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Christopher Price

Knifemaker Interview Series, a biography workshop

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Ric,

I used to take commission work but found that people wanted the same styles they had seen me do before. I got to a three year waiting list and yes, I did feel trapped by commissions. It limited my ability to explore so I stopped taking commissions about seven years ago. There are so many more intriguing historical pieces out there than are pictured in books. I feel the need to challenge myself in the projects that I take on. I like unique pieces and blades with complex cross-sections. I would like to venture further into the realm of embellishment to compliment my blade work.

 

The current projects that I choose are pieces that intrigue me and hopefully push my skills to the next level. A piece needs to “speak to me” for me to do my best work. I feel that the type of work that I have done over the years has been evolving from just making knives to almost more of an expression of art. For many years I resisted the label of “artist,” but I think that eccentric artist character is in my blood!

 

In general, when I plan projects I don’t set any specific time limits on completion. I sometimes have blades that lay around the shop for years because I have lost interest in them. The only projects that have a set completion date are pieces going to the Atlanta Blade Show and I normally start planning for that a year in advance.

 

 

J. Loose, thank you. I admire your work.

 

Vince

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Vince,

We all have more than a passing interest in this craft, but if I may talk about the great unmentionable....making one's passion actually pay the bills. I do not want this to get into specific dollar amounts, but your work is among the best out there for historical themes and you are both well liked and well respected..so...to be blunt...how's business? After so many years is the passion paying the bills and how long did it take to get settled? I would guess that many years were "lean" and the fortitude to push on when faced with lean times and not quitting says a lot for one's passion....or perhapse one's fractured mental state depending on the person.

Feel free to decline to answer.

 

Ric

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Ric,

I’ve been a full time maker now for about 27 years and have had many, many more lean years than not. I’d say it took about 17-18 years of just barely scraping by before I felt like I was making a living. My wife works with me so we don’t have any outside income. There were times that I thought about getting a “real” job, but like several others here, I’m probably unemployable. The reality of my choice to be a sword maker is not glamorous. I can tell stories of scrounging around the house for loose change to buy groceries… Mortgages are still due whether a customer pays on time or whether you had any income that month… Also, when “life” happens (forest fires, floods, family illnesses, etc.) you end up losing months of work time with bills but no income.

 

Even today, I may still go for 3-4 months with no income while I’m working on projects for a show. As you can testify, in this business there is no guaranteed paycheck twice a month. You have to make the good months carry you through the slow months. If my goal was to make money, there are a lot of easier ways to make a living. The term, “poor, starving artist” didn’t come about by chance. The trade off for me is that I have more freedom, but with that freedom comes the need to be disciplined. I work roughly 8am-5pm, six days a week, evenings are family time and Sunday is a day of rest.

 

On the average I complete about 16 pieces a year, this includes small knives, dirks and swords. I like to put more work into each piece than my customers are expecting for the price because I enjoy surprising them with that little extra something. I wouldn’t be in this field if I was in it for the money. I think the artistic nature and the passion that I have for what I am doing, compels my need to create. I don’t expect to get rich as a maker, I do it for the love of it.

 

Vince

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Vince,

Thank you for your candor and willingness to answer the hard questions.

 

Not wanting to end this interview on a "just work hard and be true to yourself" cliché (even though that works more than not)...

 

Where do you see yourself going in the future? You have covered most of the world sword traditions and the not-so-easy blade profiles....what does the future hold for those of us who follow your work?

 

And with that I wish you well and thank you for your time.

I look forward to your next selection.

 

Ric

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I hope I am not intruding, but I only have one question Vince. You mentioned you had been working with swords starting with the restoration work and then moved into making your own full size blades, was that your first choice as a job for life? Did you ever imagine you would be making swords for a living when you were a kid?

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Ric,

My sights are set on doing composite pattern welded Indonesian and Moro kris, another Migration era or early Anglo Saxon sword, and someday a piece inspired by Imperial Chinese swords. I am currently working on another Turkish kilij. I always have other ideas bouncing around in my head but I’m not sure when I’ll get to them…a Mongolian sword; a Barong; pattern welded axes, spears, adzes,… Some ideas sit on the back burner for years.

