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A pleasant drive through a farming community just south of Phoenix, Arizona, leads to a dirt driveway with the sign “Wuertz Farm”. As cars pass the miniature donkeys and horses, a gentleman instructs the drivers where to park. A cameraman with a pack that appears tied to a 100-foot extension cord receives a live feed on a large flat screen TV. What may sound like a trip to the state fair is the opening scene of the Wuertz Machine Works 2019 Hammer In.
Travis Wuertz greets the crowd at the start of Hammer In 2019.
The Hammer In is a gathering of blade smiths from all over the country who come to share and share knowledge about their ancient craft. As you’d expect, there is no shortage of beards on site, but not everyone is shrouded in Viking-style facial hair. A calm young lady with a secret passion for the sound of blades stands alone trying to warm herself in the morning sun while a fifteen-year-old bladesmith of two shows off some of his amazing work for his adult colleagues. Regardless of age, gender, experience or ability, it is immediately apparent that this is a brotherhood like no other – a brotherhood of steel.
The beautiful work of the 15-year-old blade smith Zander Nichols.
Not that primitive
While the perception of some may be that blade forging is a primitive craft, the reality is very different. There is an old Japanese proverb, “On-ko Chi-shin”, which literally translates as: “Study the old, know the new.” The idea is that by studying the old ways one can better understand the new ways. The astute observer can recognize this concept in practice within seconds after entering the Wuertz Hammer In.
A hundred-year-old motor hammer that was retrofitted with an electric motor is only a few meters away from a self-regulating band forge that Travis Wuertz built himself. As an engineer who is constantly interested in refining his blade manufacture, Travis designed a forge that not only distributes the heat evenly using a belt burner concept, but also automatically adapts to a constant temperature and monitors the gas / oxygen mixture for efficient refueling . The design ensures very precise control during the forging process, where overheating can lead to steel damage.
A not so primitive self-regulating band burner forge in action.
Mareko Maumasi, a Connecticut Forged in Fire champion and damascus steel wizard, is seen spread out on a large white easel pad working out a complex math equation. When asked about it, he explains that it is an equation predicting Damascus structuring. Apparently there is more to it than just mixing hard and mild steels.
Old dogs and new tricks
During the two-day meeting, both young and experienced blade smiths give lessons on topics in which they are highly qualified. Michael Quesenberry, who specializes in daggers, bowies and forged integrals, opened the event with a demonstration of how he forges his integral knives. An integrated knife is one in which the blade, pad, tenon and pommel are forged from a single steel billet. With finesse and precision, Quesenberry hammers a round stick into an integral knife in less than an hour.
Michael Quesenberry shows how he forges his integral knives.
William Brigham impressed the participants with a detailed explanation of Mokume-gane, a Japanese metalworking process in which a metal mixture was combined into a characteristic layered pattern similar to the grain of wood. Mokume-Gane loosely means “wood grain”. This process was originally used in Japanese sword making to create highly aesthetic outfits such as the tsuba (guard), and is now used in a similar fashion to modern blade smiths.
Such a gathering could not take place without talking a lot about damascus steel. Mike Tire and Eric Fleming gave an informative talk about Feder Damascus. This technique involves stacking many layers of steel several inches high, dividing the layers with a blunt wedge and stretching them. A feather-like pattern is created when the sections are put back together and flattened. Mareko Maumasi also gave a mathematically charged lecture on Damascus Mosaic, sharing the cold coffee etching recipe that he uses to create the deep color contrast his blades are known for.
Mareko Maumasi gives lectures on Mosaic Damascus.
At some point on day two, one of the ABS Master Bladesmiths attending the event turned to this author and said, “You know, I’ve been doing this for 30 years. There’s not a lot I haven’t seen or don’t know how to make knives, but these new people take things to a whole new level. “
Fit & Finish
Any blade smith worth their salt will tell you that the neat finish and precise assembly of a blade on the handle and accessories is what really sets the master apart. This requires the ability to work around a grinder to cut, shape, refine, and polish the blade, handle, and fittings. Mike Quesenberry demonstrated his mastery of fit and workmanship with a demonstration of handle shaping and a demonstration of blade sharpening. Few blade constructions exist that will challenge a blade smith’s symmetrical sharpening ability like a dagger, and Quesenberry showed us why it’s one of the best daggers.
A well-used TW-90 mill, the invention of Travis Wuertz himself.
Of course, the Wuertz Hammer In would not be complete without a demo by Travis Wuertz himself. Travis designed the world’s most sought-after knife sharpener, the TW-90. So he ended the two-day event with some of his tips and tricks for precise sharpening and finishing with his grinder and the countless attachments he designed to make the life of the knife maker much easier.
At rare events like these, where blade smiths and knife enthusiasts from all over the country gather, there is not much desire to return to the hotel at the end of the day, but the real fun begins when the day is “over”. The hammers come out, the forges lit and sparks fly in the dark of night as the intimate exchange of information takes place and the good times roll in.
Perhaps the most noticeable after-hours activity was the knife throwing class taught by Jason Johnson, a veteran knife thrower and finalist on Forged in Fire: Knife or Death season one. Johnson taught participants his instinctive and powerful knife throwing technique before releasing them at the line of fire so they could try to stab some knives. It was an impressive sight to see even the young children, after just a few minutes of instruction from Johnson, stick knives into the wooden targets from various distances.
Knife throwing expert Jason Johnson trains us in his personal method.
At the end of this two-day venture, new friendships were made, old friendships re-established and this brotherhood of steel lives on. These blade forges are linked by blood, sweat, and tears flowing through the anvil and by the spirit of fire that burns through the forge. They separate from the types of hugs and handshakes that only those of a kindred spirit can share. Until they meet again.
A coffee-etched kitchen knife made by Don Nguyen of Tucson, AZ.
This article originally appeared on Recoilweb. Follow @RecoilMag on Twitter.