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Rural Missouri Magazine

A Master of Metal
Guy McConnell uses ancient techniques and
some modern tools to make mysterious Damascus steel

by Jeff Joiner

Guy 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.

Guy McConnell 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.

McConnell likes 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."

After polishing, 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.

When McConnell 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.

"Unfortunately, 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."

Today, McConnell 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.

Blacksmith Guy McConnell

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 so on.

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.

McConnell hones 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.

Now McConnell 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.

Though McConnell 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.

McConnell collects 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.

McConnell says he's not aware of any Damascus blacksmiths who make collector's tools rather than the more common knives and swords.

McConnell's hand-made Damascus steel plane

Though there's 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.

Making historic 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 history buffs.

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.

For information about McConnell's tools and knives write him at 22997 Fox Road, La Plata, MO, 63549; or call (660) 332-7354.

 

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