Story by JOYANNA LOVE
Photos by KEITH MCCOY
The sound of metal on metal rings through the air as the blade takes shape.
Steven Hunter of Mapelsville slowly hammers a section of hot orange material into the shape that he wants. Then, he places it back in his forge to get back up to the temperature needed to continue.
“Once you get started, it loses its heat pretty quick,” Hunter said.
The heat from the forge feels good when working outside on a cold day.
“I love making things,” Hunter said. “I never thought that I would like art, but I feel a little bit like an artist.”
Hunter’s garage has become his workshop for creating knives and other metal items.
However, the idea started when he was watching TV.
“I was with Tanner (his son) and the family one day watching TV,” Hunter said. “We were watching (History Channel’s) Forged in Fire actually, and Tanner said ‘I think you need to give that a try, so I did.’”
The show has four contestants competing to create a blade (knife, hatchet, small sword, etc.) in a certain amount of time. Those who make it to the final round are challenged to make a working replica of an edged weapon used in another era of history in five days at their personal forges.
What Hunter could never have guessed then was that he would one day be a contestant on the show he was watching — again at his son’s suggestion.
“I started out with a little homemade coal forge and have kind of graduated up to a propane forge and everything is starting to take off now,” Hunter said.
Hunter’s first project was a fire poker about three years ago.
“Then from there I did a couple of knives, then I started watching some YouTube videos and watching some experts on some things,” Hunter said. “Then before you know it, I’m applying to be on Forged in Fire.”
Hunter made it to the final competition but was not named the winner.
“I was like a kid in a candy store,” Hunter said. “I know I was because you had the top of the line grinders. Everybody had a brand-new anvil to use. You have forges that were top end, three burner forges. Everything you could imagine, you had right there at your fingertips. It was amazing.”
(His episode, Napoleon’s Saber episode 26 in season 6, can be viewed on the History Channel website with a qualifying subscription.)
Getting started proved challenging because he did not have any tools.
“Finding an anvil took me forever,” Hunter said.
Starting out he used a small anvil that had belonged to his grandfather.
A friend found a larger one for him at an auction.
Hunter found additional tools, including hammers, at estate sales and on eBay.
As his equipment improved, so did the safety precautions he took.
“I always wore eye protection … I wear gloves all the time,” Hunter said.
Hunter has given away many of the first few knives he made, including a bowie knife made from a lawnmower blade for his son.
“My favorite thing has become chef knives,” Hunter said.
Now, the majority of the knives Hunter makes are chef knives ordered through his website.
“Meat cleavers have been huge,” Hunter said. “I have done tons of meat cleavers.”
However, he does make a variety of other items, including hunting knives, copper bracelets, oyster shuckers and fire pokers.
“That’s one of the things I have been fascinated with is all of the things you can do with metal, how you can move it and shape it, and it doesn’t hurt it — but you gotta keep it hot,” Hunter said.
For the chef knives, Hunter orders 1084 high carbon steel.
“(It) does well with heat treat, and it holds a really good edge,” Hunter said.
He cuts out a general shape of the knife in order to decrease the work he has to do with the hammer.
After the steel is heated in the forge to the needed temperature, Hunter starts to hammer it into a longer, thinner piece.
Hunter continues working with the metal until he gets the exact shape he wants. He then heats the steel up again and dips it in a container of oil to strengthen and complete the blade. Hunter said this process, called heat treating, and quenching the blade, is the most difficult part of any knife.
However, the knife is still not ready to be used. It needs to be sharpened and a handle added.
When completing orders, sometimes people have specific requests for the type of handle they would like.
Some knives have handle pieces added to either side of the tang (back part of the knife behind the blade), while others hide the tang inside the handle. Hunter said some knives have a piece between the blade and the handle called a guard. Hunter uses a five-minute epoxy to keep the hidden tang handle in place.
“It’s a great hobby, a wonderful hobby and for me it has turned into I think a good job opportunity for me,” Hunter said.
Word of mouth has helped his business grow. With this growth comes plans for more equipment, including a better grinder with different attachments for getting the edge refined and sharpening his knives.
“Some of your more expensive grinders it is a little easier to do some of your finer, more intricate grinds and things with it,” Hunter said, commenting that small details can be difficult with his current equipment.
While competing on Forged in Fire, Hunter expanded his skills to include Damascus, a technique of forging different pieces of steel together to create layers and patterns in the metal that can be seen on the finished product. This was his first time attempting the technique. While he has done this style again, Hunter said a better forge and a power hammer would be needed to do this style on a consistent basis.
“I would love to reach the point that where everything I do is Damascus,” Hunter said. “It’s beautiful.”
Sometimes Hunter will be in various stages on multiple knives at the same time.
A typical chef knife can take a week to 10 days for him to complete.
“I don’t think I ever realized when I first started just how much goes into it,” Hunter said.
Each knife is stamped with SH, Hunter’s initials, before it is finished.