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What makes a Master Bladesmith?

The American Bladesmith Society is one of the largest and most well known organizations of knife and swordmakers in the world. It was founded by William Moran, the man who “reintroduced” Damascus steel to the world stage in 1973. Their mission is to “encourage and promote activities involving the art and science of forging metal, particularly tools, weapons, and art forms”This was due to the dwindling number of American craftsman utilizing traditional techniques of forging blades. There are more than 1300 registered memebers, though fewer than 200 have earned the coveted “Master’s Stamp”.

What goes into this process of earning a Master’s stamp? It starts with an apprenticeship of 2-3 years. From the time you register with the ABS you are considered an apprentice. There are formal classes one can take to work towards journeyman status, but these are not specifically required though completion allows someone to take the journeyman test at the 2 year mark. Nor is working for a more experienced smith required, though that is frequently the case.

When the apprentice is ready, the testing process is as follows: (from Atlas Obscura “The 10 trials of a master bladesmith“:

“To achieve journeyman status, an apprentice must forge a simple carbon steel blade—no Damascus steel or fancy patterning, not even the hilt needs to be anything fancy. The blade itself can be no longer than 10 inches, and it had better be pretty sharp.

That is because the blade will be used to slice free-hanging rope, chop through 2×4’s. and then shave hair. Then there is destructive testing.

“The final step in the test is the most stressful—literally. During the final phase of testing, the tester will place the tip of the blade in a vise, and bend it to a 90 degree angle, sometimes using a pipe for leverage. This tests the strength of the metal and the apprentice’s ability to heat treat it, giving the blade a harder edge and springier back. If the stress on the blade causes it to chip, shatter, or snap, the apprentice fails. A slight bit of cracking is allowed, but this is a slim margin for error.”

Passing this does not make one a journeyman however, one must submit 5 more elaborate blades to a jury of Masters who judge the blades on their form.

The Master’s test is like the journeyman’s, however the testing blade must be a Damascus blade with a minimum of 300 folds and a hidden tang. The jury portion is even more demanding.

“Once again, the journeyman must then take five blades in front of a jury of masters, at least one of which must be made of Damascus steel. This time, one of those blades has to be a Damascus steel quillion dagger. Quillion daggers are a medieval European style of knife that has a crossguard across the hilt. They are usually of elaborate make, marking the sign of a true master. “It’s one of the harder knives to build. Probably every [technique] you’re ever going to use in any kind of knife is going to be in that,” Dean says. “Ever since the jurying [portion of the certification] has been done, it’s required a quillion dagger. It’s got a lot of different stuff that you normally wouldn’t use if you made hunting knives, or bowie knives, or pocket knives.”

If the quillion dagger and the other juried blades pass muster, the journeyman is named a master smith, and given an “MS” stamp to mark future blades as the work of a master.”

The knife world owes an unrepayable debt to the founders of the ABS. I can’t imagine what things were like in the days prior to the organization’s founding. These days forged knives, pattern welded or not abound being made by smiths of all levels of experience.

Discussion

4 responses to ‘What makes a Master Bladesmith?

    • one of our twitter followers is taking the journeyman test today. I am trying to see if he will write a guest piece to run here. It would be cool to have a first hand account of going through the process.

  1. I have a friend who was a Journeyman Smith in the ABS, when he went for his Master Smith test he passed the function part of the testing, but failed the juried part of the test because he used brass in the construction of the knives, which one of the judges took offense at and used as an excuse to downcheck his knives. There was no mention in the specifications for test knives that brass was forbidden, it was just one judge’s prejudice allowed to occur. My friend, who has a temper that at times matches the heat of his forge, cursed the judges out collectively and never submitted another knife for their judgment, and no longer belongs to the ABS.

    • I imagine that this has been the case since the creation of the first guilds back in the middle ages. The Master has an economic stake in maintaining the exclusivity of his rank, and can arbitrarily work to this end.

      I am NOT accusing the ABS of doing this, only that it is a flaw in the guild system.

      It is also not unlike baseball writers who try to make a distinction between a first ballot Hall of Famer and someone that is ok for the second year of eligibility. Either the body of work is good enough, or it is not.

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