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Christopher Price

Knifemaker Interview Series, a biography workshop

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We will continue next week after the Badger Knife Club show in Janeseville, Wisconsin, which is this weekend. Don't miss it if you are in driving distance, it is a great show !

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Ok my apologies for the delay. I am always behind again after a show.

 

Next victim :ph34r: , er, interview : Mike Blue

 

How did you get interested in smithing in the first place ? What made you want to do this ?

 

That ought to get things rolling, and we will wing it from there, all right guys ?

Edited by Howard Clark

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Sounds good! Mike I cannot wait to hear your answers!

Edited by Sam Salvati

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Howard you've patiently put up with my stories for many years. But if you want me to inflict this on the rest of these guys, it's on your head. Tighten up your garters girls, here we go...

 

All this from a guy who never had shop class.

 

1984-5, California, Bay Area and I was practicing a family martial art when the old man one day said to all, "You guys suck, you won't know how to use a sword until you've made one." Or words to that effect. We jumped to business, each of us trying to acquire the knowledge to put a blade together. There were a couple fellows who had some informal knife making experience, David Boye's book and that helped prime the pump. The search for help let to several shops in the City that sold swords and one question after another of these not so patient nihonto collector folks led to the name Bob Engnath. I tracked him down give him credit for being the first full time knife maker I ever met and one of the best teachers and all around gentleman anyone ever knew. He pretty much taught me to grind over the phone. That led to several expeditions to Anaheim to visit and soak up as much as could be had. He was a great man and sorely missed.

 

So I started this path as an end user of blades and delved first into stock removal. I had some good experience making the product go to work but had no concept of what went into the piece. The first grinder I ever owned was a little 1 by 42 belt drive with a router motor plugged in. A2 was my first steel. I could rip the grit off a belt in less than 20 seconds. I made a lot of small utilities and camp knives getting used to that little ripper and basic heat treatment. Bob knew where I wanted to go as a long term goal, and I lived out of his catalog trying to get the most basic finish on things. He finally sent me some 1060 flats to start working out longer blades. I got two to three to actually look okay given the horrible little tools I had. Another trek to Anaheim and more time with Bob watching him work out the first sets of clay coated blades he made. I let him heat treat the two best of the bunch I had done. Back home and patient work with files and chisels and I worked up a pretty fair mount that I thought would survive a workout. Primitive but serviceable. One of those went with me to the Big Island and proved several things. I could cut satisfactorily, and the blade survived the one attempt of another student to cut, before it bent. I straightened it back out over my knee.

 

By this point a year later, I was getting some heat from SWMBO about the grinding belt budget, and the noise. Bob, being ever insightful, suggested that if I wanted to save money on belts and learn more about the sword, that I should look into smithing. My buddy and I began to search the Bay Area for smiths. I got to visit Klockar's forge downtown and while impressed by the big giant iron beasts in residence, truly I had no idea what I was looking at. I was able to attend part of the first Marin County demonstration by the folks that eventually became known from Kopp's book The Craft of the Japanese Sword. I knew then that they were making a sword, but couldn't have explained any of it except in the coarsest of concepts.

 

My buddy and I burned the bottom out of his old barbecue grill trying to forge copper with a hair dryer, a claw hammer and a piece of railroad track. I have to say that the smiths we did encounter were a little rough on newbies and we found little real help. It's a very much different era in this day.

 

Then the wheel turned and it was time to head back to the corn patch. Once settled into Des Moines, aka Dead Moines (okay for those of you who are geographically challenged, it's right near the middle of nowhere, but you can see that from any tall tree nearby), I never really forgot the search for smithing experience. However, one day, I took my daughters out to a nice venue called Living History Farms to see a city orchestra concert that they got tickets to. Walking down the main street of a very nice recreation of a frontier farm town, I had this persistent ringing in my ear that turned out to be the music of the local smithy. They wandered off to listen to the other concert and I stayed in the smithy and promptly volunteered to work there. I put in most of seven years working there as a demonstrator on weekends or the summer.

 

That first whole summer was spend working in the shop with a good teaching smith. All the basic tool work, everything from the ground up. We had to repair anything broken iron on all the farm sites. We set wagon tires and did a lot of simple demonstration work and historical interpretation for the folks walking through the place. Each weekend there were several older smiths who volunteered their time and showed us worker bees how to do more decorative techniques. At that time, there were about five or six smiths of any talent in Iowa. Now there's about fifty.

