My week at Dragonfly Mountain Japanese Swordsmithing School

My trip to Dragonfly Forge in Coos Bay, Oregon was quite the experience. Master Michael Bell and his family are directly responsible for just how much I enjoyed this trip.

DSC00755I’m really quite impressed by the whole environment Master Bell and his family have created. Everyone contributes to the relaxed and supportive atmosphere. His wife Anna is welcoming, an excellent cook, and really makes you feel like a guest. The Oregon coast is also a wonderful location, with cool evenings and warm days without dipping into the extremes in either direction. It made me nostalgic for life in New England.

DSC00702 - Version 2Master Bell has lived what I’d call an author’s life. Without stealing any of his thunder, it’s suffice to say he has a compelling anecdote to accompany any topic of conversation. John, Master Bell’s apprentice, has several layers of knowledge that segue smoothly into his ability as a bladesmith including martial arts and bush craft skills that capitalize on the rich environment that is Coos Bay, Oregon. Gabe, Master Bell’s son, is a wonderfully gregarious individual with a keen eye and exceptional artistic talent. Each craftsman lends a hand well beyond simple instruction, and make sure that you’re on the right path and your blade geometry is tidy before you move onto the next phase. This is key, as it ensures you’re not further deviating from the golden mean as you progress.

It’s important to note that this was only the basic forging class.  In traditional Japanese swordsmithing, each phase of producing an entire sword is actually a separate profession; The smith, the habaki maker, the polisher, and the koshirae maker are traditionally separate professionals with their own assistants.  MAster Bell is masterful in each sequence, and offers classes for each phase (http://tomboyama.com/the-school/)

The morning of our first day was spent learning how to forge weld, and how Master Bell transforms logging cable into bar stock. The mechanics and metallurgy of this process is a college level course in itself, and is such an effective medium to work in.

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The second half of Monday and all of Tuesday was spent at the anvil and forge shaping and refining the bar stock into a wakizhasi blank. Each student found they were more comfortable on either the toe or heel of the hammer face, and worked studiously to improve on their weakness.

DSC00685Tuesday evening we normalized the metal in preparation for the grinder work, and removed the “bark.”

DSC00689Wednesday we moved onto the grinder and files to further refine the shape. Filing is slower than grinding, but I found it easier to create and keep a plane, while grinding was more efficient given our time constraint. Master Bell doesn’t use any guides or jigs at the grinder, and encourages the students to build up the necessary feel for the work at hand.

DSC00715Thursday we learned to draw file and how to clay coat our blades. The application of the clay and the purpose behind it is quite fascinating.

DSC00724Friday we successfully heated and quenched our wakizashis before returning to the grinder and file. We also received a primer on how to use the Japanese wet stones to “smith shape” the blades (a follow-on class all by itself). Filing and grinding a hardened blade is tough work.DSC00765

DSC00768The course is not easy per se, but it’s deeply satisfying. I’d even say it was meditative. You’re able to comfortably lose yourself in the task at hand, while also earning a deeper appreciation of just how much time a steady hand takes to develop. At the end of the course, you have a living blade that you yourself have shaped and created, and a wealth of knowledge. It’s a beginner’s level course, but you leave empowered and equipped to return home and continue your education via honing your skills until you can return to Coos Bay for the next class.

For more information, please see: http://tomboyama.com/

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