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Upcoming projects:
Building a Frame Saw
Forging a Copper Kettle
Making a pair of leather work boots
Forging and Fletching a Bodkin
Flocking a drawer interior

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Arm Guard Part I- Beginnings in Working Sheet Metal

As I reclaim my old love of archery, and in the never ending pursuit of experience, I decided it was time to try my hand at revisiting armour. Recently I obtained a leg vice that is the perfect height for holding various tools that the hardie hole in my anvil cannot accommodate. Because I did not have any legitimate sheet metal tools on hand, I made my own out of a few simple hardware store finds. The first is a long, slightly rounded chisel used for masonry. I redressed the edge and gave the length a slight radius so the corners would not cut into the metal as I hammered down on it. The second is a smaller chisel for more precise work of the same nature. The third is a trailer hitch to use as a rounding anvil. Finally, I found a log and cut it into a few pieces, one with a V in the top for rounding, one flat for fixing dents and whatnot, and a third as a half round log for similar purposes as the hitch.

The hodgepodge collection of tools first found their use in making the first in a pair of vambraces, pieces of armour that cover the lower arm. That was really an experiment leading up to the armguard. More on that project (hopefully) to come at a later time when I can get back to the shop. In brass instead of steel, this project was a bit different and is leading up to a bridge into the world of repousse. At its final stage, which it is only just barely touching, the armguard will be hammered into the knotwork design below and backed with leather.

The brass portion will be the interior, while the bordering will be leather. Holes for the rivets and eyelets respectively were drawn in only for reference. The lines on the brass will be where the metal is hammered up, creating the ridgelines. I should probably always give this disclaimer, but, as usual, I have virtually no idea what I am doing. When the results work, they work, and when they do not, I try and understand why so I can make better attempts in the future. Experience, in my opinion, however obvious it sounds, is every bit as valuable as reading about it or watching someone else do it.

The first step, logically, was to sketch the pattern for the brass in full scale on the workpiece. Symmetry has long been one of my mortal enemies, so instead of trying to get the proportions just right, I drew one half on a piece of paper and traced it both directions. The brass I used is none too thick, given the only thing it should ever have to endure is the slap of an errant bowstring. Also, part of the reason I chose brass is because it is soft enough where it should not damage the string too much.

Cut out with a pair of tin snips and smoothed on the belt sander, here is the blank. Nothing too spectacular here. At this point, I measured it again against my arm to see that it would be the proper size. For archers' armguards, it does not need to cover the entirety of the forearm, but I made it nearly that long for aesthetic purposes.

The first real step was to begin rolling the edges. I could have left them flat, but something about it feels unfinished to me. Besides, it was worth the practise. To begin, I put the smaller chisel in my leg vice and began hammering a small lip onto the edge all the way around. I have no proof in this, but the way I went about it for the vambrace was this-

I hammered until the entire perimeter had a corner about as tall as three times the metal's thickness. For the vambrace, the sheet was much thicker, so the corner was more pronounced. From there, I folded it inwards on itself and hammered mostly flat, using the top of the chisel to keep it rounded. Then I began a second corner and rolled it over, making a nice smooth, tight scroll that followed the entire piece.

The corners were especially difficult, for if I was not careful to keep the edge rolled, the metal would tear apart and become effectively ruined. For the sharp corners, I found it easiest to keep the curve gradual and hammer it to a sharper point after the scroll was completed.

Another difference between the two pieces is the weight of the hammer I used. For the vambrace, I wielded a redressed ball peen hammer that weighed somewhere in the range of 8 ounces. For the brass, the hammer was less than half that. It is not necessary to beat the metal into submission. Many lighter, precise hits are far more effective and far less damaging when swung awry.

For the armguard, however, things happened a bit differently. Because of the geometry and thickness of the brass, the scroll looked out of place. Where the transition between rolled edge and flat sheet came to a head, the gap was unappealing and difficult to keep straight. Unlike with the vambrace, the brass was for obvious reasons much softer and, less obviously, much more difficult to bring to a precise geometry using simple tools freehand.

To rectify this situation, I decided to use the rolled edge as an upsetting device by which to border guard. Above shows the rough beginnings of this effect, with the bottom edge merely the underside of the scroll. This produced a much more clean, subtle border than the almost garish rolling used before. To keep everything round, I used the edge of the chisel to support the underside of the scroll so I could hammer on all angles.

