The Road to San Antonio
One Knifemaker’s Quest to Obtain ABS Journeyman Certification
by Lydia McGhee
Sunday, July 24, 2011
Powerful whacks resonate from the metal shop behind the house – repetitive machine-like poundings followed by a pause, then softer whacks, less consistent, more human. Suddenly, the hammering stops. Inside the shop a powerful man stands a few feet from a roaring gas forge. Flames flicker out of a small opening in the front, and one end of a long metal bar soaks in the fire. The man holds the cool end gently in his hand and watches intently as the far end, which looks like a knife, begins to glow. Completely indifferent to the bead of sweat that trickles down his nose and splashes on the concrete floor, E. Scott McGhee’s motionless posture contradicts the sweaty shirt and dirty mule-skin apron that hug his body. . . but he isn’t still for long. As the knife blazes orange, he pulls the bar from the fire and the pounding begins anew.
E. Scott McGhee is a bladesmith. He forges knives and other edged tools from high carbon steels. It is a primitive art born in antiquity and nearly lost in this country during the 20th century. Expert bladesmiths craft knives born of fire and artisan vision, beautiful beyond imagination, and functional beyond belief.
In the mid-1970’s, the art of the forged blade was dying. At that time, factory produced knives dominated the market and only a few bladesmiths and their loyal customers understood what was being lost. According to the American Bladesmith Society (ABS), only 12 American artisans publicly practiced traditional bladesmithing in 1976 when four devotees created the ABS to preserve the art. Bill Moran, one of the founding members, hoped to double the number of active bladesmiths, and he wasn’t disappointed. There are currently 1,100 ABS members, 160 ABS journeyman, and 115 ABS masters worldwide.
E. Scott McGhee is an ABS apprentice on a quest to become a journeyman. He played at a coal forge on and off for over 30 years making historic kitchen implements, but only recently built a gas forge, joined the ABS, and began bladesmithing. He would like to forge blades full-time.
But why forge when you can simply grind?
According to E. Scott McGhee, “I forge because it allows me to be creative. While those who grind are limited by the shape of the stock, those of us who forge are not. Forging allows me to craft designs that flow for beauty as well as function.”
The American Bladesmith Society sponsors classes, hammer-ins, and shows to promote the art of the forged blade, and they certify journeyman and master bladesmiths. The process is intense. Journeyman candidates must be ABS members for three years (two years if they take an ABS class), pass a rigorous performance test, and survive a brutal peer review.
Scott passed his JS Performance Test in January of this year, but it wasn’t easy. Bladesmithing is more than just pounding metal into the shape of a knife. ABS-certified smiths heat-treat in house to produce products far superior to mass produced blades.
According to Scott, “Proper heat treating allows me to turn a piece of art that looks like a knife into a high performance blade.”
JS Performance Test knives must 1) Cut through a free-hanging 1-inch manila rope in a single pass 2) Chop
through a 2×4 twice without dulling and 3) Bend to 90 degrees without breaking.Every Journeyman Performance knife is destroyed during testing, as are some dreams. Not everyone passes, but all who do say the performance test is the easy part.
The peer review is tougher. Twice a year at either the Blade Show in Atlanta or the Forged Knife Expo in San Antonio, journeyman candidates may present five knives to a panel of seven ABS masters. This year 17 candidates tested at Blade and 13 passed.
According to Haley DesRosiers, a new JS, “At 8am the door is locked and the judging begins. Then, after what feels like 6 or 7 years, they begin to call you in one by one. It’s like being on death row.”
If you fail, you can test again in a year. If you fail three times, the dream dies.
Masters are tough in the judging room but generous elsewhere. All ABS-certified smiths are expected to share knowledge and masters are expected to teach as preserving the art is the goal. Scott is apprenticing with ABS Master Jason Knight, but frequently communicates with other ABS-certified smiths and has been amazed by how generous all have been.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without them,” says Scott, “I stand on the shoulders of giants.”
At the Blade Show in June, ABS Master Adam DesRosiers said it best, “It’s a great time to be a bladesmith. If it were twenty years ago, we’d all be alone at our coal forges reinventing the wheel every time.”
Thanks to the American Bladesmith Society, that’s no longer true.
They are an eccentric lot, the ABS bladesmiths. All love knives, most love guns, and many are good ole’ boys and gals, but all are metallurgists and artists at heart and shouldn’t be mistaken for anything else. They are kind, knowledgeable, and generous – a good group to have on your side.
Hot knives, cool people – this is the community E. Scott McGhee is quickly making his own. Watch for him. He is fiercely passionate about forging and his peers recently named him an up-and-coming bladesmith.
Scott will present five knives at the Forged Blade Expo in San Antonio in January of 2012 and hopefully come home with a JS stamp.
Stamp or no, the art of the forged blade will be preserved.
Lydia’s original article is posted at http://absbladesmith.blogspot.com
NOTE: Lydia McGhee produced this multimedia project for a Gonzaga University graduate class in communications. Lydia chose to focus the project on her husband E. Scott McGhee and his quest to become an ABS Journeyman Smith. As part of the project Lydia produced video clips that include interviews with Haley and Adam DesRosiers, Shelly and Jason Knight, Kevin and Cheryl Evans, and herself about the ABS Journeyman Smith testing process. This multimedia project is very well done and I know that it will give some insight into the process from several different member perspectives.
Great job Lydia and all the best to Scott in San Antonio