On the Breaking of Blades, or: A Negative Result is Still a Result

A central place to talk about weapons and armour, as it relates to your kit. This is where you show it of or talk about making it. Discussing the relative merits of types of weapons goes in the WMA section.

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SierraStrider
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On the Breaking of Blades, or: A Negative Result is Still a Result

Postby SierraStrider » Thu Jun 29, 2017 5:41 am

When I was a very young boy, I found a book in my third grade teacher's bookshelf called Mossflower. The main character, Martin the Warrior, stumbled out of a blizzard in the first chapter with nothing but the rags on his back and a broken sword on a thong around his neck. I didn't know it at the time (My dad had read The Hobbit to me as a bedtime story but The Lord of the Rings was at a bit higher reading level than I was) but this gripping image of the Hero with a Broken Sword was hardly Brian Jaques' creation. Narsil/Anduril in The Lord of the Rings brought it into the public consciousness in our modern age, but Tolkien probably drew inspiration from the sword Gram in the Volsunga Saga, Broken by Odin and reforged by the dwarven smith Regin.

When thinking about building a Ranger kit, I decided I wanted a broken sword. I find it more desirable than a full sword in several respects: First and foremost, it's less threatening. When hiking, I want people to interpret me as an eccentric having fun in costume, not a potential maniac out to hunt The Most Dangerous Game. This is important when encountering your average hiker, but potentially quite a bit more important when encountering backcountry park rangers.

Secondly, I really rather like Caedmon's Cult of Narsil idea.

So I started thinking about how best to break a blade. First, I needed a blade to break, but since its ultimate fate was sundering, I wasn't too worried about getting a good one. I found a wall-hanger piece on Amazon that claimed to be tempered and "Battle ready" and figured that would be adequate.

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Rather than launch straight into beating on a moderately expensive blade, I decided to start with a little flea market dagger that had been hanging around forever.

I went down to my local welding supply store and paid $20 for 2 liters of liquid nitrogen. Even knowing how effective vacuum insulation is, I was a little astonished that the sides of my flask didn't get cold.

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Steel gets brittle at low temperatures--this is known. However...the extent of the brittleness was not as impressive as I had hoped. I managed to snap the tip off my 440 stainless dagger, quite easily with a single hammer blow, but try as I might I couldn't replicate the result with thicker parts of the blade. despite cutting notches in an attempt to initiate a break. bridging the dagger blade between to bricks and slamming it repeatedly with a splitting maul yielded a slight bend but no snap.

The sword was even more resistant. It seems to be annoyingly robust for an intentionally cheap item.

Ultimately, I decided to give in and resort to Plan B: cutting the blade. Some quick work with angle and bench grinders yielded something which looks...pretty damn good, actually.

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But it's not broken. The broken face on the dagger has a very different texture, none of the striations that the sword's cut has. Even if I were to polish away those striations, I still can't think of a way to make the surface texture look like a break rather than a cut.

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It's a very minor point, and I'm reasonably happy with how the blade turned out despite its obvious lack of authenticity upon close inspection. The next step is to upgrade the ghastly faux-leather grip and maybe the chromed(?) pommel and guard, and make a new scabbard.

I think if I had tempered the blade to be harder and more brittle before the nitrogen I might have gotten the result I was looking for--but then again, the steel of this particular item might just be too soft no matter what.

Still, a major goal has been achieved, even if not to the level of perfection I had hoped.

At least the left over liquid nitrogen made good ice cream.
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Re: On the Breaking of Blades, or: A Negative Result is Still a Result

Postby Elleth » Thu Jun 29, 2017 11:51 am

Oh I LOVE the nod to book Aragorn! Good luck with the park rangers - that is a clever idea!
I assume you're cutting the scabbard down to? Or no?

Out of curiosity, are you getting in touch with the park ahead of time, or just going? Twenty years ago I think they'd have been delighted to get in on the fun and would welcome your trek ... I wonder if it's still the same? Certainly I can imagine their social media people wanting a picture or two. :)
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Re: On the Breaking of Blades, or: A Negative Result is Still a Result

Postby SierraStrider » Thu Jun 29, 2017 1:56 pm

Elleth wrote:Oh I LOVE the nod to book Aragorn! Good luck with the park rangers - that is a clever idea!
I assume you're cutting the scabbard down to? Or no?

Out of curiosity, are you getting in touch with the park ahead of time, or just going? Twenty years ago I think they'd have been delighted to get in on the fun and would welcome your trek ... I wonder if it's still the same? Certainly I can imagine their social media people wanting a picture or two. :)


I think I'll mostly just go. The sword is now shorter and far blunter than the machete I've occasionally taken in the past, so I don't know that it'll be an issue. I may even blunt what the factory pleased themselves to think of as an edge to make it completely ornamental.

I think I'll make two scabbards: a short, utilitarian one and a long one, weighted to simulate an in-tact sword (for replicating the run of the three hunters, since book Aragorn had Anduril at that point and movie Aragorn didn't carry the broken Narsil).
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Re: On the Breaking of Blades, or: A Negative Result is Still a Result

Postby Kortoso » Thu Jun 29, 2017 4:25 pm

Very interesting experiment! I would have thought that making a blade brittle with such cold, should do the trick.

On re-forging: I have an antique katana that was apparently re-forged from a blade made in the 15th century. Although it is considered to have been "born" in that time, the "reforging" apparently didn't look as you see in the movies. Everything was forged and folded together, rather than simply welding the shattered pieces together at the break.
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Re: On the Breaking of Blades, or: A Negative Result is Still a Result

Postby caedmon » Thu Jun 29, 2017 4:41 pm

SierraStrider wrote:But it's not broken. The broken face on the dagger has a very different texture, none of the striations that the sword's cut has. Even if I were to polish away those striations, I still can't think of a way to make the surface texture look like a break rather than a cut.



