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Old 10th June 2019, 06:36 PM   #1
kai
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Smile Blade-smithing skills and comparing blade quality (across all cultures and periods)

Hello forumites,

This topic has been repeatedly touched in discussions and I believe it deserves a dedicated thread.

Just a random quote to start things off:
Quote:
Indian makers were often underestimated in their skills.

Yes, I believe pretty much all blade smiths worldwide (from pretty much all cultures and periods) are commonly underestimated for their skill, especially nowadays! Excluding contemporary artisans, the only exception which comes to mind would be Japanese swordsmiths which I'd posit get way too much of a hype, at least as a collective group compared to their colleagues from other countries!

Rather than relying on fame, stories, fads, xenophobia/xenophilia, etc., my default assumption would be that high-end blades of most cultures and most periods were remarkably close in quality regardless of materials and methods being utilized! Pretty much anything but an easy feat - apparently, bladesmithing skills were important enough though.

Granted, not all cultures had the same needs much less comparable means to produce high-end blades. Also the quality control apparently varied quite a bit. Thus, the average quality may vary more widely and the total amount of blades produced for sure.

Just to go with the Indian example: If you can forge wootz blades (possibly from more than one ingot) in a traditional forge without loosing the crystalline microstructure, your bladesmithing skills are certainly not bad (and you could also figure out an inserted edge if needed). If you can manipulate the forging to achieve pattern-welding in wootz, you also can do complex pattern-welding with laminated steel if you choose to do so. If you can obtain suitably differentially-hardened sword blades with traditional equipment, you really know what you're doing, period.

Let's try not to focus on the pros and cons of crucible steel here. Just having a look at high-end blades from different cultures, I do see more similarities in skill (as suggested by the end product) than differences: early Celts, Alamanni, Vikings, Mediveal Europe, Ottoman, Bhukara, Mughal, Hindu India, Himalaya, Shan, Aceh, Sunda, Mataram, Kayan, Tausug, Waray, Guangdong, Quing, Koto (an admittedly incomplete, biased, and very idiosyncratic enumeration just to name a very few examples!).

This is kind of a working hypothesis and I can't offer hard comparative data yet; so far my personal experience with antique, traditional blades (from especially Southeast Asia) seems to support this notion though. Feel free to counter my claims and discuss, please!

To cut to the chase, we really need hard data. What would you consider important quality indicators for (high-end) blades and how to measure them?

Regards,
Kai
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Old 10th June 2019, 06:51 PM   #2
mross
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I agree with your supposition. I have said many times over some of the Moro blades I have seen are the equivalent of the Japanese blades. Unfortunately one of the best ways to determine the skill of the smith is to examine the granularity of the steel. The only way to do that is cut a section off and examine it. If you ever watched a video of someone making a twist core blade, it is mind blowing to imagine the skill required to that with a charcoal forge and bellows and less than optimal tools.
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Old 10th June 2019, 11:29 PM   #3
Bob A
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Fascinating topic.

It's not an easy subject to quantify. Determining quality of a blade might be best achieved through actual use as intended; however, not many of us are inclined toward physical combat, mano a mano, sensibly preferring verbal exchanges.

Then there's the question: can one compare battle tools with more carefully crafted exhibition-grade weaponry, in which the smith's talents would be more visible?

My immediate thought is that the best of both worlds might be found in high-quality Japanese swords - elegant, very artful, and deadly effective. I have no exposure other than pictures/museum-ogling to back this up, but certainly their reputation is top-drawer.

I've been impressed with some high-end Ottoman-area work, jambiya/khanjar examples artfully created with wootz steel, as well as an Albanian yatagan cored with 4 rows of rose Damascus with plain(?) steel at top and edge, in a silver niello'd hilt. A lovely sword, though not likely to find its way to a battlefield. This is not to discount the lovely Damascus blades found throughout the Mideast, of similar quality.

Indian workmanship has always impressed me. Treating steel as a plastic medium, gracefully working pattern and shape into tools of beautiful destructiveness, made my first encounters with the products of these ancient smiths full of awe.

The swords and daggers of the Malay Archipelago take quality perhaps a step further, with the utilisation of nickel to create innumerable varieties of pamor, and sculpting the blades to an extent beyond what I have seen from India, though there is certainly plenty of cross-cultural influence going on. Adding a metaphysical, symbolic dimension to these blades may have nothing to do with the quality under discussion, but it goes a certain distance toward illuminating the reasons why such apparently flagrant excess exists in the construction of the keris.

As I ramble on, it seems to me that I tend to equate quality more with elements of design and creative use of material, rather than sheer function and utility. I suppose it's basically adding another layer of skill and effort to the fundamental creation of a blade.
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Old 11th June 2019, 12:57 AM   #4
kai
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Hello Bob,

You certainly have a point to emphasize that function may not be limited to mechanical function! Spiritual, talismanic, cultural, etc. functions will affect how quality is perceived in the originating culture and it is important to keep this in mind.

However, since interpretation of these additional functions will usually be limited to the originating culture, they are hard or next to impossible to compare between different periods - much less cultures worldwide. Thus, I'd suggest to keep these additional functions in mind but to concentrate on quality as resulting from blade-smithing craftsmanship and mechanical function for the purpose of this discussion; just a suggestion - keep responses flowing in if you believe something else needs to be discussed, too.

Regards,
Kai
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Old 11th June 2019, 01:03 AM   #5
kai
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Hello Michael,

Quote:
Unfortunately one of the best ways to determine the skill of the smith is to examine the granularity of the steel. The only way to do that is cut a section off and examine it.

Polishing the blade (or at least a window) should usually suffice to get a glimpse of the microstructure of the steel.

Polishing will also yield an impression of the hardness of the edge and blade in general; tough to quantify/compare between different people though!

Regards,
Kai
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Old 11th June 2019, 02:11 AM   #6
Bob A
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Thank you for your reply, Kai.

I mentioned metaphysical influences merely in passing; the main thrust of my post was intended to consider the definition of quality, and to note the distinction between pure function and the additional artisanal input of the smith, in working metal to achieve a higher state of embellishment.

Until we determine what parameters are embodied by "quality" we are left with a very broad field in which to search for answers.
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Old 11th June 2019, 04:39 AM   #7
A. G. Maisey
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I do have some experience in blade smithing, so I'm perhaps thinking in different terms to some other people.

To me, a good quality blade is a blade that does the intended job well.

So my approach is objective driven:-

identify the objective, if that is well satisfied, the blade is of good or better quality.

This approach can be applied to bladed tools, such as wood chisels or reaping hooks, just as it can be applied to a bladed weapon that has been made as a work of art.

Thus, before declaring that something is superb compared to something else, first identify the objective of the item and then demonstrate that it either does, or does not do what it was made to do, and how well, or how badly it does that job.
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Old 11th June 2019, 02:25 PM   #8
mross
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Quote:
Originally Posted by kai
Hello Michael,


Polishing the blade (or at least a window) should usually suffice to get a glimpse of the microstructure of the steel.

Polishing will also yield an impression of the hardness of the edge and blade in general; tough to quantify/compare between different people though!

Regards,
Kai

Somewhat, but the observed cross section granularity has to do with the proper heat treat for the specific steel. The blade can be hard but if the grains are wrong it will snap instead of flex. The flip side is it can still show hard in a polish but bend. I'm looking at this from a metallurgical point of view.
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Old 15th June 2019, 01:16 AM   #9
MitsuWa.
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It has been observed African smiths were very skilled also, considering they were working with stone hammers and anvils and goat skin bellows. Yet they produced elaborate bladed shapes formed almost entirely with forging and minimal grinding.
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