With the entire piece edged, it was time to begin the upsetting. Before that, I would like to note how important it is to use frequent annealing when doing heavy manipulation of metal. Brass work hardens rather quickly, and without it, stress fractures and cracks will begin to appear everywhere. In order to combat this, I heated it to a dull red with the lights off and quenched it in water. Unlike ferrous metals, quenching does not harden, but rather relieves internal stress and softens it. If you do not believe me, grab a piece of brass and hammer the end into a random shape for a while, and then anneal it this way. Hammer it again and you will be surprised by how much easier it is to manipulate.

Achieving the shape pictured above was more difficult than I expected, especially in the split of the curve and the ends. Placing the line directly on the chisel and hammering down from the sides pushes the metal everywhere save on the point down and away, creating the illusion of raising it (which for all intensive purposes is the same thing). Before deforming the metal too much, I marked the places for the rivets with a centre punch. Later, I will join it with the leather in those spots via hand made rivets.

Although it appears rather dirty, the reflected light throws off the effect. Of course, there are many hammer marks and marred lines where I went back to clean up the depth with a sanded down bolt, but that is far from the final finish.

 The back end of the guard was much more of a challenge. Intersecting lines and symmetry all played a dangerous game. One which, after several hours, produced reasonable results given the circumstances.

The real purpose of this experiment was to prepare the brass for repousse work, which is a very different animal. While it would have made far more sense and likely produced a better result had I started with repousse immediately after finishing the scrolling, that is beside the point.

Soon, I will return to this project with planishing tools and a pitch pot to really make the design clear, crisp, and even. Until then, here is the result of this enlightening little experiment.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Cartography Revisited

For more years than I can remember, I have had a fascination with maps and the mysticism that goes with them. Whether representations of actual geographic locations, recreations of fantasy worlds, or things I completely invent, there is something about drawing maps that has its own transfixing qualities about it. In the beginning, many many years ago, I began drawing buildings on some .25" square graph paper. At the time, and I think I was about around 10 then, they were awesome. But then I realized how ugly they really were.

At this point I realized that I was not an architect, and moved on. From there, I really began to delve into cartography. However, I was still stuck on the primitive techniques and uninteresting style. However, only scraps remain of those older years due to an incident three years back where I was stopped for the night in the middle of a 16 hour drive. I happened to have all the maps I had ever drawn in the car. It was Friday the 13th, for the superstitious folk out there, and the van was broken into. Of all the things taken, most of them were replaceable, all save the maps. The worst part to me was that to whoever stole the backpack they were in, they were worthless. But to me, they represented nearly a decade of work. So now, all that remains of those years if the few scans I have of them from one project or another.

For the above image, I used simple notebook paper and the old wooden pencils (in the age where mechanical pencils were somewhat of a novelty). The result is quite obviously sloppy and bland. Given this did not get that far, it still shows how simple the approach really was.

A year or so after that, I tried a different way of drawing shores, which was about as far as I ever got before losing interest in the particular geography and starting something else.

The idea was to make a jagged looking shoreline such as centuries of erosion would cause. However, I soon realized that such land features would not appear on such a scale. Another reason this style did not last long was the repeatability. Slight differences from one day to another made significant discrepancies in the appearance.

For a brief period, I had a fascination with mazes and the idea of the labyrinth. It was a fun notion to entertain, but computers are far better at creating random mazes faster.

I am not entirely certain what to call this, but it was a take at subdivided statehood or something, and this was the only time I ever tried it. I realized too late that the divisions were far too small to be practical.

This point, in my mind, is when I really began to develop my skills at map making. That is not to say that I had skill at map making, but marks the time when things began to evolve rather than change entirely. First, and most obvious, there is colour here. At the time, I thought it would be neat to use blue for the oceans, green for the forests, etc. While that did not last, it is still something I think about returning to.

The paper, for whatever reason, is the same as when I first started. I had some errant notion that it was superior in some way. The back is lined, and I wrote brief descriptions of the places on the front. Since these maps, I have not used it since. In many ways, there is nothing spectacular about these. The forests are slashes of green, the mountains a disgusting ridgeline. One thing, however, that really sets these apart is that the maps are populated. That was new, and probably what makes me consider them the true starting point in my practise of cartography.

A year or so after the colours appeared, I discovered the works of Daniel Reeve. For those of you who are not familiar, he illustrated Middle Earth amongst other things. The fantasy and old-age style of map is what I have turned towards ever since. Mountains represented as mountains, trees as trees, there is something so simple yet visually dynamic about these maps.

