Forging ahead through ancient craft

By Patrick Raftis in Arts & Music, Community, People

When Mike Shannon saw the end to a long construction boom looming, he decided to literally forge himself a new career – as a blacksmith.
“The housing market just dried up,” says Shannon, who opened Bevelled Edge Blade and Blacksmith on his farm near Drew in 2003, after working for many years as a drywall taper.
Always artistically inclined, Shannon originally got interested in the craft while working around the farm. When he finally tired of snapping pocket-knife blades while cutting bales open, he decided to forge himself a stronger one.
“I got into blade-making first, then became a blacksmith, which is sort of like going into brain surgery before getting into medical school,” he quipped.
After making his first blade, he became captivated with the art and continued to work the forge, “looking for the next Excalibur.” Eventually, he had finished about 100 blades and began to sell a few on consignment. The sales led to more requests for custom work and Shannon was soon creating decorative iron work as well as forging blades.
While decorative wrought iron garden and patio accents and specialty tools now make up much of his business, Shannon is still drawn to blade making, although making a profit on them is tougher.
The blades are forged through a lengthy process of alternately heating and hammering the metal. It can take a standard work week to make a single knife, a month or more for a sword.
“I had a guy willing to slap $4,000 on the table to make him a samurai sword, but I had to turn him down, because, at the end of the day, it just wasn’t worth it,” says Shannon. Customers for his blades tend to have a reason for a buying a high-end piece. For example, the handcrafted blades have been purchased as prizes for prestigious hunting competitions.
For Shannon part of the fascination with knives is seeing the unique patterns emerge as each blade is formed.
“The patterns are infinite. They are like fingerprints.”
Shannon has basically taught himself blacksmithing, through trial and error, research, and working through what course material he could find. Having immersed himself in the lore of the art, he notes that information on the craft is far more easily available than the days when every village had a blacksmith.
“Blacksmiths in those days were extremely secretive. They would often only tell their apprentice their secrets. That’s how we got swords of legend,” he explains. “Every once in a while there would be a flood or a famine and that blacksmith is gone, along with his knowledge and the knowledge of the five guys before him.”
While today, the knowledge required to become a blacksmith is more readily available, it takes skill, patience and a passion for detail to successfully work a forge, which, notes Shannon, is itself a relatively simple device.
“It’s just a fire pot with air blowing through it.”
What matters, of course, is what comes out of the fire.

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