Forged for Function
Bladesmithing Academy and Museum Honors Braddock Heights Craftsman
By Gina Gallucci-White and Photography by Turner Photography Studio
A lover of fine blades, William ‘Bill’ Moran Jr. was fascinated by Damascus steel, Ia layered-metals technique that creates intricate patterns on the surface. Dating back more than a thousand years, the blades are famed for their strength and beauty, yet the technique to create them once nearly died out due to its complicated and time-consuming nature.
The Braddock Heights resident, who was self-taught and made his first knife at age 13, decided to bring the lost art of making Damascus steel knives back in the early 1970s. After months of trial and error, Moran took several of his knives to the Knife Makers Guild Show in 1973. Since many had not heard of Damascus steel, Moran had his wife, Margaret, type up a summary of his findings, with details of how he created the knives. He handed out the information to people visiting his booth for free. (Such generosity with intellectual property is unheard-of today.)
The front-and-back, single-spaced document ended by stating: “These will probably be the rarest blades ever made in this Country. If I am able to continue making these for another ten years, their (sic) would be about one hundred in existence. … Real Damascus Steel is the most expensive and valuable steel in the world. It is the ultimate in a blade.”
Jay Hendrickson, who was Moran’s friend and later executor of his estate, notes that divulging the information “was pretty neat of Bill because he shared the process with the world at that moment and it has taken off tremendously ever since.”
Moran is widely credited as the first person to introduce Damascus steel in the country and in modern times. Becoming a world-renowned bladesmith, his career included making knives for royalty and celebrities, as well as local residents, in his modest shop in Middletown. He co-founded the American Bladesmith Society and served as its chairman for 15 years. After a battle with cancer, Moran, 80, passed away in 2006, but his legacy continues to inspire knife makers.
In October, the W. F. Moran Bladesmith & Artisan Academy opened its doors several feet from the shop in which Moran had created masterpieces for years. The state-of-the-art facility features a large forging hall as well as a classroom to teach a variety of bladesmithing techniques.
The idea for the academy came after Moran passed away. In his will, he stipulated that he wanted to have a working bladesmith shop be retained at his coal-fired forge. A nonprofit in Moran’s name was created to preserve the shop as a museum featuring displays of his knives and awards as well as an active forge using some of his tools. But the site could only host a few people at a time.
The nonprofit’s popularity has grown, with more than 300 members hailing from across the globe, so the decision was made to build an outdoor pavilion allowing demonstrations and some basic knifemaking classes. “It became very apparent that there was a desire and a need that people wanted to learn this trade and just found it very interesting,” says Robert Wilson, president of the William F. Moran Museum & Foundation.
Four years ago, board members decided to explore opening an academy to teach people the art of knifemaking, bladesmithing and other types of artisan crafts, including leatherwork, silver inlay and woodworking. After nearly a year of construction, the academy is gearing up to welcome students this year. Wilson takes seriously the obligation to honor Moran’s legacy. “We are the gatekeeper for this history about Bill Moran and how he came from Frederick County here in the Middletown Valley.”
A GREAT KNIFE
There are many factors that go into creating a great knife.
“Bill was very particular about how he made a knife, about the steel that was used and about the process,” Wilson says. “I think he would probably be the first one to say it is a consistent process. Not that it can’t be refined and changed and improved upon. He was all about making sure that the process that he made a knife with was consistent. A knife can be beautiful. It can be a piece of artwork. Many of his knives are considered art blades but his one statement that he made consistently was, ‘It doesn’t matter how good it looks. If he can’t take it out into the field and actually use it … then it does no good. It is no better than a decorative object.’ It had to be able to perform to his standards. We have tried to carry that information and that teaching into everything that we do here at the academy.”
Bladesmithing is very hands-on with metallurgy that is a science unto itself. “Bill would be the first one to tell you he made so many mistakes when he was teaching himself to make knives,” Wilson says. “We often comment we should go behind his shop with a metal detector and find all the knives that he threw away out into the woods. We did when we first took over shop. A whole pile of metal. A lot were roughed-out blades—overheated and burnt the metal. It didn’t hold an edge because it was not treated properly. All of this was trial and error. He was really good at recording his results and figuring out what he did right, what he did wrong. We’ve encompassed that and that is the curriculum we use to teach people how to make a blade. We know there are going to be mistakes made. Anybody that picks up any type of hammer and puts hammer to steel is going to make mistakes. There is surely no doubt about it, but you learn by those mistakes. Hopefully with the repetitive nature of being able to do it, you learn from that. The next time you don’t make that same mistake.”
In the instant-gratification society, there are still many people who appreciate the meticulous nature and fine craftsmanship of making knives. “They are able to see a raw piece of material and they can go through the process of forging, of hammering, of grinding, of finishing and at the end of the process they have a blade that they have put their hand to and have trained the mechanics of hammering and been able to be to be trained to produce this instrument. … They appreciate the fact that they have been able to take this raw piece of material, be trained and be able to produce something of their own hand, of their own liking and be proud of something that they have accomplished and can repeat it.”
Just like Bill Moran.