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JOE WALTERS and MOONLIT FORGE


I have had the experience of working with different blade smiths and each of them have their own personality, which, as the significance of the word goes, is unique. In other words, each smith - as much as each person - is a world in himself and is, by nature, incomparable.
As for Joe Walters, the impression that he transmits is that of great openness, cheerfulness and a no-frills straightforward attitude.

Joe was born in Fond du Lac Wisconsin, in 1978, and has started working with blades since he was 13 years old, in 1991 and Japanese-style blades for the past six years. Moonlit Forge was founded in 1998, the same year he felt he was experienced enough to make his blades available to the public.

I
n his humble own words, Joe told me: I guess that makes me one of those "young and aspiring blade smiths." I know what he means by being both modest and wise, knowing there is a long way ahead, but to me he has already passed the ranks of aspiring blade smiths, while remaining young and talented with 11 years of practice on his account. His picture holding the finalized chokuto speaks for itself. A young and talented smith exuding a very good aura of transparency.

And for those who are interested in the horoscope profile, Joe Walters is a Pisces.


Joe further adds:
I like a modern approach to blade smithing and swords, using today’s superior materials and scientific understanding combined with traditional blade shapes and tried and true techniques. I like every aspect of swords and knives and try to treat every customer with courtesy, respect, and dignity.

The blade smiths whose work this talented smith admires most are the late Bob Engnath, Don Fogg, Howard Clark, Michael Bell, and Randall Graham.

While I know none of them personally, the information they share through mail, posting on web-forums, and through their websites speaks volumes for their character and dedication to the preservation of the craft. Their free sharing of knowledge has saved both myself and countless other aspiring smiths years of trial and error, said Joe in his own words.

The making of this 5160 steel chokuto was almost a saga of great communication, which as the word implies, is composed of a two way tuning. Therefore I decided to share most of the particulars of the making of this blade with you all who may be interested in reading it, also in the hope that Joe Walters great talent and unique cheerful character will be fully recognized in the sword community. It is definitely a pleasure to work with Joe and in today's world, I see all reasons for acknowledging a talented person as I don't see any reason for exclusion of the uniqueness of each person.

António Conceição Júnior


A PRELUDE
I
came across Joe Walters' Moonlit Forge website about a year ago and noticed how interesting was his approach to blades, his fittings and one of his swords in shirasaya that had a deep sori.

At the beginning of the third millennium, I do not expect that swords are made the same way they were some centuries ago, nor do I expect that every Japanese style blade has to be made of tamahagane, when chemistry and modern experimentation based on the steel industry has developed plenty of different steels.

One pair of swords on Joe Walters website at the time drew my attention in particular, for the simple beauty that came from them. It was a daisho that showed a katatemaki (combat wrap) with only two or three diamonds showing the same beneath, and the ito seemed like it was lacquered. It bore a very contemporary rendition of an ancient look, while the tsuba was pretty small, very much to my liking in its elegant simplicity.

THOUGHTS ABOUT SMITHS, THOUGHTS ABOUT PEOPLE
Reading Joe’s range of services offered and the prices, I felt it would be someone worth considering to work with in my next project, as I am very much interested to be acquainted with different smiths, as far as bladesmithing is concerned, since I am writing an article on the subject. It is not a technical article, but rather a more wider perspective under a symbolic approach. Well, that's me, my preferences, and what interests me are appealing people with a no-nonsense attitude.
I
have come across some whose lack of simplicity led me to discard them from my mind and have never developed any kind of correspondence whatsoever. My fault perhaps, but I follow that old Dao deQing saying: A house is made of walls and roof, but it is the void inside that makes it usable. In other words, when one is full of oneself, there's no space left for accepting anymore of anything else.
O
n the other hand I have met others whose different ways of expressing friendliness and even great generosity kept me going back to them. They all know I like them but don't worship them. I just admire what they do to the best of their abilities, as I feel so incapable of working steel. I have great admiration for people who are worthy. And on top of it, for those who work with steel and other metals such as sword smiths and jewelers, as to a large extent they to operate a transmutation of materials through one of the earliest discoveries of men: fire.

A NEW CHOKUTO
It came a time that I decided that my first mu-sori stick sword
chokuto
by Cicada Forge had to go. There is no particular reason for me to leave a wonderful blade with a very unique hamon. I just felt it had its time with me and should proceed its own journey. I wanted a new one. And I have found my buyer (whose name I will not reveal) to be a very interesting person and am working with him in developing a new approach for the blade.

I wasn’t very much concerned at the beginning into having a hamon present at the blade. I was more concerned with its power to cut and had decided that it had to be a hira-zukuri blade. But while this may be true, it emerged from me the need for beauty combined with practicality. So I further asked Joe Walters for a hybrid polish that would show the clay temper and my request was promptly complied with, while being informed that Joe would go for a much welcomed suguha hamon.

