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Christopher Price

Knifemaker Interview Series, a biography workshop

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This is fascinating. Wish I had time to read all of the interviews.

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if anyone from the forums has that time Caleb, its you. :-D

Probably, but whatever spare time I have is normally spent in the workshop. :P

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This is fascinating. Wish I had time to read all of the interviews.

 

 

I sat down and read through these for two hours a day nigh on a week and still haven't gotten through them all. The trick is to not speed read!

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OK boys and girls, my sincere apologies for THE DROPPED BALL, but I have selected a willing victim! I'm pleased to introduce. ....

 

. ...my friend Shel Browder, blacksmith and storyteller extraordinaire, retired last year after many years working at Colonial Williamsburg, and is now doing his own thing. I hope you'll find his views and ideas interesting, as his grounding in traditional skills, and then the interests he has developed in particular aspects of bladesmithing, might be a little different from the mass of this community.

 

So Shel. Why don't I start with the opening angle of this series. ...

 

How did you get interested in smithing?

 

How did that take you to Colonial Williamsburg?

 

Could you describe the approach of the Williamsburg shop, and both the restrictions and opportunities that arise from working in that historical context?


And of course feel free to rant off in any direction that takes ya. ....

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My computer just dropped an hour's worth of answer. I am going to walk the dogs, drink more coffee--avoiding the urge to drink something stronger--and start again.

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I hate when that happens. <_< When I remember to, for long detailed posts I'll sometimes write it up in Word, then cut-n-paste to the forum. It helps on buggy days.

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And so, dogs walked, breakfast and coffee, and a keyboard for the iPad now. So much for the cranky old desktop and its frequent screen freezes.

 

How did I get interested? II hardly know where to start. I can't remember not making stuff, though it was usually wooden things and Pop never fussed when I used all of his nails. But I was basicaly raised in a hardware store with an associated welding and sheet metal shop. I was put to work by the time that I was twelve helping to make twelve inch dia. flues for tobacco farmers still using wod fired tobacco barns in SE North Carolina. We also fabricated the structural parts for tobacco sprayers from steel. Lots of manual labour in both processes, and the sheet metal work was done using tools nearly a half century out of date, There was an anvil there as well and given the opportunity, I hammered on pieces heated by a big rosebud on an acetylene torch---which was fortunately cheaper in those days. When I was aboout fourteen years old, I decided to forge a sword from an old leaf spring. That took a lot of acetylene and that's also when I learned that forging the edge of a blade drew out the edge much longer than the back. My straight blade design turned into a scimitar. I thought that heat treating consisted of heating to cherry red and plunging the blade into water. Knowing nothing about the need to temper, I checked the blade flex--just like they did in the movies. And I had two pieces of hardened steel in my hands. Fifty some odd years later, I forged my second sword.

 

Not being wise enough to uunderstand my need to make stuff with my hands, I went off to college and after seven years of so called higher education, I went to work behind a desk in Washington, DC. I lasted eight years before a couple of major life events brought me to my senses. I returned to tthe hardware business in 1980 and immediately began to forge crude fireplace tools during the wood stove craze. Man, were they ugly--but I ocasionally run across folks from my hometown who are still using them. That fired my interest and I got books by Alex Bealer, Jack Andrews, Richardson's "Practical Blacksmithing", and all the other info that I could find and built a couple of primitive shops at home. Fortunately I have a patient and understanding wife. In 1985, I convinced the admministrators at Tryon Palace in New Bern, NC that they needed to add blacksmithing to their crafts program and my apprentice and I built both the shop andd the program from the ground up. Since I needed advice on this, I made contact with Peter Ross at Colonial williamsburg---what better place to find advice and info on 18th century English blacksmith shops---aand with their help, began to tool the shop and define my work.

 

My Dad asked me to return to the hardware business in 1988 and perhaps, having some premonition, I did. Pop became ill shortly after that. My cousin and I ran the busines until 1992, a year after Pop's death, and then I sold my share to my cousin and launched into my own blacksmith business. In 1993, I had the opportunity to do a six month internship at Colonial Williamsburg- I earned my Journeymanship under Peter and retired from there eighteen years after I started that six month internship. I have been running my own business since then. I like my commute now. It is sixty feet. And now for the hard question, so I will go ahead and post this (the boring part).

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Outstanding! I am enjoying this very much so far :) (and I'm very glad to see that this is happening again!)

