David Roeder stared down a chunk of high-carbon steel and struggled to find inspiration.
Unlike the challenge ahead, the directions were simple: Design and craft a high-quality blade from the lump of metal in three hours.
“I’m looking at this piece of metal thinking, ‘What am I going to do with this thing?’ ” he said. “I honestly had no idea.”
Roeder, an experienced custom knife maker who works out of his Kennewick garage, recently appeared on the History Channel’s Forged in Fire, an elimination-style competition that pits blacksmiths from across the country against each other for a $10,000 prize.
The episode, which features three rounds of competition, was filmed in New York earlier this year and aired this past week. Roeder applied to be a contestant and was chosen from more than 300 applicants, he said.
As the clock on the first round of competition started, Roeder quickly decided he would transform the unfamiliar block of steel into a long bowie knife, a job that normally takes three days or longer.
Roeder, who started his craft as a teen, has routinely made bowie knives during his 19-year career as a blacksmith.
He heated the steel up to about 2,000 degrees, then began shaping it with the help of a hydraulic press. Roeder used a grinder to mold the knife to his liking. One of the final touches was to submerge the blade in oil to harden the steel.
To his own surprise, Roeder, who describes his style of knife-making as simplistic, managed to create a work of art in less than three hours.
“I was 100 percent pleased with my results,” he said.
The expert judges also were pleased with the bowie, advancing Roeder and two others to the next round of the competition. The contestants were given another three hours to complete their blades, including adding handles crafted from wood and specially designed guards.
The knives needed to be perfected so they could withstand unconventional tests from the judges, like chopping into a thick log and slicing through a stack of tomatoes.
The bowie passed both tests with flying colors, removing inch-thick chunks from the log and cutting through the tomatoes with surgical precision.
“I was pretty confident. The log test gave me confidence,” Roeder said. “I knew I was moving on after that.”
Roeder was selected to compete in the finals against another blacksmith. But the men had no idea what they would be asked to create.
Their final challenge was revealed when a cover was pulled off a Crusader sword, the weapon of choice for European knights centuries ago.
The blacksmiths were instructed to return to their hometown and recreate the double-edged sword known for its ability to pierce armor on the battlefield. They were given 45 hours over five days.
As soon as Roeder set eyes on the sword, he knew it would be his biggest challenge as a blacksmith.
“I’m not set up for swords in this shop,” said Roeder, standing in his two-car garage. “Heat-treating a blade that is 30 inches long with a 12-inch forge is difficult.”
A day after returning to Kennewick from New York, Roeder received a 6-foot-tall, 4-inch-wide bar of steel and told to go to work.
After creating the sword, Roeder returned to New York to test it out against the other blacksmith’s creation. The judges put the weapons through a series of tests to see which one was built the best.
After two tests — including the weapon being swung into a mannequin from horseback and sliced into a gelatin dummy by a martial arts expert — the swords were neck and neck.
In the final test, to show the strength of the blade, a judge swung the swords into the femur bones of cows.
Only one thought was going through Roeder’s mind: “We are going to destroy these two beautiful swords,” he said.
The first contestant’s sword did not cut through the bone, but wasn’t dented or bent. Roeder’s sword sliced through the first femur bone, but on the last swing he watched the outside of the blade bend slightly.
It was that kink in the sword that led the judges to award the other contestant the $10,000 prize.
Although disappointed, Roeder said participating in the competition and making it to the finals will be a lifelong memory.
“If they asked me to do it again, I would in a heartbeat,” he said.
Roeder plans to make another Crusader sword, in part because the History Channel didn’t let him keep the one on the show.
Although he will soon transition into the air-conditioning business, Roeder has no plans to stop making custom knives for anyone who asks.
“It’s addicting,” he said. ‘It’s an art. Metal is my canvas.”