Special Reports

‘Forged in Fire’ champion melds creativity and fortitude with STEM disciplines

By Lynn Stanley

Above: Randall forge-welds 160 layers of grades 15n20 and 1084 steel.

January 2019 - The granite shoulders of Mount Katahdin rise to an elevation of 5,267 ft., making it the tallest mountain in Maine. The horseshoe-shaped peak is the centerpiece of the region’s 235,000-acre Baxter State Park and home to the infamous Knife Edge Trail. Hikers come from around the world to test their fortitude on the 1.1-mile footpath that at times narrows to 4 ft., with 2,000-ft. drops on either side. Knife Edge Trail is rated highly technical with fully exposed conditions. To traverse the mile of loose scree and talus—often hand over hand— requires balance, preparedness and good decision making. Those who make it across the mountain's ragged spine to the summit say that, “looking back at what you just did is a feeling worth having.”

It’s an experience Shreveport, Louisiana, native J.W. Randall can relate to. The welder and bladesmith has scaled his own “knife edge trail” for more than four decades. Most would rate the path he has taken as “highly technical”—a Class 5 requiring special skills and equipment. Faith, balance, preparedness and good decision making helped him reach several summits, including earning the rating of Mastersmith from the American Bladesmith Society (ABS).

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In 2017, Randall became the first Forged in Fire international champion. He faced off against challengers from Poland, Argentina and France. The History Channel’s TV series tests the prowess of world-class bladesmiths.

Like mountain climbing, if one wants to become a skilled welder or forger, it takes more than classroom work and equipment. You have to be prepared to go the distance.

For the love of metal

Randall entered the welding and steel fabrication business in 1981. He crafts custom stairs, rails, gates, fencing, hand-forged steel art and custom metal building products, and is an industrial contractor. In 1999, he also founded JW Randall Custom Knives.

Randall’s grandfather, Howard Collins, “was a pretty good fabricator, a jack of all trades. He introduced me to metalworking.” Randall married his wife, Tammy, when the two were 18 years old.

“I tried a year of college with thoughts of being a vet, then went to work for a local heavy tank fabricator. They had a 12-month training program and in-house welding engineers and inspectors. The man who taught me was 79 years old. He had welded all over the world.” Randall learned stick, MIG, TIG, flux core, large wire inner shield and submerged arc automatics running 5⁄16-in. diameter wire.

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Forged In Fire cameraman Dan, left, and Randall with the spadroon sword that earned him the title of international champion.

“My love for metal began to domino,” he continues. “I didn’t want to work there the rest of my life, but it was one of the best places in the world to train.”

Randall gained engineering and drafting experience before deciding to work for himself. He built drill rigs and heavy equipment trailers, and performed industrial contracting for refineries and chemical plants. “It was critical, dangerous work,” he recalls, “but I enjoyed the challenges.”

In 1998, Randall wanted to make “a decent hunting knife,” which led him “not only to forge metal but to forge friendships around the world. I discovered that knife making is a brotherhood.”

Randall builds bowies, folders, hunters and swords. His specialties include mosaic Damascus, patterned and powder, and intricate inlays in pearl and ivory. The term Damascus steel typically refers to hammer-welding strips of steel and iron followed by repeated heating and forging to create a wavy or “watery” pattern on the blade.

The process is tedious. “It’s a bit like watching grass grow for the onlooker,” Randall notes.

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The knife maker joined the ABS in 1998 and earned his rating of Mastersmith in 2003. “It was a major accomplishment for me,” he says. “I love the challenge of designing different knife styles.”

Individuals who want the coveted title must start as an apprentice smith. The three-year apprenticeship can be shortened by one year if a participant chooses to take a college course approved by ABS.

Journeymen are required to build a performance blade of plain carbon steel and submit five knives to a panel of Mastersmiths for judging. Both Journeyman and Mastersmith performance knives have to be 10-in. long and 2-in. wide from spine to cutting edge. Overall length can’t exceed 15 in.

A Damascus blade is required for Mastersmith performance tests, which consist of chopping two 2 by 4s in half and cutting a free hanging 1-in.-diameter rope while retaining the ability to shave hair. In the final test, 2 in. of the blade tip is placed in a vise. It must be able to bend 90 degrees without breaking. “You are making the knife to destroy [it],” explains Randall, “but it proves you got the heat treating and tempers right.”

