Round One - Friction Folders
Long before I was a contestant, I was an avid fan of the show. Every week I'd look at the round one challenge they were presented and I'd pause the show and tell my family just exactly how I would attack it, much to their delight, I'm sure =)
With that in mind, as soon as I knew I'd been accepted on the show I began to train. Yeah, it may sound kind of silly to 'train' for a TV show but I did and I'd encourage any potential contestants to do the same. While I had 17 years of experience under my belt, I knew this would be mentally and physically demanding and that I would be forging under stress in a way that I'd never experienced. In the weeks leading up to my trip to the studio I made several billets of canister damascus, I worked out, I spent time in front of the forge with no fans running to try and acclimate myself to the heat. I timed myself forging various blade shapes from barstock as quickly as possible. I ruined a bunch of steel. I tested my methods by making a 16 inch bladed camp chopper, start to finish in three hours and then I tested it, hard. I improved tools in my shop and tried to organize things in hopes I would make it to the final weapon build. At some point in those weeks I finally just said to myself "You know, there's just not much more I can do to be ready for something like that." In the end though, when it finally came time to make the trip to Connecticut, I felt like I had done what I could to try and be prepared. I was ready.
Round one Begins
Walking into that set was just surreal. I'd seen that place hundreds of times but being there, standing at the anvil and feeling the weight of that clock set at 3:00:00 over my right shoulder was intense. I was confident in my training and experience but also a bit intimidated by the smiths around me and nervous all at the same time. I walk in, we're told to stand at our anvils, and I stare kind of awkwardly at the judges as Wil tells us to pull the cloth off our anvil and begins to reveal the challenge that we would be tasked with. I was happy to see a coil of 5160, I think “this is a steel I know.” I was also apprehensive, I knew there would be a catch because this is Forged in Fire after all. I watched nearly every episode of the show that I could during my 'training.' However, of all the shows I watched the one episode I had not spent ANY time on was the previous friction folder episode in season 3, Episode 12 to be exact (see note below.) For some reason I just missed that one. The idea that we might have to make a large folder was literally the last challenge on my mind. I was expecting some crazy salvaged steel or a canister and a fixed blade of some type. I think every contestant that goes on the show knows that when they walk into that iconic studio and stand at the anvil that they better be ready for anything but I was truly surprised to see a huge chunk of 5160 coil and to be tasked with making a folding knife.
And then just like that all the prep work for cameras, lighting and safety is done, all the pre-filming details are over and suddenly I hear the familiar "And your time starts.....NOW."
WAIT, hold up. Can I look around a little more? Can I soak this in? Nope. Game on.
Out of the corner of my eye I can see Bob, John and Atsatsa grab their steel and the clock is ticking. My first thought was that since part of our challenge was not being given extra time for a design window I needed to make time for one and really think for a few moments. The way in which the show gets edited doesn't necessarily show things in the exact order in which they happen sometimes, but it's pretty close. My first step was to put that big coil into the forge and get it hot, 5160 doesn't like to move and I knew I'd save some time if I did my planning while it was heating up so as soon as it was in the forge I grabbed paper and pencil and began to draw out my ideas. I wrote down some important reminders about parameters and began to sketch a friction folder. It's not shown on our episode but we DID indeed have round one parameters, our blades and tang had to be a certain length and there was an overall maximum length that we could not go past. I knew it was necessary to note down the primary components of a friction folder on paper and to begin thinking about the mechanical aspects from the very start. I used a ruler to measure points from the pivot, handle length, potential blade length and pin placement. One of my biggest fears going into Forged in Fire was that I would blow a round one parameter and be sent home so the very first thing I did after my design work was to use chalk to put 'inch marks' on my anvil so that I could constantly check the blade and tang for length. I was perfectly fine being sent home because someone made a better blade than me but I was really determined not to send myself home. I guess in the long run, since none of us really got close to blowing a parameter in round one, they decided to use that valuable air time for other footage. I finished my basic design and parameter notes in about 10 minutes and ran back to check on the steel in the forge.
