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Knifemaker Interview Series, a biography workshop

Christopher Price

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Awesome thread. Now we get close to home and the viking connection! I'm a big fan of Darrell and the whole gig at L'Anse Au Meadows, was crushed to be in another part of the continent when that all went down.



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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.


A fast start : I am especially honoured (and humbled) to be included in such august company. There are a great many names here from who's hands I have always seen spectacular work. (An awful lot of 'I wish *I* could have made that one'!) Some have come to be friends over the years, much to my surprise and gratification. I hope it proves I can add something to this quite wonderful (and informative) ongoing conversation.

At its best, this series reminds me a bit of an artist's round table at an extremely good conference...


To the Question:


You may personally find a curious circle here Sheldon.

(Cautionary note : This is how I remember this - maybe not the truth of what it really might have been!)


Second Cautionary note : I am not known for short answers!


I was working as the blacksmith / historic interpreter at Black Creek Pioneer Village (Toronto Ontario) in the mid to late 1980's. This is one of those synthetic historic villages, composed of buildings moved from their original locations and restored to the dates of construction. The span there is roughly 1816 - 1865. The blacksmith's shop was intended to be some vague 1850's time period. Individual interpreters came into the Village mostly self taught, and mostly spent their days working alone. (There was no internal training program such as exists at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.)


I had started my journey into living history through a deep interest in the Viking Age. I had literally fallen over the then fledgling Society for Creative Anachronism group at University of Toronto while a student at Ontario College of Art. (As many are sure to know, this is a very loosely Medieval themed organization.) As I was a young male, armoured combat (as it was developing in the SCA in those days) was something I was enthusiastically involved in. If you wanted armour back then (late 1970's) you pretty much had to build your own. A need for something at least vaguely approaching historic objects for costumes lead me to my first knives. (How I picked up a hammer for forging a longer tale!)


So that (roughly) sets the scene.

In general research, likely via the ALHFAM journal, I had seen an article describing a project undertaken by a team at Colonial Williamsburg. The name I * remember * is 'David Harvey'. (Shel, you might remember this - or have even been involved?) Anway, the project was an attempt to convert a local iron ore into a metallic mass. As I remember it, this was done using a deep built forge hearth, firing charcoal. The results were marginal, with enough metal produced to make a small chisel. (In retrospect, this all sounds like the variation on the Aristotle Furnace Tim Young had suggested to the Early Iron Group at Smeltfest a couple of years back, you certainly remember. Lee Sauder and Jesus Hernandez both took the lead on those experiments.)

Back to the thread - I had been 'offended' by the statement made in the published article : 'This process replicates the First Iron Production in North America.' Like all Canadians, this kind of thing gets the maple syrup in my veins just a boilin'. * We * all knew the very first iron produced in North America was at the hands of the Norse, at 'Leif's Houses' (northern Newfoundland) in Vinland - some time about 1000 AD.


So in the back of my head, as early as about 1990, was the idea of demonstrating the Viking Age iron smelting process.


Through a long chain of events (including a huge amount of mindless self promotion). I would develop a working relationship with Parks Canada, the L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site (LAM), and Dr Birgitta Wallace. This all over the 1990's, with many trips out to the site from my home base in central Ontario. (For those not familiar, that's a two and half day drive, an eight hour ferry, then another full day's drive.)


In 2001, Parks Canada received a corporate grant to re-create the small 'Furnace Hut' at LAM. The original was a roughly 3 x 3 metre structure, open on one side, dug into the bank of the Black Duck Brook. It appears to have been purpose built to contain a small clay walled iron smelting furnace. The furnace was either broken on bloom extraction (my best guess), or purposefully converted into a deep forge for the required compaction phase. The archaeology suggests only a single firing, a smaller furnace run with a fairly low yield. ( I can elaborate on all that if people ask about it.) I was part of small research group, intended to establish how best to equip the replica building and then interpret the historic event to the public. Dr Wallace represented the archaeological side. Archaeo-metallurgist Arne Esplund (from Norway) for Norse iron smelting. I was the interpretive / practical side. The working staff was represented by Mark Pilgram, one of the local people I had trained on a special six week program in 2000.


As part of the week long workshop, Marc and I, working from prototypes provided by Birgitta and Arne, * attempted * to smelt iron. Attempted being the key word here. As later experiments would prove, we did just about every single thing wrong!



I got back from that session determined to 'get this to work'. I wrangled (inspired / dragged kicking and screaming) my new group of Viking Age living history re-enactors, the Dark Ages Re-Creation Company (www.darkcompany.ca) into providing the required manpower.

Starting in 2002, we undertook a series of individual experimental iron smelts, concentrating on Norse type 'short shaft' bloomery furnaces. Our first attempts (also dismal failures) were using human powered Viking Age type blacksmith's bellows.

In 2003, a small group of us attended a demonstration by Lee and Skip Williams held at the American Museum of Frontier Culture in Staunton Virginia. Generous as always, Lee and Skip took us in and folded us into the demonstration. (Or at least let me badly explain what was going on to the general public - while they concentrated on the real work!) I certainly learned a huge amount that day.

Spring 2004 back at Wareham was another failure, but did gain us the friendship of Mike McCarthy. (Mike stopped by on his way back from a week with one of the Japanese iron masters.)

