Blacksmithing: An axe and a death

My first forge welding class with Casper Prager.

 

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Karl stopped travelling. He also stopped paying much attention to Gunnar, focusing entirely on Sóley. Gunnar was now free to work at the forge whenever he felt like it, unnoticed, alone, happy. He found a machine grinder operated with a pedal and figured out how to sharpen his knife with it – his third knife, and the first that was almost completely straight. Once he was done, he threw it into a corner, ready to start on the next one, determined to get it right, before realising he hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast many hours ago.

They took turns on the “bed” downstairs. Gunnar couldn’t decide which one he preferred. He felt oddly uncomfortable when sleeping upstairs with his mother, filled with a dreadful feeling that even her snoring expressed anger about something he had either done or not done. The night after, though, he would change his mind and decide that it was nothing compared to the physical discomfort of the new “bed”, which was a mostly flat pile of turf covered with a sheepskin. Also, when he stayed downstairs, his parents fought incessantly, quieter than before, but loud enough to be heard through the wooden ceiling.

“Your nerves,” Karl would say again and again. “Have you been drinking the herbs?”

“Like I’m a fool! I know they are poison! You want to get rid of me, so nothing stops you from seeing the others!”

“There are no others. How am I supposed to prove it to you? I don’t go anywhere anymore, except when I have to go to town…”

“Do you think I don’t know what happens in town?!”

“Nothing, I buy food, other necessities, then come back home as fast as I can.” Karl’s voice was becoming lower and quieter. Gunnar knew what that meant and shivered in his cold bed.

“I don’t believe you! She, they buy it all, then give it to you so you have an excuse!”

“Sóley, you’re being unreasonable. Please try the herbs. Your nerves…”

Gunnar finally dozed off, only to wake up with pain in his neck, his whole body stiff, cold. His left hand, which he slept on, was asleep and the pricks of pain started a moment later when blood found its way back. It was May, but the walls would only become warm for about two days at the end of August. They seemed to always be covered with a thin layer of frozen mold. Tonight he would be sleeping upstairs, where the wooden walls, cold as they were, didn’t feel so… slippery. But that meant he would be sleeping next to his mother…

*

In the morning, Gunnar grabbed a piece of bread and a mug of coffee, then retreated into the forge as quickly as possible. It was becoming his favourite place on Earth. Here nobody ever interrup–

Someone knocked on the front door and the boy nearly jumped out of his skin.

“Is Karl there? I need that axe.”

“Ah, it’s… it’s almost ready, I…”

“He didn’t do it,” said the man flatly. “Tell him I’ll be back tomorrow and it better be ready.” He departed, shaking his head, and Gunnar stared behind him before returning inside and picking up the axe. Its blade was cracked, and when Gunnar squinted he could see the crack was deeper than it looked, becoming thin as a hairline, but still present. Maybe it would be possible to simply remove some of the metal using the grinder…? It would be a bit smaller, but perfectly good…

A few minutes later he had to interrupt his parents.

“Good God!” exclaimed Karl. “You could have lost an eye! What have you done?”

“I was just trying– this man came, and he was asking–“

“Of course he was,” interrupted Sóley. “Your father makes a lot of promises, but never delivers on them. Come here. You’ve got a piece of metal in your forehead, how did you even do that, fool?”

“You can’t sharpen a broken axe,” said Karl, as Sóley huffed, puffed, and put iodine on the wound. Gunnar tried and failed not to hiss in pain. “The edge is made of hardened steel. It’s much harder, hence the name, but it breaks. As you can see.”

“It’s a miracle he can see at all! A bit lower, and he would never see anything again. Because someone doesn’t even–”

“We’re going to do it now,” announced Karl. “Sóley… please try the herbs, at least one time, just to see whether they help a bit. Gunnar and I are going to fix that axe right now.”


“It’s not possible to fix it,” Karl said the moment the forge door was locked again. “Not with this crack.”

“It’s my fault,” cried Gunnar. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to ruin it…”

“It was already ruined. Some of those guys think they can chop rocks with an axe. We’re going to make a whole new one, so you can learn, but this time I will be doing the work, and you will watch. It’s much more difficult than what you’ve done so far. It involves a few new techniques: punching, drifting, fullering, but most importantly forge welding.” He looked around and sighed. “We will need to tear this whole place down.”

“Now?!”

