Young Knifemakers: The Future Is Now


As The New Generation Of Knifemakers Begin To Hone Their Craft, The Masters Of Today Help Guide Their Path Forward. 

A new wave of interest has brought the younger generation closer to the forge and to the welcoming classrooms of bladesmiths that are quite willing to share their time, talent and tips to help the youngsters develop their own skills. That interest comes not only from a growing awareness of the beauty of the finished forged blade, but also an appreciation of the time and dedication necessary.

American Bladesmith Society (ABS) Master Smith Ray Kirk has been teaching kids bladesmithing for some time, and he sees the investment in the future as time well spent.

“Most of the young students usually have a parent that will either make a blade with them or watch the total process,” he commented. “Besides understanding the phrase ‘Strike while the iron is hot,’ they learn to control the steel by where they hammer. The experience of sharing the class with a parent or sibling is the best kind of memory to make. Knowing they will make something that will probably outlast them is something they probably never did before.”

Ray began teaching his grandchildren when they spent time at his home, and he has taught both boys and girls. Depending on the age, both genders are proficient and can use the hammer. His youngest student began learning at 11, and his grandchildren have been around the forge since they were 6.

“At that age, it was just showing them how to change the shape of steel by heating and hammering,” Ray said. “If they can drive a 16-penny nail into a 2-by-4 they could do the class, and I never really considered the sex of the student to have a bearing on taking the class.”

Some of the more satisfying moments for Ray have been watching his students as young adults competing on History TV’s Forged in Fire. Several have won in competition and all have enjoyed the experience, making friends and expanding their knife knowledge. The smile that shines when a photo is taken of young bladesmiths and their knives is something special.

Ray’s class consists of work to complete two knives of hidden-tang integral design from a 12-inch round bar of three-quarter-inch 52100 steel. 

“What they can’t do I will do for them,” he explained. “Learning how is the important part. I don’t expect the students to be an expert at any part of the procedure, and as long as they are watching and learning, I can finish it for them. If I only have one student, it can be a one-day affair. Two students usually require two days, and out-of-town students can use our guest house to stay in. The cost of the class is $350 per student.”

Pride In Teaching Younger Smiths

With the blade secured in the vise in Rick Dunkerley’s shop, 7-year-old Jacob Dove sands the handle.

ABS Master Smith Rick Dunkerley began teaching privately in his shop in 1992, and his first student was Josh Smith, who went on to become the youngest ABS journeyman smith at 15, the youngest ABS master smith at 19, and twice a competitor on Forged in Fire.

“I started teaching Josh when he was 11,” Rick remembered. “That was 30 years ago. He was on the Little League team I coached and showed interest in the knives I made. He was very motivated and not deterred by the work involved.”

Dunkerley says that he doesn’t have a specific program for kids but has invited those who show interest to his shop or hammer-ins.

“If they continue to show interest, I help them out,” he remarked. “I think making things by hand gives kids and adults great self-confidence and pride. So much of the modern world is fast paced and disposable. The process of making a knife forces a slowing down and focus that is lacking in a lot of kids’ lives. It also gives them something to care for and preserve as opposed to the normal disposable crap of everyday life. I don’t encourage or discourage anyone, kids or adults, to pursue knifemaking as a career. I give them my experience on the subject and let them decide on their own if they can make the sacrifices involved.”

Rick usually starts a student out with stock-removal knives. He says he believes learning to grind a blade is more difficult than forging one. Then, should the student decide to learn bladesmithing, the learning process continues.

“My proudest moments as a teacher have always been seeing the pride and satisfaction in the students’ eyes when the knife is finished,” he added. “I believe the pride and satisfaction of making things with our hands makes better human beings. That’s enough motivation for me to help when I can.”

Absorbing lessons from Dunkerley and listening to his advice has paid huge dividends for Josh Smith, and his memories of those days filled with learning the bladesmithing art remain fresh in his mind.