Fall of 2004 and a combination of pissy wet and cold weather, too late a start, beer for very late lunch - and a general WtF attitude... We not only stumbled on a easy and quick to build brick furnace design (what came to be known as the 'Econo-Norse') - we actually got iron!


By that point (what was my 5th / 6th iron smelt) I had realized that I had to pull back to basic principles. That *first* I had to learn how to effectively smelt iron, developing some standard methods and some kind of effective methods and base level understanding of the processes.

*Then* go back and attempt to remove individual modern elements, one by one, to work backwards towards a possible Viking Age method.


The direct process of this was a series of five experimental smelts DARC undertook from 2009 through 2010. This ended with a full scale re-creation of the historic smelt at Vinland, inside that same replica building at LAM. This public demonstration was undertaken using all Viking Age equipment (save modern safety gear). The end result was about the same as the archaeologists had estimated for the original event. About 20 kg of ore was converted to a roughly 3 kg iron bloom.

Dr Wallace was present for the demonstration, and confided to me after that she felt she would have to alter her earlier impressions of both Norse iron smelting, and more significantly, just what that ancient undertaking was really intended for. (I had always had big reservations about how the archaeologists had interpreted the artifact evidence - and its implications.)


I'm still wondering about the implications of air flow inside Norse type short shaft bloomery furnaces. More experiments to follow for sure. My team has also been working on a related system from Viking Age Iceland, working closely with Kevin Smith (Brown University).



The hard core knife makers here may notice this is straying a very far distance from bladesmithing.

Something Lee said once : 'You should kill what you eat'

The materials available to ancient blacksmiths are quite different compared to our modern metals. Further, how those materials were created in themselves alters the relationship ancient smiths had to their materials.

I will hardly claim to have that all figured out. But using historic methods to produce the source materials does alter my perceptions of the object itself...



(I think more than enough for one go round?)

website: www.warehamforge.ca
Blog : http://warehamforgeblog.blogspot.com
(topics include iron smelting, blacksmithing, Viking Age)

NOTE : Any posted comments may be converted into a future blog article!
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Something Lee said once : 'You should kill what you eat'


Consider that a choice gem in the interview. I'm stealing it for later... it perfectly conveys what you're going for here, and I fully respect it. I suspect many of us who've fallen down the hole of making our own material to make our blades have internalized this need, from many different paths, to not just re-make the shape, but to fully integrate the aesthitic benefits and physical limitations the original pieces invoke as well.


Thank you, standing patiently by for more.

The Tidewater Forge

Christopher Price, Bladesmith

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If any of you have the thought to make the trip to that site, I would encourage you ever so strongly to do so, it is incredible.

In no small part to Darrell's input I might add.


Instead of a hammerin in the spring maybe I should plan a field trip...


In any case, please, tell us more...



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Keep it coming, Darrell. You have always been too modest putting every other smelt-head in front of your own accomplishments in your write-ups. You deserve a front row as much as every one else. You have been there since this resurgence of iron/steel making started.

Enjoy life!

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I have to wonder how Dr. Wallace altered her perceptions and what triggered that that change in her thinking. I've found the relationship betwen smiths and archaeologists to be fruitful when both are open minded. Seems that way with you and the folks at L'Anse au Meadows. Please continue.

Shel Browder

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Shel has an excellent point. Since I am both a smith and an archaeologist I have run into some seriously odd theories from both directions, so to speak. I would have been right on top of the list of academics with crazy theories unsupported by empirical evidence if I had not followed the anvil, then the furnace, in fact. That whole weird and wild conflagration of knowledge has put me and many of the commenters on your first reply on a collision course with reality similar to yours at L'anse Aux Meadows this coming February in a little town that started as a bloomery/finery forge that has become a large tourist mecca for completely different reasons in the last several years. MUCH later in time, of course, but still there is the total disconnect with the initial ironmasters and the present-day folk who are trying to capitalize on their origins, with little to no idea of what is actually involved.


Long story best saved for talk over beverages, but you and Lee and Skip are the ones who lit the fire under me as an archaeologist to bridge the gap between the practical and the theoretical long before I met people who were smelting in my limited sphere of travel at the time; that is Mike Blue, Randal Graham, and Ric Furrer; followed closely by Jesus Hernandez and Walter Sorrels. Then Chris Price and I did some prospecting that didn't pan out, but that's yet another story...


The point I am whirling around wildly is that you (Darrell) had your boots on the ground first, from what I was seeing in the early days of the internet anyway. The mere fact that you were out there at freaking VINLAND of all places trying to replicate a bog ore smelt when I first discovered the 'net in 1995 absolutely curled my socks with the need to know more. I grew up on watered-down translations of the Vinland sagas and had always secretly planned to build a longship and re-take the place, and then the first day my work lab got a connection to the university's T-1 internet link (slower than you whippersnappers below the age of thirty can comprehend unless you still have dialup, though the fastest at the time) what do I find but this guy Darrell Markewitz and some bunch of Parks Canada folk have beat me to it because they knew what they were doing, and they were closer than I was! :lol:


In short, I owe you the beverage of your choice. Otherwise, I owe you more than that in that you and Lee and Skip made me realize it was still even possible to smelt iron with primitive equipment right here in North America, and for that you all bear a part of the responsibility for what I have become since 1995 when I had never yet hammered hot steel. Thus, as Jesus so eloquently said, let's have more! Your role in the Dark Age Rennaissance is more important than you may realize... but don't let that make you nervous or anything. B)

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I have to wonder how Dr. Wallace altered her perceptions and what

triggered that that change in her thinking. I've found the relationship

betwen smiths and archaeologists to be fruitful when both are open

minded. Seems that way with you and the folks at L'Anse au Meadows.


