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
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.
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.
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
Two changes I have made is one, I have raised the level of my
forge so I may stand while I work and two, I use a large power hammer
called a “Little Giant” instead of two apprentices swinging sixteen
pound sledge hammers when the work requires more force than my three
pound hand hammer can provide.
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 that are inherent to a Japanese sword, cannot be
This is another reason pine charcoal is superior to hardwood
Hardwood charcoal burns into small pieces, restricting the air
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.
piston 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
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
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
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
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 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.
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 maybe I will hear the full harmony.