The Chemistry of Swordmaking

Introduction

I have chosen to research the chemistry behind the making of swords.  More specifically the blade, which in reality, is doing most of the work.  Therefore it requires the most care.  I have chosen to do this topic to better understand the military customs of the middle ages or even the ancient times.  Historical blacksmiths were actually able to craft instruments not only pertaining to swords, but also appliances with extreme accuracy and a sort of finesse.  Swordmaking has affected my life by showing to me just how much times has been put into making such a blade.  It has also been the catalyst for some of my primary interests such as: the Lord of the Rings books, fantasy novels, and even Historical European Martial Arts(HEMA).

Composition of ...

  • Iron: Basic component of steel

  • Carbon

  • Traces or small percentages of: Manganese, Phosphorus, Sulfur, Nickel, and Chromium

Main Chemicals, Compounds, Components

The sword is mostly made of steel containing Carbon and Iron, but it is also made of leather, which is wrapped around the hilt of the sword.  Leather comes from the hide of different animals.  Most often being that of cows, pigs, goats, or even snakes.

  • Carbon Steel

    • Fe (Iron) The base metal used for making Steel

    • C (Carbon) What makes this combination a new alloy

      • Note: There are different carbon percentages used for different carbon steel alloys.  These are more or so different levels of carbon abundance in the steel: Low carbon Steel is less strong and easy to shape and has a carbon percentage of 25% and High carbon steel which is much harder steel used in springs and wires and has a percentage of 95%.

    • For this scenario, blacksmiths most often use medium carbon steel which has good strength and wear resistance and a carbon percentage of 54%

  • Leather

    • H20 (Water)

  • (Collagen) which is the basic protein in leather

  • Lipid (Fat)

Chemistry's Role

A good portion of the chemistry comes from the hardening and tempering of the blade.  The hardening is done by a process called quenching, which is the rapid cooling of metal to obtain a harder, more durable blade.  The rapid cooling prevents low-temperature processes from occurring such as phase transformations.  When these phase transformations take place, they allow a diffusional transformation to soft phases of the steel.  A diffusional transformation is the atomic diffusion of atoms to their “parent” phase or original chemical composition which is of a more malleable and overall, softer metal.  The diffusion of atoms is a slow process which can be suppressed by quenching the steel, as stated before.  Doing this prevents the diffusion and produces a different chemical composition which in return, hardens the steel.   The process which comes after is the sharpening and building of the sword.  The blade is often sharpened with a belt grinder.  Then the other crafted pieces are then the put together such as the the hilt, which consists of: the pommel, grip, and crossguard; and then the blade, which has two main parts being: the strong and the weak.  Overall the blade is the most critical part of the sword, due to it being what is going to be do the most work and needs to be able to withstand extreme punishment.

Background Research

Swords come in a variety of shapes and sizes.  They are all used in different ways and are crafted with different techniques.  Some may be more stiff while others may bend more easily.  This all comes from how the sword is crafted; from how it is heated, to how it is shaped, even to how it is cooled.  Every culture from around the world might have a different style of swordmaking.  Their craftsmanship also affects their technique when handling the sword. This could then better direct the blacksmiths of their time to direct their swordmaking to a more practical use.

Resources

http://science.howstuffworks.com/sword-making4.htm

Explains the pros and cons of using different steel alloys with different combinations of metals

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_swordsmithing

A fine example of the process used for a sword from a specific culture

http://medievalswords.stormthecastle.com/ten-types-of-swords.htm

Shows some of the different types of swords and how their physical attributes vary greatly from one another

https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_steel

Shows different types of carbon steel which was a popular alloy to use

http://io9.com/5831683/a-brief-history-of-the-ancient-science-of-sword-making

Hardening process of a sword through quench hardening

http://www.nauticapedia.ca/Articles/Sword_Care.php

Caring and preserving the sword from rust or damage

http://www.keytometals.com/FreeDemo/page.aspx?ID=SteelComposition&LN=EN

Composition of Steel

http://www.stormthecastle.com/blacksmithing/blacksmithing-a-knife/stock-removal-method-of-knifemaking-part-4.htm

Hardening and tempering

About the Author
Sam McClain is a senior at Billings Senior High School.  He enjoys playing piano, playing video games, and sword fighting like a nerd.  When Sam gets out of high school, he plans to join the Navy to pursue the Nuclear Field Program and earn college credits during his active duty to get a leg up on the wrathful entity that is college.  He is currently taking some interesting classes his senior year, such as: AP Calculus, Honors Chemistry, and Varsity Choir.
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