The race to flat bar stock
Before the competition started while sitting in the hotel room early that morning I'd formed a game plan. I decided that I would break the 3 hours of round 1 into stages and try to focus on a particular task in each hour. First hour would be focused on getting to a flat bar from whatever steel we were presented with. I'd spend the second hour on blade forging and the third would be left for grinding, quench and some post-quench grinding. I followed this plan pretty closely but that spring steel was tough. David Baker said, "That is tempered material, you're going to have to get that VERY HOT to uncoil it." I believe all of us used some pipe for leverage in the vise to get the coil open and once I had that done I thought I'd be able to get a billet really quickly using the press. I was wrong, I took the coil to the press and immediately discovered that it was going to take me several heats to get to a billet. I can remember saying out loud more than once "This 5160 is just NOT moving." On the set, the workstations are numbered left to right from 1 to 4. I was stationed at anvil 4, Bob was at 3 and because we were so close it just made sense for us to work together to share the power equipment; no one wants to lose valuable time. We didn't plan this, it just kind of happened. In all my time being around bladesmiths I have rarely, if ever found them to be unhelpful or rude. It's a sort of brotherhood and when we see one of our own needing help, we help. Even during a competition with one another. I continued to move between the Uncle Al's press and the Big Blu power hammer trying to get that round bar to 1/4 inch flat as quickly as possible but it was much slower going than I thought. I found out that the tongs I was using weren't holding the steel very well so during one of my heats I altered them to better fit the round bar and eventually got a large enough portion of the steel into bar stock that would fit my bladesmith tongs. I cut off the steel I didn't need and moved to the anvil to begin forging my blade with a little under 2 hours left on the clock.
Forging the blade
On the plane ride to the show, I was constantly thinking "If I can get whatever steel we are presented with into a flat billet with enough time, I'll do fine in round one." I felt like forging was a strong point for me and getting to a billet would allow me to move fairly quickly. The fact that we were given new 5160 really helped with my self confidence and also helped to put me at ease somewhat, it's a steel that I am very familiar with. I began by forging a set-down to separate the blade from the tang, I did a little of this over on big blu and the press but primarily spent the majority of this hour at the anvil with hammer in hand. We were not given any indication what our knives would have to survive in testing. As a result, I decided to go for a Seax shape because I thought it might offer the best combination of cutting, stabbing and slicing performance and would allow me to keep the blade thick for strength without looking weird. I drew out the tang, put a point on the bar and began to forge in my bevels. Once I had the blade forging nearly complete I decided to put a twist in the tang and to hot-punch my pivot hole. I thought doing these things would add a 'blacksmithing' flair to my knife that might help set it apart a bit. I also added a bit of file work on the back of the blade and decided to keep a downward curve in the tang thinking this would give my handle more of a 'saber grip.' The curved tang would eventually cause me more trouble than it was worth in round 2. I isolated a bit of material at the end of the tang and forged a flat 'tab.' I've had several people ask me what the purpose of the tab was so I'll go into that a bit now. A friction folder typically has a pin somewhere in the handle, either near the pivot, or further down the handle that acts as a tang-stop. Since I didn't know how the knife was going to be tested, I thought I should fashion something to give the tang more area to rest on the handle in case they decided to swing the knife into a target. I was afraid that with just a simple pin as a stop, if the test was done with enough force, it might blow out a single stop pin and allow the tang to swing freely through the handle scales. So, I had the idea for a tab that would sit flush into a 'routed' area on the back of the handle and provide more strength in the case of any kind of chopping. Of course, that plan changed in round 2. I finished all the forging and was ready to proceed to grinding and the quench with just under an hour left on the clock. I went to the grinder to put the primary flat grind bevels in and to do a bit of profile grinding.
After I finished grinding I put the blade in the forge, tang first to begin bringing the knife up to heat for normalization and quench. I rotated the knife tang to tip to prevent overheating the tip and performed two normalization stages. After normalization I brought the knife to non-magnetic, held it for a few more seconds in the forge and went into the quench with 21 minutes left on the clock. No pings, no cracks, no warps. I file tested the blade, let it cool a bit and then went to the grinder to remove forge scale and to get it ready to present to the judges. I finished with a few minutes to spare and waited until I heard Wil "10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.... Bladesmiths shut down your machines, drop your tools this round is OVER!!"
*At the time I went to film S5E04 had not been released, another friction folder episode. I believe there are a total of 3 episodes that feature a folding knife challenge.