Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Why Bloom Iron ?- three

(Day 13)

As is becoming obvious to those reading past postings, my main attraction to bloomery iron is a technical / cultural / artistic one.

My close friend (initially teacher and eventually workshop fellow) Lee Sauder was initially inspired to attempt to smelt his own iron because of a kind of Virginia Hillboy Ethic : " You should kill what you eat." As a working artisan blacksmith, he considered it important to the understanding of iron as a material to have experienced the creation of iron bar - from dirt. Lee had originally looked at 'traditional' African furnaces. There was some video that had been shot in the 1970's showing some old fellows undertaking one last iron smelt, from what they could remember seeing as young boys. (Compare this with Europe, where there was no living tradition at all.)
Right - Bloom Iron Vase - Sauder
Of course, the bug bit him big time. When I first met Lee (in 2002) he and his working partner Skip Williams had roughly 50 smelts undertaken (about where I am now). I consider Lee and Skip to be by far the most experienced iron smelting team in North America. Along with Mike McCarthy (and myself) they are at the core of the new 'Early Iron' movement.

My own interest in iron smelting started from a historical standpoint. The first iron ever produced in North America was made by the Norse in Vinland, circa 1000 AD. The site at L'Anse aux Meadows Newfoundland contains the remains of what was most likely a single use furnace. The estimated yield has been (very approximately!) calculated at about a 3 kg bloom.

Because of my work on the Norse Encampment living history program for Parks Canada, I was part of a small research working team in Summer of 2001, considering how best to represent this event to the visiting public. My very first attempt at smelting iron was made at that workshop. (And believe me, if there ever was a case of 'everything you know is wrong' - that certainly was it!)
Right - First Iron Smelt - 2001

From a purely technical standpoint, my interest was sparked by the historical traditions from early Europe. As with Lee and Skip, it was clear that I had to learn how to actually functionally *make* iron first. The clay 'short shaft' furnace that would become the standard model here in Wareham was based on archaeological evidence. However, modern equipment and 20th Century perceptions of science based methods would inform the techniques that were developed.
At this point, if I stick to known raw materials, and follow the established equipment set up and proven method, I can reliably produce a good quality iron bloom every time. An important direction to this continuing experimental work is to remove these modern elements, one by one. The exact methods used in ancient Norse iron smelting represent a completely shattered and unknown working tradition. Even the archaeology can only at best give the most general clues into the actual working methods used 1000 years ago.
Bloomery Iron represents a material functionally different than our modern metals. How you forge individual shapes leading into a completed object can be quite different than those you would use if utilizing modern industrial mild steel.

My interest in Iron as a cultural material remains tightly bound with a lifetime of exploring the history of Scandinavia during its 'Viking Age' - 800 to 1000 AD. The Norse were well known for their skill as metal workers. Their method of welding layered and twisted iron alloys together to create 'pattern welded' (or 'twisted composite core') sword blades created some of the most complex forged objects ever created. Although initially undertaken for purely functional reasons, they would raise the technology to high art.

Sword of Heroes - 2000 Detail
Two 9 layer twisted core rods with spring steel edges.

The raw difficulty of producing iron in the first place, coupled with the limits imposed by small anvils and use of simple charcoal forges combined to lift iron to a material suitable for high status objects. To the Norse, elaborately forged and elegantly designed iron objects were the equipment of kings and queens.
There is a drastic change in our modern frame of reference, where iron (mild steel) is so cheap that it is both plentiful and generally only considered a functional material. As an artisan blacksmith, I strive to change this popular perception of iron as material. The value of aggressively hand forged objects lies in the skill of the hands which had created it, not in the cost of the raw material.

Cauldron Hanger - Sutton Hoo, c 625 AD
(replica, the British Museum)

The Norse possessed a series of distinctive artistic styles, changing over time. My own personal design style, which I call 'Rivendale', has been deeply informed by the artifacts of the Viking Age.

The purpose of my OAC Crafts Project Grant is to allow me working time to blend these aspects of technical tradition, cultural framework - and artistic vision.

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February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

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