Dominator046’s Metallurgy Manifesto
Hello and welcome to my guide for Roleplaying as a Smith!
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Now, I have roleplayed in many, many places. Some places were more inviting than others, some had expectations, and some even required you have a certain knowledge about what you were doing before you could roleplay what you wanted! The latter-most also tended to include what I would call 'competitive roleplay', in which the better poster, with the most knowledge in doing what they were doing, was 'better' than the other.
This guide was first inspired by these sorts of communities, as I believe that ALL persons should be able to roleplay their chosen calling, at the very least. Similarly, while I do feel like a more accurate / immersive player should be rewarded slightly more than one whom is a bit awkward and unwieldy, I wouldn't dream of shunning anyone.
So, this guide contains a lot of basic information about a lot of metallurgy, as can be understood in modern terms, for a 'general' fantasy world. Most of these metals are found in our real world, and may not work the same in other universes (or interpretations of other universes). I have included a scarce few fantastical metals, mostly as a suggestion as to how you might create new metals, and what it might mean for your universe. Why would rich nobles buy steel plate, when they could buy mithril? That sort of thing.
A key point I would stress going in: regardless of your knowledge, tempering and care for your craft will make a much bigger difference than the quality of metal you're working with. A masterwork iron sword will beat a pitifully crafted steel blade, and this is worth considering even in fantasy. It encourages player interaction, and develops a sense of worth in the object. In a time when all things were handmade, it really helps sell the roleplay.
In the guide, I'll try to drop some helpful tips and tricks in between entries to give your roleplay an edge (I'm so sorry.) I'll be using swords, armor, and other such edged weapons as examples when going through this; but this information should be applicable to anything!
In this section I will define the different types of forging that have historically been employed to fashion metal into tools, equipment, and armor.
Casting: The process of melting ore down and, typically after impurities have removed themselves from the mixture, funneling it into a mold to cool and harden. After the metal is successfully cast and removed from the mold, it is filed and sharpened into shape.
Pattern Welding: Typically associated with purifying varying ore specimen of various quality, or a level of technology that doesn't permit completely homogenous monosteel. Pattern welding is the process in which typically metal rods are heated, folded, and hammered together to form an implement. As would be the common case through most of history, the metal for an implement would be made of mixed quality ore. Pattern welding allowed the blade a stronger structure in this case. In the case of many sword blade designs softer, non-brittle metal rods would form the core of the item while harder, brittle metal is welded around the core of the blade. Pattern welding is not known to have been used in armorsmithing, seeming to be subject only to the creation of weapons and tools. The metals used in pattern welding in the real world are Low-Carbon Steel or Low-Carbon Iron for the non-brittle core, and High-Carbon Steel or High-Carbon Iron for the brittle, hard edges.
Crucible Forging: Steel is classically produced through methods of Crucible Forging, of which there are three methods. The first method is to heat Low-Carbon Iron with a high carbon fuel in a compact hearth. The second method is to release carbon from High-Carbon Iron, and involves heating the iron to an incredibly high temperature. The third method is carefully forging together Low-Carbon and High-Carbon Iron to produce an object with a certain physical combination of the two alloys. The earliest method is believed to reliably produce a highly prized form of steel, known as Wootz steel, typically associated with high-quality and the legendary Damascus Steel (true Damascus steel). These methods could be applied to any metal whose functional state is an alloy of itself, carbon, and other trace elements.
In this section I will define in detail certain processes that go into the production of steel, or items of other metals. These processes are not simple in almost any case, and require a certain familiarity to do with a level denoting quality items.
Tempering: The quintessential process of smithing, tempering is the act of rapidly cooling a high-temperature item being forged, usually by quenching it in a vessel of water or oil. This is one of the most important, and delicate aspects of forging an item, specifically even more-so a weapon. Rapidly cooling a hot item in this way 'traps' or 'freezes' or 'crystalizes' the atomic structure of the weapon in its current state. It's what allows a High-Carbon Steel or Low-Carbon steel to avoid descending completely into Low-Carbon Iron or High-Carbon Iron during the heating process. Acquiring the skill to judge when to quench a blade, at what temperature, and how to achieve the desired results across an entire object is an incredibly difficult skill that takes many, many years of labor.
