Making swords in the 21st century
This is the fourth episode of a eight-part interview by Carlo Cavazzuti and appeared in its original Italian version on Narrare di Storia.
Making swords in the 21st century can be seen as a weird job. In fact, swordsmithing is easily associated with chivarly, duels of honour and war. Why anyone would need swords today?! Because many brave, passionate ones, as we do, still feed the spark, rediscovering and practicing historical european martial arts! But what does it mean to be a swordsmith in the 21st century?
Q7. The forge of a swordsmith in the 21st century definitely doesn’t look much like one you would have found in a medieval city. Can you tell us what the differences are?
Rodolfo: A whole treatise could be written to answer this question. I will try to be concise: it depends a lot on the production process used by each swordsmith. Certainly very few of us have a water mill, or a mallet and grinding wheels powered by it, but we have the electric power that compensates for the lack of them, as well as electric or pneumatic tools, ultra tech abrasives and what have you, to centralise the production chain in a single workshop; this production chain was once much more segmented and specialised.
Eleonora: There were certainly no computers that could be used to draw, nor all the apps that I use to manage my workflow, like a CRM, for example!
The industrial revolution before and the digital revolution then has changed everything. If our ancestors could look at us, we would be certainly alien to them!
But as a side note, working with different processes doesn’t mean swords are not authentic. This kind of vision corrupts the value and the effort all swordsmiths put in their work today.
Q8. Imagine we are in the medieval forge mentioned in the previous question. A noble gentleman enters and, placing a bag full of silver on the table, asks to have a sword made so he can leave with the good emperor Federico on the road to the Holy Land. What happens next? How would you proceed, and how is it done now, to make a weapon from scratch that can be used in battle? We don’t want to know the secrets of the trade, but just an idea of how you would proceed, from order to delivery.
Rodolfo: To tell you exactly how a commission worked at the time of Federico di Svevia, I would have to have a lot more documented data available; during the centuries I studied from this perspective, between the 14th and the 16th century the city guilds were well-organised. Usually, the private commissions came through an entrepreneurial figure who distributed the work between the various artisans, as the work was much more specialised than as it is today. Today, the swordsmith is expected to be a carpenter, goldsmith, engraver and coppersmith, as well. In part, we have also acquired several of these skills at different levels in recent years, but it’s certainly not like having a team of experts who divide the work into different phases.
Eleonora: I can reiterate what Rodolfo said. To conclude, I can tell you how an order works today as I take care of customer service and design. If a customer chooses a piece from the sport collection, the options are already specified on the website and the order process is immediate. If, on the other hand, they go for a custom sword, whether it’s an artefact or for HEMA, the process is longer as I have to understand what the customer is looking for and if we can satisfy them.
Understanding the customer’s needs is a complex process which requires empathy and listening. You have to guide them through various ideas and proposals, and it’s really important to be creative and to know the subject both from the craftmanship and the historical point of view. So, studying the development of swords through history and swordsmanship is fundemental to connect the dots and offer a bespoke solution.
Q9. From receiving the commission to ending up with the finished sword in its scabbard, ready to be used by a nobleman, how much time do you need and how long did it take in the past?
Rodolfo: I can cite a precious testimony from the end of the 16th century where it’s said that a master weaponsmith from Brescia made 25 swords or 18 polearms in one day. Our production times are a little different. (laughs)
Eleonora: Of course, if we had a larger and better equipped workshop, even with automated processes, our production times and techniques would be different: but this is not our case yet, having built this company with little economic capital and a lot of human capital (hourly speaking), it’s all a work in progress! However, it always depends on the type of sword. Generally speaking, making swords can take anywhere from 8-10 hours for one, to weeks, to even months.
As we deal both with “standardized” products and custom projects, times are really varying. We worked a lot in the last two years to define precise deadlines, setting the production with a methodical schedule, which allows to establish more precise times of completion. For example, a Sport sword can be already in stock, or take around 3 months to be delivered. An Armeria sword, on the other hand, can currently take from 6 to 12 months.
Q10. What difference is there in making swords in different eras? With new technologies, is it still so different to forge a medieval sword compared with a Renaissance or Baroque one?
Rodolfo: There are many studies on ancient forging techniques, and blacksmiths with much more expertise. Our friend Giovanni Sartori could be decidedly more exhaustive, as he specialised in this subject. Much, I think, has always depended on the metal-working method and on the ability to enrich iron with carbon, so I limit myself to saying that in different parts of the world and in different eras, techniques have been used that had the purpose of hardening and subsequently, heat-treating the metal. Conceptually, today we still do the same things, but we have simplified the steps, being able to procure particular metals that meet our needs.
Q11. Is there a difference between forging a blade from the same historical period, but from a different place?
Rodolfo: Without a doubt, starting from the composition of the steel. For this, some production sites were more renowned than others. But then as we said earlier, each craftsman had his own formulas, which also certainly varied according to the raw materials available. If you consider Japan, for example, the master swordsmiths, not having the right technologies nor the mineral in abundance as there is in Europe, drew iron matter from the sand by process of extraction. Here in Europe, it’s always been done through the extraction of iron from the rock. Essentially, I believe it depended on the possibilities of supply of those who produced the blades.
When we think about the ancient world we cannot imagine how much travels and trades were evolved. We think that only because they hadn’t airplanes or trucks, exchanges were less and less effective. But think for a moment at Marco Polo, at the end of 13th century! Iron, as many other goods, traveled all over Europe: for example, from Nothern Italy, it was purchased even from Germany and Spain! Don’t you think it’s amazing? Keep up following us for other contents about the swordsmithing world!
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