So You Want a Custom Sword?

As a swordsmith, I spend a lot of time poring over auction catalogues and museum pieces for inspiration. So much so that I sometimes forget that other people may not have quite so obsessive a grasp of sword form as my profession has provided me. With that in mind, I’ve taken some time away from the anvil to create a guide to commissioning a custom sword from me.

There are two types of briefs that I love: the truly open ones, where a client has a general idea of the type of sword they want, but trusts me to make specific and stylistic decisions for them, and the well-thought out ones, in which I get to work closely with a client to realise their own vision.

If you’re the former kind of client, you can feel confident that I have an arsenal of resources and experience to draw from in creating a one-of-a-kind sword that you’ll love fencing with. If you have more particular requirements, however, the following may help you to set them out in an email.

∴ The Purpose ∴

I came into smithing through historical fencing, so my expertise is orientated toward making blunt swords that contain the essence of original sharps. That is the challenge I face every time I pick up my tools, and the mystery that drives my research. Making a sword that looks and feels “right”, like an artefact from another time or world, and is safe to study martial arts with – that is my holy grail. As such, my best work is in making blunts for display or historical fencing.

If you come to me in need of a fencing blunt for blade-on-blade usage, that already implies a set or parameters for me, dealing mainly with the blade section. My blades feature slightly thicker edges, a swollen or flat tip with a larger diameter, and flex in the blade to reduce the force of a thrust.

The edges are a question of durability and non negotiable, as I won’t intentionally make something that I believe will break in normal usage. Flex and tip shape are more dependant on the style of fencing you favour – although if you’re practicing HEMA I’d recommend sticking to the generally accepted standards of swollen tip and reasonable flex.

Perhaps you’re not looking to fight at all, but want a work of art. For display pieces I do a butter knife rounded edge, historical flexibility and a flat (in section) tip so that it represents a sharp sword as closely as possible, without any worries about houseguests losing fingers. This style also lends itself better to scabbarding, as swollen fencing tips can cause issues with fitting wooden scabbard cores.

As such, this is the standard I work to for my own costume swords at historical festivals – though it’s important to resist the urge to fence with them, as the stiffness would endanger my opponent and the thin edge would be beaten up in short order.

∴ The Materials ∴

Once I know what you intend to use your sword for, I have a context in mind for what follows:

For a display sword, I’d typically recommend iron or mild steel for the hilt fittings, as this is more historically in keeping and there are no mechanical reasons why harder steel would be required. Brass, bronze and copper accents are also good options, as they are stunning materials but unfortunately not durable enough to sustain the impacts of fencing. Ornately carved guards are also best saved for display pieces, as regular training would eventually erode these even from hardened steel.

When it comes to fencing swords, I make the guard from heat-treated carbon steels – usually spring steels, as these are especially durable. Pommels are made from mild steel, as generally these should not be suffering much in the way of impact during normal training. For this reason, brass pommels are also a possibility for fencing swords.

∴ The Type ∴

Most people know what type of sword they want in a broader sense – the terms rapier, sidesword, longsword, arming sword, montante etc are instantly evocative of certain shapes and styles. It’s not always so clear-cut, though: unusual antiques and experimental hybrids are always welcome orders, as well as fantasy-inspired swords that eschew normal categorisation.

∴ The Aesthetic ∴

My work makes me fairly mechanically-minded, so technical specs always come first for me. Once we have a clear idea of blade type and materials however, we can move on to the flashier parts.

The most helpful thing you can do at this juncture is to send some photos of originals you’ve been inspired by, a quick sketch of the unique look you’re after, or both! I find the following resources to be handy inspirations when designing a new sword.

The Wallace Collection’s excellent online catalogue for rapiers and sideswords

The Met Museum Online for a mix of swords

The Royal Armouries for a comprehensive collection and some truly unusual beasts

-Auction site catalogues such as Hermann Historica, Czernys, Christies

As you browse, ask yourself the following questions:

∴ What Blade Style?∴

Often this is an adjunct to the type of sword, so it’s enough to say “a heavier rapier blade” or “a lighter rapier blade”. From this, I can imagine the sword of handling you’re thinking of, and make a wider or narrower blade appropriately.

∴ What Sort of Guard?∴

For cruciform swords this is a fairly simple question, though it’s worth discussing the breadth, curvature, and possible faceting of the cross-section, as well as any adornment to the quillon terminals.

For complex hilts, the main question is how much protection you’re looking for. I’d recommend looking at the Norman typology for a comprehensive look at the many options open to you – alternatively, any images of styles you admire will give me a good visual cue.

This is also a good time to let me know whether you’re left or right handed!

∴ What Sort of Grip?∴

The only thing I’m likely to go into more depth with you about is grip length for single-handed swords, as this can have a huge impact on handling and balance. I tend to recommend a shorter grip where possible, as this allows the pommel to sit against the palm, increasing control in certain actions.

Otherwise, I’m happy to take your lead: would you like a thicker or thinner grip? Would you prefer your two-handed sword to have a waisted grip or not? Should the grip be finished in twisted wire or leather? What colour leather would set your design off?

∴ What Sort of Pommel?∴

Chances are if you’ve already settled on an original or fantasy sword as inspiration, the pommel style is a significant part of its aesthetic. Otherwise a quick look at some of the websites above will be valuable.

I’m generally happy to go with whatever look and feel you like best, but in certain cases where there’s a relationship between pommel type, grip length and handling, I’ll let you know and discuss a compromise. Broadly speaking I’ll notice if your choices will likely lead to a poorly (unhistorically) balanced sword, and give you some better options. However, it’s worth noting that even some historical designs handled rather badly (though there may be reasons yet uncovered for this) – I’ll point out early on if we’re dealing with one of those anomalies.

∴ What Sort of Handling?∴

Think about how you fence, and any issues you’ve had with previous swords. Would you benefit from a lighter tip for nimble movement, or more blade presence for binding actions and strong swinging cuts? It’s worth noting that the sword type will force this decision a little, and that heavily blade-weighted swords are inappropriate for anything but the most controlled of drilling.

If you already have specific ideas about the weight, point of balance or where you’d like the flex to focus, this is a good time to discuss it. However, broadly speaking creating the “right” balance is an organic process that requires small adjustments throughout the sword’s creation. An eventual sword may differ slightly from the initial numbers given, yet handle significantly better than imagined.

∴ The Next Step ∴

If you’ve come this far, pick up a pencil and do a sketch of what you have in your mind. Don’t worry about how simple or complex the drawing is – I’m not much of a draughtsman myself in all honesty. Proportions aren’t hugely important, as we can adjust those to nail down a functional sword, but a picture is worth a thousand words as smithing is a very visual pursuit. I will keep returning to your sketch throughout the production process to keep the spirit of your sword at the forefront of my mind – it really does make a difference.

Here are some examples of sketches I’ve worked from, and the resulting swords. As you can see, each one is different in style but it was always a happy result, as customers got to see their imaginings realised in the most complete way possible. I like to think I got pretty close!

If you’re ready to share your ideas, get in touch now and start the conversation – Alicia and I look forward to hearing from you.

Chris Adams, Balefire Blades

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