In ancient times, men who worked with fire and anvil to form shapes from semi-molten metal, were held to be on the verge of the supernatural. After all, they combined the five elements, earth(iron), air(blast from the bellows), fire(the forge), wood(charcoal), and water(the quench), to create objects always useful and sometimes deadly. Having worked for many years as a bladesmith, I can tell you that most of this “magic” is primarily having the skill and knowledge to manipulate the properties of these various elements.
However, there are times when the rhythm is right, the hammer falls exactly and the fire burns hot and steady. At such times, I can almost feel myself flow into the red hot metal and form it more by thought than by hammer. So, with that idea in mind I will tell you of the DragonSong.
I work in the tradition of the Japanese swordsmiths. Little has changed in the thousand or so years since the Katana-Kagi developed their own style of forging blades. The forge is little more than a long narrow trench in the ground with a pipe entering from the side of the trench. The bellows is a rectangular box-shaped affair with two chambers, a rectangular piston and a system of four wooden valves that allows air to be driven into the forge both on the push and the pull stroke. In view of its cleanliness (chemically speaking) and it’s hot burning characteristics, pine charcoal is the fuel of choice for the forge.
Getting the Details Right
Air flow through the fire is critical. If the air blast cannot penetrate deeply into the fire, the nearly white hot temperature, needed to make the countless welds to form the thousands of layers of that are inherent to a Japanese sword, cannot be attained. This is another reason pine charcoal is superior to hardwood charcoal. Hardwood charcoal burns into small pieces, restricting the air flow. In addition hardwood charcoal burns relatively cool. These last two sentences were easily said but they were not learned until I had burned nearly a half a ton (yes, one-thousand pounds) of hardwood charcoal without getting a single good weld. Needless to say, I was not a happy camper. Pine charcoal, on the other hand,burns fast and hot leaving only a fine ash which is blown away by the air blast.
Feeling the Heat
The piston or box bellows has a long T-handle that I push back and forth to create the air blast that fuels the fire. When I push, one set of two valves opens to allow air to be forced into the forge while simultaneously filling the chamber behind the piston. As I reverse the stroke and pull, the two open valves slam shut with a sharp clack and the other two valves open, basically inhaling and exhaling at once. As I stand at the fire pushing and pulling on the bellows handle a cadence is set up as the valves open and slam shut, wood against wood. As the air rushes into the forge the fire leaps up with a deep-throated roar. Tongues of blue and yellow flame envelope the steel heating it to the color and appearance of just-about-to-melt butter. These same tongues of flame travel along the steel handle towards my hand looking for easier prey than the intractable steel lying in its heart.
Set the Rhythm
Add to this the peculiar syncopation of hammer on anvil and the DragonSong is born. With each heat the music grows stronger, encompassing me and flowing deep into the work at hand. I have no thought as to where to place my blows, but rather, I hold the image of the form I want. Hand and hammer, seeming to work independently of any conscious thought of mine, create the shape I see. When the piece is finished it is like looking into a mirror. For as I look at it I see myself looking back. And is usual when I look at myself, I first see the flaws that I created and vow to do better next time. Then the piece moves on to a new owner. I own very little of my own handiwork for the joy is not in possessing the music, but in the making.
Now, it seems, the Dragonsong walks with me away from the forge. At times faint strains come to me then are gone. Other times it is a crashing crescendo, with different lyrics but the same melody. It would seem that there are others who know this song and sing it in their own voice.
One of these days we-you and I- will hear the full harmony.
What is your Song? How do you sing it? Sing it to me for I would like to hear it and to feel it.