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Christopher Price

Knifemaker Interview Series, a biography workshop

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Thanks, guys. :)

 

It's my turn to interview someone now, and I figured I might as well go for one of my heroes here who I am delighted to also call a friend: Jake Powning.

 

Jake agreed to do it, for which I thank him profusely.

 

So: Jake, how did you get started in smithing? I've read your web page, but that's not the whole story, is it? How does a guy from the middle of nowhere, New Brunswick, become one of the top swordsmiths in the world before turning 30?

 

I like this statement from your page:

 

"I have been a bladesmith in my heart since longer than I can remember. As a boy I made swords out of anything and everything I could find. I remember the feeling when I worked my first forge at twelve, the smell of the coal and the flickering light suggesting mythologies unfolding on the walls at the corner of my eyes. As a small boy I spent my days wandering through the forest behind our farm, with my wooden sword, looking for noble deeds and nymphs; and though time passes and the world takes us in its folds of responsibility and age, it is the basic yearning for that bright world of swords in the green wood and the old tales that keeps sword smithing alive in this time of machine guns and smart bombs."

 

Basic biography or metaphysical rambling, we want to know more!

 

I've got more, but we'll keep the format Chris established and save them for later. B)

 

That was a great interview Alan. I enjoyed that.

 

Ok, well I guess it all started when my mum read the ‘Lord of the Rings’ to me before I could talk. She is a huge Tolkien fan, and a fan of British literature in general, so I was brought up on ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’, and other British classics like ‘Swallows and Amazons’ and ‘The Princess and the Goblin’ and ‘The Sword in the Stone’, ‘The Dark is Rising’ series, ‘The Black Cauldron’, and the ‘Narnia’ series. When I was about ten my mother introduced me to the Greek myths, I had already developed a fascination with folklore through obsessing over Alan Lee and Brian Froud’s illustrations in the book “Faeries” and I think more than anything else it was those illustrations that really influenced my young esthetic mind; but the Greek myths opened up a whole world; the world of myth.

When I was about eight, my parents had a new farrier named Bear come to shoe the horses. He turned out to be a character that was a match for any eight year olds imagination, he was broad and sturdy, with a great jutting black beard and shoulder length brown hair, and intelligent cheerful eyes that took everything in, he had a leather apron and smelled of horses. After he was done shoeing he asked me and my mother “will I sing you a song?” He proceeded to sing us a Gaelic song from Cape Breton where he had been a shepherd recently. It’s not common for a 34 year old and an 8 year old to strike up a friendship, but it happened with us. We where both intensely interested in Celtic mythology, and over the years we became close friends. When I was twelve I went to a camp at a historical village where Bear was working as the blacksmith and resident storyteller and musician. I spend every minute that I was allowed, in that forge. I’d get up early and walk out through the fields in the morning mist to get to the forge before the tourists were allowed in. It was a pretty amazing place to start forging. We kids had the run of the place and it truly was like going back in time. I actually made a sword in that forge with Bear. It was just a hunk of mild steel that I flattened the end of, but we forged a cross guard and wrapped it on with iron rod that we hot wrapped around the tang to form a grip. And when we quenched the blade Bear had me repeat a Gaelic incantation over it. It was a thing of wonder; I had only to look at it to feel like Sigfried, or young Arthur.

Anyway I was an intense child and I had it in my head then that I would be a swordsmith when I grew up.

When I was seventeen I went to a boarding school in the hills of southern Vermont for two years, there was a forge there and I was able to really start beating on steel regularly, this was really the beginning of my learning process as a smith.

I should say that, I’d been carving wood and drawing, since I was very young. My father is a potter and sculptor, and he encouraged me steadily to be creative as a child, but also gave me honest critiques of my work and always suggested better ways to do things. I think around my thirteenth birthday, he gave me a centrifuge, so I started making wax models of teenage mutant ninja turtles and skulls and stuff and casting them.

There was a good blacksmith that did night courses at the forge in Vermont named Conrad Grillow who helped me forge my first billet of Damascus and gave me some rudimentary lessons on heat treating.

I was living in a little log cabin near the forge and I was allowed to forge in there unsupervised, so I spent many hours of forging there. There’s nothing like having nothing but the fire and the anvil and the heat of the forge. I would dream about forging.

When I was nineteen I went to art school in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I took metals courses. There was a forge there and I received my first commission, from a biker tattoo artist, for a “big sword with lotsa skulls on it” I think it took me about eight months to make. And I sold it for 1600$ Canadian.

During the time I was in art school, my father had been researching about bladesmithing. At that point I refused to use a computer, writing all my school essays in calligraphy with hand drawn illustrations, I also refused to wear protective goggles, ear protection, or a shirt while forging. I guess this was around the time that the bladesmithing community was heating up on the internet, and my dad managed to get in touch with Rob Hudson through the Texarcana knifemaking school. He sent Rob some pictures of my work and Rob agreed to have me down to his forge for a two week course with one other student. We slept in cots above his forge, and made a big knife each, along with a leather sheath by the end of the two weeks. It was allot of fun, we learned allot, laughed a bunch and Rob didn’t take any bullshit from us either. He was an excellent teacher.

