The game is afoot. Every year, my husband Patrick and I try to outdo one another's Christmas gifts. Not for their perfection or beauty, but for their goofy fittingness. Last year, he won, giving me the sparkling ruby slippers I'd always wanted as a child, when watching The Wizard of Oz on TV was an annual celebration for me. He still won't tell me where he found them. This year, I'm thinking of getting him a real sword -- if I loved The Wizard of Oz , he worshipped the swashbuckling in Zorro and The Adventures of Robin Hood . Something he could use to fend off the evil Guy of Gisbourne, should he ever attack La Mesa. I checked in with Jim Ferguson, owner of Twisted Nickel in Temecula (951-719-1552; www.twistednickel.com ). Ferguson makes high-end handmade swords for collectors, and he was willing to give me a rundown on his handiwork. "A sword is made up of a blade, then a ricasso, which is the area that attaches to the guard. The guard keeps your hand from sliding forward, and keeps your opponent's blade from hitting your knuckles. Scottish swords have a basket handle that covers the knuckles completely. There are also guards known as blade-breakers; if you could catch your opponent's blade in it and make a quick return, it might break the blade. Behind the guard is a spacer, to adapt the guard to the handle. The butt end of the handle is called the pommel."
Ferguson makes "a more traditional Celtic-Scots style of sword. Slimmer swords like this are made more for penetrating the body, as opposed to the broadswords, which are sharpened heavily. Broadswords are more cutting, chopping swords; they're used when there's a lot of armor involved."
The sword starts with the steel. "What makes one sword better than another is the hardness of the steel. Your car fender is made out of 1018 steel; it would be too soft to make a good blade. I use 1095 steel -- steel is an alloy of carbon and iron, and 1095 is nearly one percent carbon. Carbon is what allows you to harden the blade. Once you hit one to one and a half percent, the steel won't take any more carbon."
To harden his blade, Ferguson heats the steel to 1500 degrees "with molden salt. I have a special furnace with a tube down the center. In the tube are rock salt, potassium, and carbonate; at 1500 degrees, the salt is liquid and glowing. I use liquid salt because it transfers heat better than air, and because it eliminates oxygen, which causes scaling. I dip the sword into the salt until it gets up to temperature, about two minutes. Then I pull it out and dip it into cold brine -- salt water. It's a very violent reaction when I quench the blade, because it's red-hot. The quenching lines up all the molecules in the steel, and makes them very hard -- at times, too hard."
By this point, the blade is often at something like 60 Rockwell -- a scale that measures hardness. "When it's that hard, it's brittle. If you hit something, the blade will snap. I'll wait about 20 minutes for martensite to form -- the steel will get a mottled look to it. Then I'll heat the blade to 475 degrees in an oven, and that will draw some of the hardness out, tempering it and giving it some spring. I draw my swords back to 58 Rockwell. At 56, it'll take an edge, but it won't hold it very long. That's too soft."
Once the steel is tempered, Ferguson polishes it. "You can do it with emery paper, but I use a belt grinder, and then I buff it. And since I use Damascus steel and I want the pattern to show, I etch the blade with an acid. That brings out the differential between the nickel and the steel. See, regular steel is one solid block of metal; Damascus steel is a laminate. I start out with 400 pieces -- alternating layers of high-
carbon steel and nickel. All 400 layers make a piece only two and a quarter inches thick. The pieces are wire-tied and soaked in a liquid flux. I put it in the furnace, and when it comes out, I squish it down with a 75-ton hydraulic press. That makes it into one solid block; it's called pattern welding. Each piece of metal keeps its identity -- you can see each layer separate from the others -- but they're all together in one block. The acid darkens the steel, but it doesn't attack the nickel."
Ferguson assembles the rest of the sword by hand; his work can be viewed on his website and ordered by phone. All that craftsmanship doesn't come cheap -- his swords may cost between $2400 and $2600 . I told him that was out of my ballpark, and he gave me advice for my continuing hunt. "For an average, decent sword, you have to spend $150 and up. Look for the country of origin. Japanese, German, Spanish, and American swords are pretty good, and made to be functional. Some of the wall-hangers are not functional. If it looks good and you like it, fine, but if you want to join a re-enactment group, you may want something better."
Dan Tresko of Dante's Knife Works in Escondido (760-741-3731; www.dantesknifeworks.com ) offers more than 40 swords on his website. Most are functional -- that is, ready for actual swordplay. Prices range from $112.50 to $599 , depending on style and maker. "Most of my swords are bought by collectors and re-enactors," said Tresko. "What sells depends on what movies are playing. When The Last Samurai was out, the Japanese swords were very popular. When Braveheart was playing, it was the two-hand longsword that sold."
The Edge in Horton Plaza (619-233-7030) has 20 swords in-store to choose from, and over 45 more in its catalogs. Prices range from $69 to $200 for nonfunctional swords and from $250 to $1800 for functional swords.