HEBRON — It was a duel of the blades to the finish as the competitors designed and created their own version of the sacred but deadly narrowly curved Talwar sword in nearly 2,500-degree Fahrenheit flames.
Two had already fallen from the battle for the History $10,000 prize, and two remained.
It was the final round for these competing bladesmiths: One a self-taught Michigan bladesmith who has been bending and pounding steel into knives for nearly a decade; the other a 21-year-old Williams College senior who built his own forge at his family’s 95-acre Hebron farm when he was 15.
After five days of meticulously crafting their ancient weapons at their home forges, the men returned to the “Forged in Fire” Brooklyn television set to have their recreations judged by weapons experts: A former Army ranger, a world-renowned bladesmith and an edged weapon combat specialist.
These single-edged forged sabers must stand the trials of blade performance and aesthetics as they are pitted against a stack of terra cotta tiles, a rolled tatami mat, a ribbed side of beef and a ballistics dummy.
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The judges picked their blade — the blade that excelled in the rigors of action.
As the men stood side-by-side — each hoping for the top slot — 21-year-old Jordan LaMothe of Hebron won the honor and the money.
“I think it feels like a bit of validation of the time I put into learning my craft,” LaMothe said while forge-welding a pair of large steel tongs at his Hebron forge last week. “It is really satisfying for me.”
A master of fire and steel
Precision in a not-so-precise process is an art, and LaMothe has the touch, the eye and the patience to make certain each weld or metal creation is just as he wants it. And if it’s not, the metal goes back into the flames he fans with a hand-powered blower.
And when his studio mate, Cricket, an amber and black horse, comes into the stall next to the forge during a torrential rain, the image of LaMothe working could easily be set centuries earlier because he has preserved the underpinnings of his art and relies on his own power to create.
It is a refreshing throwback to a simpler time, and it seems his connection to the purity of his art and its history led to the creation of his championship blades.
From the stacked bags of bituminous coal he uses to fuel his forge, to the precise way he carefully ignites the first flames, the way he picks his steel, usually Damascus, the way he makes his own tools and hand-sands the wooden handles of his blades with 2,500-grit sandpaper to a near glass finish, LaMothe’s process is a bit like penning a symphony. Each note and instrument influences the others.
Perhaps because he is a musician — a saxophonist — he is able to give his art the time it needs to evolve into what it will be.
Or perhaps because, along with his parents and four siblings, they hand-work their farm, each taking time to appreciate the other.
An afternoon kitchen visit makes it easy to see that in his environment, art is nurtured and the beauty of family is shared equally.
It seems there is no room for jealousy, common among siblings, as they happily support and honor the knives he has crafted as birthday or special-occasion gifts that started appearing in a growing display on the kitchen table.
“Would you like to stay for some homemade ice cream?” LaMothe’s Dad, Geoffrey Gee, offers.
Attention is momentarily diverted to a new puppy and then back to talk about LaMothe and his creations.
A brain tumor and a chainmail shirt
When LaMothe was 14, he took a blacksmithing course at Salem Art Works to see if he liked it. He did, and by the time he was 15, he had built his forge in a lean-to barn stall.
There is a large drum on top of a table with a fire pot below and a hand-cranked blower that stokes the coals.
Fire is the focus of his work, but in below-zero blizzards, even fire might not be enough to stay warm in his open studio. He admits that it’s a bit cold in winter, but he said he just brushes the snow away before working.
And the beauty of the open studio is getting to work in the middle of early-morning mists rising off fields and pastures, and the sunsets, the color of his flame.
When LaMothe was 16, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
“It was the summer of my junior year at Long Trail in Dorset,” he said.
But LaMothe seems to take that part of his life with ease.
“Oh yeah, I did,” he said when asked about the tumor. “I have no hearing in my right ear because of it.”
His recovery was long, and LaMothe decided to make a chainmail shirt during those long days of waiting and healing.
“We had lots of electric fencing for our cattle and I built a jig and wound a bunch of wire,” he said. “I had the idea that it would be cool to have a suit of armor, but I never had time.”
Getting to the championship
LeMothe applied to History's “Forged in Fire” reality show another time but did not get picked.
He tried again.
“I knew about the show from a couple people I know who had been on from New England,” he said, explaining that he had to go through several SKYPE and phone interviews before he was selected for the May 16 episode.
“We started with four, and on my episode in the first challenge we had to forge a blade in our signature style using a mystery steel,” he said. “It was a big piece of twisted cable and I had to forge a blade out of that. We had three hours.”
Then it was down to three.
In the second three-hour feat, the competitors had to finish a blade handle and sharpen their blade.
“It was pounded into a set of terra cotta tiles and it had to slice through a tatami mat,” he said.
By the final round, only two smiths remained.
“We had to forge a Talwar,” LaMothe said, adding that he had to look up what a Talwar was. “It’s a curved saber, a single-edge sword. On every episode, a new weapon is created.”
In this final challenge, LaMothe and his competitor had five days at home with a camera crew recording their process to master the Talwar. “I like showing people what I do, so having the cameras here wasn’t a problem,” he said. “We filmed in late February and early March.”
The biggest problem for LaMothe was that he was in the middle of his final semester at Williams College and he was already working 60 hours a week on his academic studies. And having to take more than a week out for the competition meant even longer hours when he returned.
But now he has graduated, has his $10,000 prize and has launched into his hand-forged blade business, “Jordan’s Blades,” full-time. He still tends to Cricket and his team of oxen and is rehearsing with his family for an upcoming musical production written by his mother, Kimerer LaMothe, with musical arrangements by his father at the Fort Salem Theater in mid-July.
“It is a family story based on our move to the farm,” he said during a momentary break from forge-welding a new pair of tongs.
Kathleen Phalen-Tomaselli is a features writer at The Post-Star. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for comments or story ideas.