How Sword Making Works

Just Beat It

­The bladesmith's forge is basically a large super-hot oven. Traditional bladesmiths tend to use coal forges, but many others prefer the gas or electric forge. ­No matter which type a bladesmith uses, the desired result is the same: To heat the steel to the proper temperature for shaping the sword.

Photo courtesy Don Fogg Knives
Don Fogg working at his forge

Steel becomes red hot around 1200 to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit (649 to 816 degrees Celsius) and glows orange at about 1800 F (982 C). Most steel alloys should be worked somewhere within this range. If the steel is cooler and appears bluish in color, it can be shattered by the hammering. Conversely, the steel should not be heated any higher than 1800 F (982 C) unless specified by the alloy's use guidelines.

After the steel is heated, the first step is called drawing-out. When you draw out a piece of steel, you are increasing the length of the steel and reducing the thickness. In other words, you are flattening it into the basic sword shape. By hammering along one edge, the bladesmith can make the length of steel gradually curve to create a curved sword.

Photo courtesy Don Fogg Knives
A student of Don Fogg drawing out the steel

Next, the bladesmith begins to taper the blade. Tapering is used to create the tip and tang of the blade. It is accomplished by hammering at an angle, beginning at the point where the taper should start and continuing to the end of the blade. Often, the tapering will create a bulge in the blade's thickness that will need to be drawn out. Once the tang is complete, the bladesmith will normally use a tap and die set to make threads on the end of the tang for the pommel to screw onto.

The bladesmith will continue to work on the blade a section at a time. He does this by heating that part of the blade (usually about 6 to 8 inches, or 15.24 to 20.32 cm) until it is red hot and shaping it with the hammer and other tools. He will flip the blade over again and again during the hammering to ensure that both sides are evenly worked.

At certain points during the forging process, the bladesmith will usually normalize the steel. This simply means that the steel is placed back into the forge and heated up again. Then it is allowed to cool without the bladesmith doing anything to it. The goal of normalizing is to smooth the grain (crystalline structure) of the steel. Essentially, each time that the smith heats up a section of the blade and works on it, he changes the grain of the steel as well as the shape. The steel is heated to a temperature that causes it to austenize (the iron and carbon molecules begin to mix). The steel is removed from the forge and air-cooled. This reduces the stress caused by irregularities in the composition of the blade and ensures that the grain is uniform throughout the blade.

Finally, before the grinding and polishing phase, the blade is annealed. Annealing seems quite similar to normalizing on the surface, but has a decidedly different result. The steel is heated to the appropriate temperature for it to austenize. The steel is then cooled back down very gradually. Usually, an insulating material is used to make sure that the steel does not cool too fast.

Annealing takes several hours to more than a day. The purpose of annealing is to make the steel soft and easy to grind or cut. Once annealing is complete, the bladesmith can start grinding the blade.

Photo courtesy Don Fogg Knives
A student of master bladesmith Don Fogg filing a sword blade