Thanks folks. This year has piled a lot of 'personal life' rocks on top of me, and hopefully into 2014 I will be starting to crawl back out from them.


Something Alan said about the interface between the archaeologist and the blacksmith.


Part A - what we got:


The original excavations at L'Anse aux Meadows, back in the 1960's, was a real mess in terms of who was involved and how things were carried out. Anne Stine Ingstad had been trained at university as an archaeologist, but actually at the time of the find was not *working* as an archaeologist. As word of the discovery got out, everyone internationally remotely interested at the time tried to get into the process. (I have seen film clips of 'ivory Tower' types, in suits, ties and dress shoes, being physically carried from small boats to shore on the backs of locals. At the time there was no road access to the site.)

At the very least, no one actually undertaking the first series of excavations had ever worked on a historic iron smelting site. At the time, no one had really undertaken a successful re-creation of a historic iron furnace either. (Near as I have been able to research, the first steps into experimental archaeology there look to be in the mid to late 1980's, and that pretty hit or miss as single attempts. Peter Crew from the UK mounted an extensive series in the early to late 1990's. Our own Sauder and Williams follow in the mid to late 1990's - but approaching from the 'working' direction.)

My friend (and mentor) Dr Birgitta Wallace was working on the original excavations as a graduate student. (So I have managed some inside information.)


One of the base problems with archaeology is that it is a destructive process. Typically you end up removing the very thing you are attempting to study in the process of recording it. So when you combine that with a group of people who don't know exactly what they are really looking at - things get lost or missed.


(I'm going to try to link over to a few images here - see it that works)


So this is what was recorded inside the Furnace Hut at LAM:




This is the remains of a high temperature fire base, indicated by burned charcoal. It is framed by several small stones and a partial ring of baked clay. The ground around it is dotted with primary bog iron ore (to the top right direction) and with small pieces of 'iron smelting slag' (mainly in a line towards the bottom).

The rough interior diameter of the fire base is 20 cm.

The clay crescent found is a mix of a local 'river' clay mixed with sand. (And no, Lee, there is no indication in any of the reports just what the mix might be.) There is a small clay bank exposed about 500 metres from the Furnace Hut. (I do have a small pail of this stuff from our 2012 trip out there, but have not done anything with it yet.)


You can clearly see that no actual structure of an iron smelting furnace itself actually remains. What was the height? Location or type of tuyere? Air system used?


The natural primary bog iron ore is under constant formation along the bog that sweeps upwards from the sea shore location of the occupation site, inland. Black Duck Brook cuts the bog, exposing beds of this ore here and there. The samples of ore from the excavations are quite rich in iron (range of 68 % Fe)


There was no differentiation made in the reports (or notes) for different *kinds* of slags. The total amount of slags (all kinds) recovered was "about 10 kg".

Now it is possible (theoretically) to estimate the yield from an individual iron smelt. You measure the various components of the starting ore. You measure the components in the slag formed. There will be a drop in iron content from the ore to the slag. You multiply the loss by the weight of slag = the 'missing' iron - so the bloom created.

First WAG : A loss factor of 5 kg was added to the amount of slag recovered (???) No actual slag bowl was recovered (The Furnace hut is about 10 feet from the edge of the brook - on the open side.)

Second WAG : Based on the photos (not the best, admittedly) I have seen, there was a quantity of both the green bubbly 'goo slag' as well as the later black liquid (iron rich) tap slag recovered. Only the iron rich slag is useful for the calculation. No separate record of the total amounts appears to have been made.

Running the math gave a WAG x WAG x % estimate of 3 kg for the bloom produced.


The most typical published estimate for the amount of ore used comes from adding the slag recovered, plus that error addition, plus the estimated bloom - to give an amount of 18 kg ore.


No specific consideration was made in any of the reports (confirmed by Birgitta Wallace) for the actual *bloom to bar* phase of the process. (At this point all fellow blacksmiths will be shaking their heads!)

It has been my personal observation that the remains at LAM are most likely the torn down base of the actual iron furnace, converted into a kind of 'deep dish' forge for heating the bloom to compact it into a working bar.

The 'actual bar to object' phase might not have taken place in the Furnace Hut at all. One of the house buildings has a fire that has traces of iron 'forge scale' around it.


At least one iron object, a nail, was found to have the identical trace element fingerprint as found on the bog ore from this location. This indicates at least that one nail was made from iron produced at LAM.



Also recovered on the overall site:


One of the three building complexes had a side room attached to the main building (indicated by wall foundations). This was open on one end - the end facing the natural beach (as it existed in 1000 AD). Imagine a modern 'car port' on the side of your house. This room also had a side door - opening off into the yard. Found in a spray shape from the interior, fanning out from the door opening were about 100 fragments of iron rivets and their associated rectangular roves (washers). These rivets were used to hold together the planking of a small (to fit the 'garage') boat. This all most certainly represents a large single repair event. The total mass of the combined pieces was : 3 kg.