Sawing/Filing: Not usually thought of when working with steel (or other metals like bronze), but the only method fitting for manipulating the shape of a true steel blade. The brittleness that carbon introduce into a blade makes it undesirable for hammering, as such would be liable to break or fracture the blade than do anything else. Instead, blades are ground into their final shape very carefully. Though this may seem simple, steel in this case works like wood; if you remove material from the weapon, its physical properties will change. If you do this unevenly, it may bend or bow, and no longer be straight. If you do not file the blade evenly, the blade may have an uneven or twisted edge. These artifacts are not desirable, as even specialist items are shaped beforehand, and intended to be filed such as to remain in that shape. It takes a fair amount of skill to shape a steel properly.
Hammering: The metal most commonly depicted as being hammered at the forge is low-carbon iron; pure iron, such might say. This is due to the fact that Iron does not become harder when heated. Being soft still, and being made malleable by heat, an iron object can be hammered into such a shape as to be made useful. This object can then be forged into a steel alloy, and then worked into its final shape. Though many often depict hammering as the sole work of a smith, though it is a major and effort-laden part, it is only a part of the process. In fact, it might be one of the easiest processes to become familiar with.
This is a section I will make for topics that relate more towards the theory of a 'good quality' item made by smiths. This will extend to the inexactness of metallurgy in a period without widespread scientific processes, and how people reacted to it.
Material Quality versus Production Quality, Definitions: Material quality is the measure of purity or beneficial traits in a given substance used in crafting an item. The production quality of an item is the measure of skill or exactness to which an object has been shaped or otherwise designed to suit its purpose. The overall quality of an item is the combined material and production qualities inherent in it, or any of the parts which make up its whole. The quality of the steel in a medieval longsword would be a part of its production quality (the primary part, accompanied by the hilt components.) The quality of the craftmanship that went into producing that steel sword-blade, regardless of its material quality (so long as it doesn't fail in production) is its Production Quality. You can have a master smith produce a really high quality sword blade out of really poor quality iron, or have a novice smith use high quality ore to produce a poor quality sword blade.
Material Quality versus Production Quality, Example: The age old comparison, a mithril sword versus a steel sword, or an iron sword versus a steel sword. What wins out? Obviously the better metal, right? Actually, no, it's not that simple. A well made sword of simple iron, or bronze, is probably going to be much more beneficial to a fighter than a sword made by a shoddy craftsman that happened to get his hands on some workable mithril. The fact of the matter is, is that swords (and other objects) are dedicated tools. They are designed for a purpose, with exacting needs and expected levels of durability. If a complete ragamuffin works some mithril into a shape that looks like a sword, it might not be that great. Whereas, a true master smith might be able to take some low quality iron, with decades of experience, and tender-loving-care produce a sword of simple steel that is brilliantly designed and poised for its purpose. Now if that same smith made a sword of mithril, and a sword of steel, in the exact same way, with the exact same material quality, then the mithril sword would almost certainly be better. So, the question becomes, how much better, and at what point do you experience these tradeoffs? Since this is a guide intended for roleplay, I tend to advise that the quality of the weapon should reflect the amount of work done by a character crafting it, and how much experience they have.
Swords are Not Steel Sticks/Rods: This may appear obvious, though it can be quite common to see someone out in the internet space equivocate a sword to a stick, or a spike made out of steel. This is not the case, and the doom of many arm-chair, keyboard-warrior physicists that make their home in youtube comment sections who use elementary Rod Physics. A sword, for example, is assembled of multiple pieces and in a process that has multiple steps. A steel swordblade itself may function as a rod, but a rod with a lot of physical differences along its length. Many taper in thickness as they get closer to the point; in different places for different functionality. Some swords have different innate geometry, making them better or worse at some things. And once you attach hilt components on there, like the grip, the guard, and points of contact with the hand; game over. It's an entirely specific beast that has very specific rod physics. If you'd like to learn more, look up The Sword Form and Thought, Peter Johnsson, or other prominent sword users / makers.
Without Science, There Is Constant RNG: The scientific revolution benefited us all. Though it gave rise to the industrial revolution, and eradicated all those reclusive masters of specific crafting arts. No longer do we have that lone blacksmith, up on the mountain, in his hut, creating the greatest swords ever known to man one at a time. Except... well... that guy is a bit of a myth too. Truly, someone such as that could have existed, but he wouldn't have been very efficient. The truth of the matter is that, prior to scientific means, there was no real way to perfectly understand what the quality of a given ore or fuel was. Really, it could be completely random, unless you had a seller you trusted who knew his stuff really well. To work against this variable Material Quality, a smith would usually make sword-blades in batches of several; as many as could be easily done by them or their workshop full of apprentices. After doing this, they would test each individual swordblade, to appraise the final quality of each. Different swordblades would be of higher quality out of variance in material quality (and production quality too obviously - we don't always do our very best work), with some perhaps even failing and breaking, and some yet being particularly fine pieces.
