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Christopher Price

Knifemaker Interview Series, a biography workshop

908 posts in this topic

Ok, gang. Many of us know each other from hammer-in's and such, but many more don't know much more than the online persona allows. I would like to do something to remedy that, improve our understanding of the makers of knives, get in their heads, and learn more about what drives each of us down this dingbat path. From total noobs to lifelong professional makers, all are fair game.

How this works: I will start by inviting a member here to an interview, where we'll discuss their history, views of the craft, their relevant background, and what makes them tick. They, then, will interview someone else, and so on as long as we have people willing to pour out their hearts and metalworking souls online for this community to share in. I have spoken with Don, and have his approval, and I have a victim lined up and ready to go.

First, though, a couple basic rules ('cause we all need them no matter how well intentioned we are): This is an adult conversation. Let's keep it mature, civil, and not slanderous of those we disagree with. Each interviewee is free to share their personal views but please don't attack them for it, or take it personally. Each of us walk this path for our own reasons, and the variety of them is what makes this such a special community. No questions are off-limits, but if you don't feel comfortable answering them, just say so and you get a pass, no harm, no foul. Pictures that enlighten your story are always welcome, but please host them offsite (Smugmug, Photobucket, etc.) to save Don some bandwidth.

So with that, let us begin!


--------------------------------

Quick-links to the Interviews

25 Feb. 2008: Christopher Price interviews Alan Longmire

26 Feb. 2008: Alan Longmire interviews Jake Powning

28 Feb. 2008: Jake Powning interviews Jake Cleland

12 Mar. 2008: Jake Cleland interviews Howard Clark

07 Apr. 2008: Howard Clark interviews Mike Blue

21 Apr. 2008: Mike Blue interviews Owen Bush

26 Apr. 2008: Owen Bush interviews Peter Johnsson

12 May 2008: Peter Johnsson interviews Ric Furrer

05 Jun. 2008: Ric Furrer interviews Vince Evans

17 Jun. 2008: Vince Evans interviews Jesus Hernandez

25 Jun. 2008: Jesus Hernandez interviews Jeff Pringle

14 Jul. 2008: Jeff Pringle interviews Jim Austin

02 Sep. 2008: Jim Austin interviews J. Arthur Loose

09 Oct. 2008: Christopher Price interviews David DelaGardelle

24 Oct. 2008: David DelaGardelle interviews Raymond Richard

06 Dec. 2008: Christopher Price interviews Sam Salvati

22 Dec. 2008: Sam Salvati interviews Chris Moss

05 Feb. 2009: Chris Moss interviews Don Fogg

19 Feb. 2009: Don Fogg interviews Jim Kelso

02 Apr. 2009: Jim Kelso interviews Louis Mills

04 May 2009: Christopher Price interviews Don Hanson

26 Jun. 2009: Don Hanson interviews David Sloan

21 Jul. 2009: David Sloan interviews Bruce Norris

08 Aug. 2009: Bruce Norris interviews Richard Van Dijk

04 Oct. 2009: Richard Van Dijk interviews Ulrich Hennicke

28 Dec. 2010: Alan Longmire interviews Petr Florianek

03 Jan. 2011: Petr Florianek interviews Serge Panchenko

22 Jan. 2011: Serge Panchenko interviews Tom Sterling

10 Feb. 2011: Tom Sterling interviews Ford Hallam

21 Jan. 2012: John Page interviews Christopher Price

22 Jan. 2012: Christopher Price interviews Niko Hynninen

05 Feb. 2012: Niko Hynninen interviews Greg Thomas Obach

 

01 Mar. 2012: Greg Thomas Obach interviews Lee Sauder

 

22 Nov. 2013: Lee Sauder interviews Shel Browder

 

8 Dec. 2013: Shel Browder interviews Darrel Markowitz

 

10 Jan. 2014: Darrel Markowitz interviews Thijs van de Manakker

 

17 Feb. 2014: Thijs van de Manakker interviews Jens Jørgen Olesen

 

02 Mar. 2014: Jens Jørgen Olesen interviews Lukasz Szczepanski

 

17 Aug. 2015: John Page interviews Matthew Parkinson

 

10 Dec. 2015: Matthew Parkinson interviews Salem Straub

Edited by Christopher Price

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Our first interview subject is none other than, Alan Longmire.