“Rick’s mentorship launched me into a career that I would never have had without his help,” Josh recalled. “Thirty years ago this year, I started making knives under him. Those times under the tutelage of Rick provided me with an opportunity to tap into my craftsman and artistic side.”

Josh has taught his own kids the fundamentals of bladesmithing. “Time spent in the shop can absolutely help open up the world of possibilities in regard to craftsmanship,” he assessed. “Whether it’s making knives, blacksmithing, gunsmithing, wood carving or woodworking, the shop can provide amazing experiences for kids.”

ABS Program

Young students man their anvils in the Bill Moran School of Bladesmithing at Texarkana College.

Don McIntosh runs the youth bladesmithing program at the Bill Moran School of Bladesmithing at Texarkana College, and he sees a future with the endeavor. 

“We rekindled it this year and it was very successful, so we’re looking to make it something we’ll be proud of on an annual basis,” he commented. “It caters to 14- to 17-year-olds and it’s a 16-hour program over three days.”

The Junior Bladesmithing course was held in June and included six participants who took part in a program that was packed with hands-on activities. The fee is a modest $175, and there may be a tie-in with the college to introduce bladesmithing to a wider audience of youngsters. McIntosh also volunteers with a local Boy Scout troop to demonstrate bladesmithing and generate interest among younger kids.

“Our program at the Bill Moran School this year included a half day on Thursday, a full day on Friday and a half day on Saturday,” Don explained. “At the end of the program, if they have forged a knife, they grind it and heat treat it and then put a cord wrap handle on it.”

The program is open to boys and girls, and Don says any young ladies who are interested in learning about bladesmithing are welcome. 

“Absolutely! We want to keep the spark going, and I’ve been adamant that this is an avenue of approach that’s better than sitting in front of a video game. Most kids are enthusiastic about hunting and bowie knives at that age, and you can come to the program and do something hands-on. The idea of forging your own knife is a pretty cool concept, and interest has been amplified by Forged in Fire. The kids watch it and so do their parents.”

McIntosh says the ABS is currently looking at the format and date for the next Junior Bladesmithing event, and the commitment to the future of the program is firm.

Bladesmith Kit #1

As Ray Kirk observed, “The experience of sharing the class with a parent or sibling is the best kind of memory to make.” Jason Proctor and his son Jaxon hold the knives (top) they made in Ray’s shop. (Lou Ann Kirk images)

The Blacksmiths Depot’s Bladesmith Kit #1 may have applications with young bladesmiths, depending on their level of interest and experience. 

It comes complete with an 800-gram Swedish hammer; .75- and 1.25-inch blade tongs; White Mountain flux; Cherry Red hardening compound; PBC anti-scaling compound; regular tomahawk mandrel; regular tomahawk handle; men’s Jersey gloves; jumbo block brush; sodium flare safety glasses; ear plugs; and two publications: The Complete Bladesmith by Jim Hrisoulas and Handles and Guards by BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member Joe Keeslar. Priced at $395, the kit does not include blade steel.

“Most who want to do blades should experiment with mild steel or scrap before spending money on the more expensive metallurgy,” related David Kayne of Blacksmiths Depot. “Youth should not be doing any form of blacksmithing, bladesmithing or stock removal without good safety habits and adult supervision. Anything that has to do with weapons needs training and oversight, including the making of blades.

“Otherwise, we do not see any reason why this kit wouldn’t work out for youth,” he concluded. “Even the hammer in the kit is light enough weight for a youth. We do recommend that both youth and adults read through the books first before attempting to make a knife. A little background knowledge of forging could mean the difference between frustration and success.”

Stimulate And Create

The efforts to introduce bladesmithing to young people and the opportunities it affords them can bring on fantastic results, stimulate natural curiosity and offer an outlet for creative energy. More and more, such programs and events will influence the bladesmiths of tomorrow and contribute to raising them right.

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