 

 

Hi Sam, I actually only worked for someone else for six months after I got out of high school. Since my parents were both artists and I grew up in the art community, I didn’t know any better and followed in their footsteps and became self-employed at age 18.

 

As a kid I liked paleontology but when you’re growing up on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it seemed like a far fetched idea. My mother started out as a commercial artist before moving to fine arts so I briefly considered studying commercial art but never pursued it. In hindsight I can see that most artists struggle to make a living. It’s not a lifestyle that I would have chosen had I known the difficulties involved but as a kid I couldn’t see what my parents went through.

 

I did work in my dad’s shop off and on as a teenager so metal working was familiar to me but not something I consciously thought of pursuing. So, to answer your question, I don’t think I thought about being a sword maker or restorer, it just kind of happened that way.

 

 

If there aren’t any other questions, we will move on to the next gentleman to be interviewed.

 

Thanks,

Vince

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I have the privilege of interviewing my friend Jesus Hernandez. I had the opportunity to meet Jesus at Jim Batson’s hammer-in this last April and enjoyed our conversation.

 

Jesus, could you tell us a little about your background and what led you onto the path of bladesmithing.

 

Vince

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Allright! I was wondering when Jesus' name would come up.

 

:D

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Vince, thank you for asking me to participate in this interview series. I have long admired your work. I have been enjoying reading through these posts. It is like being allowed a peak into the life of other folks that so vehemently share the same passion but who can otherwise be so different and how they came to meet on the same trail.

A little about my background. I was born in Spain, in a little town called Zamora and those who have read about “El Cid” may recall references to this city in his biography. As a kid I was fascinated by reading about Arthur’s Excalibur. These days I want to believe that Arthur’s pulling Excalibur from the rock represents the process of smelting steel from ore. Before I read about Excalibur I was playing in the school yard wielding an imaginary “Tizona” or “Colada”, El Cid’s invincible swords. Despite the great tradition of sword making that comes from Spain, and Toledo in particular, I never even imagined that I would end up where I am now. I grew up to become a doctor and thought I was destined to spend the rest of my days in Salamanca, Spain where I went to med school, but somewhere along the way I met this amazing woman who has become my wife and my partner. She just happened to be from Virginia and she completely changed my life around. We got married and moved to Pittsburgh, and then Boston, and that’s where I finished my study to become a rheumatologist. You can start taking numbers, as I may need to take care of some of you somewhere down the line, but I must tell you, I am my worst patient as I am unable to follow my own advice with regard to my own injuries while forging.

In any case, now we live in Huntsville, Alabama, and some years ago, my wife told me to “get a hobby.” Little did she know then what those words would lead to. I started by taking kendo classes. Then shinkendo. I became an instructor of Japanese swordsmanship and an admirer of nihonto. I even learned some Japanese for the sole purpose of being able to read the signatures on the blades. It is in my quest for the perfect sword for tameshigiri that I decided to make a sword for myself. So, my interest has always been towards the Japanese sword in the first place, but I have experimented with other blade shapes along the way.

Many years ago I packed up for a vacation to Canada. My wife refers to it as “sword camp.” Muh Tsr Yee was teaching a class at the University of Guelph there. He put a hammer in my hand and the damage was done. Not just literally, mind you, although I think he would still remember how my hands looked at the end of the first day, but figuratively: I was hooked. I returned from that trip, anxious to get started, but soon had to admit that I could not realistically build a smithy in the residential neighborhood where we lived. But alas! A fellow shinkendoka, Walter Sorrells in nearby Atlanta, was also into bladesmithing, and one year, during a long car trip down to Tampa for the Florida Token Kai meeting, I came to the conclusion that a portable gas forge in my garage could work for me. I built my first forge with the shell of a water heater picked up off the street, and I started forging on a beat up 100-pound Fisher anvil that one of my patients sold me for $100.

