Life as a Blacksmith: Making Blades and Getting Paid
What is it like to actually make blades for a living? In real life?
In order to properly make a game about romancing swords, one must get to know their sword intimately. And what better way to study the blade than to go to a blacksmith themselves? Since we feature at least one blacksmith in Boyfriend Dungeon and obviously a ton of swords, we scouted around Montreal to find one. (We take our jobs very seriously, okay?)
Eventually, we met Jacques Gallant of Gallant Metalworks and asked him for an interview. Jacques Gallant is a blacksmith working in Mile-End, Montreal. His work is heavily influenced by his neighbours around him and what his community needs. He likes to think of himself as the village blacksmith, though he doesn’t usually make horseshoes.
Tanya: Is your background in the arts?
Jacques: I do not consider myself an artist. My background is 100% rooted in crafts and practical trades. But most of what I actually do is in fact making interesting, beautiful, and fine objects.
T: How long have you been doing this?
J: Professionally, full-time, 7 years. On a part-time basis, oh gosh, about 20 years. I started in blacksmithing when I was a teenager, as quite a lot of people do.
T: Why do you think people tend to pick it up in teenager-hood?
J: There’s a lot of things about blacksmithing that appeal to impressionable teenage boys, like… fire. Swinging hammers. Making big, long, shiny blades.
All those things definitely appealed to me. But also I grew up around craft and tools. My father was a carpenter, so I grew up knowing how to put things together, making things, and wanting to make things. I had a particular fascination with metal, how it moved, how it worked, or how metals can change by being heated and cooled. I found that all very interesting.
T:: How do blades change based on temperature?
J: You want to get into technical stuff right now?
T: Sure! It’s kind of a transformation, right? How would you describe it?
J: Steel is a very special metal. Much more special than just iron. It’s iron with a little bit of carbon, is the basic recipe for steel. This one metal, unlike all the other metals (copper, gold, bronze, tin, zinc, anything) has the amazing property in which if you heat and cool it at the right temperatures in the right sequence, it can be made soft and then incredibly hard, so it can go back and cut a piece of the original metal. And this amazing property is only found in steel. This is what makes our whole modern world possible — the industrial revolution, lathes, boring, pistons, turbines, etc.
We take it for granted because it’s so common and affordable — you can buy it for a dollar a pound, it’s mundane and surrounds us in our daily lives. But weirdly, it’s the one key element that’s responsible for everything we enjoy today. Steel.
So all of this knowledge of steel was developed in the world of blacksmithing as a secret and special knowledge, all over the world in different cultures and traditions, but more or less in the same time. It was so far advanced in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, we were making complex machinery to a high level of quality without quite understanding the science of what we were doing. The knowledge of the centuries of blacksmithing was developed to such a high degree that the material was ahead of the science of understanding what was going on. It wasn’t until the 30s or 40s that the science caught up.
T: Are all blades made of steel?
J: No, in our modern era, there’s very fine blades of ceramic and some very hard plastics, but that’s not blacksmithing. By definition, a blacksmith is working with iron and steel. A blacksmith might have some other origins, such as a meteor or motorcycle chain, but mostly it’s going to be steel, yeah.
T: Can you remember what the first blade you smithed was?
J: Oh yes, I can. I was 15.
I had a piece of a truck’s spring from its suspension. I heated it up in our wood stove in my living room on a cold winter day with a strong wind. I was fanning the fire a lot to straighten out the spring and get the basic shape. Then there was quite a lot of work on the bench grinder to grind it down. And then I made a wooden wheel with glued-on sandpaper, an idea I came up with to finish the blade. At the time I didn’t know wooden wheels were how blades used to get finished 100 years ago, before they even invented sandpaper, so I was re-inventing the wheel, literally.
A couple of weeks later, on another blustery winter day, I heated it up again in bottom of the stove. Then I shoved it into an ice cream container full of salty water, which was way too cold, and the blade actually cracked.
J: I had also made a very sharp 90-degree cut between the handle and the guard, which was a total no-no, and then I had cooled it way too fast. The quenching water was just too cold. So it cracked, half-way into the blade. But I had put so much work into it at that point, I figured “to heck with it, I’m still going to finish this” and I DID! I finished it anyway.
That first blade lasted a couple of decades for practical yard-work and such, whatever a 10-inch long blade is good for. It never cracked further, either. It was big and ugly and unergonomic and the blade was way too thick, but it was my first.
T: Do you have a picture?
T: How often do you smith blades these days?