The Hard Metals
Within this section I will discuss metals fit for use in active use, tools, weapons, and armor . Hard Metals may not be an entirely accurate term, nor one that was ever used; however, it provides a relatively identifiable name that will give us a rough category.
Bronze: Often denoted with antiquity, bronze is a dark, lustrous alloy between copper and tin. It is heavier than steel, and somewhat softer. Bronze is made by melting the respective ores that create it into a mold and filing it into shape. Bronze does not corrode so much as iron does, oxidizing in the form of a light green patina. Copper and tin are more difficult to find in some areas than iron, making it more rare in some locations. Bronze is highly resistant to corrosion, resistant to friction, and is a good conductor of electricity. When cast, it expands before it sets which allows it to completely fill a mold. It is considered perhaps the perfect 'bell metal', and does not produce sparks when struck against a hard surface. Some debate the qualities of bronze versus those of iron.
Iron: A very common metal, iron is a durable metal that is used to produce a wide array of implements and tools. It corrodes when oxidized.
In what we will call Low-Carbon Iron (referred to also as pure Iron, or sometimes called Wrought Iron), the iron is placed within a bloomery (a crafting furnace), and heated just under the melting point, which will allow slag (impurities, trace elements of other things) to escape the metal. This practice allows carbon-monoxide to escape from the ore and leave the resulting grey metal. This is a somewhat delicate process requiring one to work a careful temperature. This is what gives the iron its Low-Carbon content. Low-Carbon Iron gives a certain hardness to the metal while making it non-brittle. It also disables any hardening due to heat treatment so that the metal can be softened when exposed to heat, and thus reshaped by a hammer and anvil into a more permanent form. Low-Carbon Iron is the iconic metal being hammered by blacksmiths at the forge. This low-carbon iron is the basis for pattern-welding in weapons, forming the metal rods that will be forged together to either create the weapon, or the core of it with a harder steel / high-carbon iron forged over it.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is High-Carbon Iron (also known more plainly as Cast Iron). This metal is made by melting iron ore, typically with carbon based fuel, and taking various steps to remove impurities. This results in the hard metal becoming brittle, performing well under compression but poorly under tension. It performs greatly against wear and tear, but it does corrode through oxidization. This metal is honed through sawing, filing, and other techniques as it will harden if heated. It is too brittle to be hammered. High-Carbon Iron is cheaper to produce than steel in most cases, but is more brittle, and requires a very hot furnace.
Steel: An alloy of iron, carbon, and trace other elements, steel is a well known metal due to its excellent strength-to-weight ratio. Steel, being an alloy, has some degree of variance, and this variance is largely dependent on the amount of Carbon in the specimen. A higher carbon content means a harder, more brittle blade, whereas a lower carbon content means a softer, less brittle blade. Steel weapons and armor are made entirely of steel (sometimes referred to as homogenous monosteel) with only some variance in its trace elements. It is relatively non-brittle, it will bend some when subjected to enough force, but return to its intended position when the steel is released (in some ways, it is a form of spring steel). This is different from pattern-welded blades that will remain bent if deformed. There are many types of steel with many different names. Crucible, Wootz, Castle-Forged, Damascus, and others. They all denote a particular quality, alloy, and slightly different system of production, of which there are countless due to the complex nature of crafting and the possible alloy combinations.
True Damascus Steel is a Wootz steel product in our real world that involves methods of forging that have been lost to history, but in remaining artifacts show utterly remarkable capabilities down to the nanoscopic level. Modern retailers and most crafting professionals who claim to produce Damascus Steel are charlatans whom produce similar looking (not performing) blades with pattern welding.
Spelter (Zinc/Zinc Alloys): A metal used since pre-historical times. Spelter has a low melting point, and is hard while also brittle; not so much so as iron, but maintaining a sheen and hardness that makes it useful for decoration that will see more wear and tear. Burning various sample of Spelter, along with certain treatment in some situations, can produce the substance known as Philosophers Wool, which is useful as an early paint substance and a medicinal powder. Spelter is too brittle, somewhat soft, and too difficult to work for use in weapons and armor, decoration aside.
