I first wrote this post under the title of "2017 in Review" and was talking about the classes I had taken. Both as a way for me to remember what I did and record my notes, but also to show people what I had been doing.
It's now been almost a year since I last posted something, and that was only the second class of over a dozen for 2017 alone. I'm adding to them again, but I'll be dating the posts for around the last day of the class, which will mess up the blog order. So, I'll add links to each one in this post.
What follows is the original "Intro" to the series from November 2017. I've since renamed the series The Great Blade Pilgrimage; since frankly I've traveled across this country and into Canada as well as learning from foreign teachers and that sure sounds like a pilgrim's journey to me.
As always, this won't include the laundry list of online classes I've taken in between the physical classes, because it's not terribly exciting to talk about or read about. Thank you for reading this, and I hope you find my pilgrimage of interest.
Michael Allenson, November 2018
"Wits must he have who wanders wide." Havamal 5:1
Japanese Swordsmithing 2016
Japanese Bladesmithing 2017
This will be the first post in a series about my classes, events, and travels for the year of 2017. I'll wax a little nostalgic and get into my reasons and logic behind the decision to run myself into the ground with education, and then go into analyses and pictures (what could be salvaged from my phone) of the individual classes.
Every year comes with its own series of hardships and problems, as well as victories and accomplishments. Simply boiling it down to a "good year" or "bad year" is insufficient. So I want to explain that it was the "bad" of 2016 that prompted me to run myself to the very limits furthering my education. A little background might help, so let me wax nostalgic.
I had been reading and making BSOs (blade shaped objects, aka poorly shaped mild steel) with stock removal or MIG welding as long as I could remember. I first researched blacksmithing in elementary school for a report on "future careers." A now ex-girlfriend of mine when I was around 16 or so bought me a copy of Complete Bladesmith by Jim Hrisoulas as well as Renaissance/Medieval Swordsmanship(s) by John Clements.
I started physically smithing and knowing what I was doing in 2009 after my father died. I quickly made it routine to take yearly blacksmith workshops in Camp Verde with Gordon Williams, and Knifemaking ones with Ray Rybar, starting in either 2010 or 2011. It was at this point I realized that all the theoreticals I could read weren't worth squat compared to a weekend of hands-on training with someone who knew what they were doing, and more importantly, what I was doing wrong.
Armed with my new knowledge and experience, I dove into the deep end and bought myself a forge and anvil. Needless to say, I could make a functional knife with a handle and did so for many friends. They weren't pretty, but even those early attempts are still in circulation and nobody has broken one. I even taught the little bit I knew to close friends who would come over and play in the little smithy I set up. I kept taking classes, learning from Frank Christensen (more on this guy and his glorious facial hair later), Ken Sparks, and Sam Troxell via the Mesa Arts Center, and driving down to Tucson to spend a couple weekends learning from Tai Goo. I could write another long series about my experiences there, maybe another day, moving on now.
Fast-forwarding to 2016, I was just starting to join the online smithing community on FB when Forged in Fire did an open casting call. I was encouraged, to a point of not really being given a choice, to apply and see what happened.
Spoiler alert? I was accepted and you can see me in Episode 3 of Season 3. I think it's been a broadcast episode long enough to avoid further spoiler warnings, I was the first man voted off the island. It was the correct call by the judges, and I completely agree. Thankfully, I was not in a position where the prize money would make or break me, and I feel it definitely was more useful to one of the gents I met on my episode.
That didn't make my losing any easier, though. At first, I was proud that I had managed to get on an episode and finish a blade with the time constraints and challenge requirements laid out. I made the mistake of dwelling on it and internalizing the failure as a personal character fault, and was not in a good head space for a while. I did learn, for good or ill, I was very much my father's son: sheer bull-headed stubbornness both allowed me to finish and kept me from finishing within requirements. Even Dave Baker called me on this, and all I could offer was a helpless shrug and "risk verses reward." comment.
As it always seems to, it took a few outside perspectives to break through the fog of my malaise. I now had a benchmark to measure against, something I had lacked just making blades for friends and family or my own amusement. Once I pulled my head out of my own ass, I decided I was going to learn everything I could from whoever I could. My failure wasn't actually a failure, it would be the boot-to-ass I needed to get in gear.
2017 then became my year abroad, and it's already planned to bleed over a little bit into 2018 but definitely not so severely. I spent at least as much time traveling and in class as I did at home, and this put a strain on my relationship with everyone back home. I want to take a moment, though, to thank everyone for being supportive and excited on my behalf during this process. I probably would have died of exhaustion in a random airport terminal without you.
So, this little series of blog posts will serve multiple purposes. I want to highlight what I've learned for posterity, selfishly so I can say "I've done this." as well as to promote the teachers and institutions that I was able to learn from. As well I want to share some of the stories and moments I found touching, and call out the friends I've made along the way.