Many people will have their preconceptions or prejudices about a stick sword, but I have dedicated myself to study what one can do with a chokuto in a realistically way, turning it into a defensive weapon that is by no means to be called a ninja-sword or a zatoichi stick.
My aim was and is to have a blade whose purpose is never to be drawn. It is indeed the paradox that make sword arts what they are, at least how I view them. Yet the bokkuto-like appearance is for me both the supreme simplicity and the utmost complexity as the chokuto in shirasaya is mainly to be doubled as a stick able to hit rather than to be drawn.

After some consultations, a good friend pointed me to Joe Walters and I emailed him enquiring about his availability to work on a chokuto. Joe’s reply was prompt and very friendly, and I must say I was surprised that he was acquainted with my BLADESIGN website.

I
stated that I had a very short time frame for it, for reasons pertaining only to me and to Macau. Joe, under very special circumstances, asked if July would be okay for me. This conversation took place about mid-June, and I was amazed by Joe’s reply.
In a wink, we settled the price, the specs and we quickly discussed some technical details. The blade would have my favorite 25 inches nagasa while the width would be reduced to 2.8 cm.

After some hesitations I called Joe and told him I finally decided for a piece of maple burl in dark brown color. I have always been attracted to burl, but wanted to consult Joe Walters for how much punishment could a normalized burl saya  take. We further discussed the need for a lack of rattling of the blade, the proper hold of the habaki by the saya, the epoxied nakago for a 10 inch tsuka and a little trick on the tsuka to find the ha without looking, just with my hands.
I
am still surprised by my own obsession with beauty, wether it is jewelry like, or understated. What I mean is that I could have an even more discreet chokuto, avoiding attraction, and this has been discussed. But in the end I gave up to my urge for beauty that the burl would provide to the shirasaya...


Joe immediately found a piece of maple at e-Bay and pointed it out to me.
I agreed promptly and left a message with his kind wife saying to please go ahead and the wood was secured.

BLADE SHAPING

By Sunday, the 16th of June 2002, maybe  roughly 10 days after we started talking, Joe sent me the first photos of the chokuto in 5160 steel from a bar stock 3.2 cm wide which would then be ground into the narrower final width.
 

The blade to be had been already profiled and ground, getting ready for further refinement of shape with the sanding belt, which gave it its final hira-zukuri shape.
 

The dips and waves left by poor grinding, according to Joe, would be removed by draw filing. The vertical scratches represent a low area left by the grinding belt, the steel file will even everything out for a very smooth and consistent cross-section and will leave a finish of about 120 grit.

I could feel from the pictures that Joe sent me that, it is going to be an extremely aggressive blade.
 

This is now a picture of an oversize blank, as Joe called it, ready for heat treating, when a slight curvature is expected during quench but the smooth finish left by draw filing will prevent any stress risers that could cause cracks in the quench.

I am totally amazed at the speed at which Joe Walters works, as well as the cheerful mood he puts on his emails or on his conversations over the phone. I have been fed with pictures and explanations as the blade advances. It is not easy to make a chokuto, as the blade tend to curve, but Joe has prepared himself anticipating how the steel would behave by oversizing the blank.



The next day, I got another picture with the blade showing a nice kissaki. The picture above shows the sugata after the quenching.
Here is what Joe did: he clay-coated the blade and hardened the mune upon quenching to stop the curving.
Joe Walters
was able to keep the specifications I gave him within the limits though 5160 steel does  curve significantly after quench in water, and Joe decided he would continue to use this 5160 steel for katanas which would have a very nice sori.

Joe had to go on a trip, and he was kind enough to let me know, and came back on July 3rd. late evening. The photos below are already taken after he resumed his work.

Joe did a special handle that fit into the sword's nakago tightly to make handling 1.500 º F temperature a little safer. Here we see that the blade is getting ready for another step of  what I like to call the Alchemic Process.
 

The salt pot seems very much like a volcano with dried white lava around, another step from the entire process of making a chokuto a terrible weapon. Each part of the workshop seems like the world of an alchemist...

T
he blade is fed into the molten-salt-filled tube and allowed to come up to temperature, then cooled in still air. This process is repeated 4 times to normalize the blade, a process which refines the grain structure, prevents warpage in the quench, and makes for a premium blade.

 

The blade is then quenched into warmed oil and later tempered to reduce brittleness. Yet another step of the laborious process of changing the properties of steel to one's own specific wishes.
 

This is what the blade looks like prior to rough finishing on the belt grinder.