When I was 20, I dropped out of college and started fulltime forging. I finished the sword for the biker, and with the proceeds bought a ticket to England, I then hiked over Wales, Scotland, Brittany and settled in county cork where I worked the night shift in an all night cafe and got up to all sorts of youthful shenanigans.

When I was 21 I went back to my little village in the hills of new Brunswick met a girl and set about setting up my forge in earnest. I built a propane forge with my dad, and set up a small shop in half of his old pottery studio, with my forge and anvils in the old kiln room. This is where I still work. Around this time I overcame my visceral aversion to computers and started looking on the internet for bladesmithing resources. The one site that was incredibly useful and inspiring was Don Fogg’s website. I had been inspired by his work in knife magazines in high school and when I did the course with Rob Hudson, he told me about Don and showed me some of his work, which I was also very excited by. Anyway when I got back from Ireland I impertinently asked him if I could be his apprentice, he declined but took me seriously and gave me some very good advice about how to get started, he also invited me to come and hang out at his forum called ‘The Bladesmith Café’ . Don encouraged me to take more courses, so that summer I went and took his 'Pattern Development in Damascus Steel' course and his 'Japanese Sword' course at J.C.Campbell folk school.

During this period Don told me about a sword smith I had talked to on the café forum named Randal Graham, it turned out he had just resently moved back to Nova Scotia, about a three hour drive from where I live.

I struck up a friendship with Randal and he was very generous with information and encouragement, mostly over the phone, I only managed to get up to his shop once, more’s the pity.

So lets see 22, got married, spent some time doing horse logging in the woods during the winter. Still forging blades but not really making anything of any merit.

Then my wife Sara had our first daughter, just before I turned 23. That was the boot in the pants. I called up Randal and asked him what kind of blades I should make to make a living. He told me to go with my passion, make swords and dirks and Celtic stuff, carve the wooden handles and scabbards with knotworks. I had been teetering on the edge of making hunting knives, which I wasn’t that excited by, but thought maybe there was a better market. But Randal’s advice seemed good. And it still seems good, If you’re gonna be self employed you might as well do exactly what you love and strive for the best. After that I started making swords and dirks and I set up a little website called Caledonia Highland Forge with my dad’s help, over the next winter I figured out how to use photoshop and dreamweaver and set up the website that I have now, and started selling swords.

 

So that’s how I got started. I should say that I overcame my aversion to wearing safety equipment and a shirt while forging. ;):rolleyes:

oh yeah here are some pictures, first sword, first forge, and first customer.

conswrd2.jpg

1Astforge.jpg

1Astswrd2.jpg

Edited by Jake Powning

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That's awesome. Truly! You have had a charmed life so far, and I'd envy you for it if I hadn't as well. ;) I'd forgotten about the Black Cauldron and the Dark is Rising series, they warped me too. Unfortunately my illustrated book was Arthur Rackham, who is good but not the aesthetic I was looking for.

 

So, speaking of aesthetic: Did art school help? I know your dad's an artist, and I've heard conflicting views on what formal art school can do to the creative process, aside from the fact that it's a good way to get the skill toolkit you'll need to do some of this stuff. Do you find formal training to be a help or a hindrance, creatively speaking?

 

Second, Randal is one of my favorite people as well, and has never given anyone I know of bad advice. Also, I almost took Don's sword course at Campbell the year you did, but took design and traditional joinery in smithing instead. The next year Don stopped doing the sword course and I moved to Kentucky. :( On that note, do you feel you have missed any opportunities being physically somewhat removed from the wider community of bladesmiths, or has your early exposure and extensive travel since, combined with the internet, allowed you to join in in such a way as to allow you to not feel like a loner? Loner is good, by the way, I'm quite the curmudgeon in person (I do not ever answer the phone), but I see my local smithing community in person on a fairly regular basis, and they provide feedback and a certain human contact that is hard to totally replace with online talk. I guess what I'm trying to ask here is, have you ever thought about the effect relative isolation has had on your work?

 

One more for now, let's see...

 

Going with the theme of art school, aesthetics, and inspiration in isolation, what sources of inspiration keep drawing you back? For instance, as a kid I had a 1906 book called "Viking Tales" that was kind of a condensed and simplified version of the Heimskringla combined with the Vinland sagas. The illustrations were kind of an art nuveau (?) idea of Norse art as inspired by the discovery of the Gokstad ship 18 years earlier. The imagery is still stuck in my head. What texts or other visual sources are stuck in yours, if you don't mind sharing? I know the ring-chain figures large in your carving, as does the imagery of a certain modernized Ragnarok (thinking of the Vindsvall scabbard carving there ;) ). Then you do something like the Le Tene and Celtic inspired stuff. Where do you find this stuff? :blink:

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This is a great idea, just what hammerheads and smithites need. Keep it going, its the neatest approach I've seen in some time.

