A blacksmith was not an uncommon sight in any medieval town. His daily job was usually in making or repairing any metal implements the townspeople could have need of, from the skillet of a neighboring peasant to the shield of the ruling lord. Some of his farm tools would turn into weapons as well, like the bill, military fork, and war scythe. If he was lucky, as well as skilled, he could increase his income by focusing on weapons, at which point he would become an armorer. Otherwise, he was usually in the forge all day, making and repairing anything of iron. For instance, the cook down the road might ask him to repair the handle on his pot, which had been trampled on by a horse. The blacksmith would heat the iron until it was pliable, then straighten the handle and let it cool. Done!
The work of sword-making was a specialized art in the middle ages. To make a good sword, the swordsmith, also known as a blacksmith, had to have a lot of experience or training. Without a strong, flexible sword, a knight would be at a disadvantage to his opponents. If his sword broke, you can be sure the swordsmith would hear about it!
The process of making a sword is fairly complicated. It starts with a certain set of requirements. How long should the sword be? How flexible? Should it have a fuller? How should it be balanced? All of these requirements are personal preference. A good sword had to be flexible so that it could take large impacts without breaking, and still remain sharp. The balance of the sword could determine whether it was used as a cutting or a thrusting sword, and the fuller kept the sword light, if that was what the swordsmith wanted.
After designing the sword, the swordsmith would select a bar of iron and set about forging it. Forging is when iron is repeatedly pounded to give it strength. Microscopically, this aligns the grain of the metal and today is often called “work hardening.” Besides strengthening the material, this forging would give the blade its basic shape.
At this point, the blade’s shape is roughly correct, but the material has been unevenly heated, and stresses may have been introduced. The blade is also too hard to work easily, so it must be annealed.
Annealing is a process that makes the metal easier to work with by heating it up and slowly cooling it down. Typically, a metal is either hard and brittle or soft and flexible. Annealing brings the blade from a brittle state to a soft state, and at the same time evens out the stresses that have introduced into the blade.
Once the metal is soft, the blade is further shaped and sharpened. Once the swordsmith is happy with the quality of the blade, he has to bring it back to a more brittle state. He does not, however, want to make the blade brittle – it must also be flexible enough to stand up to the shock of battle.
This is done by first hardening, then tempering the blade. Harding is done by a heating up the blade to an extreme temperature, then cooling it quickly. The precision of this process often determines the quality of the blade. If hardening isn’t done correctly, stresses could once again be introduced into the blade.
The blade is tempered by heating it up slowly, then cooling it. This can happen more than once before the swordsmith is happy with the blade. Tempering is one of the more crucial aspects of sword making, determining the flexibility and/or strength of the blade, and experience is key.
After the blade has been made, the hilt has to be assembled from the guard, handle, and pommel, then installed on the blade. The guard appears in early blades as a circular shape, its sole purpose being to keep the soldier’s hand from sliding up on the blade. Later, the quillon style guard was introduced, producing the classic cruciform sword. The handle was made of wood or metal, and covered with a grip of leather or wire. At the end of the sword was the pommel, which was a counterweight to aid in balancing the sword.
Once the hilt was complete, the sword needed only a scabbard. Scabbards, or sheaths, were made of a combination of wood and cloth or leather, and were intended to hold the sword to the wearer’s side, or, later, to actually protect the sword. Some archeological evidence suggests that oiled animal fur was used on the inside of scabbards to keep swords free from rust.