Brian Agron, a member of The Vikings of Bjornstad, has forged his own seax, the backup weapon of choice for the Vikings. Here, he documents the process he used to create it.
I recently had the opportunity to take a two day class given by master blacksmith James Austin in his Oakland California shop on forging a traditional Viking era laminated seax (http://forgedaxes.com/?page_id=511) using both materials and methods used during that time period. There are many articles and YouTube videos out there on making Viking style knives and many are using modern day steels and methods showing how to make a knife that looks like the type of knife that was common in that era. You can get a leaf
spring from a car, then cut, grind, file and otherwise tweak it to look like a seax or just buy some cheap reproduction on the
Internet that is probably made in India if you want a knife that looks like a seax, however this article is not about that, but instead it is about making an accurate reproduction of a traditional seax by the ‘old school’ method just as a Viking smith would have done. The result is truly an accurate reproduction of a Viking seax.
First we must define what a seax is. A seax is a knife of a style that was common in Northern Europe in the Viking era but not unique to the Norse and Danish Vikings. The word ‘seax’ means knife in the language of the early Saxons. Basically (there are always exceptions of course) the seax has its single blade edge and back parallel or becoming slightly wider as one moves from the tang towards the point, then there is a diagonal cut, either straight or concave down to the point. The typical seax does not have a hand guard. A seax could have a blade just a few inches long to up to two or more feet in length and they were used as household tools for cutting and eating and as weapons of combat. There is a wonderful article on the seax at http://www.warehamforge.ca/norse-knives/ that is well worth reading for further information on this subject. (At right is a representation of a Viking wearing his seax at his belt.)
The first step in the making of the seax is to acquire the necessary wrought iron which was hand forged into flat strips about an inch and a half wide, perhaps a quarter inch thick and about 6 inches long. Several of the strips were then placed into a tight metal container and surrounded by charcoal and this was baked at yellow-white heat for several hours. This process allowed some of the carbon atoms to migrate into the wrought iron billets producing a high carbon steel. The container was removed from the forge and allowed to cool overnight and the next morning the container was opened and the billets were removed. The surface was gray in appearance and had raised lumps or ‘blisters’, hence the term ‘blister steel’ is used for this type of early steel made by this process. Several sheets or billets of the blister steel were then forge welded together, hammered out, folded over and forge welded back together again. The resulting billet is now called shear steel. Now the fun begins.
A billet of the shear steel with two billets of wrought iron on either side were tack welded to a metal rod and the billets heated in the forge to yellow-white heat. Borax flux was sprinkled on the billets which melted and coated the metal to prevent oxidation and incorporating the iron oxide slag into the future blade. These five billets were then forged welded into one unit by rapid and not too heavy hammering, starting at one end and working to the other end of the billet. It was quickly put back into the forge and the process repeated producing a single billet with a very low carbon wrought iron skin and a high carbon core of shear steel. The resulting billet was then drawn out by repeated hammering, shaping and reheating until the billet was of the appropriate length to form the blade and tang desired. Up to this point all of the work was done by my hand.
In the interest of time, Jim then ground two notches in the billet and used a power hammer to define the start of the tang and then I took the billet back and by more heating, hammering and shaping drew out the tang until it was rectangular in cross section and gently tapering to its end and almost as long as the blade. Repeated hammering and forming produces a lot of stress in the steel and on several occasions I had to ‘normalize’ the blade. Iron and the shear steel are normally magnetic at room temperature, however when raised to a cheery red-orange temperature the metal will lose its magnetism. I put the billet into the forge and brought it up to what we hoped was the appropriate temperature and then removed it. I took a small magnet on the end of a thick wire and tapped the red hot billet. If the magnet wanted to stick to the billet it was put back into the forge for a minute or so and then rechecked with the magnet. When the magnet showed no inclination to stick to the billet then the temperature was correct and the billet was set aside for a few minutes to cool to room temperature.