 

Alan, please start by telling us how you got into metalsmithing. What was your first exposure to the craft? When did you first pick up a hammer and hit hot iron with it? What attracts you to working with fire and tongs?

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Dang, Chris, you get up early! :lol: And Jake, you may be next... :ph34r:

 

I got into metalsmithing over a period of years, mostly through playing with black powder firearms. I was a teenaged gun nut, :rolleyes: but I've always been interested in the eastern frontier period of the USA so my nuttiness centered on early guns. I blame my father, he has a great sense of history and never loses an opportunity to remind me just where we stand in it. The family has been in eastern Tennessee since about 1784 on a permanent basis, but had made visits since about 1760. I arrived in 1970 and grew up around log cabins, old barns, and old tools. We didn't have any, but we'd go visit people who did.

 

In addition I was always a voracious reader, with a special interest in medieval stories and sword-and-sorcery fantasy stuff. I had read the entire LOTR series three times by 6th grade, and added the Silmarillion and the Book of Lost Tales by 7th grade. If it had to do with swords, I was there! :lol: My big brother helped with this, as he was very into militaria, especially anything German of any period. We got our first swords around age 12 (for him) and 9 (for me). In both cases they were those cheap India-made sabres that look like a US 1860 cavalry sabre but with a stamped sheet-metal guard and with badly etched sanskrit all over the blades, which had been dulled on grinders before being sold to unsuspecting starry-eyed kids for about $12 each. :rolleyes: We played scenes from the Conan books until the day when a.) my brother being angry with me for lying in bed reading rather than playing soldier with him drove his sabre through my mattress at the foot of the bed, and b.) about an hour later I nearly impaled him on mine as he came leaping into my room to try again. My calmness in the face of his imminent demise put him off swordplay for a while, and the discovery of a hole through my mattress resulted in the parental confiscation of all swordlike objects.

 

Cut to 1984, when I saved up enough money to buy my first black powder gun kit: a CVA Hawken. I put it together in about a week, doing what little metal shaping needed doing with a 6" file I still own, guided by what I had read in Foxfire 5. Then for Christmas that year I got a reproduction 1851 Colt Navy revolver, not a kit, but it needed some cleanup to work properly. From there, I didn't do much of anything until college. I had read all the Foxfire books, and considered them to be some sort of gospel, but all I did was read, I didn't make anything. Then, I was introduced to machine work as a sophomore in Physics. I knew nothing about it, but was sufficiently impressed that I got the entire Gingery foundry and machine shop series from Lindsay Books and set about planning my own machine shop and foundry, despite not having any idea what I would make in it.

 

About this time my major shifted from Physics to Historic Archaeology, but not before I made a wooden equatorial mount for my cheapo Tasco telescope (I served as an astronomy TA for a couple of years while I was in Physics). I had also been fencing for two years, associating with other like-minded nerds. At any rate, the shift in majors caused a shift in interest, or at least a shift in the level of technology I was going to use. I learned to flintknap, very badly I might add, and then decided maybe I should enter the iron age. My dad had an old anvil my grandfather had bought at a farm sale years ago and never used. It was just sitting in the garage taking up space, so I decided it needed to be used.

 

I honestly didn't even think about knifemaking or tomahawks, in fact the first use to which it was put was for sheet metal work. Specifically, a moonshine still. :rolleyes: That never really worked, but at least now I had an anvil and a desire to make useful things. Having thus resolved to become a blacksmith, I bought every book I could find on the subject and started accumulating tools on a very irregular basis. I was interested in historic decorative stuff for some reason. Regardless, after two years of accumulating stuff I had my anvil (a 100lb Columbian with all the edges chipped off), a 4-inch post vise found at an antique store and bought for me as a birthday present by my girlfriend, a hand-crank blower from the same place for Christmas, and a rivet forge I traded a set of miniature bagpipes for.