“Don’t worry, we will rebuild it! It’s just that it used to be a shed for the hen, then I did carpentry in here, but it’s not safe for a forge. The walls are wooden. When we’re going to do the forge welding, the metal will be extremely hot, and sparks will go everywhere. We’ll have a bucket of water handy. But we will have to rebuild it soon, together. What do you think about red brick?”

Gunnar nodded, saying nothing, barely daring to breathe. We are going to do it. We will rebuild it. Together.

“But first,” said Karl, “get us a bucket of water.”

 

Punching

“We’re going to start with thick stock. Compare it with the axe. Looks similar?”

“N-nay…”

“Soon it will. First, we will make a hole, so that the handle can be inserted. I will place a piece of metal in the hole, so it doesn’t lose its shape, then we’ll shape the other side. At first, we’re going to use a flat punch to make a hole… This is more difficult than it looks,” said Karl, heating up the metal. “You need to soak this stock real well, like I said… when did I say that?”

“Sixteen days ago.”

“Oh,” said Karl, taken aback. “Really? Uh, you have to figure out where exactly the middle is, then punch from one side, then from the other until you can remove the bit in the middle easily.”

“Why not just from one side then?”

“Let me draw this for you…”

 

 

“The punch would create an uneven hole and we’d have problems. This way is more difficult, but later it’s going to make things much easier. And! Almost forgot. You cool down the punch between the heats, because it also becomes hot, and the last thing we want is to bend it. That’s also hardened steel…”

Karl’s hands moved fast. Gunnar stared. How did father manage to hit it so evenly?

“First strike,” said Karl, as if guessing Gunnar’s thoughts. “With the first strike you have to really look carefully to hit right in the middle. This creates a recess, and later you just put the punch in that recess…” Another heat, another few strikes, back in the fire, thought Gunnar, but something else happened instead. “Careful,” said Karl, and a moment later a small piece of steel, glowing dull red, fell through the hole of the anvil. “Wonderful.” He lifted the piece of metal, which still looked nothing like an axe, and demonstrated the hole.

 

Drifting

“Now we’re going to drift it. This reminds me… Let me show you the difference between hardened and regular steel.”

“This is also a punch?” ensured Gunnar, looking at the tool his father produced. To his eyes, it looked the same as the punch, just larger.

“Nay. A drift doesn’t need to be made of hardened steel. Listen to this…” Karl looked around, but the ground was mostly made of dirt, and seemed to be becoming concave from Gunnar’s efforts to achieve a perfectly swept floor. Karl scratched his chin, then reached for a chunk of brick. “This,” he explained, “will be useful for tempering. But not yet. Listen.” He dropped the punch, then the drift on the brick. One of the tools made a hollow “pang” sound. One rang a high tone. “This one,” said Karl, “the higher sound, that’s hardened steel. The other one is regular steel. Do you hear the difference?”

“I… I think so.”

“You don’t,” smiled his father. “But you will, it just takes some practice. So now we are going to drift the hole until it’s just the right shape, then we’ll block it with this piece here and move on to the edge… and then cut through it. Cool down the drift between heats. It’s going to bend anyway, but it’s easy to fix. Soft steel” – he waved the drift in the air – “hardened steel,” he said, pointing at the narrow punch.

 

 

Forge welding

(Note: this is possibly the shortest and least precise explanation of forge welding ever written.)

“Now – this is why I explained the difference between two sorts of steel. The hardened steel is brittle, hard to work, and also very expensive. If I were to make an axe completely out of it, I would frankly be wasting the material – and probably ruin it a few times before it was done. This is where forge welding comes in. We’re going to insert the hardened steel into the cut I’ll made and weld them together. But first, we need to actually shape it like an axe, then shape the hardened steel just right as well.”

“Won’t it fall out?”

“It will. I’m going to rough it up with a bastard file – that’s the biggest one – and give it some little indentations, and then we will pray that it holds nicely together.”

The surfaces, both of the inside of the cut and of the hardened steel, should be 1) uneven and 2) as clean as possible. Any oxide present there will lower the quality of the forge weld. Nowadays lazy people, i.e. me, would simply use a small electric weld to keep both parts together.

