Originally written in 1998
Improved graphics in 2010
It all started in early 1991. I was designing a computer wargame, and as part of my effort to collect useful images for inclusion in the game, I stumbled upon a purveyor of “militaria”. This is a pleasant term for weapons, uniforms, insignia, and the paraphernalia of war. Ordering something from them landed my name on a military nut mailing list, and for the next few years my mailbox was graced with all manner of catalogs offering the most amazing things!
You wouldn’t believe the stuff these people revel in. Military clothing is big with these people: camouflage-colored fatigues, caps, duffel bags, heavy military boots, helmets; everything you need to dress up like a real soldier. They also sport a wide array of equipment: rappelling ropes, hooks, pitons, night vision goggles, waterproof underwear, armored canteens. None of them sell guns, to be sure, but they do sell high-powered hunting crossbows made of composite plastics; presumably they don’t show up on the radars the deer use these days.
Particularly spooky are the books, posters, and videos. I have an entire catalog devoted exclusively to such enlightening titles as “Homemade C-4: A Closer Look” (C-4 is an explosive); “Legal Firepower Super Weapon Systems”; “How to Build a Sten MkII or MkV from a Kit”; and the ever-entertaining “Field Expedient Hand Grenades”. Then there are such edifying books as “Get Even: the Complete Book of Dirty Tricks” and “Up Yours: a Guide to Advanced Revenge Techniques”. But my favorites from this catalog were the girlie items. One was a poster with buxom blonde in a bikini made of camouflage material, carrying an M-16. As a patriotic touch, a U.S. flag pin was proudly attached to her top. Even better was the video, “Rock N Roll #3: Sexy Girls, Sexy Guns” with this advertising copy: “14 outrageous, sexy girls in string bikinis and high heels blast away with the hottest full-auto machine guns ever produced...”
Included in this avalanche of male fantasy material is a wide selection of knives. Again, I was astounded by the huge variety of knives and even swords that are offered for sale: big, fat knives, and long, skinny ones; knives with serrated blades and knives that you can hide in belt buckle. One knife has a button that, when pressed, flips out two smaller blades like wings. Other knives sport fancy handles made out of buffalo horn or with pictures of bears engraved on the blade.
And it was while looking at these knives that something clicked in me. A little spark of recognition, an echo from deep inside me that resonated weakly with the blades on the catalog page. I didn’t have any idea what it meant. But I knew that there was something here that was important. Scanning the various knives, I came upon one that spoke to me, albeit weakly. It had a unique shape; moving down from the point, the blade swelled symmetrically and then narrowed at its base. This shape, I later learned, is known as a “leaf-blade” design. It looks like this:
Something about that shape appealed to me. Perhaps “appeal” is the wrong verb. It isn’t that I saw the shape as pretty or pleasing or pleasant. Rather, it struck some chord inside me that had never been struck before. It triggered some elemental urge that I had never experienced. I didn’t know what this was, but I wanted to know more. And so I began a long journey, trying to find something whose only conscious manifestation was in a leaf-bladed knife.
I knew I had to have a leaf-bladed knife, but there were no actual leaf-bladed knives in the catalog. The blade I had seen was a throwing knife, a bare blade with only a metal extension instead of a real handle. But I reasoned that I could fashion a knife out of the blade, so I ordered several of these throwing knives.
When they came in the mail, my first impulse was to try them out. After all, a throwing knife is meant to be thrown; why not throw it? I therefore repaired to my barn to try my luck. I figured that it would be hard to miss the barn from ten paces, and in fact my self-assessment proved accurate. What I didn’t figure on was the difficulty of making the knife stick. Time and time again I threw the knife, only to have it bounce ignominiously off the wall. A couple of times it bit into the wood with a satisfying thunk, but most of the time it bounced off with a humiliating clang. Occasionally it bounced back with such energy that I had to duck. After a frustrating half hour, I decided that throwing knives wasn’t much fun. It was time to make a real knife.
At this point, I need to explain knife terminology. There are five basic parts to a knife. First, there’s the blade. Next comes the tang; that’s the extension of the blade to which the handle is attached. The blade and the tang are one solid piece of metal.
The handle comes in three basic parts. At the top of the handle is the crosspiece; that’s a metal part that projects from the sides of the knife. It serves two functions. First, if you plunge the knife into something (or somebody), the crosspiece acts as as a stop to prevent the knife from sinking too far into the subject. Second, if you’re having a hot knife fight, and the other fellow’s knife strikes yours and slides down the blade, the crosspiece prevents the other fellow’s knife from cutting your fingers.
The next part of the handle is the handle itself. That’s the part that your fingers wrap around. It’s normally slightly convex in shape, the better to fit your hand. However, some Asian knives have concave handles.
The last part of the handle is the pommel. This is often a bulb at the end of the handle. It is blunt on the end so that it doesn’t poke the wearer, and it serves to give the hand something to pull against when retracting the knife from its sheath. The pommel serves another purpose as a counterweight to the blade. A well-designed knife balances nicely in the hand; the pommel provides much of the weight to achieve this balance.
There are of course endless variations and extensions on this basic scheme, but I won’t bore you with all these details. If ever you need to know the five basic parts of a knife or sword, this elementary explanation will get you through a crisis.
My First Knife
Back to making my knife: I already had the blade and tang. All I needed were a crosspiece, handle, and pommel. I decided to make the crosspiece and pommel out of brass and the handle out of ebony. Obtaining the brass and ebony was no problem; shaping them was another matter. The only applicable tool I could find was a hand disk grinder. This is a tool requiring two hands to manipulate. I clamped the brass in a vise and then somehow maneuvered the grinder to cut the brass to the right shape. This was rather like using a chainsaw to sharpen a pencil. But I took my time and worked carefully. Once I got the basic shape, I used a file for detail work. It took me weeks, but eventually I ended up with a pretty good crosspiece. It swept outward in a graceful arc, and even had little terminating spheres. Considering the clumsy tools and my inexperience, it was pretty good work. After that, the handle and the pommel were a piece of cake. I had the whole thing finished by April 1991, and I was rightly proud.
My First Sword
Then in May came my next big step: I bought a sword. I had been thinking about it for some time, and a friend told me that swords were often sold at a local science fiction convention, so I buzzed down on my motorcycle one Sunday afternoon to check out the swords. Lo and behold, somebody was selling a whole pile of swords dirt cheap! They were cheap junk, I was later to learn, but it didn’t matter. I bought myself one for $35 . Getting it home on the motorcycle proved to be a challenge, but I stuffed it into my jacket and prayed that I not have an accident on the way home.
Once home, I took my new sword outside and held it in my hands. I felt so much power in that sword! It was a giddy sensation. Once again I felt the resonance. It still wasn’t perfect; the sword wasn’t quite right. But I was one step closer. I determined to try the power of the sword. A log lay nearby; I stepped over to it and gently tapped it, smiling at my self-restraint. There was no use rushing things; I could take my time exploring the capabilities of this weapon. I tapped a little harder; and the handle broke! My powerful sword was a milquetoast! I was crestfallen.
