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Master bladesmiths revive dying art

Posted: Thursday, August 31, 2000

WASHINGTON, Ark. (AP) -- Fingers of green smoke encircle the highest rafters as Jim Batson, soaked in sweat, pounds hot steel. His hammer strikes his anvil, reverberating through air acrid with sulfur and laden with the heat of a 3,000-degree fire.

This is not easy work, forging metal in an inhospitable environment. But the results are well worth it: a strong, beautiful blade -- a knife made with skills two millennia old.

''You get out here and you see how strong you are,'' says the muscle bound master bladesmith, who is on a mission to preserve the dying art of hand-forged knife making.

Each year Batson passes some of his knowledge to a handful of students in his bladesmithing classes at Old Washington Historic State Park -- the place where, according to legend, a Bowie Knife dubbed the Arkansas Toothpick was crafted.

The Arkansas school, administered through Texarkana College, is the oldest bladesmithing program in the country and the only one certified by the American Bladesmithing Society.

Though Batson sells his knives to collectors for as much as $5,000 each, the retired aerospace engineer says he's working more to preserve the art than to make money.

''There is an old saying that life is so short, and the history of the craft is so long, that it is impossible to learn it all in one lifetime,'' said Batson, one of only 80 master bladesmiths in the country.

Many of the nation's master bladesmiths were trained at the Arkansas school.

Bob Kramer of suburban Seattle, Wash., who trained here in 1992, had skills in such demand that, when he closed his knife shop last spring, chefs throughout the city said no one could fill the void.

Despite his retirement, he is continuing to work part-time to meet the demand. Kramer's work is so popular he has a two-year backlog of orders for custom kitchen knives.

''Knives are to cooks what paint brushes are to painters,'' said chef Tamara Murphy of Brasa's, a Mediterranean and Iberian restaurant in downtown Seattle.

Master bladesmith Bill Moran founded the American Bladesmithing School in 1988 to perpetuate the craft.

Moran selected Old Washington as the school's location because it was the place where, around 1831, legendary blacksmith James Black crafted at least one knife for frontier fighter James Bowie.

In the last 12 years, more than 600 students from around the world have learned knife forging inside the barn-like blacksmith shop in the middle of the historic southwest Arkansas town.

The two-week class costs $600.

''We have guys who come in who are pretty accomplished knife makers, and then we have doctors, lawyers and other professionals who have never worked with their hands,'' said Scotty Hayes, associate dean of the college.

Few of the students pass the American Bladesmith Society's stringent master bladesmith test.

The test, which cannot be taken until an applicant has spent two years learning the craft and two more years as journeyman smith, requires a bladesmith to make a welded Damascus steel knife.

The knife must cut a free-hanging one-inch thick rope as a test of sharpness, chop a two by four in half to test toughness, and still be able to shave the hair off an arm afterward to test edge retention. The final test is for the knife to be bent 90 degrees without breaking, which shows the knife has a soft back and a hard edge.

Master smith applicants submit 12 knives for inspection, including a perfectly symmetrical Quillion Dagger of Damascus steel. Damascus steel, first crafted in ancient Syria, is formed by layering steels of different carbon content to create a pattern.

Eric Hunter of Omaha, Neb., a lumber yard worker with an interest in Medieval art, made the trip to follow the ancient tradition.

''We are maintaining and reviving a dying art. When I go back to the hotel at night, I've never been so hot and dirty and felt like I've accomplished so much,'' he said.

''They do spit, but generally it's because of an argument that they are having in their group over who is getting the best piece of hay. It's a hierarchical animal behavior.''

Ebel, who took his family on llama trips when his kids were young, said there is another bonus to family hiking with the animals. ''If you put a lead rope in the kids' hands, they'll walk miles and miles. They'll just truck.''

His son was always in front, Ebel said. ''By the time he was 5, I was always yelling for him to wait up.''



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