 

About all I could get from them about making knives was the idea that "a chisel, which you've made many, is a long tool with the edge perpendicular to the long axis of the tool. A knife is a tool with the edge parallel to the long axis of the tool. Now go make one." I kept pestering these guys with deeper better questions about making blades and heat treatment (What the oil bucket ain't enough? and Don't quench that in water, it'll break.). Finally, months later, one of them had heard of some fellow living SE of Des Moines that was rumored to make a knife or two. A little detective work and I found Howard. Now, just so you have a perspective, this was when Howard's biggest hammer was a 50 lb Little Giant. Been friends ever since.

 

From there the disease of steel eventually supplanted the other martial skills although I kept teaching with the old man's permission for quite awhile.

 

Okay, that's the short version.

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Nice. You know I think we Bay Area transplants make the best smiths..... :-)

 

Dan

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Yeah, like how does a doctor get to be a smith ? Or maybe better, how do the two things compliment or conflict with one another ?

 

I dunno why I have to recite all this stuff, Howard, you already know the story! <_< But that's okay, I know a couple other doctors that're smiths. Maybe I'll pick on one of them next...

 

I was a nurse for eighteen years before I went to med school. A good job, straight hours and always a shortage of help so there was never any lack of work. But that's a whole different world dealing with the aches and pains of humanity. I started smithing somewhere in the middle of that, so I didn't have any of the medical entanglements for distractions during the early days. Hopping and skipping around a mat kept me active and really started the "look inward."

 

If I had to say there was something in common with smithing and the more meditative arts that would be the concept. You're alone, isolated in the shop, working on something challengingly artistic. All the common attacks that life can do to interrupt you are there in the shop. You either get frustrated and quit or you overcome. You learn patience, quiet, anticipation of mistakes all the good stuff. And you better learn to observe what's immediately in front of you because the action can be anything from subtle like recalescence, or brutal, like a fifteen pound billet at 2300 degrees F landing on your shirt because your stub weld was crap...

 

Med school was also an overcoming. Once upon a time, I'd failed the requisite chemistry classes and allowed myself to maintain the illusion that I wasn't good enough to get in for far too long. Eventually when I fully realized what I wanted to be when I grew up, I applied to med school and damned if I didn't get in. Sometimes I think if God really loved me I wouldn't have. That was also the fault of some very dedicated professors of education who had wrestled with me through most of a PhD in Education. But the lesson for all, is go for your dream. You might not be happy in the end, but you'll be satisfied that you are living up to your potential.

 

I had a hard time giving up getting smelly and sweaty and dirty. I suppose I could have done that playing golf, but I am allergic to the game, no, psychologically abused by it as a youth when I would have rather been crawling through the woods or gutting some fresh caught walleyes or bass or shooting skunks in the local dump, yeah those things. I mean Medicine is so clean and sterile, there's nothing left in it for boys.

 

The art of human behavior, that's the bridge.

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Ok, how about this.

 

What made you decide to pursue smelting from ore as a means to the end, when you can get perfectly good steel off the rack ? And how will you know if you got it right, when there is so much variation in the ancient Japanese weapons ?

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Ok, how about this.

 

What made you decide to pursue smelting from ore as a means to the end, when you can get perfectly good steel off the rack ? And how will you know if you got it right, when there is so much variation in the ancient Japanese weapons ?

 

Yea Mike....I wanna know that too.... :unsure:

I did not know about your early history in Cali...it explains some things...like why you don't give up....

 

Ric

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And the answers aren't just for Howard, they're for the rest of us. I hope he asks some probing ones, knowing what to dig for to get the really interesting stuff out there for us.

 

Great trip so far! Thank you!

Edited by Christopher Price

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What made you decide to pursue smelting from ore as a means to the end, when you can get perfectly good steel off the rack ? And how will you know if you got it right, when there is so much variation in the ancient Japanese weapons ?

 

That was a few years ago, just about the time someone perfected making relatively indestructible swords. I'd pushed for years to put an end to the myth that a blade could not be hard and tough at the same time. Someone figured out the right combination of steel and heat treatment. As an end-user, having seen the solution to the equation, there weren't any goals left to attain at the time. It was frustrating for a while not having anything left to do. I don't quite remember exactly (Halfzheimer's disease) whether it was you or Bill Fiorini that suggested working up steel in the old fashioned way. I got the bug anyway.

 

No matter, I got connected with Professor Potratz at the University of Minnesota and found another goal. However, it brings building the sword to the ultimate conclusion. I remember many a time talking with Bob Engnath about what the best steel was for swords. No one could get the real stuff from Japan and there weren't that many smiths capable of making swords of the stuff in the US. He settled on 1060 and that's a good working material. The Professor was working out of the iron art department and had made connections with the smelting centers in Japan already. So I volunteered to chop charcoal and help out. I got in on some iron pours partly because I wasn't afraid of the heat. There is also something quite mesmerizing about the surface pool of an iron puddle by the way.

 

Tamahagane has its place in the strong art/weapon tradition and culture of Japan. No other group has made any other type of steel "official" to the same degree. But there are critics of it and some of it is well deserved from our current ability to control alloys. It would be simpler, easier, and a lot less expensive to just use rack steel. For the most part, there would be a lot better control over chemistry too from a heat treatment perspective. But I think the use of this steel, made within the constraints of their meditative or spiritual traditions that are pretty much applied to all their crafts, is required. That way all the materials, the craftsmen, the entire sword contains the best efforts of everyone involved.

 

The variation problem is always going to be there. As with wootz or other homemade materials the ore source varies in the minor alloying elements depending on where it was mined. During the construction of all those swords there was no technology to help them develop the chemistry. The smiths/polishers were still using color and strength and cutting ability to judge superiority of the steel or the hand of the smith. It wasn't until WW2 or shortly after that any chemical studies of the swords from Japan were done. In that way the industrial revolution helped expand knowledge about steel generally and answered some of the mysteries about mysterious blades.

 

My list for judging "right" is spark, crystalline appearance, colors in fractured sections. Polishing sections tells me if the bloom achieved liquidus in the center with dendritic formations similar to wootz. The short lessons I got from the master smelter were more focused on color and crystalline appearance and those have held true for the most part. So far, I have had satisfactory feedback from some knowledgeable folks that I'm on the right track. But I'm still learning to run the fire.

 

There are a lot of variables in that process that I have not yet reached comfort with. I have extended my goals to learning how to control the burn in all conditions so that when I get to the point of satisfaction, I will be able to run a fire anytime and the product will be consistently a good bloom with the right amount of carbon. Frankly the minor alloying elements really don't crank me up that much. But there will always be a threat to the validity of this experiment because we will not be using the same ore sources or the ore won't have "all the right parts" to be a nihonto. Those critics won't be smiths.

 

Knowing what I do about chemistry, it would be easy to salt the bloom with some modern grain refiners, but I really enjoy the natural aspect of getting carbon and iron to combine into steel without trying to hit some specification.

 

Sit down and enjoy the fire...

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Hope y'all notice that Howard and I are very comfortable just sitting and watching the fire, practicing mindfulness. Or fishing, or sitting in the woods. Maybe he'll remember that the questions are for you guys and ask me something he knows already.

 

But, let me expand on something that I value about this craft, actually any part of it and see what reaction there is among the crowd. There have been some suggestions with regard to the economy and financial aspects of the work. But I would hope that there would be an equal, maybe more than equal, attempt by any of the craftsmen here to work on the inside of their heads as well. More along the lines of becoming comfortable in your own skin. I find a ready connection between improving oneself and improving one's skills. I know any number of knife buyers who have a better reaction to a piece when they know the maker, it certainly helps when that knowing is positive. Maybe it's nothing, maybe it's not.

 

It one thing to learn tool operations and processes, but those are sterile, repeatable, mindless functions that do not involve the human spirit (not religion). There are folks that say that one maker's work feels different than another's, or that a blade feels "alive" and another not so. What's that involve? There are certainly old legends in multiple cultures (Japan, China, Nepal, Europe) that follow similar trains of thought. I don't think that those other or older cultures have any complete ownership of the phenomena.

 

I know I've made a couple blades during periods of stress or anger that took on a decidely different feeling than other blades I've made. Is that me being superstitious? Do I want a negative piece like that even going out the shop door? The answer for me is to work on myself during the process. Meditation does not require sitting still. Dealing with my anger before picking up a piece of steel and the hammer can then easily be transferred to not being angry when picking up a child, or talking to someone else. Just as easily, emptying myself of other emotions and engaging a positive thought process, may be more effective in the long run, because the changes reflected in the steel and blades will be the result of me improving over time. I still might die because that 100 lb LG spring decides to let go despite my good thoughts about it, but won't I have lived better?

 

Y'all tell me, How does that fit into understanding the craft?

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I think you're onto something. Please continue.

 

I was once asked if a blade could be made "with intent". I wasn't quite sure then what the question meant, but over time I think what you just described gets closer.

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Nice thoughts, Mike.

 

I think you're onto something, and it's one of those things that makes earning a living in the craft difficult. While focusing on the need to treat what I do as a 'real job,' I must also be mindful that there are times when I'm just not present enough for certain tasks. It takes a lot of self-awareness and honest introspection. I have learned the hard way when to recognize that I shouldn't be in the studio. It's too easy to undo weeks of work in a moment of inattention.

 

Christopher, I think 'intent,' is what separates those who do things like forge-welding without thought from those who struggle to effect their will.

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...I think 'intent,' is what separates those who do things like forge-welding without thought from those who struggle to effect their will.

 

It's a clear challenge to get it right. However it begins with paying attention, catching yourself not paying attention over and over again, and then evolves until it's something you "just do" when it becomes a habit. The self-examination is a critical skill. Without it the inside doesn't adapt successfully even though the outside is growing in technical skill, there's an absence of heart/spirit.

 

Reading Chris' reference to intent, I remember watching over Daryl Meier's shoulder at a hammerin a few years ago when someone asked what you have to have to be good at forge welding. His answer was "confidence." He's right. You can force intent, but you can't force confidence. Or perhaps the confidence is an extension of the will that does not require forcing anything...

 

I'm still working on this stuff myself. It spices life up just a bit. We aren't just a bunch of fat old men sitting around watching a fire after all... :rolleyes: , we only appear to be undisciplined. :lol:

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Thanks, Mike, that's nifty. I too find that when I'm "in the groove," so to speak, my work in the shop becomes a moving meditation and reality gets kind of Yoda-shaped.

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Meditation does not require sitting still.

 

A handful of Buddhist schools believe that every action we take can (should) be meditation. I've found that my reasons for smithing have evolved in the few years that I've been doing this. At first it was a primal act- almost mindlessly beating on a piece of hot metal trying to bend it to my will. Now my smithing (and shooting and driving...) are meditations that let me forget whatever problem is irritating me as I focus on the project at hand.

 

Thank you for sharing with us.

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Hope y'all notice that Howard and I are very comfortable just sitting and watching the fire, practicing mindfulness. Or fishing, or sitting in the woods. Maybe he'll remember that the questions are for you guys and ask me something he knows already.

 

But, let me expand on something that I value about this craft, actually any part of it and see what reaction there is among the crowd. There have been some suggestions with regard to the economy and financial aspects of the work. But I would hope that there would be an equal, maybe more than equal, attempt by any of the craftsmen here to work on the inside of their heads as well. More along the lines of becoming comfortable in your own skin. I find a ready connection between improving oneself and improving one's skills. I know any number of knife buyers who have a better reaction to a piece when they know the maker, it certainly helps when that knowing is positive. Maybe it's nothing, maybe it's not.

 

It one thing to learn tool operations and processes, but those are sterile, repeatable, mindless functions that do not involve the human spirit (not religion). There are folks that say that one maker's work feels different than another's, or that a blade feels "alive" and another not so. What's that involve? There are certainly old legends in multiple cultures (Japan, China, Nepal, Europe) that follow similar trains of thought. I don't think that those other or older cultures have any complete ownership of the phenomena.

 

I know I've made a couple blades during periods of stress or anger that took on a decidely different feeling than other blades I've made. Is that me being superstitious? Do I want a negative piece like that even going out the shop door? The answer for me is to work on myself during the process. Meditation does not require sitting still. Dealing with my anger before picking up a piece of steel and the hammer can then easily be transferred to not being angry when picking up a child, or talking to someone else. Just as easily, emptying myself of other emotions and engaging a positive thought process, may be more effective in the long run, because the changes reflected in the steel and blades will be the result of me improving over time. I still might die because that 100 lb LG spring decides to let go despite my good thoughts about it, but won't I have lived better?