My next sword came to me by accident. I was rummaging through an antique shop with a friend when we came upon a rusted blade in an old leather scabbard. It was in terrible shape, and had no handle, but I was fascinated. It was a steal at $50. I took it home and cleaned it up with a wire brush. The sword appears to have been hand-forged, suggesting that it is at least a hundred years old; indeed, the design suggests that it could date from as early as the American Revolution. Another few months’ work yielded a brass crosspiece and an ebony handle-cum-pommel. I didn’t do as good a job with this handle as with the knife. Someday I shall go back and build a new handle.
The next event in my odyssey came in September of 1991. I was visiting Britain with my wife. We were in Glastonbury. Let me tell you about Glastonbury. This is the site of the Glastonbury Tor, a big hill that sticks up all by itself in the middle of a wide river valley. An area of a few hundred acres around the base of the hill is elevated, and through most of history the river valley was a swamp. This made Glastonbury easily defensible, and in fact people have lived there since prehistoric times. The Tor has also made Glastonbury an important religious site. Many scholars believe that Glastonbury is really the Avalon of Arthurian legends. And when you climb the Tor, and stand on top with the wind tearing at your hair, it’s hard to ignore the feeling that this is a place of power.
Modern-day Glastonbury is the New Age capital of Britain. High Street (the main shopping drag in every British town is called High Street) is a sequence of shops selling crystals, incense, and aromatherapy oils. It was disconcerting, but I suppose that it was better than squeaky-clean fast-food places selling GlastonBurgers with French Fried Tor Chips, which is what we’d have if Glastonbury were in America.
So here I was walking down High Street in Glastonbury, when suddenly my eyeballs were yanked out of their sockets by a sight I couldn’t believe. There, in a shop window across the street, was a leaf-bladed sword! I dashed across the street and pressed my face against the glass. Yes, it was real; an antiquity perhaps 3,000 years old. The proprietor allowed me to hold it in my shaking hands. He wanted $3,000 for it, and I would gladly have paid that if I’d had the money. Holding that sword in my hands, I knew that I was a big step closer to my goal, for the resonance I felt with that sword was much more powerful than anything I had known before. This was the answer that I had been seeking. It had the leaf-bladed shape. It had the power of a sword. It had vast antiquity behind it. It was bronze, a metal rarely seen today but immensely important in history. It was the special sword of the Celts, a people whose strange ways beckoned to me from afar. (More on this later.) I had found the physical expression of my search.
Part of the appeal of the leaf-bladed sword was its antiquity. I have been a student of history since my college days, even though I majored in physics. My studies began with military history, then broadened. Over the last two decades I have sampled just about every major field of human history. Yes, I have concentrated on European history, but that hasn’t prevented me from tasting bits and pieces of other fields. Some of my special interests include Inca history and the Volkerwanderung (the Germanic tribal movements of the third through fifth centuries that contributed to the fall of the Roman empire). But these are only areas of special interest; my tastes cover a broad spectrum of human history.
You know, there’s something to be said for the cumulative effect of a lifetime’s study. I have started to pull everything together into a big picture, and it’s impossible for me to articulate that big picture in a single essay. The people of the past were much the same as we are today, but they were also very different. The nature of those similarities and differences reveals a great deal about the human mind. Our ancestors operated in completely different physical and social environments, with their own special stresses, and they responded to those stresses in ways that reveal the eternal truths of human nature.
I suppose the most profound impact of my studies has been my developing sense of the emotional reality of my ancestors. It’s all too easy to look at Romans marching around in segmented armor and worshipping their many gods and put them at emotional arm’s length, to treat them as exotic and alien, the stuff of idle fantasies but nothing more. For me, those Romans are kin. They are my ancestors, people just like me. I know in my bones that if I had been born in those days, I would have fit in perfectly, that all that “exotic” culture would have seemed absolutely normal to me. I can see myself as a 16th century fisherman on the Rhine, a 10th century Slavic peasant farmer, a 2nd century Anatolian shepherd, a Byzantine cataphract, a Moorish courtier in Spain, or a Parisian sans culotte of the Revolution. These people are absolutely real to me; they are my ancestors, my heritage. My struggles with computers and bureaucracies and traffic are just variations on their struggles.
The most immediate manifestation of this dawning sense of closeness was a taste for antiquities. I had never realized that one could actually own pieces of our history. Here in California everything is new and bright and fresh; you can buy the latest high-technology equipment in stores that look for all the world like supermarkets. So I was shocked to learn that I could purchase flint tools made during the Stone Age, or bronze brooches from Roman times, or legal contracts from 17th century England. I bought as much stuff as I could afford, and kept it proudly, but the items that were most valuable to me were those that I could keep on my person. I settled on three. First came an English silver crown dated 1662. This is the same size and weight as a silver dollar. In idle moments I like to pull it out of my pocket and flip it. In another pocket I keep a smaller Polish silver coin; because it’s lighter, I sometimes prefer to flip it instead of the heavy crown.
The most important antiquity I keep on my person is a small bronze amulet in the shape of a lion. It was made in Britain during the second century AD. I wear it on a leather thong around my neck, just as my ancestor did 18 centuries ago. I feel a connection with that person. After keeping it for about two years, I accidentally damaged the amulet. I was crushed with guilt. For eighteen centuries this artifact had rested in safety, and then I took it and in the blink of an eye damaged it. I felt like scum, and for months couldn’t wear the amulet. But now I accept the damage as my little bit of history. Perhaps eighteen centuries from now somebody will wear the amulet, and the damage I did will be part of its history.
My First Bronze Leaf-Bladed Sword
I knew that I must have a bronze leaf-bladed sword. But how to get one? I contacted a sword-maker. Yes, there really are sword-makers. They make swords for Hollywood and for the Society for Creative Anachronism folks. The fellow thought that a bronze leaf-bladed sword would be an interesting challenge. So I went to work preparing my specifications for him.
Here I began an odd game of 20 questions with my subconscious. I couldn’t articulate what the correct shape was, but my subconscious had no difficulty rejecting incorrect shapes. This one’s nose was too pointed; that one’s hips were too wide; this one was too narrow in the midsection. I labored long hours over the computer, trying all sorts of shapes out. I agonized over the precise shape, printing out dozens of minute variations. I laid them all out on the floor and pored over them, trying to determine what shape was the ideal, the most powerful, the most resonant. After much trial and error I settled on a shape that my subconscious seemed satisfied with and sent it off to the sword-maker. Five months later I collected my bronze leaf-bladed sword.
It was lousy! The sword-maker had ignored my careful specifications. The resulting sword was entirely the wrong shape. It was far too heavy and the handle was impossibly clumsy. It was made from aluminum bronze, a superior modern alloy, but not the same as the bronze that the ancients had used. My sword had no resonance.
