Confessions of a Swordmaker

In the early days of researching The Running Wolf, my book about the Shotley Bridge swordmakers, I decided to do some blacksmithing training to help me better understand metal work and blade making.

Me with my sword (with authentic lockdown locks – unevenly cut by my own hand and grey roots on display!)

The idea to make a sword stemmed from my experience when writing my first historical novel, Widdershins, which was about witches. Ahead of writing that book, I decided to train in herbalism to ensure the characters’ plant remedies were authentic. So, I went to Dilston Physic Garden in Northumberland, and I took their Tree Medicine course where I made lots of remedies, and then started growing, drying and harvesting my own herbs.

In the summer of 2015, I started to train in blacksmithing  to help me get under the skin of the swordmakers in the book and to make sure the details were correct. At first, I trained with Mark Constable, master blacksmith (Alfresco Forge), who is expert in Mokume-Gane, a beautiful Japanese metalworking process. His website seems to be still on the anvil – there’s a lot of it about – but you can see him demonstrating a simple bucket forge here that you can make at home
(even I managed to make one).

Among other things, I made a rat-tailed iron poker and the firesteel shown above. The firesteel was especially useful as this was my first experience of making something hard with a sharp edge.

I also learnt, contrary to what I’d always thought, that it’s the steel that sparks, and not the flint. Turns out, the flint shaves off tiny slivers of steel, which then catch fire. It seems that if iron is spread thinly enough, it ignites. So, with this new knowledge under my belt, after making my firesteel, I used it to start a fire…

I made the poker using a combination of power hammer and hand hammer. As well as learning about hammering, I gained experience of how to build the fire and get it to the right temperature to forge iron and steel. And it was here I learnt how to identify the colours of metal ready for forging (dull cherry red) and tempering (blue).

Author using a power hammer to make a poker. Wearing goggles and an apron.
Me using a power hammer to make an iron poker. (That’s the top of my safety goggles you can see, btw, and not a monobrow.)

After some practice at home, using a mini anvil and my home-made bucket forge, I decided it was time to make a sword. In the summer of 2018, I spent some of the hottest days of my life at Butser Ancient Farm near Southampton.

Dwellings at Butser Ancient Farm

At this rather idyllic spot, I learned the rudiments of blademaking, under the careful supervision of historical blademaker and TV consultant, Rod Hughes, from Golden Eye Forge.

Rod Hughes at Ancient Butser Farm June 2018

As well as Rod Hughes, Wes Cole from Fire Drake Forge gave me lots of advice and information, and he kept up a running commentary, telling me why I was doing what I was doing, and how to do a better job of it. He also filled my ears with tales of dwarves and gods, all of which was grist to the mill. And I have to confess, he (and Rod) did a lot of the hammering for me, which is perhaps why my sword is marked ‘Lucky Helen’. Or possibly because Rod ground the fullers (blood gutters) for me!

Wes Cole of Fire Drake Forge
Trainees hammering blades in the forge at Butser Ancient Farm, June 2018

As well as learning a great deal about metal and blades, I also picked up lots of useful information about wood from Francis Hobday, The Crafting Artisan, who helped me get to grips with various tools and told me lots of fascinating tales about the power of touch – especially some elderly men in Japan who can tell if metal is out by a minute fraction, purely by touching it.

Because I wasn’t the only student, I was surrounded by people who were skilled metal workers and knew a great deal about blades and history, so I got far more than I bargained for!

I can honestly say swordmaking was the most tiring work I’ve ever done. After my first day, I got back to my room, covered in soot, lay down and went to sleep without anything to eat (a rare occurrence). So hats off to anyone who smiths, whether for love or money, or both!

The Running Wolf by Helen Steadman

If you’re after a copy of The Running Wolf, it’s available from Blackwell’s, Waterstones, Foyles, etc and lots of independent bookshops. If you want a signed copy, Forum Books at Corbridge usually have a few in stock (and they deliver free in the UK).

Categories Shotley Bridge swordmakers, witches, writingTags , , , , ,
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