Ireland…Back in the bog! 2019.

A year on and I have returned to the furnace festival in Ireland with my own artistic food furnace aka mad dog to try and smelt and cook some meals using the residual heat.

Our first mission was the bog and digging up some ore. The site was incredible and a lot of ore was just on the surface. I believe the are we went for had had the peat cut of the to and when they got to the ore later they just move on. This made our job a lot easier.

Aside from the ore on the top I did manage to dig down a foot or so and find a good seam. Here the ore was unoxidised and had a purplish sheen to it . You could see the Crystalline structure clearly.


The finished pieces. 19/11/18

And so after months of work and learning I have arrived at this point . There is still a lot to do as the final sculptures are made using these blades , meaning they must still be processed further to reach my desired goal . My aim is not to be a blade maker but to use the iron I smelt in my art work.

The journey has been so a lot of fun and a lot of hard work !! I’ve learnt an incredible amount. A HUGE THANKS TO THE WCMT!!!!

I’m now on a train to Osaka writing a proposal to start now developing the skills I have gained drawing from both my Irish and Japanese experiences. I’m looking forwards to building my first furnace alone!!!

Heat treatments. 17/11/18.

The surfaces of the finished pieces are now acceptable… the thing is every time I think they are ok I go to bed and come back in he morning and see more little imperfections I want to change. The idea of perfection seems an impossible goal. Perhaps though this is the key to continued learning and development, and by striving to be better each Time my skills and work will continue to improve.

I have also been developing three other knives using modern steel ( bought steel not smelted from iron sand ) which may be used in a different art project I won’t go in to now.

The colour of the metal is important in this process so all the lights are turned off in the workshop. Nobuya brought one blade up to a dull red and showed me with a magnet that at this colour it was still magnetic. With a little more heat , a orange the metal became non magnetic and it is this colour I had to remember and reach each time.

The blade was constantly moved above the fire forwards and backwards and each side to get an even heat and colour along the cutting edge.

Once this was reached it was quickly quenched. To much time taken to reach the water and it cools and the process won’t work. The blade enters the water horizontally and then is turned on its side whilst moving through the water . This way you can see the bubbles formed coming off he surface and when they are about to end and are white the blade is quickly pulled out. The aim is that this shows when the temperature of the steel is at about 200 degrees.

The knife was then quickly tested by putting one drop of water on it. If it balls on the surface it is submerged verrrry briefly again he left to cool.

Once cool the steel is very brittle and now must be normalised to remove this. To do this it is dipped in water and “bbq’d” ( held above the flames, low and slow) . You can see the water evaporating with the heat and the surface drying so you now know it’s 100 degrees. We continued to heat it but holding it up from the flames and testing by regularly putting a drip of water on it. When a ball skates on the surface it has reached 200 degrees and it is left to cool down naturally. The edges can now be sharpened and the cutting edge made using grinding and various stones .

Surfaces. 16/11/18

Once the final shapes had been forged I quickly realised I am still far from finished and time suddenly seems like it’s going way to fast! Many long hours and late nights followed.

For this first body of work using hand made iron I decided to make use of Nobuya expertise in knife making. It also seems like a important part of Japanese culture, something respected and renowned world wide. With in my work I am interested in using traditional techniques or practices and using them in a contemporary way , so focusing on knife making whilst here also seems to fit in with this ideology.

Nobuya’s Blacksmithing workshop solely produces knives using traditional methods. I have done very little knife making before so there was a lot to take in.

What I found most testing was the precision of the work needed especially with the sanding and polishing. There is a belt grinder to remove the bulk of material but everything else is done by hand using oil stones, stones and sand paper.

Two of my designs had a textured finish and one remains with the black scale on the outside. This is very traditional in Japanese knives. On these three only the cutting blade area needed polishing and sharpening.

The other two required a lot of patience. One I wanted to experiment with etching the surface and the other I wanted to show the beauty of polished metal. This way I have five very different surfaces for the five small garden sculptures.