The only course before me was obvious: I would have to remake the sword. I bought myself a bench grinder and went to work, thinning the blade, reshaping it, reducing its weight as I brought it closer to my ideal geometry. I destroyed the clunky handle and thinned out the tang to further reduce weight. I set to work making a new handle out of cherry. And that is when disaster struck.
It was late July, 1992. I had a nice piece of cherry that was one inch thick, too thick to make the knife handle. I needed to slice off perhaps 40% of the thickness. To do this, I set up my table saw.
Now, a table saw is a powerful and dangerous piece of machinery, but I’ve been using power tools for many years and I’m a careful worker. I always use pieces of wood to push the workpiece into the blade, and I never allow any part of my body to be in line with the blade. I wear goggles. I take my time.
This was a tricky cut. I had to push the workpiece into the sawblade with a push piece, but I also had to hold it in place against the blade from the side. Because the piece was small, I couldn’t use another piece of wood for this job; I decided to use my finger. Before you shake your head knowingly, telling yourself, “The stupid fool should have known, you don’t use your finger near a sawblade!”, let me defend myself by noting that my finger was beside the blade, not in front of it. The direction I was pushing was into the side of the sawblade. In other words, if my finger somehow slipped forward, the worst that would happen would be that the smooth side of the sawblade would rub against my fingertip. Moreover, I braced my elbow and body in such a way that if anything went wrong, the natural direction of fall would be away from the sawblade. It took deliberate muscle action to push into the sawblade; anything else would pull my finger away from the blade.
About halfway through the cut, something happened. To this day, I don’t know what it was. Afterwards, I took the saw apart, looking for any clue that would reveal the cause of the accident. But I never found why my finger jumped two inches laterally and then into the teeth of the sawblade. It wasn’t an accident in the usual sense of the word. It wasn’t a mistake;I don’t make mistakes with power equipment. I now believe that something in me did it deliberately. I have no memory of the half-second before the accident.
The damage really wasn’t that great. The tip of the left index finger was sliced up, but the bone was untouched. A plastic surgeon repaired most of the damage and today, you have to look closely to notice the slightly discolored skin that was transplanted to the fingertip. But it scared me. I don’t make mistakes like that. For half a second, something else was in control of me, and it deliberately thrust my finger into that blade.
Out of stubborness, I finished the handle for the sword. Working with a bandaged finger slowed me down, but I didn’t want to be beaten. But I was still frightened. I had a lot of soul-searching to do. I had to find the demon that injured my finger.
The Flint Knife
A month later, Kathy and I went to Britain again. I was on the lookout for leaf-bladed swords, but had no luck until one day I spied a flint leaf-bladed knife in an expensive antiquities shop. It was Danish, dating from about 2,000 BC; they wanted $300 for it. The shape and the great age of the piece spoke to me; I bought it.
This piece presented an interesting problem. The leaf-blade shape has a fundamental flaw: the narrow waist doesn’t have much structural strength, and so the design is prone to breakage at the waist. Indeed, the only reason my knife cost so little was that it had already been broken at the waist, and subsequently repaired. But this raises a question: why would anybody make a leaf-bladed knife out of flint? The knife is too fragile for any real use; what possible use could it have?
The standard answer that’s often trucked out in such cases is, “Its purpose was ceremonial.” This is a catchall explanation for anything ancient that we don’t understand. I view the ceremonial explanation with great suspicion; it’s just too pat. Besides, in the case of the flint leaf-bladed knife, there’s a much better explanation.
4,000 years ago, bronze-making was an art confined to two regions: Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) and the Balkans. Copper had been used for several thousand years and the use of fire to melt and work copper, and then to smelt copper out of ores, had already been established. By 2500 BC, people had discovered other metals such as tin, and then they found that they could alloy copper with tin to make bronze, which is stronger than either copper or tin separately. By 2000 BC bronzemaking was an established industry in these two areas, but it was still a fledgling effort; output was confined to knives and palstaves (small ax-heads). People didn’t make big swords or other large pieces because bronze was too rare and expensive for such extravagent projects.
But the bronze knives were much superior to the stone implements common to the time. They were sharper, lighter, and stronger. Obviously, bronze knives were much in demand.
Now, many of the early bronze knives were leaf-shaped. Why? I’m not sure. I suspect the shape was chosen because it does not require a complex mold, and it’s easy to attach a handle to a leaf-bladed knife. Moreover, the smooth curves of the leaf-blade shape leave no exposed corners to snap off; except, of course, for the point.
So here we are in 2000 BC with leaf-bladed knives being made in Anatolia and the Balkans. Undoubtedly some of those knives travelled away from these regions along the primitive trade networks of the day. It probably took decades, but eventually a few bronze knives would have made their way to remote locations, such as Denmark. Imagine the reaction of the locals when they saw their first bronze knife! Bright and shiny, able to slice through meat with hardly any effort, light and strong; this was clearly a high-tech wonder to these people. Undoubtedly these knives were horribly expensive; only the tribal chief could afford to own a genuine bronze knife.
Imagine that you’re the Number Two Man in the tribe, or perhaps Number Three. You don’t get a bronze knife. You’re green with envy. Then one day the master flintmaker, aware of your jealousy, approaches you with an offer. “I can make you a knife out of flint that will look exactly like that newfangled thing the chief has. It won’t be a useful knife, but this is fashion, right?”
And that’s why my leaf-bladed flint knife was made.
When I got home, I made a handle out of ebony. I spent a long time thinking about the design, getting it perfect, and eventually settled on a design that seemed right for the blade, but now that I look at the result, it seems embarrassingly phallic. This knife-thing I’d been chasing was not merely some phallic quest. It ran much deeper than that. I wasn’t sure what it was that I was pursuing, but I felt as if I had betrayed myself with that overly phallic design. I still had not found the object of my search.
The Erasmus Parallel
I still had questions to ask. There was still the demon that sliced my finger. One night in October of 1992 I woke up at 3:00 in the morning with the single word “Erasmus” on my lips. I haven’t any idea where it came from. In my readings I had come across his name several times. I knew that he was a 16th-century theologian and thinker, but nothing more. So I got out of bed and went to my library, rummaging for any reference to this name. I found a few pages of material in Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization. I knew that I had to learn more about this man. So began a new search that was parallel to my search for the blade.
A bookstore was my next stop. I found several good books on Erasmus and devoured them. Over the next few years, I soaked up everything I could about this strange man. At first, I could not see exactly what it was in Erasmus’ life that appealed to me. But I definitely felt an affinity for the man.