As an aside, I would like to note that the paper, although graph paper, is not the same as the previous image. Now, it is immediately obvious how different this is. A few things here that I would like to note. The lakes are in the Daniel Reeve style, concentric rings following the rough shape of the shoreline. He can pull it off, but me not so much. Another thing is the lettering. I based this off of a medieval lettering guide I received in my 6th grade history class. For this particular map, it works. That however is the last time I ever used it. In the spirit of really developing my own style, I turned to my natural script that I have heard resembles tengwar.

A few more years passed and I went to cotton paper for the visual appeal. Although it is not easy to see in the poor quality picture above, it has a cloudy look that resembles parchment. Also, the water is marginally different. I used a series of jagged lines close together to give the appearance of water. I used this in the lakes too. Most of the things I did in the maps from this era I use to this day, although with some refinement. It is, for a recreational drawing, not too shabby.

However, looking ahead I remember a time in my childhood where a good friend of mine found all of the old maps his father drew a good many years ago. Seeing those and knowing that they were still around after years and years of lying in wait, I began to wonder what would happen to mine. If/when I ever have kids of my own, I want them to someday come across the things I have made and see them how I always imagined they should be seen.

On the exception of it turning out strange in the picture and scaling down the size, this is where I currently sit. By the recommendation of Scott Roush at Big Rock Forge, I have started drawing in India ink, an archival ink that lasts forever and never fades. Part of the reason I thought my maps were lacking was the nature of graphite to fade over the years when left exposed. Another thing, rather obvious, is the difference in paper. In fact, it is the same paper as the previous one, only it is coated with an amber shellac. It brings out the patterning of the cotton and gives it an almost parchment feel. Although in the picture there are several white spots, it does not look quite like that. The result is a high contrast, old style map that will last virtually forever.

As I enter into the next chapter of mapmaking, it is with the wonder of what will come next after having come so far already. I can, after all these years, finally draw maps that I am content with.

At least for now...

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Knife to Remember

Since I first picked up the hammer less than a year and a half ago, the number of finished blades I have made is disparagingly small. Although time is rather limited, it is something that I enjoy more than just about anything else. As curious as it may seem, I have only made one truly memorable knife and accompanying cake spatula.

I had the idea for quite some time to make this set for a wedding, both of whom I have known for a majority of my life. About six months before the set date, I began to draft a handful of designs, none of which I was particularly settled with. As the wedding loomed nearer, I decided it was time to get to work.

The basic idea was to have a Damascus (1084 and 15n20) blade with carved antler handles. Besides this project, the only other time I have tried welding in the forge wound up having a failure during the final forging. While the process is theoretically very simple, in my small single burner venturi forge and hand hammers, it is exceedingly difficult to truly know if the welds are good. All that is needed is a flat, clean surface between the layers and enough heat/pressure to fuse the steels together.

Starting at 7 layers, the billed welded fine and so I drew it out long enough to cut into thirds, then cut it and stacked it again, making it 21 layers. One way I have always heard to check welds, aside from looking at the inside where it is cut for weld lines, is to strike it with something hard. If it has a pure, long note when struck, like a chime or a bell, it is generally good. If it sounds dead, rasps or rattles, it is most likely bad.

Over the course of about a month and a half working odd hours, I eventually got the billed up to 557 layers, the three extra used in the last weld to add some of the mass lost to decarb and grinding it flat.

Come Wednesday evening, three days before the ceremony, I was forging the final profile into the tip of the knife when the worst possible thing happened. About half of the billet split wide open directly in the centre. It was about 5 in the evening and I had to drive over 500 miles the next day to lower Maryland, where I would be for the final two days before the wedding at West Point.

Etching the blade and spatula in home made ferric chloride, which I will write about later, revealed the previous day a subtly, tight grained pattern that would compliment the antler perfectly. However, it was too late to risk trying to fix the bad welds, which infected the spatula less than an hour later. Left dishevelled with nothing more than ruined steel, I had no choice but to start over from the beginning. Obviously, I could not reproduce several months' work in 17 hours, so I had to turn to monosteel.

With a parent bar of 1084, I began to furiously forge out a knife from one end, a spatula from the other. And then it started to rain. Four hours later and dripping wet, I cut them from the stock, ready to be rough ground. Unfortunately, this was about the worst forging I have ever done, leaving behind relatively deep pits and a slight twist in profile and ripples on the edges.

In the basement, I flipped the switch to the small 2x42 belt sander with less horsepower than a hand crank and began grinding. Slow and tedious, the process progressed at a hopelessly slow rate as water began to pool around me. Two large cracks line the foundation, and whenever it rains heavily about a foot of water accumulates down there, some pouring down the concrete walls beneath the windows.

