Artist on the cutting edge

Bladesmith: William Francis Moran Jr. crafts knives in his Frederick County shop that are collected the world over.

January 05, 1999|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

BRADDOCK HEIGHTS -- As a small boy, William Francis Moran Jr. was fascinated by knives.

If he learned to make them, he could have all the knives he wanted, he reasoned.

That was 62 years ago. Today, the 73-year-old Frederick native is among the most famous bladesmiths in the world.

Prince Abdulaha Hussein -- son of Jordan's King Hussein -- sought to order several of Moran's handcrafted knives 10 years ago, but Moran turned him down, because he was years behind in filling orders.

Nothing about Moran or his Braddock Heights shop on Old National Pike indicates his fame -- no endorsements, no plaques, no pedigree hanging on the walls.

Ask to have a knife sharpened, and he will do it gladly -- without dropping a clue that the seven or eight knives he continues to make each year are works of art prized by collectors throughout the world. His backlog of orders is so great that shortly after Prince Hussein's request, Moran stopped taking them altogether.

"I haven't taken orders in about 10 years," he says. "Fortunately, I don't take deposits. I have orders for more knives than I'm ever going to make."

Moran handcrafts each knife, taking from 12 hours to several weeks to create exquisite sculptures of steel and wood and inlaid silver.

In his prime, he turned out about 75 utility knives and six or seven art knives a year. A utility knife in Moran's parlance is a large-bladed knife used by campers and hunters to cut saplings, clear brush and skin carcasses.

A newly forged Moran sells for about $4,500 -- even for a utility knife. Older Morans would likely bring that much or more -- if collectors were willing to part with them. Few are.

Looking at pictures of Moran's knives can be expensive.

Knife World magazine is selling a limited edition coffee-table book about Moran for $85. The leather-bound "Master of the Forge: William F. Moran and His Classic Blades," which cost $175, has sold out.

"Knives made by Moran are rarely found for sale and are such highly valued collectibles that many of us could never own one," Knife World says in its Internet promotion of the book.

"I've made virtually every knife blade there is," Moran says. "First, and most important, you want a knife that will cut extremely well, that will hold its edge for a long time and stay sharp a long time.

"Second is knife design, which is a greater problem for most bladesmiths than anything else," Moran says. "It takes an awful lot of time to come up with an excellent design in knives."

Reinventing Damascus steel

Moran took years to come up with what is considered his greatest accomplishment -- the reinvention in 1970 of a legendary patterned steel believed to have been used by Persian sword-makers in the Middle Ages.

Damascus steel blades were renowned not only for the beauty of their artistic patterns, but for their cutting ability. According to legend, a Damascus sword could slice a feather floating on air.

Moran became obsessed with the rediscovery of Damascus steel.

"Finally, after about three or four years, I was able to reproduce Damascus steel again," Moran says. "I had given up at least 10 times. A metallurgist told me it couldn't be done. Now, everybody and his brother is making Damascus."

Part of what made the rediscovery so difficult is that the process requires exact heat -- which Moran determines by color rather than temperature -- to forge equal parts of iron and steel and fold them into the required number of layers. The final step is to strip away the surface iron with acid to reveal the grain of the steel. It is the grain that gives each blade its uniqueness and beauty.

Moran discovered that folding a three-cubic-inch piece of steel and iron into 512 layers produced the best blade. He had tried everything from 16 to more than 2,000 layers.

Even if Moran had never rediscovered Damascus steel, his place in cutlery history would have been secure.

By 1958, his knives were being used in places as disparate as Africa and Alaska, but his reputation was to grow that year with the publication of "American Knives," written by Harold Peterson of the Smithsonian Institution.

Old-fashioned methods

"He found only three of us" making knives with old-fashioned methods, Moran says. But "some people like something handmade in the old way that lasts a long time. Business really took off."

So much so that the next year, Moran sold his farm to Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett and turned to knife-making exclusively. Soon afterward, he built his Braddock Heights workshop.

"It was kind of an oddball thing -- sort of like starting a buggy-whip factory," he says. The workshop's only modern convenience is electricity. There is no running water, and there's an outhouse out back.

Some of the knives he made 30 and 40 years ago continue to be used -- "some really hard," Moran says. He speaks proudly of a utility knife "that had been used for everything" for six or seven years in Africa and was brought back to him for sharpening. "I was real pleased," he says.

It is letters of praise from servicemen thanking him for knives used in survival training or combat that give him the most pleasure. He is especially proud of a letter from a Vietnam veteran who told how he used a Moran-made utility knife to claw his way out of a downed helicopter, saving his life.

An avid outdoorsman, hunter and fisherman, Moran works at his forge only in winter. He spends two weeks each year in Texas teaching the art of bladesmithing at Texarkana Community College in a school named for him.

Despite his childhood desire to make knives to have as many as he wanted, Moran has only a few of his creations.

"Every now and then, I get a knife I would like to keep," he says. "I think, `That's the best design I ever came up with.' But I never keep them. When I make so few, I've got to sell them to the people I promised them to."

Pub Date: 1/05/99

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