Desiderius Erasmus was born in 1468 in Holland. After a nondescript early life, he suddenly blossomed in 1512, when he wrote The Praise of Folly. This work, which is still regarded as his masterpiece, is deceptive. It takes the form of an oration by Folly in which she recounts how important she is to mankind. After all, if it weren’t for folly, how would people get through life? The work is a gentle satire on European life. It ends, however, with a subtle thesis on the relationship between folly and religious belief, suggesting that the only way to achieve the highest pinnacle of religious ecstasy is though a kind of “divine madness” and the abandonment of strict reason.
Thereafter he established a reputation as the foremost scholar in Europe. His output was prodigious, and he poked fun at the more asinine aspects of the Roman Catholic Church at the time. This earned him the hatred of the ideologues within the church, but it also helped spark a reform movement of enlightened churchmen. Unfortunately, events ran away from Erasmus. Martin Luther capitalized on the new respectability of questioning the church to foment outright revolt. Erasmus at first dismissed Luther as a hothead, but as it became apparent the Luther was attracting a wide following, Erasmus tried to rein him in. To make matters worse, reactionaries in the church were moving to assert themselves against Luther, and Erasmus sensed the impending catastrophe. His efforts from 1520 on have an air of desperation as he tried to mend the yawning rift between the two sides. He pleaded with both sides to compromise, but the situation became more polarized with each year. Erasmus found himself rejected by both sides. He died in 1536, hated by almost everybody because he refused to take sides.
Why is this man so important to me? I don’t have many heroes; while there are a great many historical figures whom I respect and admire, there are only two whom I elevate to the status of personal hero: Henry David Thoreau and Desiderius Erasmus. The commonalities of these two giants are revealing. They were both loners, intensely private people who refused to join any group. Thoreau, of course, went off to live in the woods. Erasmus started his career conventionally enough but eventually left Louvain, the college at which he held a professorship, and spent the rest of his life moving from town to town, never affiliated with any institution. Although he had been ordained as a Augustinian priest, he managed to evade the discipline of his order, even obtaining at one point a vaguely worded papal release granting him considerable freedom.
Erasmus and Thoreau also shared a distaste for institutions. Thoreau’s ire was most obviously directed at a government that demanded his tax dollars to enforce policies that Thoreau considered immoral. Erasmus turned down repeated offers from the crowned heads of Europe to grace their courts with his patronized presence; he even managed to tactfully evade a papal command that he come to Italy to live in Rome. And Erasmus’ most pointed satires were directed at the most ossified of the institutions of his day.
Another common trait was a poorly developed social sense. Thoreau seems to have had just one friend, Emerson, and Erasmus also had just one truly close friend, Thomas More. Otherwise, while they were admired and respected, neither one seems to have had close friends. Indeed, Erasmus attracted a great many enemies, so many that on several occasions his movements were dictated by fear for his personal safety.
Both men died with a sense of personal failure, having failed to sway the world toward the ideas that they held most dear. Only long after their deaths were their ideas embraced by society. That, I suppose, is the measure of the extent to which they were ahead of their times.
Please suppress your smirk as I compare myself with Erasmus. He made his mark on the world by mastering a completely new medium, the printing press; I am attempting the same thing with interactivity. He hated groups and socializing and interpersonal politics, a hatred I share. He kept all established authority at arm’s length, even when his stand-offishness brought financial hardship; he valued his independence too highly. I too have given top priority to my independence, to the detriment of my financial well-being. He was also a bit of an intellectual snob; but you don’t need to be reminded of my strengths in that attribute. Another weakness we share is a tendency to whine. It seems that half of Erasmus’ letters contain some reference to his problems with kidney stones. In the end, Erasmus was vilified by most of his contemporaries; something I can relate to. Like Erasmus, I shall probably die with a sense of personal failure, convinced that the world has failed to capitalize on the most obvious benefits of interactive design.
So I feel deep affinity for Desiderius Erasmus. He was not one of the greatest men of all times; he had many flaws. But his flaws are my flaws, and I share some of his strengths. I read his letters and I sense a kindred spirit. I would have liked to meet Erasmus, to spend time with him. We would have gotten along famously.
Why is it Leaf-Bladed?
In March of 1993 I lectured in Dublin, and while I was there I visited the National Museum looking for bronze leaf-bladed swords. They had only one small example on display. I asked the security guard if there were any more, and ended up talking with one of the museum archaeologists, who directed me to a government bookstore down the street and a copy of Catalog of Irish Bronze Swords. This is a simple book that describes every leaf-bladed sword known to have been found in Ireland. There are over 600 entries in the catalog. At least a third of the swords have been broken at the waist.
Why so much breakage? The design is obviously weak at the waist; why didn’t the Celts who made these swords recognize the weakness and correct it? At this point, I have to digress in half a dozen different directions. Brace yourself.
Darwinian Sword Design
First off, I’d like to make an important observation: throughout human history, weapons design has been one of the most ruthlessly Darwinian elements of human culture. New ideas in architecture, agriculture, or engineering can slowly percolate from culture to culture, but nothing translates directly into cultural survival or destruction like weapons technology. Throughout much of ancient history, warfare was intrinsically genocidal. My tribe needs new land; we uproot and move onto your tribe’s land. All my men fight all your men. One side wins and takes the land. The other side moves on. And whoever had better weapons had a big advantage.
This absolute law of weapons development is most obvious in the development of the sword, “queen of weapons”. The sword has been the fundamental weapon of warfare for most of history. The sword first appeared around 3000 BC as a stick with sharpened bits of stone attached. From that time forward, the sword was the primary battlefield weapon until the advent of gunpowder around 1500; even then, swords continued to be militarily significant weapons right through the Napoleonic Wars. Only after 1820 did the sword recede to the ceremonial role that it now plays.
During this long history we have seen countless variations on the basic theme of a sharpened stick. Some swords are huge, nearly five feet long and weighing so much that it takes two hands to wield them. Others are so light and fine that a swordsman can wield one in each hand. But the most interesting changes have been in the shape. All sorts of shapes have been tried: straight and curved, single-edged and double-edged, bent shapes and twisted shapes. There’s even a long knife called a kriss that has a wavy shape.
Amid all this experimentation we’ve seen lots of oddities, but we’ve also seen some basic themes that keep reasserting themselves. The ideal length for a sword is about 33 inches. In ancient times, when metals weren’t as strong and people were smaller (because of poor nutrition), the ideal length seemed to be about 24 inches. Sure, there were lots of variations on this, but the swordmakers kept coming back to that basic size. The basic shape, a straight blade with gently tapering edges, has been stable for about 2500 years. Over the centuries there were many variations on these themes but under the Darwinian pressure of constant warfare, the basic design always prevailed.
So here we have the leaf-bladed sword as a glaring exception to the rule. Here is a design that was used by the Celtic peoples and only by the Celtic peoples; for a period of about 700 years. Why did the Celts stubbornly cling to this design for so long? We know that it’s a bad design; if it had any value, somebody else would have toyed with it during the 3,000 year history of the sword. But in all the history of the sword, only the Celts used the leaf-bladed shape with any seriousness.
