Bladesmithing Students Forge Ahead

Sweet Briar students at a bladesmithing competition
Sweet Briar students at a bladesmithing competition
Sweet Briar students and Dr. Michelle Gervasio entered their sword in the TMS Bladesmithing Competition in Orlando, Florida.

Sweet Briar students faced off against international competition in their quest to craft a handmade sword.

Posted on March 13, 2024

The Roman Pompeii Gladius sword crafted by Sweet Briar students. The Roman Pompeii Gladius sword crafted by Sweet Briar students.When Dr. Michelle Gervasio and two of her students arrived in Orlando for an international metals and materials conference, they had something special in their luggage: a Roman Pompeii Gladius sword. The students had made it themselves and were Sweet Briar College’s first participants in the annual TMS Bladesmithing Competition.

Maddy Paige, Nathalie Schelin, and Samantha Champion (who could not attend the competition) were students in Dr. Gervasio’s Practical Metallurgy class in spring 2023 and took on the additional challenge of taking what they had learned to craft a sword worthy of the competition that included many R1 research universities and longtime bladesmithing competitors.

Dr. Gervasio says, “The elective combined the academic aspects of what happens to metals as they are heated and cooled with the hands-on experience of actually using a forge. So students who wanted to geek out with me over the science could do so, while students who really wanted to beat hot metal with a hammer got the chance to do that.”

A small group of students enjoyed the class so much that they took on the challenge of forging a sword for the competition.

“Most academic conferences have a student design competition,” says Dr. Gervasio. “For the bladesmithing competition students were judged on aesthetics, historical accuracy, resourcefulness, and a technical report. The majority of the evaluation is of the technical report, doing good metallurgy, understanding all of the underlying principles and processes that are going on.”

Student using a forge Students did all of the work - forging, hammering, and finishing.
Determining how to get from a blank, rectangular piece of steel to the finished product was challenging. Should they start with the tip or the tang? How do they craft the bevel? Dr. Gervasio offered advice and maintained safety, but left her students to work through the challenges themselves and to learn from their mistakes.

This approach reflects the advice Dr. Gervasio gives her engineering students as they prepare to work in a male-dominated industry. “I tell my students they just have to get out there and try. Just go out and try, make mistakes, struggle productively, and get better. It will be hard, and you won’t get everything right but as long as you are learning from the experience it’s worthwhile.”

The bladesmithing competition was certainly worthwhile. Though they did not win (and never expected to), these students took the challenge head on, learned new skills, practiced perseverance, represented themselves professionally, experienced an international industry conference, and they got the thrill of beating hot metal with a hammer.