Three kilo bloom = three kilo rivets & roves



(mull that over a bit, I'll finish this part of the tale later)

website: www.warehamforge.ca
Blog : http://warehamforgeblog.blogspot.com
(topics include iron smelting, blacksmithing, Viking Age)

NOTE : Any posted comments may be converted into a future blog article!
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Some apologies for the double posting - I'm having some connection problems.

Direct satellite uplink system here. Maybe early into the internet, but the rest of the world caught up and passed us rural folk here in Ontario.

This reflects back on something a couple of you mentioned - about visibility on the internet. Although I hardly am located in the 'back of beyond' (two hours drive NW of Toronto), it is a good 14 hours drive from 'Smelt Central' (Lee Sauder's in Lexington Virginia). The great strength of the internet is it allows so many of us 'on the margins' to participate directly with many scattered other people who we might otherwise never personally meet. Glimpsing finished work through those carefully selected (photoshoped?) images is never quite the same as holding a blade in your own hands...


Part 2 - She said, He said...


As I hinted in the last entry, the standard interpretation of the available archaeology as published by AS Ingstad was this:

There was a major boat repair (number of rivets)

This was a single repair event (location of fragments)

Weight of needed rivets equals estimated iron production

Therefore - A major repair was needed, so the Norse 'simply' smelted the iron needed


This was the standard information communicated by Parks Canada at the site.

When I first started working on the living history program there, I had a number of (friendly, sometimes over drinks) discussions with Dr Wallace about this.

My main discussion points / objections:

- Leif Eirikson was a second generation, professional, expedition leader. I just could not imagine that he would even remotely consider heading out into the unknown without taking along a bag of boat repair rivets. (Note that it is almost as far to sail from the Greenland settlement to LAM - as it is to sail back to Norway!)

- The evidence points to only a small boat being repaired. (The width of that 'garage' is less than 2 metres.) NOT a full sized, ocean going 'knarr' hull. Given the lack of building timber in Greenland, certainly valuable - but not what is getting you home from Vinland.

- How easy is it *really* to make iron? Was this general or specialized knowledge and skill? Would the Norse realistically expect to be able to smelt iron 'just anywhere'?

- What about the metal tools required to effectively make iron? If you were stuck needing a ship repair to get back home, would you not give up a sledge hammer (needed for bloom compaction, weight 3 - 5 kg) to make an emergency supply of rivets?


Those last two points were always the critical ones for me.

Most of you have noticed that the archaeologist's reports make a direct link from the 'production' estimate of 3 kg with a known weight in discarded rivets at 3 kg.


One question as a metalworker:

Might it not be a lot easier just to attempt to re-weld up those rivet pieces into some new source bars?

Now, I certainly have never personally tried this kind of thing. The pieces would certainly be heavily corroded, and that likely would really complicate any attempt to do this. (Those reading who have welded up cycle chains to billets might have observations?)


Clearly, the archaeologists missed entirely that a bloom is *not* a working bar.

Again, I don't think there is any good published information on this process. I certainly do not feel I have accumulated enough experience (much less documentation in terms of measurements) to offer any solid numbers. I think the best I have ever managed has been about a 20 % loss from bloom to bar.* (I will hope that some of you who work extensively with bloom iron will comment here!)

Any way you look at it, a 3 kg bloom does not equal 3 kg of finished rivets!


And just how good were those original Norse at the iron smelting process to begin with?

If you hold to the 3 kg bloom from that 18 kg of (good) ore - this is only a 17 % yield!

Not withstanding this is a small volume smelt and these usually produce lower yield numbers.


Honestly folks, when we undertook our demonstration smelt at LAM in 2010, I was kind of embarrassed by our own low return, at about 14%. (We got a fairly crumbly 2.8 kg bloom)

Mind you - after Birgitta had watched the amount of labour (all human powered air) and general rushing about (we had some burn through problems with the furnace) on that demonstration, she told me she had revised her opinions about just how 'simple' producing iron was for the Norse.


(for a more formal discussion of all this - go to my paper 'An Iron Smelt in Vinland - an experimental investigation')


I have always felt the iron smelting process was a specialist task. The general archaeology from the Viking Age places the iron smelting process as physically removed from the community in general. It is *ore* which is dictating the location of the production. Iron was (generally) smelted at remote locations, then either transported as compressed cakes or rendered down into fairly standard bars for sale to the actual blacksmiths. (So standard that these are known as 'currency bars'.)

The Norse are largely a society of reasonably isolated, large farmsteads. It is common for each to have at least a separate 'smithy' building. (Although how much and how often this might have been in operation is an open question. A well rounded 'occasional amateur'? Seasonal use by an intinerant professional smith?) The situation for iron smelting may be different in these locations.


But increasingly during the Viking Age, there is the development of trade based towns. (And this leads back to something you had mentioned Shel.) Here craftsmen are working in combination workshop / residences. Producing work for direct barter, or more and more, for sale against silver coins. (Just where all that 'Danegeld' was going!) These working blacksmiths are purchasing themselves the required raw materials for their trades. In this case the charcoal fuel for the forge and the iron working bars they need to produce objects.


