It used to be that little boys loved to play “cops and robbers” using toy guns, or perhaps “cowboys and Indians” with little bows and arrows, and even “pirates” with plastic swords. Some, especially in the rural South, learned to handle the real thing early in life.
From childhood, Robert Wright was no exception – his interest being knives of all sorts – but his enthusiasm was not tempered as he matured. In fact, it became a near-obsession that turned into a passion which shaped his life, once he acquired a knife in 1978 and wanted to learn more about its construction; "who made it, when, and how."
That interest launched him on a quest that became a type of career which grew out of what at first was just a young man’s hobby.
In 2012, Wright took the next step. “I signed up for a course in basic blacksmithing at the Ornamental Iron Works in Memphis,” he said, “where I learned the skills required to produce scrolls, tapers, leafs, cut blades and forged blades.”
In short order, Wright became very good at the smithing trade.
However, that same year he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and, with time on his hands, spent a great deal of it on the computer searching both knife and blacksmithing sites.
It was during that time that he discovered the American Bladesmith Society, based in Grand Rapids, Ohio, with a membership of some 1,900 individuals, including 122 “Master Smiths” and 177 “Journeyman Smiths.”
Wright began cancer treatments and, to occupy his time, focused his attention on his “now-serious hobby” as he described it, making knives at his home in Hernando.
“I re-furnished my garage, making it into a workshop,” Wright noted, “with everything I needed, including a gas-fired forge, cutter, anvil and I stocked it with raw steel stock.”
To almost any man who works with his hands, Wright’s set up is envious – clean and well-organized.
As his health stabilized, Wright decided in 2013 to enroll in and attend an “Introduction to Bladesmithing” course in Old Washington, Arkansas, just north of Hope; a two-week and intense hands-on seminar where his skills set him apart from his classmates.
To attain eventual certification, Wright knew that the American Bladesmith Society required an apprenticeship of three years, after which the applicant is tested in hopes of earning “Journeyman” status. Perfection and excellence of skill is the requirement demonstrated to a panel of judges, but Wright succeeded and in 2015 was awarded his certificate, making him one of only 177 ranked world-wide.
“It was quite an honor,” says Wright, “because I am one of only three Journeyman Smiths in Mississippi. I am ranked along with Bruce Evans of Booneville and Russell White of Rienzi. Only one, Terry Vandeventer, who lives in Bryan, is ranked above the three of us and he is one of only 122 certified Master Smiths in the entire world.”
To attain Master Smith status, according to Wright, “You have to continue perfecting your skill for three years while as a Journeyman, learning to master ‘Damascus’ metal and lamented steel along with both high-carbon and less-carbon steel. In short, you must demonstrate absolute perfection as a metals craftsman in order to achieve master-level certification.”
The process spans many years of studying and perfecting the skills necessary to become ranked as one of the world’s best.
And it’s not just a male-dominated trade, because of the 122 ranked Master Smiths globally, four are female and of the total number – including both Journeyman and Master Smiths – most are found in Arkansas.
Smithing is truly a unique and highly-skilled trade comprised of extremely talented craftsmen, few in number, one of whom lives and practices his art form in DeSoto County and living in the community of Hernando.
Mike Lee is a contributing writer for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.