J: One every few months or so. The latest one was a boning knife for a butcher. He wanted a particular shape and style , something not available in the normal commercial offering of knives. So in a collaboration with a friend of mine who has a sharpening business, we made the butcher the knife he wanted.
T: What is particularly interesting or challenging about making blades versus other objects?
J: Oh, gosh. Well, blades are tools used to do fine or delicate or precise work. We take it for granted when something works, and we like the way it feels, and the way it operates, but it’s really hard to get all those parameters to come together just right. It requires a special touch, and it’s easy to get it wrong. You’re not going to find out that you have made something even a little bit wrong until you get the whole thing done and you get to hold it and use it.
So it takes a lot of foresight, intuition, and understanding of all the important details. Whereas making something less interactive doesn’t require that — for example, in the case of a sculptural table-base, all it has to do is hold up a slab of wood.
Whereas a knife is something you have a relationship with when you use it.
So there’s so many more subtleties to its design and how it feels and how it works, which all need to come together to make something great.
T: Do you find people who request blades tend to be reflected in any way, in the blades they request?
J: Well, now you’re talking about weapons.
T: Yes. (laughter)
J: Well, I’m not a weapons maker or specialty bladesmith so I don’t get much call for that. Sometimes people ask about brass knuckles and throwing stars which are illegal, so I don’t do that..
But I have a request for you, for how you describe weapons and swords in your video game.
T: Okay. What is it?
J: Just please, please, PLEASE don’t use the words ‘blood groove’. It doesn’t exist, and it’s a ridiculous myth. Just take it out of your vocabulary. Never say those words. Please. (sigh)
T: OK. Will do.
T: Speaking of myths, I heard something about Japanese master bladesmiths folding blades seven times to make them stronger or more flexible. That’s a myth, right? But if you were trying to become the best bladesmith ever, what would you study to improve?
J: You have to define ‘best’ first. Many people — and I — would say the Japanese blades from a couple of hundred years ago were absolutely, absolutely, ABSOLUTELY incredible. It’s really hard to match that level of attention and mastery they brought to the art.
But is that because they folded it 7 times? No, it’s because of all the things they’re doing and all the people involved. It’s not just one person that makes that blade. There’s 1 to forge the blade, and 1 to grind it, and 1 to polish it, and someone else makes the scabbard and someone else lacquers it, etcetera, and each has mastered their individual craft.
T: So it takes a village to raise a sword?
J: Well, in a lot of cases, yes, especially the higher-end swords. But it depends where, and when, and how many resources are available. If you’re looking at Sheffield in the mid-1800s, it was a blade-making center in England, and it was basically a factory with different specialists for forging, plating, engraving, etc.
On the other hand, if you’re talking a Scottish broadsword, it’s probably all made by one person, or maybe two. Same year, same island, but two different areas and different resources available.
T: What’s your workflow like, if someone asked you to make something for them?
J: Well, I produce fully custom work. So, I don’t have a standard product or line-up that I sell. When someone comes to me for work, they either have a very clear idea of what they want, or what their needs are. So we have meetings, looking at photos, doing sketches figuring out what they’re asking for, and eventually get to the final drawings before taking a deposit and booking the work. Then I make the work, they inspect the work, hopefully I get paid.
T: How hot is it in the forge?
J: On a hot summer day, it’s only a few degrees hotter inside than outside.
T: Oh. (sighs)
J: I have an evacuating fan and an air curtain, blowing the hot gas from the forge up the hood. It’s very physical work, so I’ll be drinking a liter of water per hour and soaked with sweat.
Conversely in the winter I spend a lot of money insulating and heating the place, and work in a t-shirt when most people would be in a jacket.
But it’s generally comfortable while working. It warms you up for sure, but it could be worse. Especially when you’re working on a blade, it’s a relatively small piece of metal, only 6 to 8 inches at a time, it’s not so hot. I can touch one end with no glove, even if I’m working on the other end.
T: Nice. Last question! Can you talk about how it feels to make blades, and why they might be uniquely appealing to teenagers?
J: Well…. You mean like… to teenage boys? Is that what you’re asking?
T: OK so there’s the phallic part, sure, but… what about the emotions, of finishing a blade?
J: There’s a certain high you get from bringing a project to completion, holding in one’s hand something that was previously only in your imagination. It’s an endorphin rush. I think all creative people, people who make things, get that.
Indeed we do! Thanks for reading. Contact Gallant Metalworks if you’re interested in having a blade smithed in Montreal. Alternately, wishlist Boyfriend Dungeon on Steam or join our mailing list to hear more about what blade-people we’re smithing here in the Kitfox offices. Ciao!