Knife makers vying for a Mastersmith rating also have to submit five blades. The judges evaluate the fit, finish and overall symmetry. Ratings must be excellent to superlative.

“We’re producing high-performance, quality pieces of work that can function as a tool but are a thing of beauty,” Randall says.

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Damascus steel renders each blade unique and as different as fingerprints.

Science behind the art

“Metallurgy fascinates me. My welding experience helped me understand the principles of heat treating and tempering. But the science involved with taking raw steel to a finished blade is riveting,” Randall says. “I earned my master rating in five years. That’s as fast as you can make it to master’s.”

For serious knife collectors, a master certification helps to validate their investment in a piece. “People don’t realize the raw labor that goes into these blades and the cost of the equipment you need. A lot of people start the process, then fade out.”

For Randall, it’s a matter of pride. “If I have to do something twice, I will,” he says. “I’m going to do it right. That’s one reason I’ve kept my business small. I’ve never been comfortable having someone else put their mark on my name.

“I do a lot of interior ironwork for high-end homes,” he notes. “I could hire people for assembly on those projects, grow and make more money. But that’s not really what it’s about for me. The caliber of people I’ve connected with in this industry means so much more.”

Randall formulates his projects in his head. He’s adept at preparing conceptual drawings for clients but would rather not. “I’ve made more things from my head than I have from engineered drawings. People tell me, ‘I don’t know how you do that with no drawings.’ But for me it is natural and comfortable.”

In February 2017, Randall’s work caught the attention of “Forged In Fire” producers. “I’m a patriot to the core,” he says. “I was honored to represent my country.”

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Randall taught powdered mosaics at the Artist-Blacksmith's Association of North America Conference, held in Richmond, Virginia, in June 2018. 

The contest came down to Randall and Julien Maniglier of France. The two men were asked to return to their home forges and produce a spadroon in five days. The cut-and-thrust weapon was developed to standardize swords carried by the British army in the 1700s.

Randall chose to make his sword from Damascus steel but both men were required to meet parameters established by the show. The lightweight sword had to have a blade length of 32 ¾ in. and be 7⁄8 in. wide from top to bottom. The spine of the blade had to be 3⁄16 in. thick.

Straight and true

“The cool thing about the show is that it promotes critical thinking,” says Randall. “You are competing against yourself and the clock. If you make a mistake, you have to get past it.

“My sword was very thin from the spine to the cutting edge,” he recalls. “When I heat treated it in my forge and quenched it in oil, the blade bowed in the opposite direction. It looked like banana. You can’t hammer on it because it’s a finished blade. I reheated the material, slammed the blade on my anvil and let gravity take over. When I pulled it from the quenching oil for the second time, it curled again. The camera man was freaking out. I said, ‘Bear with me, I’ll fix it.’”

Randall heated the steel to about 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit to make it non-magnetic then slapped the spine across his anvil really hard. This put a counter bend in it. He then quenched the sword and when he removed it, the blade was straight.

Years of experience and the tenacity with which Randall has practiced his craft allowed him to push past the problems. “You can’t just throw the white flag up. You have to refuse to accept that the situation is a train wreck. You can allow the problem to conquer you or you can conquer it. But you can’t give up.”

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Randall made this pair of spurs for his wife, Tammy, using 38 layers of twist Damascus forged from a single piece.

Randall’s Damascus blade had 160 layers of steel and iron. He hand-forged and hammered clam shell designs on the oval handle. The blade passed the show’s sharpness and strength tests. Maniglier experienced the same blade problems during forging but chose to compensate by making his blade wider, which placed it beyond the weight and size specifications. Randall won the $10,000 prize.

He teaches what he’s learned to budding enthusiasts and those who want to add to their repertoire of bladesmithing skills.

For younger people, Randall is an example of some of the exciting directions a metalforming career can take. An artist in a welder’s body, his craft embraces science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines.

The man is humble, however. “I am a blue collar guy and a patriot,” he says. “It’s how I’m wired. Yes, this work can be hot and dirty but there’s nothing like taking a step back, looking at what you did and what it took to get there. I give God the glory for the gift he has given me to work with my hands and my heart.” FFJ


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