A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The Man Scout: Amateur bladesmithing with the pros of History channel’s ‘Forged in Fire’ (Pt. I)

By Chris Cole
Special to NKyTribune

I was five minutes into my latest Man Scout adventure when I realized I was out of my depth.

Standing outside of the Columbus-based Central Ohio School for Metalwork this past Saturday, one of the instructors who would be teaching me the art of bladesmithing told the story of a guy whose sweatpants had caught on fire while he was welding. Rather than screaming, stripping off all of his clothes and running around like world was ending – which I would assume to be standard protocol – the guy says, “Put me out. I don’t want to mess up this weld.”

The instructor, a bearded, burly man named Adlai Stein who owns the school but is perhaps better known for his appearance in Season 3 (Ep. 15) of the popular History channel reality TV series called “Forged in Fire,” then proceeds to point out that the shirt I’m wearing just might combust while we’re working and recommends that I go change.

Working near the forge was tricky given that the temperature inside is roughly the same as that used to cremate human remains – the exact thing Chris Cole was trying to avoid.

Of course, a good Scout is always prepared, so I’d packed two other shirts exactly like the one I was wearing and a collared polo I planned to wear to dinner. “Eh, no big deal,” Stein says. “We’ll just give you an apron and you should be fine.”

I’m here for a two-day “Forged in Friendship Fellowship Fundraiser” featuring 11 former Forged in Fire contestants from around the country coming together to raise money for an organization called Warriors Way, which helps veterans and first responders through recreational therapy.

We enter the forge and I’m introduced to my personal instructor, Jon Turner (Season 5, Ep. 25), an Afghan war veteran from Harrison, Ohio, who has been bladesmithing for about five years. Like Stein, Turner cuts a strong first impression. Tattoos cover his arms, hands, neck and head.

I’m a bit intimidated, but we grab our billets of 1084 steel (a high carbon alloy ideal for beginner knife makers) and get to work.

Turner is kind and unassuming. He is willing to set aside his skill and take the time to drop down to my level to teach me the basics. To me, that is the epitome of the Boy Scout slogan of doing a good turn daily.

With his tutelage, I’m starting to feel pretty good about things. I’ve got my steel; I’ve got a hammer and an anvil; and I’ve got a forge next to me with a fire burning somewhere between 1,500 and 70 gajillion degrees. I’m a beginner knife maker. I puff out my apron-covered chest. I’m a man scout.

I grab a pair of tongs and go to insert my steel into the forge for the first time. The hair on my knuckles is instantly singed right off. My hands feel like they are on the surface of the sun. I glance around quickly to see how the pros are doing it; clearly I’ve gotten something wrong. But I see Pat Biggin (Season 7, Ep. 11) inserting his steel the exact same way, minus the grimace.

Suddenly remembering that my keyboard never rises above room temperature, I accept that I am just a wimp and plow ahead.

When my steel is the same bright orange as the forge around it, I extract it from the flames feeling like Excalibur. I place the heated steel on the anvil and bring down my hammer with the thunder of Thor.

The steel doesn’t budge.

Again, I glance over just as Biggin introduces his own hammer to heated steel. The orange bar surrenders to the force of his blow, literally rearranging the molecules and pushing the steel into itself to reform the shape of his billet. Again his hammer drops and again the shape changes.

I tighten the grip on my own hammer, determined to reign fury on my obstinate steel. I bring my hammer down with all the force I can muster and miss the billet completely, striking the anvil and sending a loud, awkward clank throughout the cavernous room.

Turner soon realizes my hammer is too heavy and grabs me a smaller one. The next few minutes play out like every time I’ve ever gone bowling, gradually reducing the weight of my ball until finally I settle on a 10-pounder intended for children and Weren’t No Boy Scouts.

Stop. Hammer time. Jon Turner admires Chris Cole’s form.

After four hammers and four heats (you have to keep reinserting your steel into the forge whenever it cools, literally, to red hot), I begin to settle in. My hairless hands are tingling; my forearm is trembling from swinging my miniature hammer; my left wrist is aching from holding the tongs; and my back is grumbling.

But hey, pain is just weakness leaving the body, right? I look at the clock and see we’ve been at it for 10 minutes.

If this were a movie, there would be a montage here of me heating my steel, hammering it toward something maybe eventually resembling somewhat of a point, heating it again and then trying to flatten the terrible valleys of malleable steel I’ve created during the previous round. Round and round we go.

The montage would then return to normal speed and the music would suddenly stop as the viewer watches me accidentally knock my thousand-degree piece of steel five feet into the air, spinning wildly inches in front of my face and landing peacefully on the ground between my running shoes. “Happens all the time,” Turner says with a shrug as the montage would resume.

Turner is ridiculously patient with me. His own blade is fully formed at this point, and he’s working on some fine details on his handle. My handle is still a perfect square of untouched steel that has been heated, cooled and reheated about 20 times.

It’s about here where I learn my second big lesson of this experience (the first was to not wear flammable clothing when you’re hammering and grinding hot steel). Turner is explaining the mechanics of edge geometry and molecular redistribution when I realize I not only lack the brute force required to do this job but also the mental dexterity.

My pounding migraine is making it hard for me to fully comprehend anything he’s saying. My back, hips, knees, wrists, forearms and shoulders are colluding against me in a symphony of misery. I’m regretting every decision I’ve ever made in my life and wondering if I could sneak out the back door and lay down in the grass for a just few months to recover.

Fortunately, it’s lunchtime. After we eat, I tell the group that my goal for the day wasn’t to leave with a beautiful weapon, but rather to walk away with 10 beautiful fingers. “So I guess everything is going well,” I say, boastfully. Dana Dupuis (Season 5, Ep. 36) laughs and reminds me that we haven’t started working with the power tools yet.

Will the Man Scout lose a finger grinding his blade? Will he leave the forge with a surprisingly beautiful finished weapon? Or will he just fall asleep right there in the forge while admiring a spear made by one of his instructors?

Only one of those things happens: tune in next week to find out which one. Until then, remember to be like my teacher Jon Turner and Do a Good Turn Daily!

Chris Cole is Director of Enterprise Communications at Sanitation District No. 1 and a deacon at Plum Creek Christian Church in Butler. He lives in Highland Heights with his wife, Megan. The Man Scout chronicles Cole’s journey to acquiring some of the skills of the head, the heart and the hand he failed to learn as a child of the 1980s growing up in Newport. His field guide: a 1952 Boy Scouts Handbook he found on eBay.

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  1. Larry says:

    Excellent article! Can’t wait from read Part Deux.

    • Chris Cole says:

      Thanks, Larry! It wasn’t easy to capture the feeling of being in the forge and getting hands-on with such an unfamiliar process, but I did my best. Glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Olivia B says:

    I love this series. Your writing entertains, informs, and motivates me to try new things. Looking forward to part two, Chris!

  3. I just discovered this feature and I love it. I can’t wait to read part II!

  4. Brenda Melahn says:

    Love your stories and love the fact that you can entertain with all your truths …

  5. Pat Biggin says:

    It’s addictive, watch out!

  6. yneedcouk says:

    I love this series

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