Here are some Celtic leaf-bladed swords in the British Museum.
Explanation #1: Mechanics
I came up with three explanations for the Celts’ perverse behavior. My first thought was that the leaf-bladed design was actually a good idea, because it moves the center of percussion closer to the center of gravity.
Huh? you grunt.
Let’s talk about mechanics. You probably know what center of gravity is: the natural balance point of any object. Balance a sword on your finger; the place where it balances is the center of gravity. Center of percussion is the point where an impact generates no kick. It’s the sweet spot on a tennis racket or a baseball bat. If you hit the ball on the sweet spot, you feel a satisfying thunk as the energy in the racket or bat is smoothly transmitted to the ball. But if you hit the ball below or above the sweet spot, the handle kicks in your hand.
With a sword, the center of percussion will normally be about a third of the way down from the point. The center of gravity, though, will be closer to the handle. However, the leaf-bladed design moves the center of gravity further out the blade and thus closer to the center of percussion. I thought that, if the center of gravity and the center of percussion were closer, then somehow it would be easier to swing the sword in a way that hits harder.
There’s only one problem with this reasoning: the Celts didn’t fight that way.
Imagine a swordfight. What happens? You’re probably visualizing two guys swinging swords at each other with much clanging of metal. Freeze that image for a moment and paste a large label over it that says, “Hollywood!”
Now let’s talk about real swordfighting. There are three basic strokes that you can use with a sword: cut, thrust, and draw. The cut is the obvious stroke: you use the sword like a club, swinging it at the opponent and cutting him with the edge of the sword. The thrust is a stabbing motion with the point of the blade. The draw is a tricky maneuver in which you rake the point of the blade across the front of your opponent, ripping him open. It works best with a curved blade; which is why cavalry use curved sabres.
Now, the draw is too tricky to use in most cases, so for most swordfighting your choice is between the cut and the thrust. And the thrust is always preferable to the cut. Why? Well, first off, there’s the matter of quickness. To thrust, you need only push your sword a foot or so forward, but to cut, you need to swing it through a wide arc. That’s a slower process. I can thrust twice in the time it takes to cut once. More important, the cut makes you vulnerable. For perhaps a second, while you draw back the sword for the swing that precedes the cut, you’re wide open. The thrust, on the other hand, can be converted into a parry in a fraction of a second.
The most important advantage of the thrust, though, comes from the damage it does. Consider the impact of a cut-stroke. If you swing your sword at your opponent, where will the impact fall? Most likely on an arm or leg. It will hurt him a great deal, but it won’t kill him and it might not even incapacitate him. But if you thrust at his trunk, the blade need only penetrate an inch or two to find its way into all sorts of critical organs and blood vessels. In short, a successful thrust is often fatal, while a successful cut is seldom fatal.
Thus, it would seem that the thrust is always preferable to the cut. Ah, but there is a situation when the cut-stroke is desirable: when your opponent is wearing body armor. Here we go with another digression!
The only flaw with the thrust is that there’s not much power behind it. The human arm is strong enough to thrust a sword into somebody’s guts, but a thin sheet of metal can easily deflect such a blow. For this reason, people started wearing metal armor around 700 BC, and that armor made thrusts much less useful.
A cut-stroke is another matter. You can pack a pretty good wallop in a cut, good enough to penetrate light armor. So as people started wearing armor, a new style of swordfighting developed, a style that peaked during the Middle Ages. Basically, you just whacked away at the opponent, hoping to inflict minor injuries that would cause him to lose blood and weaken. Eventually he’d get tired and weak enough that you could knock him down and jam your sword through one of the cracks in his armor. It was, in essence, attrition on a personal scale.
So the classic style of swordfighting in the days when knights were bold involved armor, big heavy swords, and lots of cut-strokes. But that’s not the way that people fought when the Celts were making leaf-bladed swords, before body armor became common. Before the advent of body armor, they used the thrust-stroke for most swordfighting. And you don’t care about the center of percussion or the center of gravity when you use a thrust-stroke. Mostly, you want a long sword.
Explanation #2: Aesthetics
So I had to ditch my first explanation for the leaf-bladed shape. Let’s go to the second explanation. It came to me while I was walking through the streets of Dublin. I glanced down at a metal plate covering an underground electrical junction box. These are common sights in cities the world over, but I was struck by the lettering on the plate. Everywhere else in the world, these plates will have nondescript, businesslike lettering presenting the name of the electrical company. But this coverplate sported a sensitive cursive script arranged in an artistically satisfying fashion. I thought, these Irish Celtic people are truly siezed with the artistic spirit. And indeed, if you will accept one-word characterizations of entire peoples, then I would say that where the Romans were bureaucrats and the Greeks were thinkers, the Celts were artists. Perhaps they knew perfectly well that the leaf-bladed design wasn’t as efficient, but they stuck with it because it suited their sense of aesthetic. Perhaps the shape spoke to them the same way it speaks to me.
Before you dismiss this line of thinking as romantic nonsense, let me tell you a little bit about the history of the Celts. They had a tiny class of professional warriors who led the citizen armies in battle. These warriors fought naked. My impression is that they did so for aesthetic reasons. The act of killing was some sort of ultimate expression of their manhood, and so they had to reveal their manhood as part of the act. Now, a battle is the last event in the world that I would attend without any clothes on. The Celtic attitude wasn’t at all pragmatic. But I have to hand it to them: going naked was impressively artistic soldiering.
I think that the appeal of the leaf-bladed shape lies in its sexual ambiguity. Now, I will readily admit that a sword is a deeply masculine artifact. It’s not just the phallic aspect that makes it so masculine – it’s the power as well. But the leaf-bladed sword is different; it is also feminine. I realized this when I found myself referring to the base of the sword as the “hip”. Look at this drawing of the sword that I made:
Notice how the sword swells at the “chest”, narrows at the “waist”, and widens again at the “hips”. This curvaceous design is profoundly feminine. After much thought, I have come to the conclusion that the deepest appeal of the leaf-bladed sword for me lies in this unification of the male and female aspects.
Culhych and Olwen
But would the Celts really have thought in such terms? I think so. In 1992, I found a book by John Layard entitled A Celtic Quest. It is a detailed Jungian analysis of the story “Culhych and Olwen” from the Mabinogeon, a collection of Welsh myths whose origin stretches far back into prehistory. I tend to take a dim view of overwrought analyses that squeeze every nuance of a story for meaning, and I am especially skeptical of Jungian fluff, but I found Layard’s case compelling. “Culhych and Olwen” is undeniably a story of psychological growth and transformation, of the need for a man to accept and embrace the feminine element of his personality.