What you're looking at on the break is granules from the metal's crystaline structure. At this point, the best way I can think to replicate that with the cut sword is to sand blast the area in question.
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Re: On the Breaking of Blades, or: A Negative Result is Still a Result

Postby Peter Remling » Fri Jun 30, 2017 1:11 am

Actually I think you're on the right track with the liquid nitrogen. First I'd use a torch to heat up the cut end of your blade till it glows. Let it cool down to room temperature without quenching. This will draw the hardness out of the steel near your cut. Then freeze the tip of your sword where it is no longer hard. Tap it with a hammer and you should have some small chips/shards fall off.

It will keep the general shape of your cutoff but the grains of the steel will be less compacted due to it being softer and you should get the desired result in it's appearance.
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Re: On the Breaking of Blades, or: A Negative Result is Still a Result

Postby Elleth » Fri Jun 30, 2017 2:25 am

I confess I'm the newbie regarding steel: but (assuming he wanted to revisit the sword) - wouldn't he want high heat then fast cooldown to get the most hard/brittle character? Have I misunderstood how quenching works?
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Re: On the Breaking of Blades, or: A Negative Result is Still a Result

Postby Peter Remling » Fri Jun 30, 2017 3:00 am

Elleth wrote:I confess I'm the newbie regarding steel: but (assuming he wanted to revisit the sword) - wouldn't he want high heat then fast cooldown to get the most hard/brittle character? Have I misunderstood how quenching works?


He'd have to over harden the blade which is pretty impossible to do with no experience or proper equipment. By "softening" the steel the molecules will be larger (less compacted, leaving the crystaline structure he's looking for. The edges will be more malleable and will either fold over a bit or chip off when struck with a hammer. Either can be present in a broken blade.
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Re: On the Breaking of Blades, or: A Negative Result is Still a Result

Postby SierraStrider » Fri Jun 30, 2017 6:35 am

Peter Remling wrote:He'd have to over harden the blade which is pretty impossible to do with no experience or proper equipment.


I have a friend with an electric tempering oven...I wonder if he'd be able to over-harden it.
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Re: On the Breaking of Blades, or: A Negative Result is Still a Result

Postby Peter Remling » Fri Jun 30, 2017 11:38 am

SierraStrider wrote:
Peter Remling wrote:He'd have to over harden the blade which is pretty impossible to do with no experience or proper equipment.


I have a friend with an electric tempering oven...I wonder if he'd be able to over-harden it.


He'd probably have to temper the entire blade. If so there's little you can do to control the location or shape of the break after striking it with a hammer.
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Re: On the Breaking of Blades, or: A Negative Result is Still a Result

Postby Kortoso » Wed Jul 05, 2017 5:43 pm

Actually, isn't there something now called "cryotempering"? It's supposed to make the blade more durable and resilient, not more brittle... Back to the drawing board, as they say....
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Re: On the Breaking of Blades, or: A Negative Result is Still a Result

Postby Peter Remling » Wed Jul 05, 2017 6:43 pm

Cryotempering is done by bringing down the temperature very quickly, much quicker than an oil quench at room temperature. This compacts the molecules tighter, increasing hardness. To the best of my knowledge, it can't be done on a section of the blade, but needs to be done completely. So I don't believe differential heat treating would work either, unless the entire blade was treated and then a torch was applied to soften the core or spine of the blade.
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Re: On the Breaking of Blades, or: A Negative Result is Still a Result

Postby Manveruon » Fri Jul 07, 2017 3:08 am

The technical aspects are entirely lost on me, but I have to say, this is a pretty fun project! Very romantic! The idea of the hero with a broken sword is one that seems to have found its way into various media over the years, and it has a certain appeal to it, for certain. My only concern, personally, would be that the sword, now much shorter than the scabbard and out of balance, might work itself loose and fall from the scabbard, if you're not careful.
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Re: On the Breaking of Blades, or: A Negative Result is Still a Result

Postby SierraStrider » Sat Feb 03, 2018 9:29 pm

The next step on this project was to replace the awful faux-leather handle. I decided to go with one of solid wood--it might be a bit slippy for combat use, but for an effectively decorative item it should be fine. I carved it out of a piece of black walnut from my parents' orchard.

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Next comes the scabbard.
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Re: On the Breaking of Blades, or: A Negative Result is Still a Result

Postby SierraStrider » Sun Feb 23, 2020 3:55 am

So, just over two years later, It took me a whole day to make the scabbard. I'd love some advice, though.

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Here it is. Rather than wrap it, I think I'll leave it as wood grain. I like the look. I've used black walnut to match the rest of the wood in my kit. I started with two ¼" x 3.5" x 36" (7mmx8cmx1m) pieces of "hobby board". I routered out the cavity on either side, then used wood glue to bond the halves together. I then cut the taper with a Japanese-type handsaw, and filleted the edges with a piece of sander belt. Once the form was all sorted, I moved on to polishing.

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I dribbled some beeswax onto the wood and then spread it with a blowtorch and bit of rag, working it into the grain. This method seems really, really good for waterproofing and beautifying wood, though time will tell regarding durability.

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Probably the hardest part was getting the chevron cut into the top for the crossguard. Still not perfect, but good enough.

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So now I have a scabbard that looks "right" in terms of length, hiding a blade that looks non-threatening and which is vaguely lore-adjacent.

But...I'm not really sure where to go from here. As a bare piece of wood, the scabbard looks rather unfinished, but I'm not really confident enough with metalworking to outfit hardware for the ends. More important than appearance is the fact that I don't really have a good way to carry it in its current state. Anybody got tutorials for adding hardware to something like this?

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