First the bulk of the outside scale was removed using the belt grinder. Several grades were used up to 240 grit and then the rest is done by hand. The next photo shows the surface texture this gives, and also captures a moment of reflection I had… last week this steel was sand on a beach! Incredible!

I used some natural stones of you use with water and oil stones. Oil stones are small man made pieces of stone which you dip in oil and work the surface with. The idea is to work through the grits making sure at each stage you get the surface a uniform texture , with no visible marks or scratched different to the ones being made. The same goes with the wet sandpaper. I worked through grits till 10,000!

Developing the final piece and working on surface texture. 13/11/18

Over the last few days I have been finalising the shapes of my five knives which will be the central features to the small Japanese garden inspired sculptures I am making.

We are forging the shapes for the knives , not grinding them out of the tamahagne bar. This is important to the look and feel of the knife I think. I want to use as many traditional methods as possible in the forming of this work. Only the edges are straightened on a belt sander . Nobuya has been teaching me how important angles are when using these machines and also the care and skill needed is much higher than just holding down the steel and hoping for the best!

I’ve been learning a lot about the precision involved in knife making which has been challenging and frustrating at times but something I am enjoying. It’s good to feel humble sometimes especially when working alongside skilled craftspeople. I love that there is a lot to learn in my journey but have to remember patience!

The hand made steel is a wonderful material. It’s very hard and also more stable, it seems to hold up to heating a-Lot better than Commercial steel. There may also be irregularities and imperfections with in it and you need to plan enough material for these. These are especially around the ends or edges.

It has been a very tight squeeze getting five knives out of the bar we pattern welded and in the future I will allow a bit more room so there is a bit less pressure. However with such a valuable material I think it a very important not to waste it and respect the hours of work gone on to making it!

I want each knife to be different so have been using or making different tools to make textures on some of the surfaces.

Other things I have been working on are designing the smaller parts to the sculpture which also need careful consideration . These include the little rakes included with each garden to draw patterns into the iron sand .

It thought a lot about how to make these. The interesting situation is how much different advice you can get when making if you ask . I am learning to listen to this and consider it all before making rash rushed decisions. I also must remember my own artistic training though and not be put off by challenges to get what I want visually. I also realised I’m stubborn!

I really wanted these to be precise and perfect, not hand made looking, and decided to have them laser cut due to the fine detail.

It is also common practice for a knife to have an engraved message or name on the side of it. I have also been learning to engrave and researching suitable Japanese proverbs which relate to steel or knifes / swords in some way to put on each.

Starting to form the final shapes. 12/11/18

After a lot of re folding and fire welding I have got two pieces of useable steel bar from the smelted Iron sand bloom. One is 1.1kg and the other 1.3kg (There are also a few large pieces of bloom left from my smelt which I will consolidate if I have some time let at the end .)

The amount of effort and work that it has taken to reach this point is incredible and I feel very protective of these bars. There’s NO room for error now… talk about pressure.

My plan is to make five small sculptures using these two steel bars. These are described in an earlier post, but described briefly again will each feature a knife traditionally hand made.

Each knife will then be Cut up and displayed as part of a mini Karesansuei ( literally meaning dry mountain water) . These are Buddhist rock and gravel gardens which are raked as a meditative and concentration improving technique, often by monks.

I first sketched out my designs and worked out which knife I needed to get out of what of the two pieces of steel. I had to make sure this was marked out correctly as each is a different length and width when finished so will use a different about of steel.

As the steel is so precious I have to be careful not to use too many heats when drawing it out as this wastes material. Equally important Is cutting the bar at an Angle between knife blanks so that this cut part is forged into the points. Using a hot set and then shaping it with heat rather than a grinder gives it a nicer pattern and also saves material.

The first job was to stretch out the bar using the power hammer till it was long enough that I could handle it with out tongs. I then marked on what needed to be used for each knife and made small centre dots so I would know where to work up to on each , and where to eventually cut.