 

This was also the year I discovered the internet, and the year keenjunk.com came online. I was hooked from the beginning, 1996. No net access at home, but at work (the University of Tennessee archaeology lab) we had a T-1 connection and nothing was safe. I became a typical lurker, soaking up everything I could about smithing, reading smithing books at night, scanning the junk stores for smithing stuff, and talking about nothing else, until finally my girlfriend said "Look, put up or shut up. I'll contribute some, your folks will contribute some, and you put up the rest, you're going to John C. Campbell Folk School and learn to use this stuff or you're going to sell it and quit talking." Did I mention she's a great motivator? ;)

 

To the Folk School I went, in October 1998. Inside a month later I had my first shop set up in a shed at my brother's farm. I made the usual new-blacksmith stuff, and still didn't think much about knives, etc. Then when my GF got her Ph.D in May of 1999, we moved to her new job at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. We got married in 2000. B)

 

When we were looking for a place to live, we found an old acquaintance of ours had been renting a little house on the Green River in Morgantown, KY, about 40 minutes from Bowling Green, but was moving to Kansas to teach. We went and looked and loved it. While we were planning the move, I realized where I'd heard of Morgantown and its smaller neighbor Woodbury, Kentucky: In Foxfire 5 there was a section about a guy named Hershel House, who smithed and made longrifles. Talk about fate! My interest in old guns was reawakened, and who better to talk to about how to make them?

 

After getting around to introducing myself to Hershel, and showing him what I could do, he told me I should take a class with him at Conner Prairie in Indiana. That class was called "Knives, Tomahawks, and Axes," taught by Hershel, Melvin Lytton, and Nathan Allen. So I did. :) Within a year I was a member of the Contemporary Longrifle Association (www.longrifle.ws) and had made my first non-kit longrifle. Not to mention sold my first hawks and knives.

 

Some illustrations:

 

My shop in Kentucky: a 9 foot x 17 foot former chickenhouse.

 

shop.jpg

 

inshop.jpg

 

My first knife, made and sold in the fall of 2000.

 

fileknife2.jpg

 

My first Hawk, same timeframe.

 

hawk2.jpg

 

Most of the time we were in Kentucky I was only working as an archaeologist about half the year doing freelance consulting, which gave me both the time and incentive to get product out the door so I could afford to take another class at Conner Prairie! The next year, 2001, I took an engraving class there. It was my last time there to date.

 

EDITED: fixed the link to CLA.

Edited by Alan Longmire

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Well, seems I got so self-involved I didn't answer the question! :lol:

 

Why fire, tongs, and steel? I've tried woodworking, stoneworking, jewelry, and even PC gaming, and I can't find any other way to spend my time that is nearly as deeply satisfying to my soul as the simple act of using only fire, tongs, and hammer to shape steel into something useful and hopefully beautiful.

 

In 7th grade I read "Step by Step Knifemaking" by David Boye at my school library, before it got pulled as a potential danger a couple years ago <_< . I now realize it didn't take with me because there's no forging in that book! ;)

 

That's all I can do right now, if anybody's got a specific question I can answer it concisely now since I filled the prior post with all the autobiographical crap. :rolleyes:

 

I'll do the 2001-2008 bit later, I'm at work! :ph34r:

Edited by Alan Longmire

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Excellent response, Alan. Thank you.

 

Tell us, if you would, how your professional work with antiques and history colors your choices of what you make. Does it provide any advantage, other than the initial exposure?

 

 

 

I have more, but we'll take these a couple at a time. ;)

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Thanks, Chris!

 

First, a quick summation of 2002-2008: We moved to Johnson City, TN in 2002 so my wife could teach at East Tennessee State and I could do my current job as archaeologist for the TN department of Transportation serving the eastern quarter of the state. In a curious parallel to the Kentucky move, I had been getting more into knives before moving here. I had a copy of Knives Illustrated from 2000 (I think) with an interview with Larry Harley. I showed it to my wife (her family is from Bristol, Larry's hometown) and she knew who he was, much like I knew who Hershel was. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Hershel and his brothers Frank and John, plus their cousin Willie White, for allowing me to bug them for three years free of charge. :lol:

 

After the move, I wasn't able to get a shop set up for another year, and didn't meet Larry until October 2003 when I went to a meeting of the local blacksmith guild, Bristol Forge at Rocky Mount. I saw a little sidebar in the paper saying there would be blacksmiths at Rocky Mount Historic Site one Saturday as part of a festival thingy, and since it'd been over a year since I'd seen another smith or fired up a forge I decided to take my book of pictures and go. The first guy I walked up to turned out to be Larry! :blink: The second was Matt Walker. You know the story from there.