According to what Joe has told me in our exchange of emails:
There is practically no niku, which makes this blade like a 25 inch straight-razor. It slices deep with the lightest pressure, yet is tough enough to cut with if need be, definitely recommending you stick with tatami. I won't even pick this one up without my kevlar gloves on!  This blade exhibits *excellent* flexibility and toughness. The weight  is a scant 1 pound, which should bring the total weight of the blade when mounted into the handle to about 2 pounds even. The balance point will probably be about 3 inches forward of the habaki. The blade "floats" and has a *very* alive feel to it.

BLADE POLISH

Blade at 200 grit Blade at 600 grit Blade at 800 grit etched with ferric chloride

This is the blade after the oxides have been polished off with the flitz. Note the soft transition zones. This step is done prior to sealing the habaki on and affixing the tsuka.

Joe fully understood the type of blade I was looking for. And obviously neither he nor I were looking for a blade that can cut gun barrels. The hira-zukuri, is so sharp that Joe himself decided to protect his hands with Kevlar gloves. Then there is the lightness of the blade, another issue I raised, to which Joe complied in a very significant way. When I called him after receiving these pictures, Joe told me with his friendly soft laugh, that he had already finished making the habaki.

I must say that I am definitely captured by this young blade smith. He is charming, friendly, absolutely dedicated to his work, and I shall say that we have been enjoying working together in this project. We have exchanged links between our websites and I am fascinated by how Joe works, because his pace is pretty much the same as in Macau. Very fast work.
On top of it I find him to be extremely practical with his work on blades. He aims for performance blades as a priority and I am already thinking of one other myself, in a few months.

Those who know me, know that I do acknowledge talented persons and feel a very special joy in finding them and proclaiming how good they are. And if they are young, I have even much more reason to rejoice.

I'll take this opportunity to explain why my reviews go online so quick. Mostly because I keep getting pictures and I start writing parts of the reviews until I receive the blade. Then I take some final shots and just add some more information on the revised text and place it online. With Joe Walters it has been an extremely efficient exchange of information and also of pictures sent my way.


THE MAKING OF THE HABAKI

Habaki blank is hammered and filed to approximate dimensions. It is then folded around the blade and the notch is cut so that it will fit flush against the munemachi.The habaki is fitted with the machigane then hard-soldered (silver-brazed) shut.

In no time Joe finished this wonderful and solid copper habaki. He will still have some finishing to do, but it does speak very highly of his quick way of solving things. Joe told me he enjoyed doing this beautiful semi-circle which I call the Omega Habaki.

THE MAKING OF THE SAYA AND TSUKA

The saya blanks are cut from the parent stock with care being taken to avoid any large or compromising knots.
The interior is flattened and inletted to accept the blade. In this case, the portion below the habaki was inletted an extra 1/16 of an inch to accept the felt lining which will eliminate any blade rattling. The felt is epoxied into the saya after the stabilizing agents have cured.

The tsuka is then drilled and bolted, matching plugs are cut and then epoxied into the holes and then the saya and tsuka are finished out and given a coat of tung oil to give a matte finish.

The bolts and the epoxy ensure absolute security of the nakago and strenght to the tsuka, while the saya construction explained above makes this piece an absolutely secure weapon to which the extra thigh fitting of the habaki adds to its primary use as a bokken while allowing for a very fast and unpredictable draw.

 
 

Then, after final touch up the chokuto was ready for shipment.





T
hese are the pictures that Joe took prior to shipping the blade to me. I received them on July 16,2002 my time.

W
e both knew that the saya would have to be tight, and Joe had devised a way to ship the blade so no extra pressure would be exerted over the saya's mouth to avoid any climate changes affecting the way the saya would hold the blade.
He also ensured that the wood would be fully normalized before starting to work on the saya.
I
n short, a deluxe treatment for a sword collector who had some time problems that Joe fully understood.

THE CHOKUTO SPECIFICATIONS
A
s mentioned before, the blade is a hira-zukuri with a 6mm mune, a scary double sized chisel like blade with very little niku taking the most advantage of the 2.8 cm width at the machi and a slight, very slight taper of 4 mm at the end.
Nagasa is 25 inches, my favorite chokuto length.
Polish is a working polish for a blade that is made specially for cutting. I would not want to have a high polish for it.

These are the first set of pictures taken of the chokuto immediately after opening it from the box.

These pictures were taken in very short time without any light settings or any chance to clean the blade. The burl is indescribably beautiful, the entire piece is very light, yet very solid. I tested the blade back handed on a piece of photocopy paper and it is scaring sharp. The Omega Habaki is perfectly done while the woodwork is very well finished and my request for a pearly matt finish is just superbly done. When inside the saya, the entire piece is very very solid and maneuverable. There is not a hint of rattling with the saya lining. The polish is a work polish for a superbly strong and very light hira-zukuri.

 
 

July 2002
Copyright by BLADESIGN