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The Art of Blademaking

A Wisconsin artist uses ancient techniques to create blades.

The rhythmic pull and push of hand-powered bellows wheezes life into the base of a charcoal fire, kicking a shower of powdered sparks skyward. Inspired flames swirl around the dirt-ringed fire, getting hotter and crazier as raw iron is forged into steel. 

At a great anvil on a stump, Scott Roush’s hammer rises and falls with a clank on a glowing piece of steel. As he pounds it into shape, each staccato blow of steel on hot steel punctuates the music of the forge. It’s blademaking music, old school.

Heirloom Knives

Roush uses ancient techniques – fire and hammer – to create artful, useful heirloom steel knives from clumps of iron found in the ground near his property. Roush lives a sustainable lifestyle with his wife, Courtney, and their two children on a 10-acre plot of sandy scrub oak in a sand-barrens area on the edge of the Chequamegon National Forest near Ashland, Wisconsin.

He uses the acres for a few chickens, for the kids to roam, and for harvesting oak for charcoal (used for blademaking and a heat source for the house and shop).

“I live in the perfect place for blademaking,” says Roush, as he draws a metal file slowly across a cooling hammered-out blade. The area is called Iron Country. Ashland was a major collection point for all the iron ore coming in from mines in the local mountains. Tiger ore, one of the highest quality ores in the country for making steel, was mined here.

Roush uses small clay furnaces to melt down scrap pieces of iron and to carbonize them into blade steel, a traditional technique that goes back thousands of years.

The Iron Age

Scott Roush (left) tends the coals while a friend stokes the fire with bellows.
A member of the American Bladesmith Society, Roush’s work emphasizes fit, finish, and performance.

“I believe a knife, regardless of its artistry, should be built for its intended use and have heirloom value,” he says.

His work draws inspiration from different cultures and time periods, including ancient Norse, Japan, medieval Europe, and the American frontier. 

“I am really interested in the early Iron Age, when it switched from bronze to iron and steel,” he says. “Ancient smiths learned to work with little bits of whatever metal they had and to forge them together. They took advantage of the different metals to create a superior steel and a beautiful pattern in the blade at the same time.”

He also makes sheaths and scabbards, and he does basic leather work. “I really like to make the elements of wood, metal, and leather all come together,” he says. He’s used scraps of bear and goat hide, fur, and more. Roush will spend as long as a full month on a sword and scabbard. There are some knives he can make in two hours, but a classic wood handle takes a day and a half. Fitting a knife with guards takes two or three days. 

Pattern-welded blades take much longer. “I have to add in the time for making the charcoal and building the furnaces,” he says. “There’s a lot of work to it. People know that I can forge the old way, and it adds a component to the collectibility of my work. At least that’s what I tell my wife,” he says.

He enjoys making blades from old railroad spikes, discarded files, and saw blades – any old item that has potential to hold an edge. “I feel there is a conservation ethic embedded in my forging process that goes back thousands of years. My forging takes less electricity than other methods, and it makes better use of raw materials,” he says.

Viking Blades

He makes axes, chisels, hatchets, gardening knives, and wood splitters, but his real passion lies in Viking and medieval-style blades. Medieval Nordic and Japanese smiths, as well as the early American pioneers, were constantly plagued by a shortage of high-carbon steels needed in their toolmaking, so they’d recycle old tool parts and pieces of odd metal, and combine them with high-carbon steel to make their wares.

This process led to some of the most beautiful and functional tools; namely, the San Mai swords of Japan, the laminated steel swords of medieval Scandinavia, and Damascus steel.

These implements not only were beautiful, but also combined the edge retention and hardness of the high-carbon steel with the flexibility and strength of iron and mild steel, says Roush. “A hair-shaving sword is useless in battle if it breaks.”

Roush says he’s still working on the art of heat-treating. “I’m always testing my blades by chopping them into hardwoods and dragging the edges along brass rods to test them for edge retention,” he says. “When you get a blade from me, you can be sure it’s going to be wicked sharp and will always do the job it was intended to do.”

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