Come 10:30, I realize that I have to take an online water survival course that is about four hours long without which, the trip down south to Maryland would be useless. And of course, that is the last possible time I can go for the next several months. Battling the raging thunderstorm outside that came out of nowhere, I started the course, and of course, not twenty minutes later, the power goes out. Working on a laptop, I figured I could continue to keep working in the dark, but then I remembered the router was down.

Eventually, the power came back on and I pushed through the training as fast as possible, and went back down into the shop. A mix of files, abrasive stones, angle grinder, and sanding got the blade and spatula to where I was prepared to call it done. Not satisfied, but done enough to continue. With the rotary tool, I carved a few simple lines in the blade to give it life that the damascus would have done, but I was so exhausted that I could not get them straight. eventually, I called it a night and dragged in the forge to heat treat it. I could not wait to do this because the tempering would take several hours, and if I waited until the next day I would never be able to finish the scales.

A little after 2am, I had the lights off and the forge burning low with the knife resting in my tongs. Three quick normalizing cycles, the last of which to really hone in on what critical looked like in that lighting, and I quenched it in a steel cup full of canola oil to the sound of rain hammering the windows. The spatula came shortly after, and they went straight into the oven to temper once before I could finally sleep.

Cleaning my hands took the better part of half an hour, and even then they were still stained black in more places than not. I had also not eaten since about 7 that morning, so I scarfed down a quick meal while the timer counted down.


Waking at about 6:30 was the worst feeling. I have never been that tired, not even the morning after running a marathon October last. With a heavy reminder of all the work I had yet to do and the prospect of leaving in less than 6 hours, I got back to work.

To tackle the handles, I had a piece of antler from a friend out in New Mexico that was the perfect size. Cutting it in half with a coping saw took far too long, and when it was sitting in two half round slabs, I had the first clear glance at the inside. What do you know, the pith is almost as large as the antler. While this would be fine for cross sections, it had no hope of being used for handle scales.

In a flight of desperation, I hunted around for something else and found a board of purple heart. Perfect. The exotic nature of the wood would help offset everything else. Or so I hoped. In the back of my mind, I knew that purple heart cannot be belt sanded because the friction turns it black almost immediately. But of course, I did not have the foresight until it was too late. Resorting to hand tools, it took about three hours to shape and sand them to a reasonable finish. Looking down at the one (only a top scale) for the spatula, I realized that the entire thing was rather bland. In my head, I had an idea for some carving, but my chisels are less than ideal. Too much less, in fact. Returning to the rotary tool, I went to work, finishing all three pieces by sanding the backs flat and hollowing out the middle so it could hold epoxy better.

Usually, I would put pins through the scales and tang to handle shear better, but I did not have access to a drill press and did not want to risk it by hand. The time was about 11:30 now, and I still had to make the 8 hour drive. Sanding them to 400# and buffing them until they were a deeper purple, I finished them with boiled linseed oil. Never having worked purple heart before, I have no idea if this is the way to do it, and I did not have time to research.

For the blades, I regrettably did not have time to bring them up to a mirror finish. Instead, I turned to a running experiment I have been conducting with antiquing. I put an edge on them and buried the pair in a mixture of sawdust, wood shavings, and cooked rice saturated in muriatic acid, hydrogen peroxide, and a few other things. The process takes several hours, so it was into the car they went along with files, sand paper, and epoxy to finish them later.

By the time I arrived in Maryland, they were ready for the next step. While the finish gives them a certain look, alone it would not be enough. Filework is something I have had wanted to pursue after first trying it on the Knife in the Hat folder, and was perfect for the occasion. A simple staggered pattern with a full round needle file on the spine, marked in intervals by the width of a triangular file gave it a bit of extra visual lure.

Calling it a night at 11:30, I had to get up at 5:30 the next day. Embarking for West Point at 3, I epoxied the scales just before I left, but it was not done yet. The 110 degree inside of my car kept the epoxy from setting, so I had to drive holding the knife in one hand in front of the air vent for two hours until it was firm enough to set down.

Arriving at West Point, the set was finally done. After a two day whirlwind, I could sleep and enjoy the trip. The ceremony was lovely, and it was great to see old friends separated by time and distance. When the time came, the knife cut the cake and the spatula delivered it into the hands of the bride and groom. It was not the best work I have ever produced, but I am immensely grateful that I was able to finish it after so many things that went wrong. After all, it is the story behind the piece that holds its meaning.

Here's to a long and happy marriage!