One thing I enjoy doing is figuring out most of this stuff through trial and error. Yes, it takes time. No, it’s not profitable, but I sure have fun doing it. I have a lot of questions still unanswered, a lot of projects in my head and many more sketched on paper waiting for the time when my skills will be able to bring them to live. When I started I did not have the perspective to see that small steps are important, so I aimed my sight at the ultimate goal: to make a Japanese katana from beginning to end just as the Japanese tosho do, and that includes making all the parts that different craftsman will complete aside from the bladesmith. This will be a sword that will confuse the critics when presented to the nihonto collectors. I am still on the path to fulfill that goal and I happen to be my worse critic when it comes to evaluating my own work.

I was always fascinated by the looks of the grain in the Japanese steel from the beginning. After getting over the headaches of figuring out the heat treating process, with a number of cracked blades on my garage floor, I moved on to try to imitate the Japanese steel grain with modern steel. It took me a number of failures to figure out that the best I could do was folded cable steel. The look was pretty close, but in my mind, it was not the real thing. Around that time I attended my first hammer-in in the remote and distant land of Bristol, Tennessee. I met a friendly fellow, Larry Harley, who couldn’t understand a word I said, and I also met many others who regularly visit this forum. Alan Longmire and Chris Price will remember that time. There were others there like Louis Mills, who fascinated me with his work and quiet personality. I also was puzzled by this other fellow doctor who goes by Mike Blue, getting dirty pouring charcoal and iron oxide down a hot pipe. Randal Graham was watching that fire closely, too. Howard Clark was at that meeting, but I was a new face, and I don’t think he even remembers me from that time. In any case, I stared at that furnace that Mike and Randall built, and I knew that would be my next step. I met up with both of them at Mike’s place later on and learned enough to go back home and start on my own. Eventually, Walter came over to help me out, as smelting steel is a daunting task for one person to undertake alone. And company is always good, being that there are so few of us, and we are all scattered around the world. So I greatly enjoyed hammer-ins and other gatherings like that.

Along the way, I have had the chance to meet more and more people, who, like myself, share this common passion. I can’t believe that it took me so long to realize that Don (Fogg) only lived about an hour away from me in those days. Meeting him and becoming acquainted with so many other folks on this forum has helped me keep the flame going. There is always something to be gained from any encounter and many friendships have been forged along the way. I support the belief that it is our responsibility to keep the fire alive.

And here I am now. Trying to learn a bit more each day, but frustrated with the fact that there are not enough hours in the day to dedicate to the regular work, to my family and to my passion. These days, trying to find the time to do what I want to do represents my main struggle. But it’s one I will gladly face, because I can’t think of a better way to spend my time. And while my wife continues to support my madness, I will continue to do what makes me happy: bladesmithing and everything that surrounds this craft.

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Jesus,

Since your available time for bladesmithing is limited, when you have the time to spend in the shop, what is the most enjoyable aspect of the work for you?

 

Vince

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Time is indeed a very scarce commodity and it has changed how I approach my work. I used to enjoy the pace of working on one piece at a time from beginning to end. It allowed me to concentrate on the specific task needed to complete the project without the distractions of other pending tasks. I am multitasking more these days and I organize my schedule to make the most of it. On Friday afternoons I do all my hot work at the forge. Then I will use any other spare time during the weekend or evenings to do more of the finishing type work.

 

I can’t say that I like one task more than others. I enjoy forging and tend to not look forward to polishing so much, but once I get started on polishing a blade, I get sucked into the process and look forward to seeing the different activities that show in the steel. I also work more these days on embellishment, and I am trying to develop the skills involved in soft metal work. I find myself particularly liking the chasing techniques. I must admit that the challenge of learning a new process is likely what drives my interest. The learning process keeps my interest level high. This applies to many of the things that I have done through my life. I enjoy photography, drawing, painting and carpentry, but I must admit that I have found my match in bladesmithing. There are so many different techniques to learn that I don’t think I will ever reach the point in my lifetime where I can say that I accomplished everything that I wanted to do.

