Bill Moran, 80; Knife Maker Honed a Rare Skill
In 1973, blade smith Bill Moran created a sensation among knife enthusiasts worldwide when he revived the lost art of forging Damascus steel, an alloy prized by sword smiths during the Middle Ages because of its strength and flexibility.
Moran, known as “the father of modern Damascus,” died of cancer Feb. 12 at a hospital in Frederick, Md. He was 80.
He crafted knives of such superb quality that they lured the likes of Jordan’s King Abdullah II and actor Sylvester Stallone to his tiny, soot-streaked workshop near Middletown, Va. He made his knives by hand from the very best materials -- forging the steel, inlaying the precious metal, carving the handle, even stitching the sheath. He made many of his tools as well.
A friendly, self-effacing man, William F. Moran Jr. was born in Frederick to a dairy farmer. He forged his first knife at age 12.
“He told me one time he would steal tools from his father -- farm implements and saws and things like that -- to make knives,” said Jay Hendrickson, a Frederick knife maker and old friend.
By 14, he was selling knives. He taught himself how to forge a blade, he said, by asking local blacksmiths “and getting all the wrong answers.”
School bored him, but he loved trapping and fishing. And he read every book on knives he could find. He built his first forge on the family dairy farm while still a teenager.
“There were only a few people forging right after the war,” Hendrickson said. “He didn’t want that art to be lost.”
By the mid-1950s, he was selling knives through a rudimentary catalog and was one of only a few custom blade smiths in the country. In 1960, he sold the family farm and built his shop.
Moran began trying to revive the ancient process of forging Damascus steel in the late 1960s. The metal got its name, historians say, from the Syrian capital, where Westerners encountered it in the Middle Ages. The fine markings on the blades were called damasks, a term now used to describe fabrics with such patterns.
When Moran began working on Damascus, no blade smith in the United States knew the technique. Without a recipe for the process, it was in danger of being lost.
Damascus is made of iron and steel, forge welded into three layers, heated and hammered flat. Moran would then fold the piece, re-weld it and hammer it out again. He would repeat the process eight times.
Mastering Damascus steel, the consummate craftsman became the artist. At the height of his career, Moran was crafting about 40 knives a year, but in recent years he was making half a dozen or so. He sold them every other year at an invitation-only show in San Diego.
About 25 years ago, he charged about $500 for one of his better knives. Recently, one of his Bowie knives sold for about $30,000.
He founded the American Bladesmithing Society in 1976 and the American Bladesmith School in 1988 to perpetuate the craft.
A knife maker who wants to earn the sobriquet “master blade smith” at Moran’s school must be able to make a Damascus steel knife that is sharp enough to cut an inch-thick piece of rope and sturdy enough to slice a two-by-four in half while retaining enough of an edge to shave the hair off an arm. The knife also must be able to bend 90 degrees without breaking.
He selected Washington, Ark., as the school’s headquarters, because it was said to be the place where legendary blacksmith James Black crafted at least one knife for Jim Bowie.