Callipers were set up next to the power hammer so that I like easily check the different sections were the correct width.

Once we came across a small part in the steel which had not fire welded together correctly and had Created an air pocket. This was first punctured with a chisel and then got very hot , flux added and it fire welded together

It took a bit of time to get used to the sensitivity of a new power hammer but it was good fun. It is important to not make the bar to thin where. Drawing out or it cannot be easily pushed back. The key is to always think one step ahead and keep it at chunky as possible . The last blows on the power hammer should be used to thin it and this is what ones the excess within and length needed.

The pieces were cut in to sections using a hot set once the correct size had been reached and then the long edges straitened and flattened by hand on the anvil. Instead of using a wire brush to clean it water was put on the anvil face and the steel held at an angle above it. By hitting down the heated water explodes and blows scale off the surface , thus cleaning it. It was then got to a cherry red and left to normalise in a bucket of ash overnight . Normalising allows it to cool down slowly so that it is softer for further cold surface texturing work in this case.

Consolidating the blooms and Pattern welding of the steel. 10/11/18

The process of smelting has left us with very irregular shaped pieces of steel. Trapped with in this are multiple impurity’s, pieces of charcoal and air spaces. It is currently totally unusable. The past few days have been spent forging and fire welding together these chunks of bloom in to workable bars. This stage is really exciting for me as it marks a big step towards my end goal which is to use this hand made iron in my sculptures.

The first process is to get the bloom hot equally to the core. As it is not dense at this point it must be brought up to temperature slowly as it is easy to burn away the small outside pieces. We are forging using charcoal on a bottom blast forge. The Japanese style forge is lower than ground level, so you are working in a pit, and the anvil is set at height for the person working down there. This made striking quite an interesting experience for me to adapt to (especially as im quite tall) as it meant the anvil face is very low for anyone not working in the pit.

Our aim was to first tap in the extremities of the bloom slowly to make in more consolidated using a sledge hammer , very lightly at first! The next two photos show how it was when retrieved from the smelting furnace , and how it looks after a light forging.

We need to flatten the pieces and then stack them up and join them together by fire welding. The resulting piece ( made up of the two smaller bits) is then folded multiple times to draw out the impurity’s and make a more uniform material.

Other materials to prepare before the forging starts is the burning of rice straw to black ash pieces and the mixing up of a clay slip. These are kept near the forge and the bloom dipped in the ash first and then the slip just before fire welding. The ash acts as a natural flux and the clay slip protects the outside from loosing carbon.

The process is hot, hard work and also very time consuming. It made me really realise how much work is needed to make my own iron. It suddenly becomes a very expensive material!

The first few fire welds are more difficult as the bloom wants to break up. The clay and straw also help to hold it together in the fire whilst getting it up to temperature . We are looking for the surface to become glassy, a bright white colour and sparks seen in the flames.

Once it was holding together we could start using the power hammer and weld on a handle instead of handling it with tongs.

The power hammer was so useful and I am defiantly investing in one as soon As my workshop opens next year. Once the initial two pieces of bloom were fire welded together we used the power hammer to draw out the steel in to a bar shape. You can tell the weld has taken when the whole lump heats up together and there are no colour variations.

As there was slag trapped in the bloom and we are also dipping it in clay to fire weld, a lot of slag built up in the bottom of the forge . As it is a bottom blast forge this must be regularly cleaned or the air flow becomes blocked and the correct temperatures cannot be reached.

Once drawn out the bar was then cut almost in half at the middle point using a chisel, and then folded along this weak point.

Once it is folded in two it is dipped in ash and clay , fire welded together and then drawn out and split as just described . The whole process is repeated at least six times. This builds up the multiple layers in pattern welding, removes all the impurity’s and creates an nice forgeable bar!

It is an incredible amount of work to get to this point before anything creative can be done with it! I’m totally in love with the process though and can’t wait to develop work with the steel.