Mokume-gane was originally developed in Japan,
by Denbei Shoami around the 17th century. Searching for a way
to strengthen samurai swords, he fell upon a lamination procedure
which takes metals of different alloys (an alloy is a combination
of metals which when melted together, gives a new metal with different
working properties. Stainless steel is an alloy of steel and chromium.
Sterling silver is an alloy of silver and copper.) Alloys usually
have more desirable properties than the base metals themselves.
ie: Sterling silver is much stronger and has better wear resistance
than just copper or sterling by themselves.
The master metal smith Denbei Shoami took
alloying a step further. He found that when different metal alloys
are laminated together, the resulting new "metal sandwich", comprised
of many thin layers of varying metals, had much more strength
and flexibility than any one of the original metals by themselves
(Today lamination of woods is common in the building industry
for making structurable beam supports for the same reasons; Strength
This one single "invention" gave the Japanese
a decided advantage against their enemies, and also led to the
finest sword decorations in the world. The laminated metal, when
hammered, forged, and filed, took on a new "life". The exposed
layers of different metal colors appeared as a wood grain, beautiful
as Nature herself would have created.
In its simplest form, visualize taking an
onion and slicing off a small piece from its side. The layers
of the onion have a definite circular pattern, varying in width
- a bullseye effect with rings of varying size. This same onion
cut across the top will reveal another pattern with rings of similar
size. Sandwiching layers could produce delicate, intricate patterning.
Quartering the onion, turning the "grain" rings in different directions,
and (if you could) reassembling the pieces, would result in quite
a different pattern in the "slice" and every slice would reveal
a slightly or sometimes dramatically new pattern. A diagonal cut
might now produce rings and long striations, or no rings and definite
right angle patterns, totally different than the original ring
If one thought out the layering of different
thicknesses and colors of metal, changed the direction of the
"grain", hammered low and high areas to be filed, shaped and forged,
infinite patterns with some control as to their content emerges.
Beautiful geometric designs.
So in what was obviously an attempt to forge
a "better sword" in the seventeenth century, much like the layers
of Mokume-gane itself, a whole different pattern emerges. That
of beautiful, intricate designs which could be applied (at least
in thought) to many areas of artistic endeavors. The woodworker
sanding to expose a certain pattern in the grain. The painter,
layering different colours on the canvas and then sanding or scraping
away selected areas, exposing a "new", somewhat random and chaotic
design in the paint.
And in the metal arts, having such working
properties as strength and durability, along with undeniable beauty,
is a little bit of heaven.
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