THOSE WHO KNOW DISSECT TV’S LONG-RUNNING FORGED IN FIRE
Bladesmithing enjoys the same treatment as motorcycle building got in the mid- 2000s—that is, it has become a well-established reality show competition on cable television. Such treatment has ups and downs regarding its effect on the knife industry. Be that as it may, History Channel’s hit show, Forged in Fire, has been on the air for seven seasons, which proves its staying power.
FIF is characterized as both inspirational and gimmicky depending on who you ask. And ask we did—two contestants, a former FIF guest judge and a member of the board of directors of the American Bladesmith Society—with the goal of shedding light on where the hit show lands on the spectrum between the two.
The long-running TV competition undoubtedly has been an asset to the forging community. For starters, it has introduced the general viewing public to a cast of characters that constitutes a realistic cross section of the knifemaking community. While its list of participants is far from a comprehensive Who’s Who of bladesmiths, one would be hard-pressed to spend more than an hour at the next BLADE Show without encountering a first- person recollection of pounding steel on the small screen.
More important is the awareness such publicity has brought to the craft, according to J.W. Randall, veteran ABS master smith and winner of FIF’s 2017 international championship (season four, episode 19). “It’s brought the public’s awareness around to hand- crafted items, and that’s a good thing,” Randall observed. “It appeals to a lot of people because it’s an old craft, and it’s been brought back, in a sense.”
Indeed, the fiery furnaces easily translate into a burning interest among many of the show’s viewers. For them, witnessing the process of manipulating steel into a knife, sword or axe using fire, a hammer and other assorted machinery and instruments, while facing the adversity of time constraints and random surprises, is at once exciting and inspiring.
“The men and women who compete on this show are engaging in an arena of gladiators,” described ABS master smith Jason Knight, B.R. Hughes Award winner and guest FIF judge during portions of seasons three and four. He agreed that the show’s primary value lies in inspiring its audience to appreciate, and perhaps pursue, a craft that ties together history, art, science and technology from an ancient world. “It’s important in our culture,” Knight added. “People like me hold fast to it, and I want to share it as art.”
Such interest has had a measurable effect on ABS membership, according to ABS journeyman smith, board member and treasurer, Bill Wiggins. “I don’t know what to call it,” he pondered. “It’s not a spike—I’d call it a steady rise in membership since the show started.”
He added that the ABS has also seen a lot more turnover lately, with people joining up for a year only to never be heard from again. “We’re still gaining members, though,” he allowed. “There’s good and bad, but the good outweighs the bad.”
“The bad” is definitely part of the mix, according to the story’s sources who were contestants. Though none had the proverbial sour grapes about their FIF experience, the recurring caveat was that good television producers have one goal in mind, which is producing good television—and that doesn’t necessarily translate into total satisfaction for the contestants.
One way to achieve “good television” is to introduce drama. Thankfully, according to Josh Smith, a two- time FIF contestant and the youngest person ever to earn an ABS master smith stamp at 19 in 2000, it didn’t include any typical reality-show-style infighting on the set.
“Everybody needs to realize that they’re trying to make an entertaining TV show, and I think they do a good job,” Smith explained. “The clock provides the drama that they need instead of drama between the contestants.” He added that Mareko Maumasi, his competitor and winner of the “Judges’ Pick” special episode (season four, episode one), is now a good friend. “We didn’t have to become enemies!” Josh emphasized.
Regarding the clock, each bladesmith is presented with strict time constraints— typically three hours to forge, grind and heat treat a blade, followed by a round of judging. In a second round, they have three hours to finish and handle the blade, followed by another round of judging.
“Three hours is a totally unrealistic timeframe,” Randall said. “That’s what makes the show interesting. Everything is stacked against you from the front, and that’s just a critical-thinking-and-an- overcoming-adversity deal. If you realize you’re backed into a corner, you have to adjust and come up with something to overcome it to gather yourself some time back on that clock.”
“A lot of these contestants have no experience, and it’s very entertaining to watch someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing get out there and forge a blade with unknown material,” Knight added. “It’s like throwing them to the beasts. It’s very gladiatorial and can be catastrophic. A lot of people will win by default because competitors will push themselves to the edge or get a bad choice in some garbage materials.”
