Bill Moran, 80; Damascus Steel Bladesmith

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 15, 2006

In 1973, Frederick County bladesmith Bill Moran created a sensation among knife enthusiasts worldwide when he single-handedly revived the lost art of forging Damascus steel, an alloy prized by swordsmiths during the Middle Ages because of its strength and flexibility. Mr. Moran, known as "the father of modern Damascus," died of cancer Feb. 12 at Frederick Memorial Hospital. He was 80.

For more than 60 years, 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 on the west side of Braddock Mountain, 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.

Twenty-five or so years ago, he charged about $500 for one of his better knives. Recently, one of his Bowie knives went for about $30,000.

A friendly, self-effacing man who loved jokes and stories, 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 knifemaker and old friend.

By 14, he was selling knives. He taught himself how to forge a blade, he told The Washington Post in 2003, by asking local blacksmiths "and getting all the wrong answers."

School bored him, but he loved trapping and fishing along the Monocacy River. And he read every book on knives he could find. He also nosed around hunting shows and attended a woodcarving exhibition in Washington. He built his first forge on the family dairy farm, near the village of Lime Kiln, 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 bladesmiths in the country. In 1960, he sold the family farm and built his shop.

Mr. Moran began trying to revive the ancient process of forging Damascus steel in the late 1960s. Germanic tribes had perfected the process in the first millennium and the Nazis had briefly resurrected it, but no bladesmith in the United States knew the technique. Without a recipe for the process, it was in danger of being lost.

"He knew you could weld iron together, because he had done it on the farm," Hendrickson said. "It took a lot of trial and error and a lot of mistakes."

Damascus is made of iron and steel, welded into three layers, heated and hammered flat. Mr. Moran would then fold the piece, re-weld it and hammer it out again. He would repeat the process eight times, exponentially multiplying the layers into as many as 500.

Mastering Damascus steel, the consummate craftsman became the artist. That transition was a bit distressing to Mr. Moran, who liked to see his knives used, not merely displayed.

One of his most unusual knives was made out of a meteorite. "I tried to forge the meteor into a flat shape, and, of course, it started to crack because it had dirt in it," Mr. Moran explained on the American Bladesmith Society's Web site. "So I started folding it. I folded it ten times and then welded a piece of W-2 steel in the center to make the blade."

Stallone heard about Frederick County's master bladesmith in the late 1980s and ordered "the most elaborate knife I could make," Mr. Moran told The Post. He made a curved, Asiatic-looking Damascus steel combat knife, its handle and case inlaid with more than 30 feet of silver wire. It cost the actor about $7,000.

King Abdullah visited Mr. Moran in the early 1990s. Standing in the shop, its old floor stained with tobacco juice, he ordered a long, slender combat knife with a maple handle inlaid with pure silver.

"It cost about $3,000," Mr. Moran told The Post. "He also gave me a Swiss watch. Very nice man. I never met a king before -- but, of course, he was only a prince then."

He founded the American Bladesmithing Society in 1976 and the American Bladesmith School in 1988 to perpetuate the craft. 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 himself.

A knifemaker who wants to earn the sobriquet "master bladesmith" at Mr. Moran's school must be able to make a welded Damascus steel knife that is sharp enough to cut a one-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.

At the height of his career, Mr. Moran was crafting about 40 knives a year, but in recent years he was making a half-dozen or so. He sold every other year at an invitation-only show in San Diego.

His wife, Margaret Moran, died in 2001.

There are no immediate survivors.

Mr. Moran willed his forge and tools to the Frederick County Landmarks Foundation. "I'd like to see it get used," he told The Post in 2003.

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