 

John

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My apologies for the delay. I had a story telling gig yesterday with a new story to learn and my usual three Gaelic classes. And I have needed to organize my thoughts as well. I think that my discussions with Peter Ross and the other smiths in the Anderson shop concerning an eighteenth century approach to iron work were at at least as important as the techniques that I learned there. Perhaps more important. Yet, I have never tried to articulate this approach in writing.In short, the function of the Anderson blacksmith shop (now known as the Public Armoury) is to reproduce eighteenth century ironwork that is primarily used in Colonial Wiliamsburg, as well as in other museums and by private customers. In the process of doing that, the manufacture of iron objects in the context of both the eighteenth century in general and the Revolutionary in particular must be interpreted to the public.

 

All work in the shop is to be done within the range of variation seen in old iron work of any particular item being made It is to be done to the maximum extent possible using only those tools available to eighteenth century smiths. It has to be done in the understanding of the culture of work and economic constraints of the time period. While the shop has never limited itself only to the ferrous materials of the time, it has long used iron to the maximum extent possible. Since it is actually a working shop, it has for instance, always used mild steel for nail manufacture. After all, the need to produce as many as forty thousand nails for one building in a reasonable time precludes forging much heavier bars into nail rod sizes. If that affects the work negatively, it is in making the forging a bit more difficult and in increased wear on tools from the harder material.

 

I think that many modern people completely miss the effect of economic constraints on work. Most modern people think that tradesmen could work in a lesiurely manner to produce work of high quality in a pleasant and relaxed manner, however long the day. The vast majority of ironwork was produced by highly specialized trades being paid on a piecework basis in a time whin the material in an object was worth more than the labour of the person making it. For example, nailors were among the lowest paid of ironworkers and in order to earn a living, they had to produce upwards of 2,000 nails per day on average. As Jay Gaynor (Director of Historic Trades at CW) says, the goal of tradesmen was to produce the highest quality work that they were capable of of---but they needed to produce a dozen, or a thousand, before lunch. The rate of production of pieceworkers is often astounding. Thus, apprentices at CW are urged to work with the greatest possible alacrity in the production of frequently made idems such as standard nails and hardware.

 

Secondly, and perhaps counter to, the need to work quickly, is the knowledge that materials are more valuable than labour and that many things are priced by their weight. Workmen doing piecework such as nails were docked for wastage of materials beyond that which occurs in the forging process. That means that items were seldom heavier than need be. A taper in thicknesss is often seen in objects in a way that leaves them thick where strength is needed while they are tapered in thickness to save materials in sections that bear no weight. This is often seen in hinges as well as many other objects. This significanly effects the "feel" of early objects and must be taken into account in accurate reproductions.

 

Thirdly, the use of tools in our trade is a constant discussion. What specialized tools were used in any given trade? It is a fact that the development of skill can both speed up work and reduce the need for invented tools that actually substitute for skill while slowing the work down. It is not that such devices were not used, because they were and usually created by the workmen who needed them. It is however, necessary to understand when such tools are either useful and actually speed up the work, or when they are necessary for a particular process. It is a process of experience, and such devices should never be a substitute for skill.

 

And my apprentice is here and it's time for the workday to start--so more tomorrow. I think that the subject will be research--- and iron forensics.

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This is a really excellent description, and I want to thank you for being so poignant about the realities of doing historical work, and understanding the environment in which is was done as a way of better understanding the styles we see in their design choices. I wonder how much of that applies to really old work, 1,000 years or more back, in what I can only imagine as a less-developed economy. Were Viking nailors just as dogged as Colonial nailors?

 

Intriguing stuff. Thank you for taking the time to write it so well.

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That's a terrific point about how the relation between the value of labor and material is now inverted from earlier time.

 

In the context of iron forensics, could you tell the folks about your examination of artifacts at Fort Vancouver, especially the Hudson's Bay axes produced there?

Edited by Lee Sauder

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So, where from here. Working for a major museum has, as do all jobs, its pros and its cons. Working in one that is a functional shop that is also responsible for interpreting both the history of the place and time and the history of the trade and its technology means that interruptions during the work day can be a major frustration. However, in the drive to recreate, not just the profile of an object, but its method of manufacture within the context of the time, one must engage in "iron forensics." Historical research is obviously important. Not so obvious is the hours of staring at old stuff, including trips to other places and sometimes other countries when necessary. It would be desirable to have at least thirty examples of an object. Ten from an archaeological excavation that give a firm date in context of use, ten examples that have been used and show wear patterns, and ten that were lost in a safe, dry place in their packing and shipping crate in new condition. That of course, is just a fantasy. With luck, there may be one or two of the first two categories. So what is sought is any evidence of manufacturing in the context of hand working shops where material is relatively valuable. Is that weld in the old piece part of the sequence of manufacture, or just where a short piece was welded to another piece to save material, or is it a later repair? Or, is that funny little swirl in the grain of the iron where two pieces were riveted prior to welding, or is it just one's imagination--trying to see something that one wishes to be there?

