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MSE Introduces Bladesmithing Course

MSE introduced a new class during the spring semester, Bladesmithing!  This 4000-level course was offered under the Special Study category while the syllabus was formulated and tested with the help of a dedicated group of eight students who eagerly signed up to serve as guinea pigs.

Interest in developing the course began in 2015 with a team of students who participated in the bi-annual TMS Bladesmithing competition where students from across the country design and forge unsharpened swords and knives. Judging for the competition is based on the design, production process, written report, and video. 

MSE teams have participated in this TMS competition three times over the last five years, and they sought outside sources to help with the required design and forging work. The teams traveled to the Virginia Institute of Blacksmithing in Waynesboro, Virginia, about a two-hour drive from Blacksburg, to learn forging and work on their designs.

Students felt that an actual course would improve their chances of placing well in these competitions. When they approached Dr. Alan Druschitz with the idea, his first step was to discuss it with a Virginia Tech attorney. To his surprise, he received approval to teach such a course as long as it had well-defined assignments, deliverables, and learning objectives. 

Dr. Druschitz approached this as a high carbon steel metallurgy class in which students analyze steel properties such as oxidation, recovery, recrystallization, grain growth, hardness, hardenability, tempering, and toughness. The goal of the bladesmith is to forge a steel blade, heat treat the steel, sharpen the blade, and then evaluate the hardness and toughness of the steel. If the steel is too brittle, it will break or chip, and if the steel is too soft, it will bend or not stay sharp.

blacksmithing tools
Left to Right: Blacksmithing kit, 2-burner propane forge, MSE students Josh Adelmann and Corinne Wells with 160-lb. anvil and stand

Interest in the course was high, with about 30 students expressing a desire to enroll. Stringent prerequisites, such as Metals and Alloys, eliminated students hoping to come in and simply make a knife. Another factor that limited enrollment is the current availability of blacksmithing equipment.

With Dr. David Clark’s approval, Dr. Druschitz purchased an advanced blacksmithing kit from Pieh Tool Company in Arizona. The kit included a two-burner propane forge, a 160-pound anvil, a variety of tongs and hammers, and instructional videos and books.  While the kit is impressive, it can only support a small group, so the initial class was limited to eight students.  The good news is that this select group included a student with farrier experience and another one with bladesmithing experience. MSE students and a few mechanical engineering students rounded out the group.

While the syllabus was not completely formulated at the beginning of the course, the general format included 

  • a classroom discussion about how to proceed with each new step,
  • heating steel to the proper working temperature,
  • estimating the steel temperature by color,
  • how to properly swing a hammer,
  • forging a blade shape,
  • grinding soft steel,
  • hardening and tempering steel,
  • grinding hardened steel,
  • creating a sharp edge, and
  • making a suitable handle.

Since this is a metallurgy course, students learned or reviewed materials properties for the various steels that they would be working with in the course. 

One of the first class activities involved how to create an anvil stand that would work for all students.  The decision was made to build a wooden stand at a height that fit the taller people in the class. Shorter students made use of a sturdy flat step to elevate themselves to the proper height, where a person’s knuckles graze the surface of the anvil.

By the time the next TMS competition rolls around in 2021 (intent to compete forms are due by November 1, 2020), there should be several students equipped with the knowledge and expertise to do a great job. Dr. Druschitz is currently forming a team for this competition.

MSE Senior Corinne Wells (shown below):  "I was interested in this class because I love working with my hands and having something that I created to show for it. I have learned that our ancestors were very smart. They were able to figure out all of the technical difficulties of bladesmithing without all the tools and instruments we have today. It's also interesting to look at the metallurgy behind this craft."
What I learned in this class:  "I know how to set up a natural gas forge. I have become more comfortable with an anvil and hammer. I also think that this is something I will want to pursue in my personal life since I enjoy it so much."

Corinne Wells 2
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Video of MSE senior Jimmy Holt