Master of Metal
Guy McConnell uses ancient techniques and
some modern tools to make mysterious Damascus steel
by Jeff Joiner
McConnell uses a power hammer to weld hot metal in his blacksmith
shop. The nearly 100-year-old power hammer is a modern invention compared
to the techniques McConnell uses to make pattern-welded Damascus steel,
first developed nearly 2,000 years ago.
is not your stereotypical burly blacksmith. He's a small, unassuming man,
but his reputation in Missouri for producing beautiful pattern-welded
Damascus knives and tools is large and spreading.
a challenge and after retiring from a career as an air traffic controller
he needed a hobby. He refinished furniture for a while, but he came across
a new pastime that allowed him to combine his love of history with a craft.
That was nearly 20 years ago and in that time McConnell has fine-tuned
his skill as a blacksmith until today his work forging Damascus steel
approaches fine art.
"I like to do
things that not very many other people can do," says McConnell, who works
daily in his small shop a few yards from his home near La Plata, in north-central
Missouri. "I basically do this the same way they did it 2,000 years ago,
only I use some power tools."
the piece is dipped in an acid bath which etches the metal surface
and reveals the distinctive pattern of Damascus steel.
Damascus is an
ancient technique for making steel for swords. European, Japanese and
Middle Eastern bladesmiths all developed the technique to make a stronger
yet flexible blade by combining metals with different properties. The
process also created beautiful blades with a distinctive pattern embedded
within the steel.
decided to learn Damascus knifemaking nearly two decades ago there was
virtually no one around to teach him. The original techniques died out
in Europe and the Middle East in the 13th century and were not rediscovered
until the 1960s and '70s when American artist-blacksmiths again learned
the techniques of the old bladesmiths and began forging replicas of historic
knives and swords from Damascus steel.
when I wanted to learn, there was no place to learn. I simply had to go
to the shop and work at it," McConnell says. "I read what little there
was to read about it and then just started doing it. I watched what went
wrong and what went right until I worked it out."
is eager to teach others his craft and has participated as a master in
the University of Missouri Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program where
he was paired with an apprentice. He's also taught others who have sought
him out because of his reputation.
One student is
a Louisville, Ky., surgeon who spent a week with him pounding metal. "It
was something to completely get away from what he was doing. I've had
several people come and do it as a break from whatever they were doing,"
says McConnell. "I had an attorney come down and he has no intention of
doing this, maybe ever again. It was something of a vacation."
Whatever the motivation,
McConnell is happy to share his skills. Making Damascus is a time-consuming,
physically demanding skill that tolerates few mistakes.
The Damascus pattern
results from welding together different types of steel of different hardness
or combining steel with another metal like nickel and then etching the
surface with an acid. Beginning
with seven alternating layers of two types of steel, McConnell begins
welding them together in a coal forge.
"I prefer coal
over gas," he says, though he also uses a propane-fired gas forge. "It's
probably nostalgia. It's dirtier and smells bad and I can control the
heat of my metal better in a coal forge than in the gas."
He begins by heating
the stacked layers of metal and hammers them into one piece, thus welding
them together. Then he begins a process of reheating and folding the steel
over and over until the seven original layers become 14, then 28, 56 and
He must constantly
cut, forge and draw the piece out by hammering it to maintain the size
and rough shape of the item being made. McConnell says he likes the look
of 220 folded layers, though he's created blades with as many as 12,480
layers and Japanese bladesmiths have created swords with millions
"I don't like
too many layers because they're so thin, so fine that you can't see anything.
I think 220 makes a pretty nice pattern."
Once the desired
number of layers is reached, McConnell works to cut, grind and hammer
the piece into the shape of whatever he's making knife blades,
saw blades, the head of an engraver's hammer. Once the shape is roughed
out the metal is hardened by heating and quenching, or dipping it in a
light oil. Finally it's tempered by slowly heating the metal to 400 degrees
over about two hours in an oven.
an edge on a blade. Making Damascus steel is a laborious process requiring
hours of work before a knife is given a fine polish. How many hours?
McConnell says he doesn't know and, in fact, doesn't want to know.
begins the least favorite part of the job for him, the tedious process
of finishing the item by repeatedly sanding it with finer and finer sanding
wheels. The cutting edge is sharpened and the piece is given a fine polish.
The final step
is soaking the metal in a bath of acid. The acid eats away the softer
metal revealing the many layers hidden there.
Last he adds
handles to knives and hilts to swords of bone, antler, metal or exotic
woods. One of his favorite woods is Osage orange.
has made many kinds of mostly historic knives and swords, he did not begin
working as a blacksmith to only make edged weapons and hunting knives.
His real passion is tools.
19th century hand tools and he makes Damascus replicas of those same tools.
He's currently working on a personal collection of Damascus hand tools
including a pair of calipers, a back saw, a draw knife, a small hatchet,
a carpenter's square and a small hand plane, the most difficult piece
he's ever made.
Though he uses
each tool once to make sure it works, clearly these tools are not for
everyday use. When finished making the tools, McConnell plans to build
a tool chest with matching Damascus metal hardware.
he's not aware of any Damascus blacksmiths who make collector's tools
rather than the more common knives and swords.
hand-made Damascus steel plane
not much of a market for his tools in Missouri (individual tools sell
for hundreds of dollars and swords and some knives sell for thousands)
there is a market in larger cities, mostly in the East. "I'm constantly
amazed that people want to buy what I make," says McConnell who insists
he's as busy as he wants to be.
knives, swords and hand tools fits nicely with McConnell's love of history,
particularly American Colonial history.
Along with making
Damascus, he also forges his own rifle and pistol barrels and attends
historic rendezvous and reenactments to study and explore the past. It's
there that he sells many of his Damascus items to collectors and fellow
His love of history,
and reliving the past, also fuels his desire to teach others his blacksmithing
skills so that they'll never disappear as did the skills of ancient makers
of Damascus steel.
about McConnell's tools and knives write him at 22997 Fox Road, La Plata,
MO, 63549; or call (660) 332-7354.