 

“You need a really hot fire for this – I’ll be telling you how to operate the blower. At first, you need a lot of oxygen until the flame is bright white. Don’t stare at it at this point. Then you insert the axe in and pump the blowers much slower, so the heat stays as it is, but the steel doesn’t get too much oxygen, because it will burn. Watch it carefully…”

“But you just said not to look at the flame…”

“Take a look, then look away, then again. The right moment is when the surface almost like it’s liquid, and a few sparks fly into the air. A few! Not a lot. Once you overdo it, it’s burnt and you can start again. That’s why I am doing it now. It’s even harder,” said Karl, “now – pump slower… because we have two types of steel, and they don’t absorb the heat at the same pace. But you’ve got much more talent than I do, slower…”

“Me…?”

“Don’t think I haven’t noticed what you’ve been up to in here, son.” Karl turned the metal around, examining it. “Not yet. The hardened steel cracked when they did something stupid with it. Perfectly good for killing, not so much for chopping bricks…” He turned it again, then briskly rebuilt the pile of charcoal. “Look. Do you see?”

Gunnar stared, his face so close to the fire he could almost feel his eyebrows melting. “I don’t know what to see…”

“First sparks,” said Karl, his voice tense now. “Quick turn. Hand me the small hammer! Fast!” Briskly, he pulled out the axe and started hammering the hardened steel from the top, then quickly turned the metal and hammered it from the sides before immediately returning it into the fire. Drops of liquid metal flew around and Gunnar barely contained a surprised yelp. He didn’t even notice a burn in his trousers where one of the sparks struck them.

 

The reason for using a small hammer is that the sparks, which look so good on blacksmiths’ photographs, are actually wasting material – they are drops of steel. Each round of forge welding leads to losing at least 10% of the material – notice the change of thickness of the regular steel between this and previous illustration. The losses add up.

 

“But, but it wasn’t cool yet?”

“That’s right. Once it cools down a bit, the steel is no longer melting and we can’t weld it. Close… look now. Do you see it? It just looks like it’s very slightly… move away! Left, right, left, right, back into the fire it goes!”

“So they will connect now?”

“That’s right. I hope. It’s difficult to do, you know…” Karl turned the metal. “Look. Do you see?” He turned it again, moving the coal back and forth to demonstrate the surface, then without any warning turned towards the anvil and started to hammer the sides. “We’re going to do it until you can’t tell anymore that those used to be two pieces. And then we’ll be able to sharpen it all nice.” He examined his work. “This is not the prettiest axe that I could possibly make, but it’s good enough for… those guys. Oh no, not again, can you deal with him?”

“I have a–“ started the man in the doorway as Gunnar tried to look at him with one eye, whilst simultaneously observing his hammer.

“Are you listening, boy?”

“A-a-aye, what is it?”

“This needs sharpening.”

“Come back in four hours,” shouted Karl, not interrupting his work to check what needed sharpening. “Gunnar! Look at this.”

The man retreated, shrugging. Gunnar put the giant shears on the table, immediately forgetting about them.

 

Fullering

“Now,” said Karl, “we can start shaping it and making it thinner, so it’s less of a hammer and more of an axe.”

“Can’t we just sharpen it all?”

“That would be both a waste of material and make for a very small axe. We’re going to use a technique called fullering – you’ve done it before without even knowing, I saw you – and then flatten it until it’s got a nice shape. It needs to be very hot, almost as hot as before, otherwise we’re risking ruining the weld. Bellows!”

“I don’t know how you can do this on your own,” muttered Gunnar.

“You can’t. That’s why you’re helping me.”

 

This is where an electric blower nicely solves a LOT of problems. Shaping forge-welded steel by fullering or other means is a good test of the weld quality. If it falls apart or cracks, the weld wasn’t good. Don’t ask me how I know that.

 

It’s not really nicely shaped, thought the boy. It could have been nicer, more… axe-like. He was already imagining himself making a proper, huge Viking axe – maybe not too huge, so he could handle it in the unlikely event someone had to be killed, of course. This one looked quite boring.

(Note: I skipped some important parts of the process, such as quenching and normalising. This post is a long read already.)

“Now,” said Karl, satisfied, “we can clean it all up and make it sharp. Should I let you do it?”

Gunnar immediately felt goosebumps. “Me… an axe… like…”

“You, an axe, like.” His father was beaming with happiness now, and suddenly Gunnar realised that Karl was immensely proud of him. For the first time there was no way to deny it. Karl was looking at his son as if he were watching a rough diamond. “You will do it slowly, or it will crack again, and we don’t want that, do we?”