 

Peter :mellow:

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That's awesome. Truly! You have had a charmed life so far, and I'd envy you for it if I hadn't as well. ;) I'd forgotten about the Black Cauldron and the Dark is Rising series, they warped me too. Unfortunately my illustrated book was Arthur Rackham, who is good but not the aesthetic I was looking for.

 

So, speaking of aesthetic: Did art school help? I know your dad's an artist, and I've heard conflicting views on what formal art school can do to the creative process, aside from the fact that it's a good way to get the skill toolkit you'll need to do some of this stuff. Do you find formal training to be a help or a hindrance, creatively speaking?

 

Art school wasn’t really a good fit for me, I learned some skills, like soldering, the teachers in the metals department wich consisted of jewellery and hollow ware, did not encourage the direction I was interested in persuing. The mane instructor told me “we’re really getting sick of this “Celtic” fad” and basically told me there was no sense in making swords because it wasn’t a carreer option. I’m working on proving her wrong, so I guess I should thank her. It was the audacity of calling the Celtic tradition a fad that I couldn’t abide, I feel that a six thousand year old tradition can be confidently described as more than trendy. For me the traveling was the greatest education; I had been avidly studying the insular Celtic tradition since I was a kid, and traveling around on foot through my ancestors landscape was a great start to living my own myth.

I did have one excellent coarse in art school called “arts and entrepreneurship” where we did case studies on craftsmen and artists that we where inspired by and talked to all manner of business and law people as well.

I don’t think that you can train people to be creative, that just amounts to aesthetic brain washing, you really can only teach people the technical skills needed and then they will succeed or fail from there, some art schools share that philosophy and they tend to be the ones worth going to.

 

Second, Randal is one of my favorite people as well, and has never given anyone I know of bad advice. Also, I almost took Don's sword course at Campbell the year you did, but took design and traditional joinery in smithing instead. The next year Don stopped doing the sword course and I moved to Kentucky. :( On that note, do you feel you have missed any opportunities being physically somewhat removed from the wider community of bladesmiths, or has your early exposure and extensive travel since, combined with the internet, allowed you to join in in such a way as to allow you to not feel like a loner? Loner is good, by the way, I'm quite the curmudgeon in person (I do not ever answer the phone), but I see my local smithing community in person on a fairly regular basis, and they provide feedback and a certain human contact that is hard to totally replace with online talk. I guess what I'm trying to ask here is, have you ever thought about the effect relative isolation has had on your work?

 

From my perspective being essentially an anti-modernist traditionalist, my relative isolation is an advantage. I made a conscious decision to settle in my village of 32, firstly the landscape is my heartland. I have a connection to the land that I could never have somewhere else; I think it takes a long time to truly get to know a landscape, and growing up in it is a powerful way of learning a place. One of the things that I strive for is to live an authentic life, and I feel like living in a village where I have an intimate relationship with almost the entire community is part of that. We still hold on to the old ways of doing things to an extent and that’s quickly dying in a globalized homogenized consumer world. Just having a traditional community seems like it’s becoming something remarkable. I do enjoy getting out though, It’s a great thing to get together with a bunch of smiths, we share an experience that is pretty unique. The internet is a wonderfull resource for isolates like me, it would be really hard if not imposible to do this here without it.

 

One more for now, let's see...

 

Going with the theme of art school, aesthetics, and inspiration in isolation, what sources of inspiration keep drawing you back? For instance, as a kid I had a 1906 book called "Viking Tales" that was kind of a condensed and simplified version of the Heimskringla combined with the Vinland sagas. The illustrations were kind of an art nuveau (?) idea of Norse art as inspired by the discovery of the Gokstad ship 18 years earlier. The imagery is still stuck in my head. What texts or other visual sources are stuck in yours, if you don't mind sharing? I know the ring-chain figures large in your carving, as does the imagery of a certain modernized Ragnarok (thinking of the Vindsvall scabbard carving there ;) ). Then you do something like the Le Tene and Celtic inspired stuff. Where do you find this stuff? :blink:

 

Tolkiens work is the thing that has always had the ability to draw me back into that sense of wonder that started all this for me. He took ancient threads of Germanic and Celtic myth and wove them together on the warp of his imagination. He breathed new life into an ancient tradition that had become a glimmer in the past, and he did it with a deep respect for the traditions he was inspired by. I guess that’s essentially what I’m doing, studying the source material and then making my own pieces in the tradition of the source.

