The Science of Swords - a History of Bladesmithing at Mines

Mike West, Ph.D., holds the international award winning thirty-four-inch, single-edged blade sword that is based on the Arhus Farm sword from 10th century Norway.

In the summer of 2006 a high school student, Kevin Gray (MetE 11), did something that could have landed him in trouble. He toured the Mines campus with an eight-inch knife in his backpack. Gray had no malicious intent, rather he was excited to show the Damascus steel blade that he had forged in his garage to a professor of metallurgy. Little did Gray know that his actions would spark a series of events that would change the face of the Department of Materials and Metallurgical Engineering at Mines and earn the program international acclaim.

At the end of the tour for prospective students, Jon Kellar PhD, (MetE 84), who was department head at the time, asked Gray why he was interested in Mines. “He pulled this knife wrapped in cloth out of his backpack,” says Kellar. Damascus steel blades have been around for centuries. They’re easy to identify by the swirled steel patterns that result from a labor-intensive process of repeatedly heating, hammering, and folding the steel. Kellar became intrigued. “We were low on student enrollment at the time,” he says, “We were trying to find a solution, and this seemed like a good way to outreach.” Kellar and professors Dana Medlin, PhD, and Michael West, PhD, developed a plan to integrate more hands-on experiences into the curriculum. Students could make items out of metal, like Damascus steel blades, and study the scientific properties of the steel they were working along the way.

Later that year the department secured a $10,000 grant from the John Deere Foundation to fund a new blacksmith lab including a forge anvil and equipment. Faculty members then met with Jack Parks who runs Fire Steel Forge in Piedmont, SD. Parks, a master blacksmith, became instrumental in helping set up and sustain the Mines club. Students began to meet each Friday at “Hammer Ins.” As the Blacksmith Club gained popularity, so did the materials and metallurgical engineering program. The club allows students to explore their creative side and to bring the art of blacksmithing and science of metallurgy together. Recognizing this potential Deborah Mitchell, curator of Mines’ Apex Gallery, took note. Works created by Mines’ Blacksmith Club are now part of an annual student exhibit.

The Secrets of the Samurai Sword 

One evening in the fall of 2007, Kellar was surfing TV channels in his living room when the PBS NOVA program “The Secrets of the Samurai Sword” flashed across the screen. He noticed that his son was captivated by the show, and he had an idea. “We could do this at Mines.” The department then launched an ambitious project, to make a samurai sword out of Black Hills iron ore. The idea ran parallel to a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to integrate blacksmithing into the program. The sword- making effort gained the attention of South Dakota Public Broadcasting and other news outlets. Media coverage of the project added publicity that Kellar and West believe helped boost enrollment. That coverage also led Mines Alumnus Charles Parks (EE 57) to donate an authentic samurai sword to the department, which Kellar later had appraised on PBS Antiques Roadshow. Experts dated it to the 17th century. By 2008 the department was on the upswing in enrollment, and Nucor Steel, one of the top companies hiring Mines grads, donated $1 million to support department activities. 

By 2010, Kevin Gray, the student bladesmith who helped to spark the changes in the department, encountered some hardships that forced him out of school when he was only a handful of credits away from graduating. Gray was disillusioned, and left Mines for lucrative employment in the coal mines of Wyoming. But, the professors in the metallurgy department would not give up on him. “We reached out to him,” says Kellar. Professors designed an independent study that allowed Gray to gain the credits he needed to graduate. “We put together a summer design project for him to understand the science associated with bladesmithing,” says West who is now department head. The result was an exquisite sword currently on display in the Surbeck Center. Gray labored for weeks on end on the assignment, not just in the blacksmith shop, but also in the lab documenting the scientific properties of the steel he was hammering and folding. “He went way, way beyond what was needed for this project,” says West. The hard work paid off, Gray went on to graduate in 2011 and was quickly hired by Nucor Steel. 

All the while the Mines Blacksmith Club continued to grow. A collaborative effort of Mines professors and local officials helped bring the national meeting of the Artists Blacksmiths Association of North America (ABANA) to Rapid City in 2012. Michael West and Kevin Gray gave the keynote address. The following year West and others in the department approached The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society (TMS) about hosting an international collegiate bladesmithing contest. Other schools around the world were developing their own hands-on curriculum around bladesmithing and metallurgy, inspired in part by success demonstrated at South Dakota Mines. By 2015 the first contest was held in Orlando, FL, drawing in 20 schools. 

A Viking Victory

The TMS contest, envisioned in part by Mines faculty, has its roots in the idea that incorporating more hands-on work in the metallurgy curriculum at Mines would benefit students. Over a decade later, the biggest pay-off is more successful graduates, but these students are also leaving trophies in their wake. The “Viking Sword” Mines students took to the 2017 TMS competition brought home first place out of thirty teams. The thirty-four-inch, single-edged blade is based on the Arhus Farm sword from 10th century Norway. It has a handle of Finnish Masur birch. This award-winning sword is being put on display in a special case in the Mineral Industries Building. 

“The best part about our education at South Dakota Mines is the level of autonomy we get as undergraduates,” says Jackson Ade (MetE 17). “This autonomy allows us to pursue most projects we want to do, as long as we are willing to put the work in. This bladesmithing project is an example of that.”

Ade, and other senior members of the winning bladesmith team, Kevin Noto (MetE 17) and Luke Shearer (MetE 17) have now graduated. These recent graduates say they hope the sword they’ve left behind is an inspiration for future students; there is little doubt that it is. The current Blacksmith Club is concentrating local iron ore and working to have a samurai sword ready for the next TMS Bladesmithing competition.

Last edited 9/19/2023 9:40:13 PM

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