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The 10 Trials of the Master Bladesmith

Stashed in: Weapons!, Weaponry, Swords!, Penmanship

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You think it’s hard to get a job in your industry? Try becoming a master bladesmith—there are fewer than 200 in the world.

Why so few? Because it's a hard job? Because it's hard to get certified? Because it pays poorly?

Mastery does not come easily, so "hard to get certified":

The path from journeyman to master is essentially the same as the path from apprentice to journeyman, but you’ll also have to train apprentices under you. As a journeyman, you must put another 2-3 years of experience under your belt before applying to test for your master rank. When you do, you must then once again seek out a master to perform the test.

To become a master, the performance tests are the same, but the blade must be different. During the master performance test, a journeyman needs to make a Damascus steel blade that has been folded at least 300 times. Dean tests this with his master’s eye: “I could sit down under a microscope and count out those layers, but I can look at it and pretty much tell.” The other difference is that the blade must have a “hidden tang.” The tang is the portion of the blade hidden beneath the handle. For a full tang, the handle material is flush with the edges of the tang, the flat edge of which is usually exposed, sandwiched between the pieces of the grip. The more challenging hidden tang is fully surrounded by the handle. These differences aside, the blade must still cut rope, wood, and hair before being bent into oblivion.

A folding bowie knife by Harvey Dean that he says was one of the most challenging blades he ever created. (Image: Harvey Dean/Used with Permission)

Once again, the journeyman must then take five blades in front of a jury of masters, at least one of which must be made of Damascus steel. This time, one of those blades has to be a Damascus steel quillion dagger. Quillion daggers are a medieval European style of knife that has a crossguard across the hilt. They are usually of elaborate make, marking the sign of a true master. “It’s one of the harder knives to build. Probably every [technique] you’re ever going to use in any kind of knife is going to be in that,” Dean says. “Ever since the jurying [portion of the certification] has been done, it’s required a quillion dagger. It’s got a lot of different stuff that you normally wouldn’t use if you made hunting knives, or bowie knives, or pocket knives.”

If the quillion dagger and the other juried blades pass muster, the journeyman is named a master smith, and given an “MS” stamp to mark future blades as the work of a master.

Basically, it is a long and difficult road. Just like the road to master penman.

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