“No,” assured him Gunnar. “Not at all. We don’t–“

“You got it. You finish, I watch, deal?”

*

Gunnar nearly swallowed the dinner – fish soup that Sóley seemingly forgot to add salt to. Her expression was oddly triumphant, as if she were waiting for complaints, but Karl said nothing, and so neither did the boy. Her nerves, he thought, bewildered. Apparently nerves made people not add salt to the meals. He was hungry, though, and his mind was busy with a real Viking axe, the sword already forgotten. So far he managed to conceal the new burns in his trousers…

“Is that a new hole?” asked Sóley icily. “Do you think money grows on trees?”

“I… I have to go for a walk,” answered Gunnar, then bolted out into the rain, leaving his coat behind. As he ran, he passed the grumpy man who came back for his shears, which both Karl and Gunnar completely forgot about.

*

Gunnar hid in the stable, together with his father’s horse, a melancholic, old stallion with resigned eyes. “I wonder if you need to be shod,” he said. “Because I think I would like to learn how to do it.”

The stallion ignored him and the boy felt a strange pang of gratitude. Alexander and Aron, the two older boys hired to take care of the cattle, teased him. Karl and Sóley seemed to spend all their waking time fighting these days. The horse didn’t shout at anybody. Not one word regarding dirty hands, holes in trousers, or nerves has been uttered.

“Thanks,” said Gunnar before noticing the horse’s manure has not been removed for days, its mane uncombed, fodder nearly gone. It was hard to believe Karl forgot… oh, but of course mother kept him busy with her nerves. The boy sighed. Maybe she should go to some sort of place for people who had nerves…

The days were so long now that the sun wandered towards the horizon, hung there for a while, then went back up, never fully disappearing. For Icelandic standards it was unusually warm, as Gunnar only had to wear one sweater instead of two to avoid freezing. He lost all track of time until he realised he nearly fell asleep standing up next to the stallion, whose gaze seemed to beg to be left alone.

“Good” – yawn – “night,” Gunnar said, then dragged his feet back. The turf bed was empty, and he wrinkled his noise. He’d have sworn it was his father’s turn to sleep downstairs… But at least they were quiet by now. Gunnar didn’t bother undressing, he just fell on top of the bed and despite the discomfort and the constant moldy coldness emanating from the walls he was asleep seconds later…

“Gunnar,” someone said. How weird – he was in the middle of a battle, waving his giant axe menacingly as enemies fell around him even before the axe touched them. “Gunnar. Wake up.” His father was kneeling next to him, his eyes shiny in the light coming from the small window over the “bed”. “You have to be strong, Gunnar.”

“Strong…?”

“I don’t know how to tell you…”

The boy was suddenly completely awake. “Tell me what?”

“We… you need to go upstairs.”

She died in her sleep, Father had said. Sóley’s face was contorted in terror, eyes bulging and open wide, as if she were unexpectedly struck by an opponent a hundred times bigger than her. Karl held the boy in a strong embrace as Gunnar sobbed. The boy would never forget the terror in Sóley’s eyes. She should have drank the herbs, he thought, she should have taken care of her nerves… she must have been ill for many months, he suddenly realised. He was too busy thinking of axes and swords to even notice anything at all. Just yesterday he wanted to send her away, Gunnar thought, and the guilt kicked him in the stomach. That was why Karl no longer left her alone for longer than a few hours, why he no longer travelled anywhere…

It’s your fault, said the strange, unfamiliar voice in his head. You never bothered to ask. You didn’t listen. You ruined your clothes. Have you ever thanked her for anything?

Karl knelt next to his son. “Twenty-fourth of May,” he said, softly. “She may be gone now, but we will never forget her.”

Gunnar shook his head, or rather tried to, but it was so difficult to move. Other people lost their children, siblings, parents, they never cried or whined – there was so much work to be done. His father wasn’t crying either, why were tears pushing into Gunnar’s eyes, was he getting nerves as well now?

“We’re going to rebuild the forge… after the funeral,” Karl whispered. “We’re going to make it the best before anybody else catches up with us. You and I. What do you say?”

I’ll be there too, said the voice in Gunnar’s head.

 

What will Gunnar’s future bring? Read the first chapter of Storytellers now and find out.

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