Local Bladesmithing Instructor has ties to popular Forged in Fire series
The popularity of the History Channel’s Forged in Fire series shows that interest is high in learning about the historic craft of bladesmithing. Arkansas has many connections to the art form and the state is home to many talented bladesmiths, some of whom have been showcased and won competitions on the series. Ricardo Vilar, a bladesmithing instructor at the James Black School of Bladesmithing and Historic Trades at Historic Washington State Park, has competed on the show and also is a judge for the Forged in Fire Latin American Edition on the History Channel.
Arkansas, since the start of the American Bladesmith Society, has been a hotbed of bladesmithing. Around 10 percent of the world’s recognized Master Bladesmiths are Arkansans and the first bladesmithing school, the Bill Moran School of Bladesmithing, was created in the state in the late 1980s. For many years the school was the only one of its kind in the nation. It was named after Bill Moran, the first smith of this century to successfully forge Damascus steel. The James Black School of Bladesmithing and Historic Trades builds on this special heritage in the craft that Arkansas holds.
"The Forged in Fire show is really popular, there is no doubt about it," said Vilar, who is from Brazil. "The other thing we have no doubt about is that Arkansas has a tradition on knifemaking. Historically Arkansas has so many connections to it."
Historic Washington State Park
The town of Washington, Arkansas, which is home to Historic Washington State Park, has many ties to the craft too. The original Bowie knife, which is now the state knife of Arkansas, was made there. The town, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is now both a state park and town intermingled. The park includes over thirty restored historic structures that serve as a homage to what life was like in the town during the 1800s.
One of the many structures people can tour now when they visit Historic Washington State Park is an interpretive blacksmith shop. Built by the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation in 1960, the shop has working forges. Washington’s most famous blacksmith, James Black, is credited with forging one of the original Bowie knives for James “Jim” Bowie in the early 1830s. Throughout the year, the state park hosts forging workshops where you can learn the craft.
"The Bill Moran School has relevant service for the knifemaking in Arkansas," said Vilar.
"Some years ago I was one of the instructors during a fall hammer-in of the ABS. I came from Brazil to demonstrate the Brazilian integral style. Now I'm happy to be one of the instructors of the James Black School. I'm fascinated by the history of the Bowie knife. It is a universe of information when you start to search about it. So many kinds and models that made this type of knife so popular. More than a century later it is still popular and recognized around the world."
Becoming a Blacksmith
For someone interested in learning the craft of bladesmithing, Vilar said the best way to start is following in the steps of those who have already started the trail. He recommended taking classes at the James Black School of Bladesmithing. "It will save a lot of time and frustrations that can occur when you start," he said. "There, you will be able to learn with well recognized instructors and be able to have a college degree on knifemaking if you want to pursue this career."
As to the instructors you can find at the school, they include Master Bladesmith Jerry Fisk, an Honorary Arkansas Living Treasure whose love for craft began when he first visited the blacksmith shop at Historic Washington State Park when he was a kid; Master Bladesmith James Cook, who is also an Arkansas Living Treasure; and Master Bladesmith Lin Rhea, the resident blacksmith at Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock.
"I really would like to bring another point of view about knives," added Vilar.
"Most people don't pay attention to knives because it is an ordinary tool of our lives... that is the beauty.
"It is a tool that everyone uses every day. It doesn't matter if you prepare your own food or if someone does it for you, there is a knife involved on it. Have you had your hair cut? Say thanks for the knife. A pair of scissors is nothing else than two knives working together. Do you use any transportation to work or sightseeing? We only have rubber because of knives to manufacture the tires. Your clothes are made with fabric. The scissor cuts the fabric. The knife is the tool that brings us to the life when the umbilical cord is cut. For me the knife is the most important tool of humanity. The tool of life."
The James Black School of Bladesmithing and Historic Trades is located at Historic Washington State Park at 601 Lawrence Street in Washington, Arkansas. The school is a program of the University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana. For more information about the school, visit uaht.edu/bladesmithing. For more information about Historic Washington State Park, visit arkansasstateparks.com/parks/historic-washington-state-park.