The basic story is as follows: Culhych (pronounced “Kill-hooch”, where the “ch” is aspirated, halfway between a “k” and an “h”) is told by his mother that there is only one woman for him to marry, Olwen, and he must win her hand. So Culhych travels to the court of King Arthur to seek his help. Arthur agrees to help and Culhych, Arthur, and several others travel to the castle of Ysbaddaden (pronounced “Oos-ba-tha-den”), Olwen’s father. Now, Ysbaddaden is a giant, and a nasty one at that. He has killed every suitor to seek Olwen’s hand. Culhych and Arthur confront Ysbaddaden and ask for Olwen’s hand. Ysbaddaden tries to kill them but they survive his assaults, so Ysbaddaden gives them a list of tasks they must perform to win her hand. The list is immensely long and seemingly impossible. Yet Culhych, at Olwen’s direction, optimistically promises that he shall complete all the tasks easily. Arthur and his men set to work to carry out the tasks. Significantly, Culhych himself does none of the work. The story then meanders along as they hunt mighty pigs, slay giants, cut the hair off of people, rescue prisoners, and all manner of other feats. Eventually, they complete the tasks, at which point Ysbaddaden acknowledges their success and passively awaits the death that he knows inevitably results from their success. They kill Ysbaddaden and Culhych takes Olwen and they live happily ever after.
My own interpretation of the story contradicts Layard’s interpretation in many ways but is nevertheless based on Layard. The story is really about a man’s psychic journey; all the characters in the story are really components of the male personality. Culhych himself represents the bundle or shell in which all the other components live; Olwen is the feminine aspect of male personality. His mother tells him that he must “marry Olwen”, meaning that he must find and integrate the female side of his personality. But his mother can’t do that for him. For that, he needs the help of the most intensely masculine component of his personality, symbolized by Arthur and his companions. These heroes must delve deep into the recesses of the personality to confront and overcome the emotional structures of boyhood. The emotional dependence on father must be hunted down and killed, just as Arthur and his men hunted down Twrch Trwyth the wild boar (pronounced “Toorch Troo eth”). After that, an even more difficult task must be accomplished: the dependence on mother must be set aside. In Culhych and Olwen, Arthur had to enter a cave and kill a dangerous hag. Only after the emotional impedimenta of boyhood have been cleared away can a man clearly perceive his feminine side, not as an extension of his mother or a reaction to his father, but as something independent of his parents – something of his own identity. When these monsters have been cleared out, then the rebellion against authority figures, represented by Ysbaddaden, inevitably dies. The young man is no longer fighting to prove himself. He can embrace his feminine side and move on from there.
The details of the interpretation are debatable but the overarching message is undeniable. The Celts understood the importance of masculine and feminine in the male personality. Further support for this comes from other branches of Celtic mythology. For example, one common theme is the woman warrior-teacher who accepts a young man into her discipline and then teaches him the ways of the warrior. She is more skilled than he and he learns humility as well as weaponry.
I believe that the Celts clung to the leaf-bladed shape for aesthetic reasons. The Celts were an intensely artistic people; I believe that they were fully capable of subordinating pragmatic considerations to aesthetic ones. There may have been other reasons, but the aesthetic component is too strong to deny.
Explanation #3: Length Plus Thrusting
I have a third explanation, which is even more involved. Let’s delve into the mechanics of injury during a sword-thrust. The point enters the victim’s trunk and begins penetrating vital organs. Exactly how much damage is done by the penetration? That depends on two factors: the depth of the penetration and its width. A two-inch wide blade penetrating two inches into the trunk should do approximately as much damage as a one-inch wide blade penetrating four inches into the trunk. So for maximum injury, you want a blade that maximizes both penetration and width. There’s one optimal shape for that task: a wedge. You want a sharp pointed-blade that widens rapidly. Thus, the business end of the blade should look like this:
But now let’s consider another factor: length. You want the blade to be long, right? So is this the kind of sword you want:
This is obviously the wrong way to go, but they tried it; I have seen swords just like this in the British Museum. They’re only about 18 inches long, and they’re obviously too clumsy to be useful. One solution is to divide the sword blade into two parts: the business end, which does the cutting, and the extender, which merely gets the business end closer to the victim. It looks like this:
This device is called a “spear”. Spears are very powerful weapons, as they can be quite long. However, there’s still a need for a one-handed weapon that’s maneuverable and can be used defensively. So back to the sword. The obvious way to correct the problem of the too-wide blade is to give it a diet:
If you simply smooth out those corners, you end up with the simple leaf-blade shape:
But there’s one last problem: how to fit the handle onto this blade. Remember, this is a thrusting blade. That means that the force must be delivered along the axis of the blade. But imagine your fingers wrapped around the handle: what is there to push against? If you were to push, and encounter resistance, your fingers would slide onto the rear of the blade and you’d cut your own fingers. That’s not good design! What you need is something to take the impact of the blow, a wide, blunt portion of the blade against which your hand can push. It looks like this:
This is nothing more than the classic leaf-bladed sword. Here again is the design for my leaf-bladed sword, scaled down:
The point of all this is that the leaf-bladed sword makes a lot of sense if you think of it as a thrusting sword, and it makes little sense if you think of it as a cutting sword.
Early Attempts at Making Bronze
Returning now to the main story:
I had long been tempted to make my own blades out of bronze, but was stymied by a simple problem: where would I get the tin? The ancient bronzes were typically made of 90% copper and 10% tin. Copper is easy enough to find: you can buy copper wire in any hardware store. But pure tin is another matter. I called some chemical supply houses and found that reagent-grade tin cost about $50 per ounce. That was too high for my budget.
Then one day I was wandering through the local hardware store when my eye fell on some solder. The spool was prominently labelled, “Lead-free”. Something in me clicked. Solder is a combination of lead and tin. If not lead, what? I read the fine print: “95% Tin, 5% Antimony.” Bingo. I had my source of tin.
Of course, there was also 5% antimony in that solder, and the ancient bronzes had no antimony in them. However, recall that my tin mixture would comprise only 10% of the overall mixture; thus, the antimony in the final bronze would amount to no more than 0.5% of the final alloy. This was acceptable to me. After all, the ancient bronzes were full of impurities. Some had up to 5% lead. Even more interesting, a few of the swords had tiny amounts of gold and silver mixed in. It is unlikely that this was an accident; I suspect that the swordmaker wanted to add some class to his work by incorporating just a whiff of noble metal.
I bought the tin solder, some copper wire, and an iron melting pot. Then I took everything home, put the copper and tin into the melting pot, hung it from a stand, and turned my propane torch onto it. I didn’t know how hot I’d need to get it, but I figured I’d just try it and see.
It was a complete bust. The tin solder melted, but the copper wire only discolored. It didn’t come close to melting. So I bought two more propane torches and set them underneath the melting pot. I figured that three torches could generate a lot of heat. No dice. The copper didn’t even soften.
Discouraged, I pulled out my wife’s old CRC tables, a kind of “know-it-all-book” for physics and chemistry. There, under copper, I found that the melting point of elemental copper is 1850 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s very hot! I was going to need a lot more than a propane torch.