He emphasized that the use of questionable materials adds a dramatic challenge to the mix, and during his time as a judge, Knight would advise the show’s producers on what to make available. “They have no idea about metallurgy, chemistry, physics or any science,” he remembered. “Their job is to produce content, and they have license to do whatever they want because it is entertainment. It’s good television but it’s not good bladesmithing.”
During a third portion of the show, makers have five days, or 40 hours, at their home shop to produce another more elaborate project.
Knight likened the whole production to a television game show made to entertain rather than inform viewers of the actual forging process. “You shouldn’t watch Forged in Fire with an expectation of learning how to forge blades,” he said. “That isn’t what the show is about.”
He should know, as he said he and his wife, Shelly, created the original premise. Before Forged in Fire was ever conceived, Battle of the Bladesmiths began as an ABS competition. “In 2010, Bill Wiggins asked ‘Hey, what could we do at a hammer-in that would be more fun?’” Knight recalled. “Shelly got the idea from Iron Chef. She said ‘What if you did a competition where you have unknown materials, a limited amount of time and you have to make a knife that works?’”
“Jason approached me about doing Battle of the Bladesmiths at the Haywood Hammer-In,” at Haywood Community College in Clyde, North Carolina, Wiggins confirmed. “He won the first one, and since then it has become a yearly event.”
Flash forward to 2014. Knight also competed in and won the first-ever, never-aired pilot episode of Forged in Fire. “I’m glad to have been a part of the founding legacy that no one knows about,” he laughed, adding that he also advised the content producers on 12 of the episodes but remains unlisted as a creator. “I wouldn’t do the show again unless they paid me what I want to get paid,” he added. “What I want to do is what I’m doing. What I want that show to be, it can’t be.”
Smith, who competed on the show twice (including season three, episode five) but never won, said if he could change something about the show, it would be an opportunity to explain the knife project to the judges. “Instead of just handing the sword over to the judges, give me two minutes to talk about it,” he said. “I would have educated those guys about details that otherwise they wouldn’t notice with a cursory glance. I think it would have made a difference.”
He feels like he got a raw deal with his Kora Sword, in which his mosaic damascus was oriented so the pattern lined up, made with all take- down construction and blind-pinned together. “It’s a lot of stuff that no one on TV knew,” he noted. To his credit, changing the rules to allow non-winners to get their knives back was a prerequisite for his return to the show.
Randall said editing was an aspect that bothered him. “I want to be represented for who I am. I don’t want television to modify me and make me be somebody that I’m not,” he said, referring to being “bleeped” twice during his episode when he did not use profanity. “I don’t want to be seen by the world as that guy. That’s not who I am and what I want to represent, and it bothered me.
“And more so in my closing remarks,” Randall added regarding the editing. “I gave God the credit and the glory at the end of this deal, and I also gave our military a bunch of credit for providing the freedom that we should never take for granted. That all got omitted. Represent people accurately for who they are and what they are.”
Unanimously, those interviewed who appeared on FIF maintained that the contestants should be better paid. The $10,000 prize, which is only administered to the winner, isn’t enough compared to the month it takes the maker away from his or her work. For non-winners, it is a big financial hit to walk away with nothing. “If you’re not sure if you do that show that you’ll be able to make your house payment, don’t do it,” Smith advised.
“It’s like rolling the dice,” Randall proclaimed. “For me, it’ll take $25,000 to get me back. They’re cutting a fat hog, partner. That producer is making money hand over fist. They asked me to come back and I told them I’m not leaving my shop for 10 grand when I can make more money staying in my shop. Why would I roll the dice and potentially come up empty and lose a month of income?”
Overall, each source in the article was gracious in his comments about Forged in Fire, often reiterating that the drawbacks are tied into the fact that it is a television show. The point is to be entertaining, and it comes at the expense of some grievances about how it should be produced. They unanimously agreed that the most important effect is that it has enlightened and inspired millions of people regarding the craft of forging and knifemaking.
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