Lead: A soft but heavy metal, lead is a pristine white color when first cut and shaped, but quickly rusts into its dark gray color. Lead is poisonous when it comes into contact with the bloodstream, causing a variety of maladies. Though, it has been used throughout time due to its ease of extraction, smelting, and working. Lead has a variety to uses, from its fantastic uses in plumbing, to architecture. Perhaps the greatest use we see for lead, is the presence of lead in bullets. Lead is a fantastic metal for firearm bullets because its softness causes the impact to transfer a large about of force, ripping, tearing, and making a large hole as it plows its way through the body. In contrast, a harder metal will make a much smaller hole, and have less of a chance at harming critical organs. In addition to this, the lead bullet can easily poison the bloodstream, making it more lethal.
Alum (Aluminum Alloys in Powder Form): A metal long existing in the world is the salt Alum, renowned for its usefulness in dyes, astringents, and medicinal salt in a magnitude of functions. Alum is the primary ingredient in the production of philosopher's wool, and more often than not, shows as a white powder or crystallized solution. Another useful property of many Alum salts, is its ability to treat items and make them more flame resistant. Until the age of science, solid aluminum is very difficult to smelt and produce, often serving only as pompous displays of wealth between allied sovereigns.
The Mystic Metals:
These metals either work with magic, have a direct relationship with magic, or a combination of both.
Mithril: The long legendary metal of songs and kings. Serving with properties similar to steel, Mithril can be derived into several alloys, however, it is a particularly hard metal to work due to the high temperature required to render it workable, in addition to the slim margin at which it will begin to melt. Mithril is, even in its natural state, very hard, with an excellent strength to weight ratio while also able to hold a keen edge. These qualities make it a vastly useful metal wherever durability is concerned. While only slightly harder than low-carbon iron, it is better able to hold an edge, less heavy, and once well tempered it resists corrosion by oxidation better than steel. Mithril, in addition to its incredible physical properties, is magically capable, and able to hold enchantment as well as resist hostile effects from all forms of magic. However, this renders mithril weapons incredibly hard to enchant, and any that are made prove to be of a masterful quality.
White Mithril is an economic alloy that fuses Mithril and Iron together through either pattern welding, or casting.
Heavy White Mithril is Mithril fused to Low-Carbon Iron through pattern welding; with a Low-Carbon Iron core and Mithril forged around it. This produces a weapon nearly as hard and sharp as mithril, but both heavier and softer. Typically the weight of the weapon varies depending on how much iron is used. Using more iron requires less mithril, but more mithril makes the weapon more expensive, which defeats the purpose of White Mithril in the first place.
Light White Mithril is the casting of Mithril and High-Carbon Iron; this renders the metal a bit heavier than steel, but with even greater sharpness, equal hardness, but added brittleness. This makes weapons and armor very useful in combat purposes, though not as useful as Heavy White Mithril for the creation of weapons where the brittleness may warrant their failure. Typically the weight of the metal varies depending on how much iron is used. Using more iron requires less mithril, but more mithril makes the weapon more expensive, which defeats the purpose of White Mithril in the first place.
The Precious Metals
These metals have both significant desirability and functionality, proving themselves as particularly valuable and useful throughout human history.
Copper: Used since prehistory, and perhaps one of the original metals used by man. Copper is a soft, conductive, reddish metal when met in its natural state. Some of its compounds are seen as turquoise when it is in a salt form. Copper can make lovely mirrors early in on the technological progression, as well as its use in decorative and monetary systems throughout time. Just as well, copper can be used in medicinal treatments.
Tin: A lovely soft metal that has been used since ancient times in the working of bronze. The rarity of tin poses difficulties in some places and makes it a valuable commodity, especially considering its various uses. Tin is a primary component of pewter, the lovely flatware to which a great deal of medieval society uses for their eating and drinking utensils. Just as well, it can be used to provide a corrosion resistant coating on items, as well as give a pleasant luster.
HOWEVER, tin can also be found containing Arsenic, which would make smelting it unpleasant (lethal); tin without arsenic contained within it could be incredibly rare and valuable in some places of the world, while common in others.
