The Magical Forge


Not many men know about the complex metallurgy involved in the simple matter of hitting a piece of hot iron with a hammer.  Not many men know what to do with a heap of coal, charcoal, or coke and a piece of iron.  Not many men know what the colours mean on a piece of hot steel, or what happens when a piece of hot steel is plunged into water.  These days hardly anyone knows why witches and blacksmiths are at opposite ends of the magical spectrum, or why being married over an anvil brings good luck.

Even great Pythagoras of yore, stood beside the blacksmith’s door.  ~  Longfellow.

To begin at the beginning, a blacksmith works with fire and iron to produce an artifact by hitting hot iron with a hammer.  All three of the basic elements are capable of infinite subtlety and variation.  A blacksmith can make anything from a nail, to a suit of armour, to a sword.  The black in blacksmith comes from the firescale which appears as hot iron oxidises on it’s surface.  The smith probably comes from the old English word smythe, meaning to strike.

Blacksmiths work in heat and violence while the traditional English witch was a hedge witch who worked with the green and living.  Hedge witches use herbs to treat both physical and spiritual ailments, and traditionally live on the outskirts of a village, whereas the blacksmith’s forge was at the centre of all village life.  All blacksmiths were men, all hedge witches were women because another job for a witch was to attend during childbirth.  Hedge witches would also be consulted on other female problems from menstruation to sterility.

The blacksmith’s fire is where it begins.  These days ‘blacksmiths’ will use propane or oil to heat their forge, and that is utterly pointless.  The point of the fire is that it is the source of carbon which turns iron into steel.  There are only two suitable fuels for a blacksmith’s forge ~ charcoal and coke.  Coal is not a good fuel in a forge as most coal contains sulfur, and sulfur plays merry hell with the crystalline structure of steel.

Both charcoal and coke are almost pure carbon, and carbon is the magical element in the blacksmith’s art.  The amount of carbon present in iron is what turns it into tool steel, mild steel, wrought iron or cast iron.  There is very little margin for error as the carbon content of tool steel is between 0.25% and 2.00%.  Less than 0.25% of carbon iron is wrought iron or mild steel.

Forging is the key process which will turn a piece of iron into that most magical and complex of things, the sword.  Forging is the archetypical image of a blacksmith.  Forging is when hot iron is worked and shaped by hammering.  A blacksmith who can make a finished sword would be given the honourific of swordsmith or bladesmith.

A sword never kills anybody; it is but a tool in the killer’s hand.  ~  Lucius Annaeus Seneca

There are two basic ways to make a sword, or indeed any tool which is to be highly valued and strong enough to outlive the original owner.  One is represented by the highly complex Damascus sword and the Japanese katana, (Samurai Sword).  A katana is forged from a single piece of steel made from iron sand heated to 2200-2800 Fahrenheit with coal to make a block of Tamahagane.


the strength of a sword is shown in the pattern

The block of tamahagane steel is given to the blacksmith / swordsmith for him to forge his magic.  The basic of the process is folding.  A fine sword is not a uniform piece of steel.  To give a sword / knife strength and flexibility what is needed is more like plywood than wood.  The block of steel is heated in the high carbon fire in the forge, taken out and hit with a hammer until the firescale is removed, then the block is folded and forge welded so the piece of steel now has two layers.  The layers have differing properties on their ‘outside’ which is higher in carbon and hard, and the ‘inside’ which is lower in carbon and more flexible.  This folding and forge welding process is repeated many times until the single piece of steel has a structure that looks like a book when viewed under the microscope.

This very complex piece of steel is then forged into the curved shape of a Samurai sword.  Then it starts to get complicated.  An almost finished sword is produced by forging and grinding, but that piece of steel needs hardening and tempering.  Hardening involves heating the steel to the correct temperature, denoted by colour, and suddenly cooling the work by quenching in an oil bath ~ (or more traditionally the body of a peasant).  The sword is now as hard and brittle as a piece of glass.  Tempering is reheating the steel to an ideal temperature, (denoted by colour ~ most likely straw coloured), and then allowing the work to cool in still air.

A sword needs to be hard at the edge and flexible along the back.  Japanese swordsmiths achieve this almost impossible mixture of properties by covering the work with different amounts of clay before heating.  No clay means fast cooling and very hard at the edge, more clay means flexability along the back.

The cold sword is sharpened and polished.  The many layers of steel and different hardnesses show on the finished sword in complex patterns within the steel.


Excalibur ~ magical steel

An English broadsword is both simpler and more complex.  A traditional English broadsword starts out as three pieces of steel.  These will each be forged into about yard long rods.  The three rods are then heated and twisted together to make what looks like badly made rope.  This twisted lump of metal is then forge welded into a sword shape.  Like the Japanese sword the English sword then has a very complex internal structure of layers of hard and more flexible metal.  Beaten into a basic sword shape, the work is forged and ground until an almost finished sword is produced.  The critical thing here is that the sword in much thicker along the centre than it is at the edge.  The work is then hardened and tempered.  Obviously the finer edges will cool much faster during tempering than the thicker centre, to give a hard edge and flexible centre ~ an ideal sword.

Witches do not like steel, and especially they do not like swords.  Witches do not really deal in the virginal world, and since brides are supposed to be virgins marriage ceremonies were conducted as far away from the witch as possible.  That always happens to be the anvil in the blacksmith’s forge.

The worlds of witch and blacksmith are like yin and yang ~ opposite but complimentary.  Me, I’m a blacksmith.  My Lady is a witch.  Perfect match.

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