So I guess that leads us (finally) back to the blacksmith - and bladesmith...

website: www.warehamforge.ca
Blog : http://warehamforgeblog.blogspot.com
(topics include iron smelting, blacksmithing, Viking Age)

NOTE : Any posted comments may be converted into a future blog article!
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Great stuff Darrell, in my experience I'd be very happy with a 20% loss from bloom to bar, mine is usually much worse, from rough estimates, I usually figure around a third is lost in "bloom to bar" sometimes a bit better, sometimes worse, depending on how it works





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Gang :
I had written a long spin off from Zeb's comment - which the Sprites of the Internet ate on me. (Maybe my own 'fault' for not composing this on a word program and then pasting the completed text to the board.) I got a bit defeated from loosing about two hours of work, and put off an entry for another day. This may be a blessing, as although the intent was good, the first content got bogged down into a lot of historic / technical stuff. And to top it off, I had a real Friday the Thirteenth kind of day - 2 hour drive to undertake an installation, only to leave a critical part laying at home on my work bench...


As this is a *bladesmithing* forum, I want to try to warp back towards some thoughts on cutting edges.

The very first things I forged out were knives. I (thankfully?) don't have images of most of those. Honestly, they were mostly pretty pathetic! The shapes were determined as much by the way I managed to butcher the steel with the hammer, as any prior intent to design. I still actually have one of my early pieces, about a 14 inch, very light weight double edge, forged from a large file.

I have always *forged* my blades. (I think there was one commission that was cut, drilled and ground - this a replica of a movie sword out stainless. A kind of silly design consisting of a long triangle shape with a long series of large diameter holes through the riccasso area.)

So this is the first dynamic for me : Creating blades has always been about the *forging process*, not the grinding and polishing.

I did drop away from blacksmithing for about five years in the early 1980's, mainly out of a lack of any kind of working equipment. (I was living in rented places in down town Toronto at that point.) I was doing a lot of costume jewelry at the time. Quite literally, as a good amount of it were things for SCA costumes. I was working as a casting technician at a dental lab. Both gave me at least the basics of fine metalworking. Regardless of this, I really have never been that interested in the *embellishment* of knife handles.

For me, cutting edges are primarily working tools. I do strive to make objects with beautiful lines, but at core each one has to function first.

This might mark one classic definition between 'Art' and 'Craft'.

website: www.warehamforge.ca
Blog : http://warehamforgeblog.blogspot.com
(topics include iron smelting, blacksmithing, Viking Age)

NOTE : Any posted comments may be converted into a future blog article!
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So, one last question Darrell. Was all of this, in your thoughts, much as was the iron making efforts at Jamestown, an expedition looking for useful resources?

Shel Browder

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I'm going to take this chance to stick in a bit of impression / interpretation / personal direction. (Promise I will address Shel's actual question next)

There are some radically different situations that did exist that in turn have marked the work of ancient and historic bladesmiths in comparison to we modern practitioners.
Although at core the basic dynamics of fire, metal and hammer remain the same for all workers at all times and all locations, there are many changes in form and detail into our modern age.

During the Saxon and Viking Age (so Northern Europe, say 600 - 1000 AD) the framework was this:

- Anvils were small. Typically 10 x 10 cm blocks (4 x 4 inches). The largest artifact found is from Novgrod, Russia, at only 15 kg (so 33 lbs).
The assumption has always been rough forging was done on large stone blocks. I personally am not convinced of this, after trying just that a few times. I had a two versions of the Novgrod anvil made up. The one I kept is mounted into a maple wood stubb that itself weighs about 75 lbs and allows me to work from standing. The stability comes from the stubb, not the anvil.
This most certainly changes the working ability, the complexity, of forging larger masses (axes) or longer objects (swords). I freely admit I personally have never attempted creating either using all VA equipment. I have forged any number of artifact sized knives quite effectively (typical seax blade is about 10 cm long btw).

- Forges are small. A side blast using charcoal, the fuel piled against a stone block to protect the bellows. Although this arrangement certainly can get hot enough for forge welding, the ball of heat is about 10 - 15 cm (4 - 6 inches) at maximum. In my (admittedly somewhat limited) experience, the challenge is keeping those temperatures up as the charcoal is so quickly consumed.
There is still a question to be examined in closer detail about how forges and anvils were positioned - and how this defines work stance. Stance will certainly effect work - how shapes might have been generated, ease of hammering, what kind of accessory tools might have been employed.
(Note to any looking for a PhD topic - it turns out that the bones of marked smith's graves, via the tools, have never been examined for stress / damage marks. There is a story about interface with archaeologists there, please cite me if you do a thesis.)

- Bellows are small. I have built a number of reconstructions based on the only references available from the VA itself. There are only two illustrations, no artifacts themselves survive (be so happy to be corrected on that!). There is the side view of working smith and forge on a wood carving from Norway. There is a top down view on a rune stone carving. Using the suggested sizes and proportions, the delivery volumes on the reconstructions are in the range of 120 to 130 litres per minute. This volume is perfectly fine for general blacksmithing using those same forges. (*) It is however almost an order of magnitude *less* than the air produced by the 'great bellows' system most of us are more familiar with.

- Source iron was inconsistent (!). This might be one of the biggest differences between Industrial Age, much less Modern, materials. The general progress through time in Europe is the development of smelting / bar production methods that were able to make larger volumes of more consistent quality metal (also with increasing efficiencies - thus at ever lower unit cost).
How easy was it to even access any carbon alloy iron?
I suspect 'standard' working practices of the Age might be as much a reflection of the random nature of every starting piece of metal, as anything else. Would you even be able to develop a normal method of heat treating - if every single piece of starting metal was completely different in texture and relative hardness?

One of the things that Ric Furrer's work has pointed out is that just what 'material processing' knowledge might have been available to a given Viking Age blacksmith is certainly *unknown*. How exactly were starting metal bars sourced? Were there Norse master swordmakers who knew about the deep hearth methods hinted at by Tim Young's Dublin finds? I've seen it suggested that the pattern welding process (here meaning 'twisted composite core') was in fact a process developed to take mediocre metal and create acceptable quality blades (rather than best to exceptional).

All things to bear in mind. More questions than answers!

Others have mentioned 'munitions grade weapons. Something to always remember is the 'accident of preservation' factor with any artifact. This can turn back to something asked / commented on by others : Will our current work survive us?
So much of what we know of about the past is shaped by the high quality, the status pieces, the master works. Luck aside, good quality work is treasured and protected.

Who knows, maybe in a 25th Century world of light sabres and blasters, those 'antique' blades (made by named and then unknown artisans) will come to vogue as sought after rarities...

(*) But if you build an 'accurate' reconstruction, those same bellows have not proved effective in producing a volume of air in an *iron smelting furnace*. At least not to be able to produce a bloom that matches the size, shape and density of those (addmittedly few) found as artifacts from the VA. I think there is a big mystery here, and this question has been driving my own experiments for the last couple of years.


I was going to nail a couple of images to this - but I'm away from home right now and can't make the computer hoodoo work for me. I'll try to get back later and edit the image in.

website: www.warehamforge.ca
Blog : http://warehamforgeblog.blogspot.com
(topics include iron smelting, blacksmithing, Viking Age)

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Great stuff Darrell!!

I too was drawn to your sites, over, and over, in my early days of blooming.
I even bought your DVD's :)
That info, was very helpful in my learning process.

What Alan, and Zeb, said above. Thanks for sharing!!



Mark Green


I have a way? Is that better then a plan?

(cptn. Mal)

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Still away from home - so as much as I really want to cut some images in here, the available computer systems are making that a bit difficult...





This is the wood carving (from about 1100) that I had mentioned. I have always assumed (WARNING) that the proportions of the hands to the other equipment is at least close to accurate. As Lee has pointed out - the heads are massive, and look at that hammer!




Shows a (speculative) sand table forge, the replica Novgrod anvil (some guy making a small brooch). Loosely based on the source above.





This is one of my (earlier) reconstructions of the bellows from the carving. The fabric is 1/2 inch squares. (Note that after this version, I dropped to only two leather lames rather than the three seen here.)





This is a group of replica currency bars (this set made for Parks Canada for LAM). These were forged down from different pieces of antique wrought iron (those with dates roughly from the 1860's). Note the great difference between the structure of the lowest bar and those closer to the top.


(I wanted to post up some images of a set of Norse shipbuilding axes I had done in 2008 - but from this location I can't get the images loaded up.)

website: www.warehamforge.ca
Blog : http://warehamforgeblog.blogspot.com
(topics include iron smelting, blacksmithing, Viking Age)

NOTE : Any posted comments may be converted into a future blog article!
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So, one last question Darrell. Was all of this, in your thoughts, much as was the iron making efforts at Jamestown, an expedition looking for useful resources?


To keep to the question (at least to start...)


A larger consideration of just what Leif Eirikson was attempting with his voyage(s) is critical to placing the whole Vinland adventure into a meaningful context.

His father, Eirik the Red, was described in the Sagas as first exploring, then organizing and establishing the *successful* Greenland colony : 'So he could be chieftain, and then himself be the one who decided who would be banished or not'. Remember that Eirik was called 'the Red' for his considerable violent temper, which had lead to 'killings' in both Norway, then Iceland, resulting in banishment from both.

Leif would have been a younger man on both these moves (Norway / Iceland / Greenland), and certainly serving as a second in command for the Greenland exploration and later colony establishment. The Greenland Norse certainly knew that there was territory to the west, unexplored but certainly glimpsed by travelers storm tossed on Iceland to Greenland voyages. The Saga tales certainly paint a picture of a family well known for exaggerate, bold in action, and seeking to establish their fame (and power). It would be perfectly natural for Leif to want to explore and place his hand print on new lands - and perhaps be just a wee bit 'generous' in his descriptions.

First thing to remember is that 'Vinland' is a *region* - not a single isolated place. When Leif speaks of his 'Land of Vines', he is in reality speaking of the entire modern Gulf of St Lawrence area of Canada. Newfoundland, the North Shore of Quebec, NE shore of New Brunswick. This last is proven by the find of three butternuts at LAM, a tree that has never grown further north than modern day New Brunswick. Significantly, wild grapes also are found in the same areas (grapes have never grown in Newfoundland).


The comparison here would be L'Anse aux Meadows is to Vinland as Jamestown would be to greater Virginia.


Unlike Jamestown, Leif never attempted to colonize Vinland, and 'Leif's Houses' at L'Anse aux Meadows is not a colony. The correct way to think of the place is as an outpost, a combination exploration base and lumber camp. Although there are hints in the Sagas that a farm settlement might have been attempted, the truth is that the young Greenland colony still had good land available, and itself was too small a population to support the effort needed.

Although the climate in Greenland (and throughout Northern Europe) was warmer in the Viking Age and Early Medieval periods, there was never any supply of timber on Greenland itself. Timber was needed to build houses in the Norse longhouse style, and also for ship construction. It has been demonstrated via dendrochronology that many of the building timbers used in Greenland over its 400 year active Norse occupation were in fact cut in what was called Markland (modern day Labrador)


Part of the set of Norse shipbuilding tools I made for LAM in 2008 (Blog Posting)


Unlike Jamestown, Leif's Vinland explorations were never intended as a commercial venture. The mechanic is more likely that individuals would have taken part on the voyages, trading their labour against a share of the actual logs harvested. Back to Greenland, they would then be able to build houses on their own farm holdings for growing families.


As with Jamestown, it is most likely (and my opinion, now shared by Dr Wallace) that the single iron smelt at LAM represents a resource test. A factor to consider is that although there is primary bog iron ore on Greenland, there is no wood suitable to generate the large volumes of charcoal required for bloomery iron smelting . Iron objects would remain one of the primary imports into Greenland for the entire life of the settlement.

It would be natural for Leif, eager to brag about the excellent qualities of his discovered lands, would want to add 'everything to make good iron' to the list. The fact that iron was *not* included to the list of : timber, fish, grain, grapes may be more significant.



Before the 2010 demonstration smelt - inside the reconstruction of the 'Furnace Hut' at LAM


The Norse at Greenland did go to the (considerable) effort of building a dedicated structure to house the iron smelting effort. The archaeologists kind of glossed over this labour, with a kind of 'of course they would do so'. Truth is that the weather at LAM is not *that* foul, and our own experience has certainly proven you can build a small bloomery furnace one day, then fire it the next. Couple this with the small amount of physical remains certainly suggesting only one smelt attempt was undertaken. Perhaps they had fully intended more production, but that first attempt was so marginal that they never duplicated the effort? Some things we can never really know.

website: www.warehamforge.ca
Blog : http://warehamforgeblog.blogspot.com
(topics include iron smelting, blacksmithing, Viking Age)

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I'm trying to set up the next person in the series. Might be a bit delayed considering the time of year!

I really did not get much of a chance to wax poetic about bladesmithing, so in the mean time, I thought I would shove in some past pieces with short comments. Mainly trying to use work that illustrate specific concepts or lessons.

Kitchen Knife - 1996 (about 11 inches overall)
About 225 layers, mild / wrought iron / 1095

I have always been most interested in the variations in patterning caused by the effect of the hand hammer on a layered steel billet. Creating random, rather than the regular and geometric, lines. My deep interest in Nordic artifact and design aside, the twisted diagonals of multiple core rods create lines that I find most desirable. (I certainly do appreciate the degree of control and precision required in Middle Eastern styles, they just do not appeal to me aesthetically.)

Years back, I had seen some artifact samples of one piece kitchen knives from Roman England in the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Add to this that I am not that interested in the jewellery like work demanded by ornamental hilting. I consider a good functional knife should have a heavy weight tang, which means covering over a big chunk of layered materials.

Put all these design concepts together, and what resulted was a series of one piece knives, many intended as heavy kitchen knives.


'Sword of Heroes' - 2000 (22 inch blade)
Two nine layer cores with spring steel edges
Hilt is forged steel guard, moose antler, with cast in place pewter pommel weight.

(Yes, those are welding flaws to those looking closely!)

I had been making a lot of pattern welded knives into the 1980's and 90's - with good success with the welds. In arrogance, I thought I was able to move to sword sized lengths. To double the presumption, I accepted a commission for a 2/3 scale version of the Sutton Hoo sword. (eight *complex* twisted cores with 150 layer edges)
Wrong, wrong, and wrong.
Six weeks of work to the quench. A sharp crack.
I ended up with an eight inch knife.

Oh - by the way:
Don't attempt to do long complex welds in an unheated shop - in what turned out to be the coldest winter here in 150 years...


'Wedding Sgin Dubh' - 2006 (5 1/2 inch blade)
About 260 layers of mild / L6 / wrought iron / 1095
Handle of bog oak (2000 year old Roman dock from London)

Layered steels certainly look great, but straight carbon steel will give a much better *working* edge. My personal approach is to make the back half of the blade of twisted rods, and the edge side of two layered slabs with a solid carbon steel core. The two separate pieces then are welded together to make the starting billet. This maybe adds an extra step, but I think gives a better *functioning* blade.





'Hectors Bane' - 2012

Bloom iron with spring steel core (about 11 inches)


I know I have been strongly influenced by the work and concepts of Lee Sauder. A bit of the similarity of approach may also lie with our shared feeling about to the whole 'art and mystery' of bloomery iron.

I also think that the raw and fractured edges of a parent bloom are an important part of the intrinsic nature of the material.