To achieve such high temperatures, I needed an enclosed furnace. My eye turned toward our old barbecue pit. It was basically a metal shell on four legs. We hadn’t used it in several years; I wondered if it could be turned to the task. Of course, if I wanted high temperatures, I’d have to soup it up. My shop vac provided the perfect means of doing so. I figured that it could pump enough air to get that barbecue really cooking. So I filled the thing with charcoal, placed the melting pot in the center, and ignited the charcoal. Once the fire had taken, I closed the lid and applied the air. My, my, how it did roar! Flames shot out of the top of the barbecue and leaked out the sides. The thing shook and rattled; my wife grew fearful and begged me to stop. But I was intoxicated with my mad-scientist barbecue and pressed on. It started to glow a dull red; I knew that I was achieving hellishly hot temperatures in the center. Eventually the charcoal was all burnt up and I turned off my shop vac. After an hour’s cooling I cracked open the barbecue with pounding heart.
The barbecue pit was a loss. The aluminum fittings had all melted. The grate inside was twisted and half-melted. Even the shell had thinned and distorted in places. But the damn copper wire was unfazed. There it sat, with no indication that I had come close to melting it. I felt like a test pilot who’d crashed the plane without breaking the sound barrier.
The Blast Furnace
Obviously what was needed was a more determined approach. I refused to accept defeat; the leaf-bladed sword had me firmly in its grasp. I had set my heart on making my own bronze leaf-bladed sword and I was not to be deterred by failure. The next escalation was to build a blast furnace. The word “blast” comes from the blast of forced air the provides excess oxygen so that the fire burns hotter. The Celts used a couple of strong backs pumping bellows; I used my shop vac. I bought 150 firebricks and piled them to make a box 27 inches on a side. The top of the furnace sloped inward to form a ceiling, while on the bottom I left a hole for my air blast to enter.
I bought steel rods with which to make a grate. My local hardware store sold coal in 100-pound bags; that would supply my fuel. I cut a mold of a leaf-bladed knife into two of the firebricks. Then I gathered my parts together and made ready. On the big day, I piled the coal into the blast furnace and placed the melting pot with the copper and tin in the center. Then I lit the fire with my propane torch.
The fire didn’t want to take. I had to help it along with my propane torch. It piddled along weakly, while I tried everything I could to help it out. Slowly the fire gathered heat, but since I had lit the top of the coal first, the fire had difficulty working its way downward against the natural draft of the furnace.
Eventually it gathered some strength, but this only caused it to emit clouds of black smoke. I was certain that the volunteer fire department would mobilize in response to the ominous pillar of smoke that towered over my home. I frantically tried applying air from my shop vac, but that only seemed to make the smoke worse. My neighbor came running over, sure that my house was afire. I gazed upward at the towering plume, sick with the thought that I was releasing more air pollution than at any other time in my life.
Eventually the fire stabilized and the furnace began to heat up. I let it burn for another half an hour and then pushed aside some of the topmost bricks and looked inside. There was a bright red liquid in the melting pot! I had actually made bronze! I jumped up and down for joy. I reached in with a metal hook to pull the melting pot out of the fire. I placed it onto the ground beside the furnace and then seized it with a pair of tongs. It glowed a bright cherry red! Then I poured the bronze into the mold, but I was so excited that I spilled much of it in the process.
It didn’t work. Most of the bronze spilled out the sides of the mold. Only a small amount stayed inside, not enough to make a knifeblade. My mold wasn’t sealed well enough. But I had my first piece of real bronze from my blast furnace. It was a step forward.
There wasn’t anything to do but let the furnace burn out and cool off, and try again another time. I had to disassemble the furnace and clean out all the coal ashes. Two weekends later, I was ready to try again.
For my next try, I smoothed the mold more carefully to get a better seal. Also, I put some charcoal in the furnace to help it start better. But the fire still started poorly, sending out huge volumes of smoke. And this time I spilled the bronze as I pulled the pot out of the furnace.
The third try was successful. I learned to use barbecue lighter fluid on the coal to help it start better. I got the bronze out of the furnace and poured into the mold, and when I split the two halves of the mold, I found a bronze knife blade! I was on my way!
Convection, Conduction, and Radiation
On the fourth try, I melted the melting pot. When the time came to pull the pot out of the furnace, I looked into the furnace and couldn’t find anything. Where’d it go? There was nothing to do but wait for the furnace to burn out and cool off, then take it apart and see. Sure enough, there was a big puddle of metal at the bottom of the furnace.
There followed a series of burns in which I kept melting my melting pots. I couldn’t understand the problem. One minute I’d peer into the furnace and see unmelted copper; five minutes later I’d look in and find nothing at all. It made no sense. Copper melts at 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, and iron melts at 3500. How come the iron pot was melting before the copper? I was going nuts. I thought that it might have something to do with poor airflow, so I widened the exit hole at the top of the furnace to get more air flow through the coal.
In the meantime, I was running out of pots. I bought out all the melting pots at the local Orchard Supply hardware store, then went to another Orchard Supply store, and another, and another. I reached the point where I had hit up every single Orchard Supply in the Santa Clara valley for melting pots.
After many trials and melting several hundred dollars’ worth of melting pots, I figured it out. The realization came to me as I was in the shower. You see, we normally think of heat transfer in terms of convection and conduction. Convection is heat transfer by means of mass transfer. When you feel warm air on your face, that’s convection. Conduction is heat transfer by physical contact. When you burn your hand on a hot pipe, that’s conduction.
I was thinking about heating the copper in terms of convection and conduction. But there’s another way that heat can flow from one place to another: radiation. After all, that’s how the sun heats the earth. And at the high temperatures inside a blast furnace, radiation is more important than either convection or conduction.
So here’s this pile of coal generating huge amounts of heat, some of which is being transferred to the melting pot by radiation and conduction. That’s what raises the temperature of the melting pot. But the copper inside the melting pot is also losing heat to radiation through the hole in the top of the furnace. In other words, the copper was radiating heat into the sky through that hole, and I was making matters worse by making the air hole bigger. A bigger hole allowed more air to flow, which made the coal burn hotter, so that the furnace as a whole increased in temperature. But it also lowered the temperature of the copper by allowing it to cool more rapidly through the radiation through the air hole. So by increasing the size of the air hole, I increased the temperature of the melting pot but lowered the temperature of the copper.
Result: no bronze and melted pots.
The solution was ridiculously simple: all I had to do was decrease the size of the air hole at the top of my furnace. With that done, the melting problem was much diminished; but not eliminated. Over the next few burns, I learned to regulate the temperature by moving the air hose from the shop vac closer or further away from the air inlet at the base of the furnace. It was rough and ready, but good enough.
Thus it was that on the tenth or twelfth attempt, I poured good bronze into a good mold and got a good bronze blade. It was a proud moment.
