J.D. Smith has forged a career at MassArt in knife-making
Fred Kim is a junior in the Industrial Design department at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Like his peers, he’s been using 3-D printers — until just a few years ago, an almost unimaginable innovation — to render his concepts.
Right now, though, he’s bent over a workbench in the grimy basement of one of the school’s old brick buildings. Kim is methodically filing away at a rough-looking 8-inch blade he’s making for his final project in J.D. Smith’s bladesmithing class. It’s due tomorrow.
“It’s gonna be an all-nighter,” says Kim, who knows his project is not bound for a museum.
“More like a letter opener,” he says with a smile.
Kim signed up for the class after hearing about its popularity. Other schools have metalworking shops, but Smith believes MassArt may be the only one in the country that offers an undergraduate major in bladesmithing.
In the digital age, when nearly everything we do is mediated by a screen, Smith says the appeal of his craft — hammering red-hot steel into tools of fine art — is clear.
“Most people don’t know anybody who can make a tin of biscuits, or anything, from scratch,” says Smith, who is one of just 100 or so acknowledged master bladesmiths in the world. “Earth, air, fire, and water — these are the ancient concepts of what the elements are. There’s a hunger to experience that.”
He certainly had that hunger himself. Smith was well into a career as a working musician — a trombonist, he did gigs and sessions with acts from Dizzy Gillespie to Little Feat — when he came across an object that grabbed his attention and wouldn’t let go. It was an Indonesian kris, a traditional dagger with a distinctive wavy blade.
The knife, which sat on the coffee table of an acquaintance, transported Smith back to one vivid day as a 10-year-old. Growing up an only child in Manhattan, he was given free rein to explore the city. On a warm August afternoon, he wandered through Central Park and ended up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he was enchanted by a sword on display in the Arms and Armor Room.
“It had a jade handle that was dripping with diamonds and emeralds,” Smith recalls. “It’s still there.”
After rekindling his boyhood fascination with ancient blades years later, he began reading magazines such as Soldier of Fortune. One of them featured an interview with Bill Bagwell, a master bladesmith who helped revive the lost art of forging knives with Damascus steel — the ancient technique of layering steel to create the mottled patterns that distinguish the style.
Years after being mesmerized in the museum, Smith understood what he’d been gazing at. “I finally had a name for it,” he says.
When a girlfriend, who was working as a silversmith, got him a job in a metal shop, he knew he’d found a calling that could replace music in his life. “The smell of the coal and iron — that was it for me.”
After studying at the Saugus Iron Works in the early 1990s, Smith served as an apprentice to Jot Singh Khalsa, who has been designing ceremonial Sikh blades, or kirpans, at an ashram in Millis for years. As a member of the American Bladesmith Society, Smith rose from journeyman to the rank of master bladesmith in 1998.
Not long after, he came to MassArt with an idea for the bladesmith program.
“This is a school that stresses a heavily disproportionate emphasis on conceptual art,” he says. “The kind of thing I do stresses real craftsmanship, not just putting a label on a pile of sticks.”
Smith, who wears a diamond stud in one ear and a backward leather cap, works as he talks. He pulls a steel rod from a gas forge about the size of a breadbasket, heated to 2,300 degrees. He lays the blade-shaped end of the rod on an anvil and hammers it, quickly and decisively, periodically inspecting the shape.
“Steel is basically like really stiff dough,” he explains. “It’s like a tube of toothpaste.”
As he hammers, his biceps bulge. Wearing jeans and a form-fitting T-shirt, he is at 66 remarkably fit, with a dancer’s small waistline. In fact, Smith took up dancing years ago.
He’s had a colorful life.
He has a 30-year-old daughter who is a grad student in Cairo. He speaks Russian, and he casually quotes Longfellow: “Under a spreading chestnut tree/ The village smithy stands/ The smith, a mighty man is he/ With large and sinewy hands.”
He was recently featured on the History Channel’s bladesmith competition show “Forged in Fire.” (He didn’t win: “I failed to follow the instructions implicitly,” he says with an impish grin.)
Smith’s strong will and his catholic interests have earned him a reputation as a unique kind of educator. He recently conducted the American Bladesmith Society performance test for former student Andrew Meers, who became a master this year at 31.
Meers, a Holliston native now based in Tennessee, says he went to MassArt intending to become a painter, or maybe a sculptor. But after signing up for Smith’s class, he was amazed by the professor’s work.
“He brought in a dagger and a folding knife,” says Meers. “I’d never seen anything like that. I’ll never forget that feeling.”
Meers won 2015’s B.R. Hughes award for the best knife submitted by a Master Smith candidate. (Smith, too, won the award when he became a master.) “I’ve found our relationship to be really important to me over the years,” says Meers, who graduated in 2007. “In some ways, he’s never not your teacher.”
Over the years, at custom knife shows, Smith has reserved the right to refuse to sell his work to anyone with questionable motives. But like other bladesmiths, he is an advocate for the rights of responsible knife owners. A few years ago, while visiting a federal building to renew his passport, he had one of his own signature knives confiscated after he placed it in the tray at the metal detector. In an online forum, he vigorously defended his right as a “knife professional” to transport an “EDC,” or everyday carry.
Smith recently moved his own shop equipment from the basement of his former home on Roxbury’s Fort Hill to Nashua, N.H., where he and his apprentice now share a workspace with Joseph Shnayder, a master jeweler who trained, Smith says, with Faberge craftsmen. They’re now producing fine art knives together.
To Smith, the art of knifemaking is not so different from making music. The silhouette, he says, “is the melody. It grabs you emotionally.”
The gorgeous repeating patterns he creates by folding the steel are the rhythm.
And the way the various elements of the blade come together to form the whole: That’s the harmony.