I have far more raw blooms than consolidated billets, fewer still are the billets that have been worked into objects. Most of the completed objects so far have been simple historic based pieces.


I am quite torn right now on this - how best to utilize my iron blooms. Refining this material, so massively difficult to create, down to perfectly consistent working bars, seems pointless to me (Sorry to some of my research partners and friends reading). The intrinsic quality of bloomery iron is hidden in that perfection.

Sad truth is that within blacksmithing overall, the single best way to turn the effort of all our work is through creating highly ornamented knives. I'm still struggling with all this - the best way to turn the unique qualities of bloomery iron into decorative objects that can both reflect their unique origin, but also command the $$ value that would attempt to provide for all that specialized work.

I hope everyone, with all our different personal paths, are able to finally put up the hammer for a couple of days, and sit back with a beverage of choice. Try to reflect on just how much you have actually *done*, not just the long list of what still remains to be tackled. (And boy, I wish I could be better at taking my *own* advice!)

website: www.warehamforge.ca
Blog : http://warehamforgeblog.blogspot.com
(topics include iron smelting, blacksmithing, Viking Age)

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  • 2 weeks later...



No - I have not *really* dropped the ball!

This is a hard time of the year to pin people down, with the combination of rushing out gift orders - then collapsing into friends and family for a well earned rest. I've got requests out to a couple of possible makers for the next interview, just waiting to hear. (May come down to who gets back to me first?)


A teaser, from my (small!) last year's work:






What best should be considered an 'interpretation' of an original (likely early 1700's) French Trade Axe I have. My version is forged from self made bloomery iron, with an inset carbon steel edge. (These images straight from the forge).

I intentionally halted the bloom to bar step one weld short of 'perfect'. This to allow some of the imperfections from the bloom iron to remain - identifying the special material used.


Stay tuned - I hope to get this interview series running with new blood by the end of this week...

website: www.warehamforge.ca
Blog : http://warehamforgeblog.blogspot.com
(topics include iron smelting, blacksmithing, Viking Age)

NOTE : Any posted comments may be converted into a future blog article!
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Sorry for the slight pause here. The holiday period slowed communications to a crawl. I also was at a bit of a loss as to who to approach next. Many of the actual bladesmiths that I know well have already been participants (Jake, Jesus, Jim and Jeff all coming to mind). I had approached Antoine Marcal from Quebec, the 'other Canadian' who works with bloomery iron, and primarily a knife maker. but his personal life is pretty busy right now.

So I thought to cast the net further. I thought maybe enlisting someone from Europe might be interesting. To that purpose, I have asked Thijs van de Manakker (from the Netherlands).



I know Thijs from his interest and work with historical iron smelting, mainly from shared e-mails. He was part of the Early Iron discussion group that was active more in the early to mid 2000's. Again not primarily a knifemaker, Thijs does have access to, and excellent knowledge of, artifact samples of interest to many reading here. I have been particularly struck how he uses ancient objects as inspiration points in his own creative work.

So, Thijs, the normal starting point is to ask you to give us a brief background on your history as metalworker - and how you first got interested in blacksmithing.

website: www.warehamforge.ca
Blog : http://warehamforgeblog.blogspot.com
(topics include iron smelting, blacksmithing, Viking Age)

NOTE : Any posted comments may be converted into a future blog article!
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Thank you Darrell and hello to every body,


here's my story:

Born in 1949 in Asten, a small village in the south of the Netherlands, at a very young age I already was busy creating, at first, mainly with sand,
in the sandbox, but soon I discovered all the other materials wich can inspire a creative human being.
When I was 19, I stopped my study medicine at the University of Amsterdam.
With thirty guilders in my pocket, I went on a world tour on foot.
Along the way I had all kinds of jobs to make a living.
I worked with charcoal burners, helped a travelling coppersmith tinning the pots, pushed two-wheeled trolleys, gave money changers customers on the black market, harnessed new ropes on beds and a lot of other jobs I forgot.
The job I'll never forget was at an inn annex wheelwright shop at the foot of the Himalayas.
The owner made me forge ox shoes in the back of his shop and there I had my first experience with glowing iron and got fascinated.
As soon as the innkeeper noticed white Sir's hammering was attracting people, he put me along the road in front of his inn and two months later, I had to leave his place like a thief in the middle of the night, avoiding a marriage with his daughter.
Some years later, back in the Netherlands, I founded my smithy in Helenaveen in the midle of a swamp called De Peel and earned my living with it.
I had no master, my guru was Fritz Kühn.
In the beginning I forged the usual assortment: railings, gates, hinges, weather-vanes, fire tools etc.
Meanwhile I travelled around with a mobile smithy to fairs, city and harbor festivals
and all other kinds of circus amusement.
Hundred thousands of people I showed the glowing iron, from the Kielerwoche to the christmas fair in Leverküsen and from Luxemburg to the Gentse feesten.
In 1985 I fell two thousend years back in time through a wormhole called: "Eversham"
and my product changed a bit
In 2006 I was kicked out the wormhole again back into reality.
After that I made some bigger grave monuments and was acting in a few films.
In between still making knifes in regular series of approx 50 pieces, shears, fire strikers and what ever comes up and triggers me.
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