How to Make a Mold
The next challenge was to pour a sword. This created a new problem: how was I to get a mold long enough to do the job? My knife mold had been made out of two firebricks nine inches long. My sword would need a 30-inch mold. How would I find something that long?
My first approach was to make a mold out of clay. I made the clay, cut the mold, and then let it dry. But the clay ruptured under the heat of the bronze. So then I tried a mixture of clay and sand. That didn’t work either. I made two wooden frames 30 inches long and poured my clay/sand mixture into it, then shaped it while it was wet. But as the mold dried, it cracked and the carefully smoothed surface, so critical to a good seal, warped and cracked.
I decided to try a horizontal mold. I took one of the two clay molds and patched it up with more clay, then let it dry for a week. Then I laid it flat on the ground and prepared to pour bronze into it right there. I figured I’d get a big hunk of bronze that would need much grinding to get it into shape, but at least I’d have something. Even that approach failed. First, I let the furnace get too hot and the melting pot sprang a leak. Half my bronze ran out before I pulled the pot. I poured the remainder into the mold and end up with a very artistic looking piece with holes; but it sure wasn’t a sword. Moreover, tiny amounts of water in the mold turned to steam when the bronze hit, and the steam bubbles distorted the sword. This was obviously not the right approach.
About this time I decided that my problem was with my clay, so I resolved to make my own clay. I went to a good spot on my land and dug out some thick, gooey clay. Then for the next month I processed my clay, mixing the raw clay with water and then pouring the mixture into a bowl to evaporate. What remained was a fine, pure clay. Over the course of a month or two I built up about three pounds of clay. When I tried to make a mold from my homemade clay, it shrank and cracked just as readily as the storebought stuff.
OK, so I decided to try another approach. I scoured landscape supply dealers, looking for big flat pieces of rock that could be used to make molds. I tried flagstone, but it wasn’t smooth enough. My best experiment came with a couple of cement rainspout pieces. They were about 26 inches long. I bought two and carved out my sword shape on their smooth back sides. I figured that I’d clamp the two halves together and pour the bronze into them. It was a good plan, but I ruined it with a mistake.
From the beginning I had worried that the molten bronze might freeze at the mouth of the mold. You see, the mold is much colder than the bronze, and it will cool the bronze as soon as they touch. If it cools it enough, then the bronze will freeze before it falls to the bottom of the mold, and I won’t get a good pour. I decided that the mold should be heated prior to the pour. To heat such a large mold, I decided to place it on top of the furnace, to be heated by the exhaust jet of flame. Sure enough, the mold got real hot, but that created two new effects I hadn’t figured on. First, the bottom of the mold was much hotter than the top, because it was right on top of the exhaust hole. Because of the temperature difference, the whole mold warped slightly; when I put the mold halves together, they didn’t seal. Moreover, heating up the concrete destroyed it; the molds crumbled. Scratch one more trial.
I tried one other scheme: I carefully set six bricks in two stacks of three, end to end; each stack was 27 inches long. Next I cut the sword shape into the stack to make a mold. Then I stacked the bricks next to the furnace with the intention of pouring the bronze into the stack. If I was lucky, I told myself, then all the parts would line up perfectly and I’d get a good pour. But when I actually set it up, I shook my head in dismay. It would take only one brick being out of place by one millimeter to ruin the whole scheme. This would never work. I didn’t even attempt it.
It was now the fall of 1993 and I was growing discouraged. It seemed as if I would never get a sword out of all this work. I had attempted more than 15 burns and gotten a total of three knife blades. I began to wonder if this wasn’t too great a challenge. I had spent more than $600 chasing this chimera; I had contaminated my lungs with coal smoke. Perhaps the time had come to admit defeat. But I couldn’t quite give up. I would make one more attempt; if it failed, I would graciously yield to Fate. But by God, this was going to be one helluvan attempt.
I started by carefully reconsidering my approach. I liked the idea of the stack of bricks, but how could I insure that they would line up perfectly? The idea came to me, that if I built a wooden cradle around the bricks, the cradle could hold them in place.
During the winter I built my wooden cradle, then I set the bricks into it. I drilled holes through the cradle and into the bricks, then glued dowels in place to secure the bricks to the cradle. When I was done, I set one stack on top of the other and pushed them back and forth for about an hour, thereby smoothing the mating surface to get a good seal.
Next I had to cut the sword shape into the mold. I used my computer to design a sword outline, which I printed on my printer with several sheets of paper. I taped these together and cut out the sword shape. I then placed that sword shape onto the bricks and sprayed black paint over the whole thing. When it dried, I had a clear template for cutting. I repeated the process with the other side and I had my mold. Careful thought had yielded another good idea: I had learned to smear wet clay along the edges of the mold to seal it. The water in the clay would cool the oncoming bronze and freeze it, thereby plugging any leak.
It was now March of 1994. Confident that I had solved the problems, I invited a group of people to my home to witness my triumph. Once again, Fate punished me for my presumption. Everything went wrong. The pots melted. I spilled a potful of bronze when the handle broke. It was an appalling disaster; I didn’t get a single blade out of the day’s work. I was beside myself with fury. Graciously yield to Fate? Screw that noise! I was so angry that I resolved to get it right the very next day. I cleaned and prepared with manic energy, and on the following day I went to work. Where cool planning and careful preparation failed, raw anger succeeded. This time, everything went perfectly. When the moment of truth came, I split with mold with shaking fingers and beheld a perfectly formed blade! I carefully pulled it out of the mold and held it up for Kathy to photograph. Even with an air mask covering my face, the photo plainly shows the joy in my eyes.
Here are some photos showing the process, taken on Saturday and on Sunday:
The blast furnace at full roar.
Pouring the molten bronze into a knife mold.
The happy mad scientist and his creation
The sword fresh out of the mold, with some flashing removed.
The sword after basic grinding and polishing
I spent April and May grinding the sword blade. First I had to take off the rough crust on the exterior of the blade. Then I had to carefully shape the blade to the exact outline I desired. Next came the tedious process of smoothing the surface so that it would reflect one’s image smoothly. This is most difficult to do with hand tools; deviations of just a few thousandths of an inch show up plainly as distorted reflections. To accomplish this, I used a long straight piece of carborundum material and scraped it back and forth along the blade. Then I sanded it with progressively finer grades of sandpaper and finally polished the blade on the polishing wheel. During June I made the three pieces of the handle, carefully fitting them to the blade. It was difficult work; I made and discarded two crosspieces before I had the one I liked.
At the end of June, I completed my long journey by finishing my first leaf-bladed sword. It had taken me more than three years. I hold the sword in my hands and tell myself, “I created this with my own hands.” It resonates for me. But it’s not good enough. The blade is too wide; the handle too chunky. The design lacks feminine grace and elegance. I shall make another sword and continue my work, improving upon it, because the resonance is not yet complete.
Here is a photo of the finished sword and a blank straight out of the mold:
and here is a closeup of the two blades: