with hazuya again to finish that off. Many collectors and " knowlegeable" people would criticize me for using the vinegar etch because they said it wasn't a traditional Japanese polish and they knew the Japanese used just the stones to get their final look. This is because they had read this and were told so by the Japanese dealers. At the public Dallas demo Yoshindo brought his polisher . At dinner one evening and after quite a few drinks he admitted to me " in confidence" that they all hit the blade with nitric acid. Another Japanese mystic bubble bursts.

For quite a while I did polish on old Japanese blades for collectors who liked my style. This helped me quite a bit in my learning process because I was able to have in hand some very nice Japanese blades to study and learn how they compared to my work. ( Plus a little extra cash helped out too ).

The Yasu character I borrowed can be loosely translated as meaning "enjoyable". The Tomo character means" friend". So I decided on that as my sword name hoping that my blades would be an " enjoyable friend" to their owners.

 

 

Louie ( Yasutomo )

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Another Japanese mystic bubble bursts.

 

Louie ( Yasutomo )

 

Thanks Louie. Again, very interesting.

I've come up against a few of those "Japanese mystic bubbles" myself. :blink:

 

Do you have any photos, especially showing close-ups?

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Jim, I am not sure what kind of photos you would like. As far as close ups ???? I think the only thing interesting in polishing is the end results. The process is pretty dull and boring to look at. I am trying to finish up a 31" tachi right now and have it to 600 grit and will be ready for finger stones in a couple days. I guess I could take a photo of the cut on my finger where it got me good a couple days ago. ( All my blades like to taste the blood of their creator) .

I will try to take of photo of something specific if anyone wants to see something like my shop, equipment, tools, materials, house, barn, chickens, sheep, barn cats, etc. I won't be doing any forging again until this next fall so can't show anything like that.

 

Louie ( Yasutomo )

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Thank you Don for posting the photo of my blades. My most recent tantos are on John De Mesa's website : Togi Arts. As mentioned I have the tachi to 600 grit and today ( it is raining out and I can spend the whole day on it) I am making the habaki and will be starting the shirasaya. I do these before I totally complete the polish because I will always put some scratches on it and it is easier to get rid of them now than when fully polished. I will try to get a photo or 2 of the tachi and post them later or tomorrow.

 

Louie ( Yasutomo )

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Here is a quick pic of the tachi at 600 grit with the habaki just started . I will try to post another later or tomorrow morning

Hope I did this right again I can't seem to get the pic up on the preview. Here goes.

 

Louie000_0156.JPG

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I did this blade in what I feel is the style of an unshortened blade from the late Heian-early Kamakura era ( 1100's-early 1200's) . They did blades that had the most pronounced curve back at the tang and straightened out towards the tip. Before hardening, the tang was present curvature ( the tempering would have no effect on it) from the tang up about 6-7" it was slightly curved. From there to about 7-8" from the tip it was straight. The last 7-8" to the tip had a reverse curve. It looked really stupid before hardening but I had to do it to end up with what I got. A deep curve from the nakago into a slight curve in the middle to straight at the tip. I will try to attach 2 pics this time. The first is the blade with a quick finger stone window and the completed habaki. The second one should give a better perspective of the curvature. Here goes.

Louie000_0163.JPG

000_0167.JPG

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Yeah that's some good sword porn, great work Louie! Man oh man, that curvature is out of this world, awesome work. Do you have a picture of the pre curved blank before the quench?

Let not the swords of good and free men be reforged into plowshares, but may they rest in a place of honor; ready, well oiled and God willing unused. For if the price of peace becomes licking the boots of tyrants, then "To Arms!" I say, and may the fortunes of war smile upon patriots

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