 

Y'all tell me, How does that fit into understanding the craft?

 

Enjoying this conversation very much. Keep going :)

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Hope y'all notice that Howard and I are very comfortable just sitting and watching the fire, practicing mindfulness. Or fishing, or sitting in the woods. Maybe he'll remember that the questions are for you guys and ask me something he knows already.

 

But, let me expand on something that I value about this craft, actually any part of it and see what reaction there is among the crowd. There have been some suggestions with regard to the economy and financial aspects of the work. But I would hope that there would be an equal, maybe more than equal, attempt by any of the craftsmen here to work on the inside of their heads as well. More along the lines of becoming comfortable in your own skin. I find a ready connection between improving oneself and improving one's skills. I know any number of knife buyers who have a better reaction to a piece when they know the maker, it certainly helps when that knowing is positive. Maybe it's nothing, maybe it's not.

 

It one thing to learn tool operations and processes, but those are sterile, repeatable, mindless functions that do not involve the human spirit (not religion). There are folks that say that one maker's work feels different than another's, or that a blade feels "alive" and another not so. What's that involve? There are certainly old legends in multiple cultures (Japan, China, Nepal, Europe) that follow similar trains of thought. I don't think that those other or older cultures have any complete ownership of the phenomena.

 

I know I've made a couple blades during periods of stress or anger that took on a decidely different feeling than other blades I've made. Is that me being superstitious? Do I want a negative piece like that even going out the shop door? The answer for me is to work on myself during the process. Meditation does not require sitting still. Dealing with my anger before picking up a piece of steel and the hammer can then easily be transferred to not being angry when picking up a child, or talking to someone else. Just as easily, emptying myself of other emotions and engaging a positive thought process, may be more effective in the long run, because the changes reflected in the steel and blades will be the result of me improving over time. I still might die because that 100 lb LG spring decides to let go despite my good thoughts about it, but won't I have lived better?

 

Y'all tell me, How does that fit into understanding the craft?

 

Enjoying listening in on this conversation very much. Keep going :)

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I dunno what else to ask ? I doubt I would make a good reporter.

 

Think anybody will still care in another 500 years, Mike ? Or will all traces of our work have vanished as obsolete, quaint tools of a past that is no more ?

 

How ya likin' it now, eh :D

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I dunno what else to ask ? I doubt I would make a good reporter.

 

Think anybody will still care in another 500 years, Mike ? Or will all traces of our work have vanished as obsolete, quaint tools of a past that is no more ?

 

How ya likin' it now, eh :D

 

I do hope not; the works i've seen you people produce are the best i've ever seen.

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Think anybody will still care in another 500 years, Mike ? Or will all traces of our work have vanished as obsolete, quaint tools of a past that is no more ?

 

That could be interesting since it depends on the future. It seems as if there have been multiple generations of makers in the last forty years and most of them maybe only vaguely remembered. I wonder what the half-life of a knifemaking generation is? Much less 500 years...I don't see any of my pieces in a museum, unless they are confused with other artifacts.

 

If there was a technological breakdown and bladed weapons came back into fashion, perhaps some trace will remain. Maybe not the irons themselves but legends about how mythical blades were fashioned. Then perhaps we'll be remembered as the ancients and the stuff we knew will be lost.

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Howard seems to be running out of steam, so let me pitch a couple more your way before you find a new victim, please.

 

Given your research into the archeology of steel production, do you think those 500+ years from now will find us anachronistic when paired with the vaunted "information age", or misplace us in history altogether?

 

Given your knowledge of chemistry (inorganic, specifically), your experience with the smelters you've built, and modern measurement technology, what would it take to thoroughly understand the dynamic environment in the hearth of a steel-producing furnace? Do you think it's possible given enough money and expertise, or are we still at a dead-end 4000 years into the making of metal this way on fully understanding it?

 

Besides the element of Zen you've described, the meditative quality of bladesmithing, what goals do you pursue in your craft? Is there a certain look or feel to your work you're still striving for, a standard to be reached, or is it just a pleasant journey with no firm target in sight? What bladesmithing accomplishment would make you sit back and say, "well it doesn't get much better than that"?

 

 

Thanks for sharing everything you have so far, you're a deeply appreciated friend on this board to many, and to me in particular. I hope one day I can bring so much and take so little from a conversation.

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