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There are so many different techniques to learn that I don’t think I will ever reach the point in my lifetime where I can say that I accomplished everything that I wanted to do.

 

Ain't that the truth!!

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This thread is definitely a fun read.

Seems there's always something new to learn in the craft as well.

 

At Batson's I remember getting to look over on of Vince's dirk, and it was also nice to meet Jesus there as well.

 

Hammer-ins are definitely fun to go to.

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Jesus,

You mentioned that you are working more on your embellishment skills. Is this oriented more to the Japanese style or does it depend on what type of piece you are working on?

 

Vince

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Vince, the simple answer is yes. I am working on Japanese-style craft skills first. I am trying to replicate the work on the fittings that the Japanese craftsmen do. Starting with the simplest techniques and moving up from there. As an example I would include some pictures of some fittings that I am working on now. It is not my usual modus operandi to display work that is not completed yet but there is always an opportunity to break our own rules. These are images of a fuchi (the equivalent of a ferrule) and a kashira (pommel.)

 

IMG_2766.jpg

 

IMG_2756.jpg

 

They are made of copper formed with dies and then refined using the equivalent of chasing and repoussé. What I have found most interesting here is the need to make my own tools. The little punches and hammers and the bigger dies to make these pieces have to be tailored to the task. I have fun making the tools but I have not had the opportunity to see in person the actual tools used by Japanese craftsmen. In a way this is a form of reverse-engineering. Trying to make the tool to get the desired result when I don't have access to actual tools to duplicate. I must say in that regard that the Internet has been a very helpful "tool" out of itself. Even if I don't have the opportunity to hold those tools in my hand, it is thanks to the generosity of others that have posted pictures of similar tools in forums like these that has help me get ahead. In that sense I feel an obligation to give back to this forum and others with what I have learned myself. It is important for me that these crafts are not lost. Open communication either one-on-one at the shop or one-to-many at a hammer-ins or through the Internet seems to be a way to maintain the line of knowledge.

 

I am not limiting myself to the soft-metal work. I am also expanding techniques of lacquer-work and gilding as in the saya (scabbard) shown here.

 

IMG_2515.jpg

 

As I acquire these techniques it is likely that I will not simply restrict their use to the Japanese-style work. After all, a technique is a technique and can be applied in many ways. Western-style blades can benefit from this type of work. The difficulty arises in maintaining an appealing and consistent style throughout the piece that you are working on. It is easy to want to apply a specific skill to create something in order to show that you can do it, but when the overall style of the piece does not require that embellishment, the end result will lose its aesthetic appeal. In other words, I think it is necessary to maintain a certain sense of style. Mis-use of a technique can be detrimental to the end result. It is important to maintain a sense of balance. Because of that, most of my work start with pencil and paper. I will start by researching as much as I can about what I want to create, then draw it and get a sense of the proportions, erase what I don't think fits or flows right, then draw it again until I am satisfied with the overall project. It is only then when I will move in to the shop and start to make it.

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Thank you for sharing the pictures. Beautiful work. It looks like you are progressing nicely on your Japanese themes. When we spoke in Alabama, you mentioned that you would be going back to Spain to visit with family. Since Spain has such a long history of bladesmithing, do you plan on researching any of its swords or techniques? Do you find any particular Spanish sword styles of interest?

