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How Sword Making Works

Setting Up Shop


­Before a bladesmith (a person who makes swords, knives and other edged implements) can create a sword, he must have the proper environment and tools. A bladesmith's shop, called a smithy, is very comparable to a traditional blacksmith's shop. Because of the fumes and dust created by the smithing process, the smithy must be well ventilated. Care should be given to the placement of the forge, anvil and other equipment to ensure that the distance that the bladesmith has to travel with the heated steel is kept to a minimum.

The basic equipment used by the bladesmith has changed very little over the last few centuries. For most smiths, the biggest change has come after the basic forging is done, by using power tools to grind and polish the steel. Tools of the trade include:

Anvil - The symbol of the smith, the anvil is easily the best-known and most recognizable piece of smithing equipment. A standard anvil has the following parts:

  • Base - The bulk of the anvil, the base usually has mounting holes drilled through the bottom to attach the anvil to a secure mount.
  • Face - This is where most of the shaping of the steel happens. The top of the anvil is tempered to be very hard and should be smooth. The edges are slightly rounded to make sure that they don't gouge or mar the steel.

    Photo courtesy Don Fogg Knives
    Note the hardy and pritchel holes in the face of this anvil.
  • Pad - A small flat section between the face and the horn, the pad is used for chisel work so that the bladesmith does not scar the face of the anvil.
  • Horn - The front end of the anvil that tapers from just below the pad to a rounded tip. Also called the bick, the horn is used for curving and bending the steel.
  • Hardy and pritchel holes - The hardy hole is a square socket in the anvil's face that holds some of the shaping tools described below. The pritchel hole is a round hole in the face that allows a punch, drill or drift to go down into the anvil. It is used for punching and shaping holes in the steel.

Hammers - The hammer is an extension of the bladesmith. He relies on it to create the basic shape of the sword. Hammers used by bladesmiths, and smiths in general, are slightly different from the typical hammer you find in a hardware store. The main difference is that smithing hammers are crowned, while most standard hammers are not. Crowned means that the edge of the hammer's head has been slightly rounded instead of squared off. Crowning keeps the hammer from making sharp indentations in the steel as the bladesmith pounds it.

Hammers vary greatly in size and purpose:

  • Ball, cross and straight peen - Peen hammers have a flat, crowned head, and a round (ball) or wedge (cross and straight) shape on the other side. The cross peen has the wedge sideways to the hammer while the straight peen has the wedge in line with the hammer. Peen hammers are used for most of the shaping work.
  • Sledge hammer and single jack - Sledge hammers tend to be big and heavy, weighing up to 20 pounds. They are used when the steel needs a lot of heavy-duty shaping and normally require a second person. One person holds the steel on the anvil while the other swings the sledge hammer. The single jack is a smaller version of the sledge hammer that can be used by one person.
  • Set hammer and flatter - Both of these tools have large flat heads. As you might expect, the main use of the flatter is for flattening the steel. The set hammer is used to make squared corners and flat edges.

Tongs - Tongs are a versatile tool that no bladesmith can do without. In fact, a typical smithy has several pairs of tongs. Tongs are used to hold the steel while shaping it on the anvil. They are also used to place steel in the forge and retrieve it, and for quenching the steel.

  • Shaping tools - Quite often, the bladesmith needs to do certain things to the steel that would be very difficult with one of the hammers. That's when he may choose one of these more specialized tools.
    • Hardies (bicks, fullers and swages) - These are the tools that fit in the hardy hole on the anvil. A bick is a rounded piece that can be used for curving and bending the steel, like a small horn. Fullers are used to make grooves. In fact, that is why the groove in a sword is called a fuller. Swages are used to force the steel into certain shapes, such as triangular, square or hexagonal.
    • Chisels - As you might expect, chisels are used to cut or gouge the steel.
    • Punches and drifts - Punches are used to poke, or punch, a hole through the steel. Drifts are used to expand an existing hole. The pritchel hole in the anvil provides a place for the punch or drift to go when it comes through the steel.

  • Forge - The tools mentioned above allow you to shape the steel once it's hot. To heat the steel requires a forge. Types of forges include coal, gas and electric. Most bladesmiths have one of these three for their main forge. The time and temperature can vary greatly depending on the steel used and the bladesmith's own technique.

    Quench tank - A large metal container full of oil, the steel is submerged in the quench tank after it has been shaped. The oil used in the quench tank improves the hardening of the steel.

    Slack tub - This is simply a large barrel or container of water used to cool the steel and tools.

    Additional tools - Most bladesmiths have some or all of the tools listed here to round out their smithy. Also, a complement of standard tools, such as screwdrivers, saws, pliers and wrenches are useful.

    • Files - Used to smooth out rough edges and burrs
    • Vise - Used for holding pieces in a fixed position while the bladesmith works
    • Hydraulic press - Used for rough shaping by flattening the steel
    • Torch - Used for cutting and rough shaping of the steel
    • Grinder - Used for everything from basic shaping to prepolishing
    • Buffer - Used to polish the completed blade
    • Drill press - Used to make holes in the steel

    Photo courtesy Don Fogg Knives
    A hydraulic press built by Tommy McNabb

    Once the tools are in place, then the bladesmith needs to decide what he is making and what kind of steel to use...