 

 

 

Now, to answer your question:

 

My professional work is really kind of inseparable from why I do what I do the way I do it. Up to a point, anyway. I can't do wild interpretations of historic shapes because it goes completely against my eye to do so. I learned to identify artifacts by small fragments, often being able to place them in time and space through some minor point of style or shape. That's not an easy skill to pick up, and it involves training your brain to see the larger pattern from a small chunk based on a visual knowledge of what existed where and when, if that makes sense.

 

Once you have trained your eye and brain to see the world in a certain way, based on a certain set of received knowledge, it's very difficult to break your training. Things that don't jive, aesthetically and historically speaking, jangle the nerves. I can break out of it now, and enjoy the full range of well-crafted stuff, but I still can't stand to see something claimed as "historically accurate" if it isn't. <_< There will be more on that at Batson's. ;)

 

Does that provide me with an advantage? I think it does, but it also limits me in some ways. I'm not sure if that's due to my personal taste aligning the way it does naturally or if I've warped it through exposure to original artifacts, however. :wacko:

 

I think that because of the strong sense of local history my dad instilled, plus the actual knowledge of what things from my heritage look like (we have my great granduncle's S&W model 2 from his Civil War days, for instance), it's hard for me to accept stuff that doesn't fit that heritage. I think that's why I don't get all dewy-eyed over Nihonto, for instance. I certainly appreciate the art, the effort, and the depth of spirituality required to do them; and there's no way I could do so well as many of the real professionals here in technical execution, but they just don't sing to my soul the way stuff from my own northern European heritage does. That doesn't mean one thing is any better than another; there is no value judgement implied at all. It's just my own brain fermenting away bewteen my ears. Just because I'm egotistical and narcissistic doesn't mean I'm right! :lol:

 

Okay, back on topic: exposure to original artifacts is absolutely invaluable to someone who wants to do something in a historically accurate way or to produce a historically accurate feel. You can't appreciate what a pipe hawk from the 1820s is supposed to feel like unless you feel one. With the little longrifle work I do, I am truly blessed from having been able to actually hold, fondle, and shoulder a huge number of genuine 18th and early 19th century guns through the goodwill and generousity of the collecting community of that sort of thing. From that exposure, I can tell an original from a modern copy made by someone who has not held one every time. If you've never held one, you just cannot get the lines and weights right. I have heard the same thing said by the Nihonto guys about attending token kai. If you're trying to get the feel of something, there's no substitute for the real thing.

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You've mentioned your northern European roots several times, though your family also has deep roots in Appalachia. Are you of the typical Scots-Irish descent, or is your family history more broad than that? Speaking of Appalachian heritage, how do you see the future of the area developing in the modern world? Is it still a place of remote isolation, with clannish habits and fortitude, or is it turning into something else? How do you feel about it?

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Ooooh, getting broader in scope, eh? ;)

 

Actually as far as we can tell, I'm about about a third English (Lake District area, there's a village called Longmire north of Windermere), and about a third German, to take care of the earliest known branches of family in the area. The Scots-Irish and Welsh that makes up the rest is on my mother's side only and are relative latecomers to the area, ca. 1860s.

 

There's a much stronger German and Finnish element to southern Appalachia than most folks think. While we're using the word, once more let's pronounce it together: Ap-pul-LATCH-uh. No part of the word has the "A" sound found in "late." Never has, except among folks who have never been here. That's how we tell.

 

There's still a few isolated and clannish parts due to the nature of the road system, but it's changing by the minute. Our current major influx is Floridians tired of hurricanes and New Yorkers and Ohioans tired of nasty winters and personal property tax. We have a reputation of being politically conservative as well, which seems to draw many northerners who are upset we aren't all as right-wing as they are. ;)

 

We're already a big part of the economy, the days of internal colonialism are long gone. Labor is still cheaper here than some places, and as a result we get the last gasp of industries on their way offshore. On the plus side, the cost of living is cheaper on average than many places, but as the desperate masses move in they bring what they're trying to leave behind. In the six years I've been in Johnson City I've seen almost all the big farms near town turned into McMansion fields at the rate of about 3000-7000 acres per year. That trend alone tells me we're destined to be just another "local color" retirement and resettlement area.