Now it was time to decide what shape the blade was to take. At first I intended to have the edge and back of the blade parallel with a sharp and straight angle down to the edge, the traditional broken back seax style. There were several examples of previously made seax blades on display and I liked the gentle upward curve of the edge toward the point that some of the examples had. I decided on a straight gentle angle down from the back to meet a subtle upward curve of the blade to form the point. After some brief sandblasting to remove the oxidation and scale on the surface of my blade it went back into the forge and the shape of the point was formed. This was exciting to do because up to this point I had been hammering and forging a billet, but now it was to take on the identity of a seax blade.
When the point had been shaped it then became necessary to take the blade from a flat rectangle in cross section to one that tapered toward the cutting edge. Instead of vertical hammer blows one a billet held flat on an anvil, I now had to hold the billet at a slight angle and strike it with the hammer at twice the angle to the anvil that the billet was being held. This was to transform the cross section from a rectangle to a ‘V’ cross section or bevel the edge. Jim helped in this process by having me hold the blade at an angle and I set on top of it a ‘flatter’ which Jim then struck with a ‘striking hammer’.
The belt sander is then used to remove any oxidation and scale that has formed on the metals surface. The blade has some subtle dents and ripples in it and the back is not perfectly straight or at 90 degrees to the sides of the blade. Everything needs to be trued up and for this process we need to do some sanding. Instead of spending many hours filing and sanding, a vertically oriented belt sander is employed. In the interests of expediency (this is just a two day class after all) I employ this wonderful modern gadget. The subtle dimples and rippled are taken down to virtually smooth sides and the back is trued up. The V shape to the cutting edge is made even.
Now comes an interesting milestone in the whole process. The blade is again heated up to yellow heat taking care that it is heated evenly throughout. The end of the tang is gripped a pair of long tongs and rapidly and vertically plunged into a vat of oil to quench the blade. Briefly flames flicker over the oil as the red hot metal rapidly cools in the oil. Oil smoke and a petroleum scent filled the air as I rapidly moved the blade around in the oil. In the olden days water was used to quench the blade but oil will cool it faster. OK, so using oil is not quite period… Then the blade is tempered in a regular kitchen oven at 440 degrees for an hour. Be sure this process is allowed by your wife or ‘co-owner’ of the oven, actually she owns the oven, no matter what, so be sure she approves of this process. This ‘dead time’ was perfect to get and enjoy a well deserved lunch. What I have now is a blade that is a rough idea of the final product. I am done with the forging and hammering but the work is far from over.
The blade is put on a long wooden block held in a strong vise and the tang of the blade secured to the wood by two ‘C’ clamps. This secures the blade to the wood and prevents the blade from falling onto the floor and being scratched or worse, dented. Securing it with the C clamps also lessens the chance for ‘auto impalement’ a potential problem whenever working with sharp blades. The marks and scratches from the belt sander must be removed so I now take a large file but instead of stroking it back and forth, the file is held in both hands and drawn along the length of the blade. This is a long and meticulous process, working one side then the other until both edges of the blade show only the marks of the file. This is not something which can be hurried, it is as if I am petting my blade. The flats of the blade are now true and the back is made perfectly flat and straight. But there are file marks, subtle though they be and these must be removed by the long and tedious process of wet sanding. I start to see light at the end of this long tunnel. I begin to marvel at the process or journey taken to transform five small thin sheets of iron and steel into this almost living creation.
Next comes the wet stoning of the blade. Instead of sand paper I now take a sharpening / polishing stone to the blade and my fingernails become even more grimy appearing and I wonder if I can get this cleaned up by tomorrow for work. The stone is drawn across the blade only and when that stoning is finished the final polishing stone is applied. This is drawn along the long axis of the blade until any marks left by the previous polishing are gone and the blade appears bright an shiny. I am proud and happy with what I have wrought here but the best is yet to come.
120 grit sand paper is cut into several small ribbons the width of a square wooden dowel. The paper is dipped in a pot of water, held on the wooden dowel and the paper is stroked diagonally across the blade in one direction only, the process is repeated on the other side until all of the file marks can not be seen. The paper is replaced often as the grit is worn off from the constant working against the blade. I go thorough perhaps two sheets of 120 sand paper then switch to 220 grit paper. The object here is to sand almost perpendicular to the direction of the 120 paper until none of the 120 scratches can be seen. The floor is wet and soggy spent sand paper litters the area. My fingers are gray in color and my finger nails are black with spent grit and metal dust. After two sheets of the 220 paper I switch to 360 grit which is getting rather fine and the process repeated again using up two more sheets. Now the blade is taking on a nice polish and is showing signs of orangish brown rust. Yes, rust forms that fast and seeing this rust form in mere minutes is a bit disconcerting but ‘no worries’ Jim tells me.
