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Fire and steel-- at home

Bladesmith Jesus Hernandez shows how he makes traditional Japanese knives from all-natural ingredients... at home, in his garage.

I figured I'd take a moment away from reviewing consumer electronics to write a little about a particular application in materials science. That field has long been an interest of mine, especially when it leads to unusual, attractive, and sophisticated products.

The Japanese samurai sword was arguably the ultimate expression of materials science and craftsmanship for hundreds of years. The PBS television series Nova this week aired a show titled "Secrets of the Samurai Sword" that took viewers through the complete process of making a sword.

Watching the show reminded me of a similar sequence from the late Dr. Jacob Bronowski's great documentary series, The Ascent of Man. I credit that show with helping me to develop such broad interests in science and engineering.

The Nova show shows the traditional Japanese methods for smelting both high-carbon and low-carbon steel from iron ore, forging and heat-treating the steel to create a sword with the perfect combination of hardness and toughness, and polishing the sword to translate these metallurgical characteristics into aesthetic excellence.

Each of these skills ordinarily takes most of a lifetime to perfect, but it's possible for one person to become expert enough to all of these areas to produce admirable results.

The day after I watched the Nova episode, a friend directed me to the website of Spanish bladesmith Jesus Hernandez of Huntsville, Alabama. In a series of pages on his site, Hernandez shows how he made a pair of Japanese-style tanto knives using the same basic process-- all using relatively simple equipment that he bought or made and keeps in his garage workshop at home.

For someone like me, Hernandez's website is even more inspirational than the Nova program. I may never smelt and forge my own knives and swords, but it's great to know that some people still do.