Alan Lee’s drawings have always given me that feeling of wonder and potential that we experience as children too. Sometimes I make pieces that are more inspired by my inner landscape and are less referential like the vindsvall and Manigandr (the moonblade) and weargrimm pieces, that’s the result of me experimenting with intuitive design I guess. I’ve always been fascinated with the Ragnarok myth, and if you listen to the media too much sometimes it feels like it’s descending on us. I’ve taken to not listening to the radio while I work. I don’t have a tv either.

The ring chain is just a really nice Nordic knot that carves very well and is broad enough to still show off the wood figure. I’m working on La Tene inspired stuff at the moment so I guess I’ll be giving the ring chain a break.

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Thanks, Jake, that's pretty profound, and I think it helps us (or me, anyway) understand you a bit better. I'll ask my last set of questions now, even though I'm sure lots of us would be happy to read your musings as long as you're willing to type 'em in.

 

First last question: Do you ever see yourself offering classes someday, like Don Fogg does? I know he is a major influence on your evolution as an artist and a smith, and I was wondering if later in life you'll feel the desire to pass it on. No suggestion or pressure, just curious.

 

Second last question: You mentioned earlier that Don was also a big influence on how you handle notoriety, fame, and hero-worship, for want of better words. Well, celebrity is a better word, but it's not as loaded as the ones I used. ;) You have stacked up an impressive set of honors, both within the bladesmithing community and in the world at large; for instance you went to Macau for Antonio Conceptiaõ Junior's (Antonio Cejunior's) "Masters of Fire" exhibit as an invited honoree, you've been interviewed by local and national radio and TV, and you've even been named something like "A young Canadian to Watch" by the governor of New Brunswick. Add to that the fact that dozens of young (and not so young!) aspiring swordsmiths hang on your every post here and elsewhere. How do you keep your head on straight?

 

Third last question: The reference to connection with smiths long dead in the question below reminds me that when I forge a hawk, and especially when I'm doing the final fit-up of a longrifle, I feel the presence of earlier smiths and masters looking over my shoulder and guiding my hand. I often don't even have to think about what I'm doing, I just put the work in front of me and clear my mind, and watch my hands do the job without much if any conscious input from my brain. I get the feeling you work that way sometimes too. Yes, no, none of my business?

 

 

For the final question I'm going to ask, I'm going to blatantly steal Chris's last one to me, since it was so good. I'll change some specifics, of course:

 

... but let me close with this.

 

You've talked about your style, your inspirations, and your history. What are your goals as a craftsman? Have you reached your smithing nirvana, or are you still reaching for something? The perfect replica (reimagining), the evolution of the hawk (sword), the inner connection with smiths long dead... what is next for Jake Powning? What do you have to make to say to yourself, "Damn, that's as good as it's gonna get"? Or is that such an elusive target that is really is meaningless, and your path is more the journey than the destination? If so, what do you still want to see in your work as you walk your path, that you haven't seen already?

 

:)

Edited by Alan Longmire

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I can't wait to hear Jake's reply. Reading these has me torn between admiration and envy but we all make our own ways in the world and one advantage for me of getting older seems to be a better acceptance of the path my life has taken over the path I may have prefered. It's always fascinating to see how other people have journeyed.

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Thanks for sharing your story, Jake. :)

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thanks Guy and Jol! B)

First last question: Do you ever see yourself offering classes someday, like Don Fogg does? I know he is a major influence on your evolution as an artist and a smith, and I was wondering if later in life you'll feel the desire to pass it on. No suggestion or pressure, just curious.

I’m really not sure, being a good teacher is a gift, I don’t know if I have that. At the moment I feel like I still have so much to learn that I’m certainly not ready to teach yet. I’m getting to be forge monkey for Don and Owen Bush at the Sword class that Don is teaching in London in March so I’m excited about that, and I will get to see Don teaching again and soak up some of the talent.

As I get older and start to get a firmer handle on making a living and raising family and all that, I’ll probably have more time to spend focusing on teaching endeavors.

 

Second last question: You mentioned earlier that Don was also a big influence on how you handle notoriety, fame, and hero-worship, for want of better words. Well, celebrity is a better word, but it's not as loaded as the ones I used. ;) You have stacked up an impressive set of honors, both within the bladesmithing community and in the world at large; for instance you went to Macau for Antonio Conceptiaõ Junior's (Antonio Cejunior's) "Masters of Fire" exhibit as an invited honoree, you've been interviewed by local and national radio and TV, and you've even been named something like "A young Canadian to Watch" by the governor of New Brunswick. Add to that the fact that dozens of young (and not so young!) aspiring swordsmiths hang on your every post here and elsewhere. How do you keep your head on straight?

 

I didn’t actually go to Macau, but one of my swords did, which was a real honour. I don’t really feel like I’m a celebrity of any kind. If I have gained some notoriety I guess it means that my work is communicating to people and they are responding, I think that’s kind of one of the goals of this, creating modern artifacts of an ancient tradition. It’s about connecting with a deep place in people, the way good poetry or music does. Working in a traditional medium is nice because the tradition is more important than the individual.

 

Third last question: The reference to connection with smiths long dead in the question below reminds me that when I forge a hawk, and especially when I'm doing the final fit-up of a longrifle, I feel the presence of earlier smiths and masters looking over my shoulder and guiding my hand. I often don't even have to think about what I'm doing, I just put the work in front of me and clear my mind, and watch my hands do the job without much if any conscious input from my brain. I get the feeling you work that way sometimes too. Yes, no, none of my business?

 

I work very intuitively. I’m not a numbers man so I mostly do everything by eye. I don’t get a sense of being guided, but sometimes I have the sense of being observed. Or working in a pattern that’s been worked before, especially when I’m working on some ancient design and I’m in the mindset of the person who made curvilinear La Tene designs or Germanic dragon knots. It makes me look at the flow of rivers and animal tracks differently, often they are very similar to the ancient embellishments.

 

For the final question I'm going to ask, I'm going to blatantly steal Chris's last one to me, since it was so good. I'll change some specifics, of course:

QUOTE (Christopher Price @ Feb 25 2008, 05:38 PM)

... but let me close with this.

 

You've talked about your style, your inspirations, and your history. What are your goals as a craftsman? Have you reached your smithing nirvana, or are you still reaching for something? The perfect replica (reimagining), the evolution of the hawk (sword), the inner connection with smiths long dead... what is next for Jake Powning? What do you have to make to say to yourself, "Damn, that's as good as it's gonna get"? Or is that such an elusive target that is really is meaningless, and your path is more the journey than the destination? If so, what do you still want to see in your work as you walk your path, that you haven't seen already?

:)

 

My goals as a craftsman are to reawaken a tradition and an ancient perspective where the walls we’ve built between ourselves and the natural world become blurred. A great man told me once that the sword represents conscience, because we are forced by it’s very nature to be responsible for what we do with it; a sword needs a hand to wield it. The sword is a visceral object and it has great symbolic power. My goal is to create power objects that when seen or held will awaken the hidden yearning in each of us to be awake and be responsible for our deeds and to be stewards rather than conquerors.

 

-_-

 

That was allot of fun, thanks for asking me Alan!

I have an interview in mind but have yet to hear back from my potential interviewie(SP :rolleyes: ) I will continue the workshop as soon as I do. :)

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Thank you Jake, for some great insight. Thank you Alan, for asking some great questions. I can't wait to read the next one! This is turning out wonderfully. :)

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A great man told me once that the sword represents conscience, because we are forced by it’s very nature to be responsible for what we do with it; a sword needs a hand to wield it. The sword is a visceral object and it has great symbolic power. My goal is to create power objects that when seen or held will awaken the hidden yearning in each of us to be awake and be responsible for our deeds and to be stewards rather than conquerors.

 

That is perhaps the best observation of the craft I've seen yet. I am humbled to be a part of this series of interviews, especially given my level of skill or lack thereof.

 

I look forward to the next set of interviews, especially coming from your perspective! Thanks again, Jake, for participating, and Chris, for suggesting this.

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A great man told me once that the sword represents conscience, because we are forced by it’s very nature to be responsible for what we do with it; a sword needs a hand to wield it. The sword is a visceral object and it has great symbolic power. My goal is to create power objects that when seen or held will awaken the hidden yearning in each of us to be awake and be responsible for our deeds and to be stewards rather than conquerors.

 

WOW! I was floored when I read that, phenomenal response.

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This is an awesome idea and I hope it continues to bring out the best in the folks who are interviewed. Can we get a mod to sticky this?

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Thanks so much for sharing your story Jake! really inspiring words.

 

I totally identify with what you said about being moved by Tolkien as a little kid and experiencing nature.

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Thanks guys!

 

Ok next victim. Instead of interviewing someone I know really well, I decided to interview someone I'd like to get to know better.

I've asked Jake Cleland and he has agreed.

So, Jake, I've been looking at your knives on the forums here and enjoying your innovative design treatments for a while now. Why don't you start out by telling us your story, how did you come to make blades, who were your biggest influences and what's it like living on the north westerly most point of Skye. Looking over your website it looks like you have an interesting life, looking forward to hearing your answers.

I'll save more questions 'till after you get done with this one B)

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Ooh, I was hoping you'd ask the other Jake! ;) If you hadn't agreed I was gonna ask him next.

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Thanks Jake. your interview is gonna be a tough act to follow.

 

I guess first we should start with a little history. on my fathers side, my grandmother's name was Smith. her mothers name was Armor. now you all know that such names were originally pretty much job descriptions, but in the west of scotland the tradition carried on much later than most places, because the census takers were all english speakers, who couldn't pronounce Gaelic names, let alone spell them. so at least one branch of my family consisted of blacksmiths and armourers, and i suppose its pretty much in my blood. as i type, i'm sitting next to a sideboard made by my grandfather, who was a farm labourer, which is fitted, carved and polished with a skill i can't even imagine, and sitting on top of it is a brass microscope made by my father. i'm surrounded by things made by my family, and was brought up knowing that if you wanted something, you made it yourself.

 

my dad grew up on a farm, and as a child he would fashion knives from old files and swap them with friends. when he was in his twenties, he and my mother moved to Skye, where he took a job as a civil engineer, and then made pressure transducers for medical research. he made knives on the side to sell for christmas or holiday money, and there were always half finished knives lying all over every surface in the house. it never really occurred to me that most other people didn't make knives.

 

i made my first blade, with a lot of help, when i was about 6 or 7, a 3" clip point with a brass guard and a stag tine handle; i loved the knife, but i never really thought about making another until a couple of years later when i was flicking through a book of military antiques, and i saw my first pictures of katanas, and nothing would do but i had to make one, so i sawed and ground and hammered and filed at a piece of aircraft aluminium until i had a 28" samurai sword with which i would slay nettles by the thousand. perhaps more than even the inherent beauty of the swords i saw in that book, what impressed me was the notion of the craft involved, and that each part was made by a different master... being so used to the idea of making everything yourself, it seemed kinda odd that someone would trust another with any part of it...

 

anyway, i digress. i grew older, as you do, and went to highschool 32 miles away, which meant that in winter i never saw daylight. i excelled in art, and history, and english, and pretty much sucked at everything else, but i was thought bright enough to be barred from taking metal work or anything practical. It wasn't until i was about 15 that i made another knife, an 8" throwing knife for a friend. then i was hooked again, making plain sgian dubhs, and antler handled hunting dirks, and hunting knives. i sold the occasional knife, but it was just a hobby to me, and i had other stuff competing for my time.

 

I moved to edinburgh and went to university when i was 17, and made knives in the summers back on skye, between shifts in a pub wher i was living (and there are other stories there not fit for public consumption). i started out studying philosophy until i realised that my tutors couldn't think their way out of a paper bag. i changed course, and for my final three years i studied drinking and classical civilization, pretty much in that order - on my way to uni each day i came to a crossroads; to the right lay my classes and classmates, and to the left was Sandy Bell's, one of the greatest pubs on the face of the planet, full of a far more interesting class of people. i invariably turned left.

 

somehow, i managed not to get kicked out, mostly by explaining that it was easier for all concerned if i just went to the pub, where i could read and write in peace, instead of sitting in class asking difficult questions, and i graduated with a Ma(hons) in classical civilization.

 

so this was all pretty much background. the question was how i got into making knives, and ive described my first tentative steps, but there were two major turning points. the first was meeting garth duncan ( i know that you know his work, jake, but for those who don't he's a goldsmith from california who makes the most amazing dirks and sgian dubhs). he turned up on our doorstep when i was about 16, with a bottle of whisky (caol ila, if i remember), and we got pissed and talked about knives. then he brought out one of his sgian dubhs, with the most amazing carving i'd ever seen, and each gold stud in the knotwork was set with an individual ruby. my mind was well and truly blown.

 

the second turning point was about 5 years later. i'd finished uni, and was doing an MSC in multimedia technology for some dumb reason which eludes me now. i was sitting and enduring a lacture about molecular alignment in hard drives or some such crap, and when i looked down at my notes i realised that for the last hour and a half, all i'd written was wtf, and then doodled knife designs for three pages. i hadn't even noticed i was doing it. i decided that there was nothing for it but to move back to skye and make knives, and i dropped out that day.

 

i moved back to skye, took some resteraunt jobs and started to try and learn what i was doing building up a stock. my dad retired about that time and started making knives again in earnest. by this point Garth had moved to skye and bought a house with gallery and workshop space, and he kindly loaned me a couple of cabinets in to display my work, and would let me stay for a week or so at a time, helping out spruing up waxes and polishing rings, while he showed me the ropes of carving and casting. the first time i was there, i decided to fit up a sgian dubh blade i had made with a carved handle and cast fittings. garth sat me down at a bench, brought me a lump of wood, a lump of wax, three gravers and a file, and told me to get on with it - i'd figure out what to do. best teacher i ever had.

 

in terms of design influences, i'd say that in some ways i didn't start off with many - my designs were always approched from an aesthetic standpoint: i used to be obsessive about designing knives on paper, getting every line and curve to flow just right, and copying that exactly in steel. i still am, i guess.

 

having said that, my father was a huge influence - his knives are hard using knives. he's an outdoorsy kinda guy and makes and uses camp knives, hunting knives, every kind of knife which you can use in the field, and yet as an engineer, (he did his PHD in bio mechanics, building himself an artificial leg after a motorcycle crash - i told you if you needed something you made it yourself!) his fit and finish is superb, some of the best i've ever seen.

 

and of course we had the Knives 79-94 books in the house, and i would read them endlessly looking for inspiration, but the only pieces which leapt out at me were Don Fogg's (with Kemal at that time) and Scott Slobodian's - not so much in terms of direct influence as in as examples of the kind of beauty which could be acheived, that knives could be art on there own terms, and that purity of line, and form, and tone could combine to produce an emotional response removed from the objects as tools or as weapons. and that in turn led me to re examine eastern knives, just to try and see what made the lines work.

 

and of course, when it comes to my celtic work, my major influences are garth and you yourself, again in seeing what is possible in terms of technique, and in the ability of an object to transcend the constraints of its form.

 

and perhaps above all, this forum provides my primary source of information and inspiration - i said that there were two major turning points in my development into a knife maker, but in fact the third, and perhaps most important, was my discovery of this place, which motivates me more than anything else.

 

i've rambled on for a good long time here, but i would like to address the third part of your question; living on skye. My island is perhaps the most beautiful place i've ever seen. You and Alan have both mentioned the influence of Tolkien, and i grew up feeling like i was living in middle earth. there are wild mountainous rock formations, and secret glades, reminants of the great caledonian forest. there are sidhenann, faerie glens, scattered throughout the landscape, and places of legend: chuhulainn trained with scathatch at dun sgaith, and Finn MaChuil made the big leap into Kylerhea. as a kid it was paradise, a short bow on my back and a knife on my belt, a cloak abundled up against the wind, i would walk for miles hunting rabbits and tracking deer, my auld dug by my side. and everywhere the bones of the land punching up through the earth like a scarred fist.

 

but just as inspiring as the land is the culture, the sense of history. today is thursday, and tonight there will be a traditional music session in the local pub. some of the finest modern celtic musicians in the world will be in attendance; farquar macdonald, who wrote a pibroch which he played at the return of the ghost shirt to the sioux nation (and who once wrote me a tune called the sgianadair's waltz, which he say's is too difficult to play), Peter morrison and adam sutherland of the peatbog faeries, and famous maclennan, a great luthier and better mandolin player, who i taught how to make a knife last year and was vaguely relieved at how difficult he found it. and we'll shoot pool and drink whisky and talk, and there may even be some tunes. the music they play, and the stories of the fishermen and barwomen and alchoholics will stay with me until next week, and remind me that i'm part of the living tradition of highland culture, and i would'nt swap it for the world.

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Jake C., that's even better than I expected. Now I don't know who to envy more! :lol:

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Wow, great response! I knew I liked ya B)

So, working with traditional forms, do you find yourself influenced at all by modern traditional musicians ways of carying on their tradition? this is a hard question to fraze, but it seems to me that there are parallels if that makes any sense.

 

How do you find your education and time you spent away from Skye has influenced your work?

 

I can really relate to your description of your connection to the land, It must be an incredible place to live.

 

Do you have a philosophy as a bladesmith that you can articulate to us?

 

I was interested that you studied Philosophy some, now that you're out of the proverbial paper bag, what wisdom would you impart to your cloisterred former tutors?

 

It sounds like you've had an interesting life so far, do you have an idea what is over the horizon for you? goals, hopes,ultimate dream creation?

 

Looking forward to reading your responses, this kind of conversation is really hard without beer. :D

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Wow Jake, the Isle of Skye sounds amazing, the land is so different from what I grew up with here in North Florida it's almost unimaginable. You have to look real hard to even find rock here and when you do it will more than likely be limestone. I'm looking forward to the continuation of your story!

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Thanks, Jake. For some reason I had missed the fact that you lived on Skye. I had the pleasure of backpacking all over Scotland, including Skye and the Hebrides. I made it just before the bridge went up. It's a beautiful land.

 

There's a lot to be said for smithing in lonely, beautiful places.

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in some way's you're right jake; it is hard without beer. but on the other hand, it's now two days later, and i'm just back from the pub (did i mention that my 'local' is ten clear miles away, and my friday pub is a further 7?) in that spirit , i'll answer a couple of questions glibly:

 

guy, i dunno: i love carl hiassen (admittedly more south), and there was a book called blood stained kings, can't remember the author, and it all makes me think that rural is rural, wherever you are. also, there are a bunch of studies that say that the ghettoised areas of the US are directly related to west highland scots settlement, but the conclusions they draw are almost universally stupid....

 

JOL, the one and only time i was in ireland, i left the island by ferry and came back over the bridge. it was a weird experience, but i can't go into that yet...

 

Alan, i'd still envy other Jake. i get the impresssion that his cold is drier.

 

and Jake, i'll answer your questions tomorrow, but for the moment i have four words for you: Blood on the Tracks.

 

a'domani

 

J.

Edited by jake cleland

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ok. i feel a little better now, so let's get back to it.

 

i'll try and take your questions one at a time; it seems likely that they'l cross over quite a bit, but lets start with education. first off, let me say that i feel that any education in any field is valuable in and of itself, both because, in my opinion, learning should be undertaken for the satisfaction it gives of itself, rather than for any kind of final end (Kant said that all immorality comes ultimately from treating things as means rather than ends in and of themselves, and i tend to agree.).indeed, i think this should be applied across the board; if one takes satisfaction in the process, the result should look after itself, and i certainly find that in my work - i'm far more interested in the action of creation than in the final object made. But all education is also important because the real world isn't neatly compartmentalised - if i'm studying greek history and i don't have to occasionally crack a book on climatology, say, or mechanical engineering, or tide tables, or viticulture, then obviously i'm not doing it right. the same applies to bladesmithing, or any other discipline. and that's what i'd say to my philosophy teachers - if you're going to lecture me on plato, i'd at least expect you to have read homer, and have a vague understanding of metaphor in ancient greek. so my field at uni was classics, but my discipline was cultural history - the same techniques and methodology apply to finding out about seventeenth century edinburgh as do to examining fifth century athens. and a study of cultural history also taught me to appreciate objects in context - it's not enough to know what an object looked like or even how it was made, if you don't know how people felt and thought about it - what words did they use for it? how did they describe it? was it sacred or secular? how did it make them feel? i don't often make historical reproductions, but i do look for the spirit of the thing i'm trying to make, and i feel that that more than anything is what my education gave me.

 

i think that your question about music ties in with this, in that the form endures, but the individual elements may change to meet changing needs, both in audience and musician, and amongst my friends i see the constant tension between the need to stay true to the form and tradition, while still breaking new ground, not allowing the form to stagnate. i feel that there is a similar tension in my scottish pieces, and indeed you can see the same thing looking at historical examples too; as dirks became de-rigeur for regimental officers, and certain groups of the landed gentry, and as centres of production moved from individual craftsmen to urban armourers, you can see the form of the dirk standardise, and something of the vitality of the earlier pieces is lost, as dirks become copies of copies of copies, and as the spark which made them the primary visual artform of the west highlands is extinguished, they become tartanised tourist-tat before its time.

 

And i think that there is a more general connection with music as well, in that the music i like almost all falls within the boundaries of a particular form, be it west highland traditional, or classical romanticism, or 20's blues, and for me, the more formal it is the better, both in music, and in the kind of knives i like - i would like to see scottish knife forms start to approach that kind of formalism again, in the way that scandinavian or japanese knife forms are still recognised as an inherent part of their respective cultures, while ours are reduced to tin and plastic.

 

i think that i've hinted at my 'philosophy' of working, but i'll try to lay it out more clearly. basically i try to make it about the process of making the thing rather about the thing itself. if a blade becomes a series of tasks to be completed one after another, rather than a continuous flow, then it's a short step to the whole thing becoming a chore, and the process being something you resent rather than cherish. because of that (and because i'm essentially very lazy) i generally only work about four days a week - i find that it's too easy to burn out creatively, or simply to get lost in the daily grind, to start to churn out pieces for the sake of having made them, rather than the sake of making them. for the same reason, i'm trying at the moment to get back to spending no more than half my time doing comissions. it's very important to me to follow the inspiration as much as possible. there's nothing worse than having to lay aside a piece you're excited about to make another bloody clan crest sgian dubh. i have a fear that if i don't indulge my inspiration it may dry up.

 

in terms of ambitions, my primary goal over the next few years is to build a house here - it's something that i see as much as a statement of commitment to living here as it is a practical consideration. more generally, i want to continue to survive - i have fery few material desires that dont revolve around a lifetimes suppy of tools and materials - sell enough pieces to keep a roof over my head and food on the table, and still do work i enjoy and can fell proud to be doing.

 

having said that there's a pair of pieces that i've wanted to make since i was sitting in that lecture hall; i think of them as a highland tanto and a koshirae dirk - basically a tanto made using dirk techniques; cast silver fittings, carved bog oak tsuka, leather wrapped handle, and a dirk made using tanto techniques, forged and carved and inlayed fitiings, cord wrapped handle, etc. the idea is there, but i've never yet come up with designs i'm happy with, and my japanese metal working skills leave pretty much everything to be desired, but a man can dream....

 

cheers,

 

jake.

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This is all good stuff guys .I must say that I am looking forward to meeting both the Jakes at the forge in (not a long away now) .

Jake what are your feelings towards the Uk's demonisation of knives ?It is such a strange and unfathomable thing to me as a tool user and from the point of view of an artist and craftsman (and I must say Romantic as a lot of my drive towards making blades is certainly based on a romantisism.)

I do understand where it is coming from though so it doesnt make me mad .

How do you feel about the juxtoposition of your craft against the general anti knife feelings we have within the UK .

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