New England Battle Of The Bladesmiths

Four Young, Talented Bladesmiths Battled The Clock Under The Sweltering Maine Sun To Craft A Knife In Two Hours.

It was brutally hot under the Southern Maine Sun on the campus of the New England School of Metalwork, It was made even hotter when a pair of forges were fired until they were an electric glowing orange. It was all part of the build-up to the Battle Of The Bladesmiths as part of the New England Bladesmithing Symposium.

The rules were simple: given a one-foot bar of 1084 steel, four bladesmiths had two hours to make a knife at least 7-inches long. This meant forging the blade, sculpting the guard, making the handle, and assembling it all within the allotted time.

The theme for the contest was young guns as the youngest competitor was 19 and the oldest was just 24.

“We pick people that are at an equal level of skill,” NESM director Dereck Glaser said. “We had 25 applicants, and we picked these guys based on a moderate level of skill, they’ve all been making knives around the same length of time. And I wanted to get an [similar] age range. I didn’t want big old-school guys coming in against people nobody knew.”

Who Hammered In The Battle

Leo Potter shows off his sword before the battle. Blade: 1084. Guard & Pommel: 1045. He dried local birch for the hilt core.

The foursome was from all over.

There was Leo Potter, already an accomplished smith from New Hampshire who came with pieces to proudly show off and display. Up from Martha’s Vineyard with his parents was 20-year-old Luke Nivala, and down from Quebec was Jeremy Yelle. Kemper Feuerzeig rounded out the field, and he had flown in all the way from California.

Glaser said he was excited to have the field he had and was thrilled to see the battle return for the first time since 2019 due to the COVID pandemic.

“We started doing the battle in 2010 or 2011, and shortly after, Forged in Fire caught on,” Glaser. “That’s where the show came from, this whole battle concept. The ABS was doing this at their events long before the show existed.”

In The Thick Of It

The contest started fast as everyone got their steel into the heat within the first minute. Like dancers, the smiths bounced back and forth from their stations to check on their steel. Every second was used to the fullest.

The smiths used different techniques to make their blades. Feuerzeig forged and ground his blade with authority and was ahead of everyone when he quenched just 30 minutes in. By contrast, after forging the blade to shape, Yelle put his blade in the vice to normalize so he didn’t quench until 70 minutes into the competition.

Nivala kept a steady pace throughout and didn’t let the pressure get to him, or at least kept a cool, confident face. His mother was beaming the whole time with pride in her son.

Lisa Nivala captures video of her son Luke as he competes in the battle.

The contest was to be judged by a trio of renowned smiths, Emiliano Carrillo, Matthew Parkinson, and Lin Rhea. Other legends of the field like Mace Vitale watched on intently and tried to help guide the younger smiths when given the opportunity to do so. 

It was great to see the camaraderie as day turned to night not only between the competitors but among the judges, staff, and other symposium attendees. No one wanted anyone to lose. Everyone was cheering for four successful knives.

Potter putting all his weight into making the handle work.

However, bad luck hit both Potter and Yelle. The former’s first attempt at a handle didn’t work, putting him way behind on time. He tried mightily to get the handle married to the blade but it wasn’t to be.

“I made the hole way too big so when you stuck it on the knife there was a big gap,” Potter said after the contest. “You could see the gap around the guard.”

Yelle’s attempt to normalize the blade put him behind on time and he wasn’t able to get the most out of grinding.

The two youngest competitors, Nivala and Feuerzeig, were a sight to behold. Kemper’s forging and grinding was magic and Nivala’s ability to maximize every second at the grinder was great to see. Both of them made beautiful knives.

Testing The Knives’ Mettle

After the contest concluded, the knives were all put through a series of three tests. They had to poke and pop a water balloon hanging from a piece of twine, push cut through a piece of rope, and slice through a rolling paper.

Feuerzeig (left) and Nivala (right) grinding away at their blades.

Nivala and Feuerzeig’s knives performed the best although none of the knives were able to fully cut through the rolling paper. Carrillo chipped in to help cut so the competitor’s adrenaline-filled hands, didn’t play a role in the slice.

All the knives were judged on a scale of 25 points and Feuerzeig beat Nivala for the win, and the $5,000 prize by a single point. He said his strategy was to keep things straightforward so he could put all his energy into the process and not have to re-design on the fly.

Kemper Feuerzeig’s winning knife.

“This is the first Bowie I’ve done in forever so I just wanted to do something very simple,” Feuerzeig said. “The one mistake I made on the knife was the ricasso got a bit longer than I would like. I think it’s not super elegant; in the future, I’d try to do that better. I wanted something where I wouldn’t have to think about the lines too much.”

Feuerzeig with his winnings, the judges, and the staff from the NESM

Even though he didn’t win, Potter said that the battle taught him a lot about himself as a smith and showed him new ways he can go about making blades.

“I think it sped up a lot of my other work,” Potter said. “I figured out yeah, I can cut this. I don’t need to be so careful if I’m making the back of my guard exactly flat because I can take it to belt grinder, and I can make it as flat as I need. It’s little things where you try it and you realize it’s doing the same amount of work as when you spend 20-30 hours getting it just right. It’s really taking that time to blow through it. I like to do things big and it teaches you about the little bits. When you go and slow down you know can take some time and here you can act with reckless abandon and blow through it.”

Final Cut

You can watch Forged In Fire, but nothing prepares you to see the process up close. It’s remarkable watching four people take the same rod of steel in the same amount of time and all come to vastly different ends. The crowd loved it, the judges loved the knives, and everyone had a great time as day turned to night in the Pine Tree State.

The New England School of Metalwork in Auburn, Maine offers courses in blacksmithing, bladesmithing, and welding. You can learn more here.

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