 

You can probably tell by the tone of this post how I feel about that. :rolleyes:

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In another thread about hair, you mentioned something about "not needing the cops" with the friends you had at the time this picture was taken:

 

post-510-1201815441.jpg

 

For the yankees and foreigners here, please explain what that means. Being a pacific northwesterner, I cannot relate to this at all, and I suspect there are others who feel the same.

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It's a long story, and one I'll only tell if you bring the good scotch. ;)

 

The meaning of the statement was a cross between "with friends like these who needs enemies" and the knowledge that the bunch of us would do anything for each other. They could mess with me, but they defended me from all other ridicule. I repeat: Scotch. Oban would be nice. :lol: No more on the subject until then. -_-

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This is such an awesome idea! :)

 

Really cool and inspiring to hear your story Mr. Longmire!

 

Your a constant positive support to us and everyone on here so its great to hear how yo got your roots in the craft.

 

 

cant wait to hear from more of you guys!!

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Thanks, David, but don't call me Mr. :rolleyes: I'm just Alan. :)

 

Alright, Chris, what else you got?

 

How about a pontification on how my style has evolved or not since I started? The answer is, it hasn't really changed, I've just gotten more practice. When I started down the sharp and pointy path I was strictly into 18th and early 19th century stuff you'd find in eastern North America. Who wouldn't be, with the House clan 12 miles down the road letting me bug them to death? :lol:

 

I may have branched out a bit, but that's still the market I seem to aim for. I've gotten away from the hand tools only mindset via the guys I hang out with now, but I still don't have a gas forge. None of the House boys uses gas, power hammers, grinders, or anything of the sort. I gotta say, I wouldn't be without either my hammer or my KMG, and I'd love to get a good dedicated HT setup going.

 

What I learned from starting the way I did is how to do it all by hand. I look at it like learning math: you gotta know why something works and how to do it the long hard way before they let you use a calculator in class. In a similar way, any monkey with a grinder and a paragon kiln can make a knife out of barstock and do the HT. I like that I'm not limited by the equipment.

 

I know one maker, a famous full-time pro, who tossed all his power equipment and fancy tech stuff because he thought the machinery was limiting his creativity. I don't agree with that, but that's how he feels. The way I see it, if you let the machinery dictate what you make and how you make it, you don't belong in the busines anyway unless perhaps you want to be the 10,0001st producer of Loveless-style drop point hunters or something like that, and no offense if that's your life goal. It just isn't mine.

 

I could make a living on nothing but fancy pipe hawks, and in fact I did just that for a year in Kentucky. The trouble is, I burn out easily. After polishing off 32 pipe hawks in 8 months I stopped taking orders. I'm not here to work like a factory, I'm here to make what I want to make and hopefully sell it too. That's why I'm glad I'm not forced to be a full time maker, a fate from which I am saved only by the fact that my day job is interesting and does not force me to stay in a cube farm from 9 to 5 every day. Been there done that too, and I REALLY can't live like that. Howard Clark once described himself as self-employed because he's otherwise unemployable. I understand that completely. B)

 

I'm not the best maker (nor even close, I think I'm competent at best), I don't have the highest level of fit and finish, and I don't obsess about it. Some folks think my stuff is crap, and I'm fine with that.

 

Why do I do this, ultimately and really, bottom line? Same reason as the rest of you: I have to. I've got something in me that forces me to make stuff. Usually it's sharp, but sometimes it's a pipe, or a piece of furniture, or a screen porch on the house, and so on. I also happened to discover that my inner pyro, the kid who liked throwing firecrackers at plastic soldiers and throwing flaming G.I. Joe dolls off balconies and such, is still alive and well. He is happier with a coal forge and a power hammer if needed than anything else I've ever discovered in the world of things that involve fire and loud noises. Although the occasional bottle rocket with some sort of anthropomorphic toy taped to it is still fun. :P

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Actually, I was going to ask you about tobacco... but let me close with this.

