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Most of us have picked up a rather romantic notion of oldtime village smithies, particularly the business about sinewy hands and muscles as strong as iron bands. There is a Goya painting called The Forge that shows the blacksmith's broad back but not his face, emphasizing, one supposes, matter over mind. But smithing has come a long way since then.
Consider Bill Moran, said by knowledgeable knife collectors to be among the finest bladesmiths in the country, perhaps the world. There isn't a spreading chestnut tree within miles of Moran's shop in Braddock Heights, Md., though there is a rather scrawny-looking willow around back, next to the outdoor plumbing. Because he sells his blades by mail order, most of Moran's customers never get to see him or the shop where he has been forging custom-made knives for years. Pity. The shop, which sits in the shadow of Braddock Mountain, has a refreshingly lived-in look about it. There is an almost stratified clutter about the place, but the workbench is smooth and clean. Many of Moran's tools were made by hand—Moran's hand—and are carefully modeled after those used by smiths of the American colonial period. He uses no precision instruments because he has no interest in changing over to ultrasophisticated methods of knifemaking, preferring, he says, to "eyeball" his way through the exacting forging process.
"I try to use a combination of the best of the old techniques and the new technology," he says. "If I thought an electric oven would work better than the fieldstone forge, I'd buy one tomorrow. It just happens that the old way is usually the best way." He has only a few electrical tools around, and no running water. When Moran needs to rinse something off, he dips it in the stream that runs beside his shop.
Moran began making knives more than 30 years ago on his family's dairy farm, partly because he believed he could make a better hunting knife than any of the ones he could buy. He was fascinated by the history of blades and soon he was duplicating the work of the estimable Rezin P. Bowie, brother of Jim Bowie and reputed father of the Bowie knife. (There has always been controversy surrounding the history of the Bowie knife and its development.) The 1952 movie The Iron Mistress depicted Jim Bowie as a folk hero (though some say his character was less than savory), and Moran was immediately overwhelmed by orders for Bowie knives. Though he seldom makes the blade anymore, he ruefully admits that during the height of the rage he forged some that "were ridiculous"—blades more than two feet in length and weighing more than nine pounds, conversation pieces but more or less useless for any practical purpose.
Moran's research led him to volumes that contained designs for creating steel that dated back to the Merovingian Franks and the Vikings. As a result, Moran has become such a student of his craft that he devotes two months each year to tomes about knife-making.
One of the first things Moran learned was that Damascus steel—forged through a long and arduous process of welding layers of iron and steel—yielded the finest blades ever known. The process, he discovered, had practically died out—most likely, Moran feels, because of the skill and time required to complete the Damascus blade. After years of forging hunting and combat knives (both of which he will still make, if grudgingly), he began to make what he now calls "art blades."
In 1970 Moran spent nine months re-creating the Damascus blade, folding and refolding layers of iron and steel, hammering the metal at welding heat in order to create the delicate arabesques that would later appear on the blade's surface. "Those designs don't get there by accident," he says. "Each stroke of the hammer is as significant as the stroke of a painter's brush on canvas."
Today it takes 150 pounds of high-grade coal and about two months of work to produce a single Damascus dagger. Moran usually makes a total of 10 welds, which create 564 layers of metal. The temperature of the metal is critical, and he has only the color of the steel in its nimbus of flame to guide him. If the blade is removed from the fire too soon it produces a bad weld, and if left in too long, the carbon can be burned out of the steel.
"I've lost a blade just by dropping my hammer and losing the three or four seconds it took to pick it up," Moran says. "The heat is unbelievable, but you've got to keep your face in the fire or you'll certainly lose the blade."
After the blade is forged, he tempers it, making it hard but not brittle and giving it a long-lasting cutting edge. Finally, the metal is bathed in muriatic acid to bring out its natural grain. When the blade is completed, Moran carves the handle (usually from blocks of curly maple or ivory), does his own inlay work and makes the leather sheath.