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Gundog48

Polishing on Ancient Swords

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Everywhere you look in modern media you see these examples of shiny swords flashing bare which got me thinking, it's a hard enough job to get a shiny finish on a blade with all all the tools available to a modern smith, it must have been a huge task for an ancient one! Now, swords would mostly be owned by the rich and noble classes as they were a lot more expensive to produce, but does this necessarily mean that they would have gone through the laborious task of polishing all their swords? Obviously a polished blade gives the advantage of rust resistance, but I'd imagine somebody who owned a sword would be taking good care of it anyway.

 

So, were early medieval swords almost exclusively polished as they are depicted, or would they often have been left blackened or a finish similar to a wire brushed piece of steel with small bumps but still rather shiny-looking? What kind of tools would they have used to achieve a polish? Is there any real way of us knowing whether or not blades were commonly polished? I find it quite likely that, before metalworking techniques were more refined as the medieval period went on, very few knives and swords were actually polished aside from the most expensive examples. 

 

I've tried searching, but I'd be really interested in seeing what historical evidence there is on how swords and shorter blades were finished.

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I'm no expert, but the polish would show the quality and craftsmanship that whent into the blade as well as any defects.  I believe most, if not all swords would have been polished. 

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From what I've read, swords were filed to shape after rough forging, treated, and then cleaned with progressively finer files, and then polished with honing stones.

 

Rick Furrer forged the "Ulfberth" sword using only traditional methods in the PBS special "Secrets of the Viking Sword", and there's a shot of him polishing the blade with a fine stone.

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POLISHED; read the descriptions written in those times, look at the examples not rusted away due to lucky depositional circumstance, look at the type of ornamentation used on them all these examples strongly scream that they were polished!

 

As for how I suggest you study how japanese sword polishers do it even to this day using just hand work and natural stones.

 

The renaissance hausbuchs show metal polishing as being a recognized craft

 

As for leaving it rough---look into stress concentrators, the aforementioned rust issues, and drag in use.

 

If you could afford a brand new $100,000 sports car would you accept it with no paint on it?

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Gundog.

I know of ancient whetstones found in European archaeological digs and the Wikipedia entry 'Sharpening stone' mentions ancient Roman contexts.  So a finish from these grit of stone is to be expected.

Other evidence I know of is shiny metal things; ancient bronze mirrors and Tutankhamun's gold mortuary mask.

And this is just from mucking around on the internet during my lunch break at work...;)

regs,

AndrewOC

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Thanks everyone! Polishing with stones must have been a time consuming task, but as you say, if you can afford a sword, you can afford to have it polished! I'd never really considered the question until a saw History Channel's Vikings show where quite a few of the swords are blackened and most of the  knives are blackened or forge finished. It made me think "well, how exactly would and ancient smith polish blades, and was it actually that common?". I guess this cleared that up! 

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If you look at old metalwork from *any* time or place, if something was left rough or unfinished, it was under duress: a 'battlefield repair' or the equivalent. Even rough, homespun frontier bowies beaten out of files, and cheap blades mass produced to sell to the natives were 'in the white'.

 

The modern 'distressed' look in blades is a fad, with no basis in history. Any professional smith who left obvious hammer marks or scale on his work, even a hinge or horseshoe, would be a laughingstock.

 

They ground everything, with no OSHA or dust masks. The average life expectancy of a Sheffield grinder was just 27 years. 

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I'm sorry to say but the History channel is not considered a good source for historical information.

 

As for knives left in the black that is false too.  The ornamentation used on knives would not work in rough forged state.

 

(See "Knives and Scabbards, Museum of London" for over 300 examples)  Also just think of the thousands of winter hours spent around the fireside---lots of very time intensive crafts were VERY common to spend those hours of boredom.  You also think of modern usages, after forging a blade you could hand it to an apprentice and have *him* go spend a week stoning it.  I stone finished a medieval styled blade; spent 5 hours sitting in a chair watching stuff at a demo doing it.  No big deal.

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I remember a demonstration at a castle in France about making plate armour. It said they would spend almost a week polishing one piece and is what an apprentice could expect to be doing for many years! I certainly wasn't considering the show as an example of historical information with it's Viking cavalry and whatnot, but seeing an example there is what made me wonder how it was actually done historically!

 

Personally, I'm rather a fan of the 'forge finish' on smaller blades if it suits the style and I think they can look quite nice if done quite well, but as you say, this must be a purely modern idea. I'd assume this wasn't always true for axes and cheaper blades? 

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Also I recall a history channel show where they talked about Mg rather than Mn being added to modern steels.   I assume the script had the correct chemical symbol, but the reader was cluleless? also a pattern welded katana show that never showed a single pattern welded anything, but instead a modern maker using 5160 and a mill, then hand hammering the edges to call it hand forged ! they try, and I do watch it, but viewer beware. 

 

Polishing Stones are not easy to find, nor cheap to buy,  but look around and find your own, whatever works.   it does not have to be a manufactured manmade stone. look for stones and make a few passes on scrap steels to see what they do. that how it used to be done.

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I used to live in AR and everyonce in a while you could find a honking big chunk of novaculite at the fleamarkets.  I think I still have my 6" wide by 16" long stone somewhere

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