A Knife Making Clinic with Billy Helton.
A few years ago a show came out on the History Channel called Forged In Fire. It is a show where knife makers compete against each other for an eventual prize of $10,000.00. One of the contestants on the very first show was a knife maker that lives a couple hours away from Heartland Horseshoeing School named Billy Helton. I had the pleasure of meeting Billy at a Boy Scout rendezvous in Joplin where I was demonstrating shoeing and he was demonstrating knife making. To say we hit it off would be an understatement. We both have very similar values and a love of Jesus, and it was easy to form a friendship over our similar interests involving hot iron.
Knife making has kind of swept the country and a lot of people have come to really enjoy it as a new hobby. Especially the farrier industry, which already uses many of the same tools and skills. We certainly started to do more knife making around here. I went to Billy’s shop one day to see what I could learn, and I was amazed at how much he showed me in a couple of short hours. With that, I decided to have him do a clinic for us in the Heartland.
One of the biggest problems with this sort of clinic was that we couldn’t have the numbers that we would have at a farrier clinic because of the grinder situation. At a farrier clinic, pretty much everyone brings their own equipment. For this deal, Billy was going to have to bring several grinders, and we were going to have to have ours in use. This limited the class to 6, which meant that there wasn’t going to be much in the way of money for tuition. But, you have to start somewhere to get the ball rolling.
I mentioned the clinic on Facebook, and it was filled within hours, and we had 15 people on a waiting list. It was amazingly fast, which is also an indication that we had it priced way too cheap. We went forward with getting the materials for everyone and Billy set aside the dates. The first knife making clinic in the Heartland was set.
This clinic was filled with Heartland Horseshoeing School graduates. Lydin Bim-Merle aka Cinco De Mayo, Duane Beuckert aka Racing Stripes, Jess Fairbanks aka Late Girl, Shannon Fehr, Seth Holestine aka Sid, and Joe Yanish all gathered at Cody’s shop for an unusually temperate February week, and Billy began to teach.
The first knife was pure stock removal. Made from 01, it gave the students a chance to learn how to hollow grind and create the shape that they were trying to achieve. I have been involved in blacksmithing since 1990, and even had a college course in metallurgy. But Billy described heat-treating and what is happening to the steel in a way that I had never heard it, and a way that simplified it and made it make sense. It was incredible. I am constantly grateful that I am involved in trades where you can continue to learn, and blessed to have met some great teachers like Billy.
Everyone worked hard and by the end of the day, there was a bunch of knives ready to have their scales pinned and glued. The next morning started with a forged blade out of 5160. This was right in this classes’ wheelhouse, so it wasn’t a problem to get the hidden tang forged and the blades shaped. Then they learned to file the guard, choil and ricasso to make everything perfect and drill out the handle for the hidden tang. The blades were forged, ground and heat-treated, and most of the class went on to finish their first full tang knives while the forged blades were in the heat-treat oven.
By the end of this day, everyone had their first knife finished and the second one well on its way. The third day was about finishing up the last knife and creating that perfect edge. A few of the students started a third knife and were able to take those pieces home with them to finish later.
Before we knew it, it was over. Each one of these folks wants to do it again, and to say it was fun and a great learning experience would be an understatement. Billy was a natural and gifted instructor, and a real joy to be around. His humble attitude completely disguises his unbelievable skill, making for the perfect learning environment. We will do this again in the Heartland many more times. It was fantastic.