So far the blade is just a shiny steel color like any other blade, yet hidden from view are some unique subtleties formed or forged two days ago in the forge and set on the anvil. Jim takes the blade and washed it with hot water dish detergent (Dawn is best) to remove any trace of oil and the blade is quickly dried. It is then placed in a shallow pan of a ferric chloride solution which will differentially ‘etch’ the blade. Ferric chloride is not an acid but it produces the same results as a brief bath in a somewhat dilute hydrochloric acid would produce. The patterns of the different layers of iron and sheer steel within seconds become visible, in fact quite prominent and I am quite surprised and very pleased with what I see appear. It remains in this bath for about five minutes then taken out, rinsed and dried with a cloth towel. I take the blade outside and with some very fine 1500 sand paper polish it briefly. This removes most of the visible marks but the blade is put back in the ferric chloride solution for a few more cycles of ‘etching’ and sanding with the 1500 paper. The blade is taken out in the warm sunlight, burnished with 0000 steel wool and then given a coat of fine oil (any good quality gun barrel oil will do) and it is done!
The finished blade. The subtle horizontal stripes and roundish figures along the blade are not smudges but figures in the steel brought out by the etching. Note the markings on the close up and the linear marks on the cutting edge. Though it resembles the hamon on Japanese swords. it is not a hamon. You are seeing the various layers of low and high carbon steel in the blade as it was brought down to a narrow cutting edge, though an ‘auto hamon’ is sometimes produced. The oval shaped markings along the middle of the blade were from hammer blows during the forging that locally compressed the steel layers. This is not a Damascus blade, for that process is forging a blade from multiple twisted steel and iron rods of varying carbon content and is not a process I am going to explain here. Each blade made that day was unique in the markings that were brought out by the ferric chloride bath.
I have some after thoughts on this blade making class. At the risk of sounding like some bean sprout munching new age woo-woo (which I am not!) there is something very ‘spiritually’ satisfying about taking the four primitive elements of Fire, Earth, Air, and Water, and and bringing forth through one's own labor a knife blade. Fire is the forge, Earth brings forth the iron and steel, Air is what makes the forge roar like a dragon, and Water (OK, oil then) quenches and helps polish the blade. The process neither simple or as easy as it looks for there are many pitfalls and problems that can occur in the forging of a blade. Perhaps the most common is that the blade will sometimes bend as it is heated or cooled and it must be tapped and nudged back straight again. Welds may fail when quenched or it can be accidentally dropped and dinged. and Jim will go over these and other problems and teach you how to avoid them, and how to correct them if and when they occur.
The process is far from over however as a handle must be created. Initially I had intended to form an oak block into the handle but changed the design to use antler instead. Many dedicated pet food and pet supply stores carry antler sections, meant for chew toys for dogs, and some patient shopping can come up with very useable antler sections. So many ideas, so little time.
I must thank Jim Austin for his patience in teaching us amateurs on how to make a Viking era seax. My delight and satisfaction of what I now learned and have, is testament to the quality of his instruction. It was his forge, his anvils, his hammers, his tools that I got to use and it was 99% of my hand that made the blade. With the exception of the brief use of a power hammer and the belt sander, all work was by my power.
Jim Austin has a website, http://forgedaxes.com, which goes into detail about the various classes he will be offering. Anyone interested in learning hands-on how to make a Viking seax, or other things Viking, would be wise to contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also used as a reference in this story, as previously mentioned, was the brief essay on the seax to be found at http://www.warehamforge.ca/norse-knives/ perhaps one of the best I have found on the internet. There is an excellent video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVuB_0hxE3c which demonstrates how to make a handle for the seax. Neils Provos, who made the video, was in fact present for the first day of Jim’s class, though (much to my regret) I did not connect him with the video until after the fact.