 

An example would be simple, everyday curry combs. I know of no surviving 18th century everyday iron curry combs in curatorial collections, but I have needed to reproduce several. The archaeological collection at CW has at least a half dozen in good enough shape to discern sizes and methods of manufacture. But what surface finish did they have? One of them must have gone through a fire because it had a little intact fire sacle on the surface and coarse file scratches could be seen through the rust. They reminded me of the file marks seen on old iron lock case locks, which were painted black. So I painted them japan black. Correct? I don't know, but given the common treatment of other common objects at the time, I think it a reasonable assumption. The handle mounting hardware, which has ornamental filing and is riveted to the body, I chose to leave bright. I don't know if that was correct, but it surely looked crisp against the black body and would surely be within the custom of the time.

 

Now, this is a bladesmiths forum, and while I'm a blacksmith, I have been called on to reproduce period knives and swords. The same research process is involved. I've reproduced several late 16th century swords recently and several mid18th century British naval cutlasses. The early stuff is from a nearby site that has a number of hilt fragments and several complete hilts and a bunch of pommels. There are some interesting mysteries there. And I have revised my thinking on the method of production on three hilt types that I've already made. Some of these are complex hilts of the rapier and the basket type. A bit like building iron spider webs and using only forge welding. Gas welding will not result in a piece that is indistinguishable from an original. And that is my goal. I want to frighten curators, to the point of reproducing the same grinding, filing, and polishing marks that I see on old blades. (I date them in both visible and hidden places). There are pretty much no blades. The hilts were probably removed and the blades retained for the valuable steel in them.

 

So enough for now. I'm open for questions and will try to be more prompt. The long wait had to do with a major holiday, a major daughter vist, and a major migraine.

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Christopher, I wish that I knew about Viking smiths, or nailors. I don't know if they were ever in a position that would require them to sell to a middle man who controlled the amount that were paid, as were 18th European tradesmen. I do think that if the value of your product is mostly materials, then your drive on simple objects would be to make them as fast as possible. In small communities, that will be tempered by the quality that your customers will accept. In a time and place where communities are small and things are not traded widely, the skill of your work would be an important factor. The problem with working directly for your customers in a small community is that you can never develop the speed and skill and specialized tools of specialized tradesmen. Nor will your work be as cheap.

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Well, just a couple other things I think these guys here might be interested in.


In one case, I beleive you did have the fantasy of 30 pieces to study, and step by step ones at that- at Fort Vancouver. Would you give these folks a brief description of that experience?

 

Also, I know that you have a particular interest in "munitions grade" weapons. Could you talk a bit about the different approaches, pleasures, or challenges of that, that might be different from what most folks have to do here to respond to a modern clientele, who tend to be interested in the high class stuff?

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As collectables in the antique world, the munitions grade swords have pretty good value right now because they seem to be pretty scarce. The quality of the blades isn't necessairly poor, just the quality of the finish. When governments found themselves having to provide thousands of swords to common soldiers, the designs were similiar to the high end but the finish was plain, thus allowing the production of thousands of weapons in a short time. Officers and gentlemen provided their own swords, which would have the quality of finish in both blade and hilt that they could afford---or had credit for. High end weapons were not just deadly tools, they were also basically badges of rank and jewelry at the same time. My interest in munitions grades weapons has come from two sources? First, my customers, and second, my personal identification with working people and enlisted soldiers. I have a commission now for a higher end sword. I'll make at least one munitions grade version of it to solve the main puzzle in the hilt manufacture. The higher end hilt was fluted with silver inlay, though the customer wishes to forgo the inlay in the hilt.

 

Ahhhh, Fort Vancouver, where the smiths buried their mistakes. There are examples of every stage of manufacturing axes and traps, and since mistakes can be made in our trade at every step, it is possible to discern the method of manufacturing of their version of Hudsons Bay Company traps and axes very well. We learned a lot from those artifacts and more awaits study.

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Thanks, Shel. I'm about out of questions, would anyone else out there have questions for Shel, before he picks up the torch?

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No questions here, Shel. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Would you care to post some pictures of the bladesmithing work that you have been doing lately? Particularly some of the guards.

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Will do Jesus. And it's time to pick another interviewee or is that victim.

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Thanks for sharing all that, Shel, it fits my own experiences and views to a tee. B)

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Thanks for sharing Shelton! I would love to see some of the guard work on the stuff you make.

 

Zeb

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Awesome stuff! Hard to switch between reading the current stuff as well as trying to get all the previous reading in.

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I am passing the torch to Darrell Markowitz. I came to know Darrell while learning to make iron with Lee and he does some interesting stuff.

 

Darrell, i think that Some discussion of your connection with Viking iron making a t L' Anse au Meadows might be a good place to start.

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