Brass: An alloy of copper and zinc, this metal is primarily used in decoration, and has been used so for a very long time. It is especially well suited to decorative station where it’s low friction properties can be applied, such as doorknobs and hinges. As well, it has lovely acoustic properties, making it a go to metal for musical instruments.
Antimony: Difficult to distinguish from lead, most societies confusing the two, antimony is a lighter grey metal than that of lead, but bearing many similar qualities. It is toxic, but carries pigment in a way that allows it to be used as a cosmetic product. It has also been known to be used in coins.
Cobalt: A somewhat hard, lustrous gray metal, Cobalt is a metal that has been used for centuries as a source for paints, jewelry, and in glass staining (giving a particular blue color); however, it is not very practical to smelt or to derive into an alloy, for it does emit very lethal arsenic gas when smelted.
Arsenic: This metalloid is a very potent one, known for centuries as the Poison of Kings and the King of Poisons; this sample of metal is HIGHLY toxic and is very hard to detect. In modern societies it can be used to strengthen the hardness of bronze alloys.
Bismuth: Though easily confusable with lead, antimony, and tin (each of these metals being quite similar), one can perhaps determine Bismuth by a multitude of factors; a present physical factor that can be used is that Bismuth oxidizes with a slight pink tinge. Bismuth is soft, brittle, and is the metal with the greatest ability to generate a magnetic field opposite of one subjected to it. For a heavy metal, it has a remarkably low toxicity. It is used in some healing mixtures, as well as cosmetics and pigments. Bismuth can often be used as a non-toxic replacement for lead in many ways.
Silver: The beauty and power of silver has shaped lives and leveled kingdoms; this soft, white, lustrous metal carries with it a natural mystique and majesty. In addition to its lovely luster and color, silver is often found in its native state, allowing for easy identification, and it does not tarnish easily. Sterling Silver is easy to make, and gives silver enough hardness to stand the wear of life as jewelry. Just as well as this, silver is the best conductor known, and the best conductor of heat out of any metal. Often silver is considered to be conductive to magic, giving it the ability to strike creatures that resist physical weapons.
Gold: While steel may physically bathe the world in blood, it is Gold that has shifted fate and destiny across the world. Gold is a dense, soft, lustrous, and pure metal; Gold is very stable and does not decay, as well, it occurs in its native form in the majority. In addition to its vast uses in decoration, currency, and monuments; gold is a powerful conductor, and reflects heat. Pure gold is too soft to see any real use, so often it is mixed into an alloy - such as will make it durable enough to survive.
Platinum: Though not known of as long as gold, Platinum is much alike silver and gold. Platinum is the least reactive element, and it usually will not bond or decay; it is a dense, remarkably corrosion resistant, ductile, lustrous metal. In addition to its lovely luster and its robustness, it is exceptionally rare. Just as well, Platinum will never tarnish nor oxidize, making that grand luster stand the test of time for as many generations as you can hope to father
The Mythic Metals
These metals are the opposite of magic metals; more suited to resisting magic, and holding their own properties without the assistance of magic. Mythic Metals are all related to metaphysical processes, from different realms or dimensions, or do not follow natural laws.
Adamantium: Few metals are quite as mysterious and legendary as Adamantium, and so little of it exists that there are few whom will even behold the mystery, even if they had the lifespan of an elf and the elf's offspring. Adamantium has no definite source, and seems to appear unnaturally, suddenly, in times of great upheaval and passion. Adamantium has a metallic luster, and can range from a mint green to a pale gold. The difference in color seems to suggest how reactive the Adamantium specimen is to magic: Mint green being fairly resistant to magic, with gold being fairly reactive to magic. Adamantium appears to be a metal that travels through fated hands, with a weight equal to that of heavy iron, but a durability and sharpness that exceeds even Mithril. Only forgemasters whom have crafted the stuff of legend could even be worth considering for the trying task of creating something from a source of Adamantium; and even then, there is no written technique for refining and producing the finished wares.
Adamantium can also overcome natural resistances to common weapons. Adamantium is totally inert to magical enchantment. To 'enchant' something made of Adamantium, one must use the metal in pattern-welding with adamantium as the core, and either mithril, silver, or gold forged onto it; the enchanter would then enchant the top-most metal, instead of the Adamantium itself. The most recent discovery of Adamantium was a small deposit one-hundred and eighty years ago, where a large raiding party formed by various brigand companies merged together, and raided a haunted battlefield. At the center of this battlefield there was a small deposit, which the survivors harvested from before fleeing.