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The Art of Bladesmithing
Photos available: (501) 682-7609; www.arkansasmediaroom.com
Zoie Clift, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
The Bill Moran School of Bladesmithing in Washington, AR is one of the few places in the world where people can train in the art of making knives.
“There is a sort of romance to the art of forging,” said B.R. Hughes, former Dean of Students at Texarkana College and a founder of the American Bladesmith Society (ABS). “Heating a piece of metal in a forge and then hitting it with a hammer on an anvil never fails to draw a crowd. All of the great blades down through history have been the products of skilled bladesmiths--the sword of Charlemagne, the sword of Richard the Lionhearted, the knife of James Bowie…all have featured forged blades. Taking a bar of steel and creating a work of art using primarily a forge, a hammer, and an anvil is something that simply captures the imaginations of smiths and others.”
Through an established program, bladesmiths at the school are certified at Journeyman and Master Bladesmith levels. Over the years the school, which is run in connection with Texarkana College, has drawn students from Australia, England, France, South Africa, as well as from most of the states that make up the U.S.
All courses are taught in Washington in a replica of a one-room school and barn that blends in with the atmosphere of Historic Washington State Park. The town is one of the nation’s premier historic villages and is both a state park and town intermingled and is a National Historic Landmark. The school, which offers a series of courses throughout the year, hosts a modern classroom in addition to a work area that include six forges, six anvils, six grinders, three trip hammers, work benches and other tools. The instructors include world-class bladesmiths sanctioned by the ABS. For many years the school was the one of its kind in the nation. Last year, the ABS approved bladesmithing classes to be taught at Haywood College in Clyde, North Carolina.
So why was Washington chosen as the location of the school? “Pioneer Washington is the home of the Bowie Knife,” said Hughes. “James Bowie visited Washington, Arkansas during the winter of 1830-31 and purchased a knife from James Black, a Washington blacksmith, who had been trained as a slilversmith in Philadelphia. Where better to teach bladesmithing?”
According to Hughes, W. F. "Bill" Moran, the most famous smith of the 20th century, and the first smith of this century to successfully forge Damascus steel, served as chairman of the ABS from 1976 until 1991. “He stressed that the key to preserving the art of the forged blade would be the establishment of a school where would be smiths could learn the art,” he said. The two met with the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation in 1986, and convinced the Foundation to build a facility to teach the art to aspiring bladesmiths. The Bill Moran School of Bladesmithing opened two years later.
“Bladesmithing is a way for many people to make something with form and beauty as well as function,” said Billy Nations, chief interpreter at Historic Washington State Park. Nations started forging in 1997 with his mentor Bill Hicks, who was resident blacksmith at the park at the time. “The most misunderstood thing about bladesmithing is the requirements of proper forging as to geometry, coupled with hand finishing and then heat treating and tempering the blade. This is not even talking about the final hand sanding and handle assembly that has to be completed. There is a lot of work that people don’t really see when they look at the final product.”
For working smiths, there are qualifying levels to achieve to earn the status of Master Smith. The process takes around 4 to 5 years to complete. According to James Crowell, an instructor at the school and a master bladesmith from Mountain View, one of the most difficult aspects of bladesmithing is proper forging and thermal treatment. “To get the ‘entire package’ one must be skilled in fit and finish and polishing as well,” he said
According to Crowell, the most recent class he taught was the most diverse group to date. Among the students were a heart surgeon, a rocket engineer, an electrical motor repair company owner, a political campaign manager, a Ph.D chemist, and a police chief.
“I think there is a certain mystique as well as a deep rooted satisfaction in making something useful with one's own hands,” said Crowell. “I think most people quickly realize there is a lot more to this than there appears. The skill and knowledge needed to produce a fine piece of cutlery is broad.”
For more information on the school, visit www.americanbladesmith.com . An extensive exhibit on the history of the Bowie Knife can also be found at the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock. For more details on the exhibit, visit www.arkansashistory.com. Information on Historic Washington State Park can be found at www.historicwashingtonstatepark.com.
Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, 501-682-7606
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"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"