 

Vince

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Thank you Vince. I will be going to Spain in the fall and I have been trying to make arrangements to go to the Archaeological Museum in Madrid. After locating the right contacts there, I am saddened to find out that the museum is being renovated and that the entire collection has been put away in storage. It will not be accessible for a year. But not everything is lost, I have located another museum in Toledo which holds a number of blades of the particular type I am interested in. There is another museum in Murcia that has a few falcata, too. I have been fascinated with the shape of the falcata. The books report that the original blades were sometimes made in a sanmai (three layer) construction. I have dimensions and details from the books, but that does not give me a sense of how the sword felt in the hand or how it was balanced. I am hoping to be able to handle some of the antiques so that I can get a better sense of how to reproduce one. My project will not be an exact copy, but rather an interpretation of the original form. You may recall that we talked about the width of the blade at its widest point. I have made some forging tries to gather enough knowledge as to how much metal I need to have to begin with, in order to get the size right at the belly of the blade. This is a blade that lends itself to a significant amount of embellishment, so I have many options as to which direction to go. It will likely take a long time to finish this project. I am not rushing it, I am just letting things happen along the way. The visit to Toledo will hopefully allow me to see some of the damascene work and maybe I will have a chance to talk to the artisans. I have also been in touch with a group of fellows from near Barcelona that are trying to make some steel using a stack furnace. I have been providing them with some guidance and hopefully they will be making some steel soon. Their first steps look very promising, but there is some fine tuning of the furnace that is needed. I am glad to see traditional steel-making techniques happening back in the land that brought us the Catalan forge.

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Jesus,

Thank you for taking the time to participate in this interview series. Good luck on your research and future adventures in bladesmithing. I look forward to seeing you at a future show or hammer-in.

 

Vince

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Thank you Vince. It's been a pleasure.

 

Then it is on to the next victim bladesmith.

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Ric,Vince,Jesus,

Thank you one and all fore sharing with us ,to be part of this thread along side you all is a wonderful thing .I have found this to be a really fulfilling read .

Thank you all

Owen

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Thank you, Jesus, for sharing your perspective with us.

 

And time again to thank everyone who's participated so far. Getting to hear people's views, histories, and desires for this craft is a most uplifting experience. I consider myself much wealthier in knowing these stories, than I was before. I think it goes a long way for those just beginning, and reaffirms those who've been walking the path for some time, to know that we are not alone, that there are others who share our drive for all the myriad reasons. I am proud to call myself a bladesmith in this company.

 

 

So, who's next? :D

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I want to thank Jeff Pringle for graciously agreeing to be the next one.

 

Jeff, can you give us a little synopsis of how you arrived to the path of bladesmithing?

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Thanks for inviting me to contribute to this fine thread!

 

...I think the two events that aimed me towards knifemaking were these: first my Dad (perhaps concerned about the loss of traditions our more urban lives were heading towards) had his father show me how to skin an animal, which involved learning how to sharpen a knife. Grandpa showed us a couple knives made by someone he knew, and that clued me into the idea that knives were something that could be made, not just bought – I remember thinking that was cool. B)

Later, first year of highschool, I lucked into a copy of Dona Meilach’s Decorative and Sculptural Ironwork (with the chapters on knifemaking and damascus steel) and took a metalshop class with an instructor who was really great at fostering enthusiasm in his students; I got to try out forging then and got hooked. The description of Damascus steel by Griffith, Meier and Wallace really caught my imagination, the way the patterns are intrinsic to the material and how they, in some way, capture the history of human/steel interaction in a way no piece of bar stock from the rolling mill could.

It was another couple years before I successfully forgewelded some steel, but once I found success with that it has been nothing but pattern welded steel for me (until I started making crucible steel at least). I’ve drifted away from knives a couple times over the years, but keep coming back, the broad mix of materials and techniques that combine in knifemaking with a very narrow functionality envelope are endlessly fascinating and challenging to me.

 

Here’s my first successful forge weld, turned immediately into knife #1, and knife # 3 or #4 from about the same time…

early02.jpg

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When I was young my father gifted to me a knife. I haven't forgotten that moment and as in your case I think that earlier experiences in our life help shape things in the future.

 

I am very curious as to the styles of blades that you favor. I recall seeing one of the Viking swords that you have done a while back with a beautiful work on the pommel. Do you work on one project at a time until you see its completion? Or do you have multiple blades on the table at one given time?

 

I would also like to hear more about your interest in crucible steel. It strikes me that your opinions are always very well documented. How much reading and being informed about a particular technique influences your work?

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