 

You've talked about your style, your inspirations, and your history. What are your goals as a craftsman? Have you reached your smithing nirvana, or are you still reaching for something? The perfect replica, the evolution of the hawk, the inner connection with smiths long dead... what is next for Alan Longmire? What do you have to make to say to yourself, "Damn, that's as good as it's gonna get"? Or is that such an elusive target that is really is meaningless, and your path is more the journey than the destination? If so, what do you still want to see in your work as you walk your path, that you haven't seen already?

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Chris,

 

What a wonderful idea in having this thread. Alan was a great first interview.

It's very interesting for a young brain in an old body like me to see how other

bladesmiths have found their way to this craft.

 

Thanks for your creativity.

 

Bill

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Ah, pipe tobacco; another thing entirely and yet equally sublime! :lol:

 

I haven't reached nirvana, and I don't know where I'm going. I'm just here for the ride, man!

 

Things I want to do in the future include an exploration of 6th century-10th century pattern welded blades from northern Europe along with a no doubt feeble attempt at some of the hilt work that Jeff Pringle is a master of.

 

My interests rotate around an ever-precessing axis, there's no telling what I'm gonna do next. I know I'm not at the top of my game yet, and I know that I never will be. As I said, it's all about the journey.

 

Chris says I have to do the next interview, and that will have to wait until tomorrow. I'll check again in the morning and answer anything anyone else wants to know, maybe. Otherwise, this was weird but fun. :blink: I'm really not the raving egomaniac and historical correctness Nazi I come off as here, but that's a limitation of the printed word. Come to a hammerin with me sometime and be prepared to have a Guinness and inhale some pipe smoke while we talk if you want to know more from the source. B)

 

Edited to add what I generally look like at a Hammerin when I'm not actually hammering. Photo taken by BobO at Harley's hammerin 2006.

 

me.jpg

Edited by Alan Longmire

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Thank you so much, Alan, you were a pleasure to interview.

 

As he said, folks, the next one is his. There is no rush to this, and though we did this one in a single day, a good interview could take a week if schedule or wordsmithing requires. I hope you all enjoy this journey as much as I expect to, and we all get to know our community better.

 

Another side note... the person you interview does not have to be someone you already know. I had a heck of a time choosing, and I settled on Alan for a bunch of reasons, but getting to know someone new can be just as much fun as putting a friend's feet to the fire. Don't let foreknowledge be your only guide, but have fun with this.

 

 

It's all yours, Alan. Can't wait to see who you interview!

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Thanks, Mr. McKenzie, but I can't take full credit. I've seen this done elsewhere, to great success, and though it an appropriate thing for our community here. I hope it lives up to expectations.

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Very cool interview. Learn all sorts of new stuff.

Mmmm Guinness.

When he's hammering he looks like a moth...

 

Looking forward to seeing you all at Batson's as well. I'm planning on being there.

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Thanks, guys. :)

 

It's my turn to interview someone now, and I figured I might as well go for one of my heroes here who I am delighted to also call a friend: Jake Powning.

 

Jake agreed to do it, for which I thank him profusely.

 

So: Jake, how did you get started in smithing? I've read your web page, but that's not the whole story, is it? How does a guy from the middle of nowhere, New Brunswick, become one of the top swordsmiths in the world before turning 30?

 

I like this statement from your page:

 

"I have been a bladesmith in my heart since longer than I can remember. As a boy I made swords out of anything and everything I could find. I remember the feeling when I worked my first forge at twelve, the smell of the coal and the flickering light suggesting mythologies unfolding on the walls at the corner of my eyes. As a small boy I spent my days wandering through the forest behind our farm, with my wooden sword, looking for noble deeds and nymphs; and though time passes and the world takes us in its folds of responsibility and age, it is the basic yearning for that bright world of swords in the green wood and the old tales that keeps sword smithing alive in this time of machine guns and smart bombs."

 

Basic biography or metaphysical rambling, we want to know more!

 

I've got more, but we'll keep the format Chris established and save them for later. B)

Edited by Alan Longmire

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Fantastic idea guys. I enjoyed Alan's interview, and look forward to hearing what Jake has to say.

 

-d

Edited by deker

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Great idea, I also enjoyed Alan's story, this will be fun to read as it grows!

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