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Friday, 17 February 2017 10:31

When school’s out, shop teacher forges on

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Pat Biggin works on a treadle hammer in his garage shop in Elkhorn on a recent afternoon. A high school metals teacher by day, Biggin crafts custom knives as a side business. Pat Biggin works on a treadle hammer in his garage shop in Elkhorn on a recent afternoon. A high school metals teacher by day, Biggin crafts custom knives as a side business. Terry Mayer/staff

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- The garage at Pat Biggin’s Elkhorn home holds one of his passions -- a gas-powered forge. Biggin, a metal shop teacher at Big Foot High School who single-handedly can wield a 10-pound hammer, crafts custom-made forged knives for hunters, brush-clearing farmers, historical knife enthusiasts and others as a side business.

"There are still companies like Randall Made Knives out in Florida that do forged blades and they’re done by people, but it’s a big company. You can only go so far with customizing an order," he said. "Whereas with me you can say, ‘I want this type of handle and that type of liner and this type of sheath.’ I can do what you want. "

Tear into this Slice of Life with Biggin:

I’ve always kind of liked knives. When I was a kid I used to play with cardboard and wooden swords -- stick fights and all of that. Then my grandpa gave me a knife that his dad made during World War II. I was like, "OK, my great-grandpa made this. How did he figure out how to make this and why can’t I do that?"

Pre-med turned metallurgy

I have a tech ed degree as a metals shop teacher from UW-Platteville. I was previously pre-med there. I was going to be an eye surgeon, but I didn’t like that I had to take physics 1 and 2, and calc 1, 2 and 3, and inorganic and organic chemistry -- stuff that was not in my level of interest. Metals were always entertaining to me so I just did a lot of self-study. My metals professor at Platteville let me use his library to read up on things and I could discuss them with him. Then I started getting to know a lot of the knife makers, talking with them through the internet when internet became faster. I began learning more and more each time with a lot of practice -- and mess ups. When you first start, you don’t have the best hammer accuracy. It takes a while to get the feel for it. Most people’s first works look bad, uneven, twisted.

Forging flowers

In college, my friends and I did like 200 copper roses for the Waukesha Art Fair one year in 2009 or ’10 where we had a booth. It flopped horribly. Everyone thought they were really pretty but also really expensive at $20 a flower. But they were not cheap to make. They cost us about $300 to get the materials. For a short period of time, people were more interested in me making flowers than knives. Now it’s inverting. I still do flowers here and there, but it takes about an hour and a half to do one because I have to hand cut them all on pieces of sheet copper, punch and drill them, forge all the petals, bend them. It’s a very long process for something that’s pretty but costs $20. I prefer to spend my time on blades.

I made a wedding bouquet for my wife out of copper and steel and brass. It weighed six pounds. Halfway through the ceremony she said, "You can take it back now." I said, "No, you wanted it. It’s yours. I made it, now I’m done with it."

A hot mess

The barbecue grill in front of the garage was my original forge. When you’re 16, 17 and don’t have much money you just go down to the junkyard in town and hope to find stuff that works. It’s an old Weber grill, some refractory cement, pieces of a playground set for the legs and galvanized pipe for the tubes. It uses the bottom of the Weber grill for an ash trap, and I had a forge blower over there in the corner that I strapped to the bottom of it and I hand-cranked -- that was the air source. Originally I started with a hair dryer, but hair dryers are meant for short bursts, not a lot of hours of sustained blowing, as I found out when it exploded.

I’ve upgraded to a gas forge. I’ve beaten out leaf springs and random road spikes just trying to get the feel for it. I worked at a historic village in Cassville for a season as their demo blacksmith and spent a lot of time making knives. Twelve years later I’m now doing more elaborate stuff. I’ve been doing this since 2005-ish, give or take.

Teaching the trade

I’ve got a student from the Ukraine right now who lives up in Milwaukee. He comes down on weekends once in a while and I’m showing him how to make knives. He’s 47 and I’m 28. It’s funny. I’m old enough to know what I’m doing, but there are other ways to do it. It’s just the way I do it is the way I’m showing him.

I always have kids who are trying to make knives in metal shop. No knives in metal shop. Trust me, you’re not the first kid who’s asked -- you’re like the 600th kid that’s asked. The answer is always no. The principal is OK with me bringing in knives to show the metal student kids and discuss the metallurgy, grain structure and heat treatments. It’s normally a boring topic for kids, but you bring in something like this, it catches their attention.

Crafting the works

If people want a nice forged knife, I’m always happy to do it for them. It just might take a little while because I do it by hand and I have to do it around my school schedule, running the high school shops.

I take custom orders for hunting knives, kitchen knives, field knives or whatever. I forge, grind, heat treat, make the handles, sharpen the blades, do the whole process all the way through. I do the sheaths. I warranty everything. If you need a knife I’ve made for you sharpened, polished, re-handled, need a new sheath for it, I can do that. I’ll sharpen and polish just for free because it doesn’t take me any time to do that. And if you break it or damage it, I can fix it or replace it.

Unusual requests

Somebody asked me to forge them a mailbox once. I was like, "You want me to what? Do you want me to make you sheet metal from a bar of steel? Or do you want me just to get a mailbox and hit it with a hammer a few times?" So I told them, "No, I’m not doing that. Even if I did it would be way more expensive than if you were to just buy a metal mailbox at Wal-Mart."

Available materials

This blade is one I actually forged out of a leaf spring from a truck suspension because I didn’t have steel big enough to make an order for what a client described as "a ridiculously big Bowie knife."

 I forge what other people give me. If someone has a first car that they really love but it had to get sold or it got totaled in a car crash, they can bring me the suspension and car parts and I can make a knife from it. Or if they have a horse they were really fond of I can make a farrier rasp knife for them and they can use some of the mane as a lanyard or dangle on the sheath. I can incorporate a lot of stuff. So it’s kind of a custom order type of thing where I can use anything that you give me as long as it has carbon steel. And if it doesn’t, I can laminate it to a piece of carbon steel and forge it.

Standing up to ABS

In the ABS (American Bladesmith Society) test for an apprentice to earn the rating of journeyman you have to pound your knife through two-by-fours. You have to bend it 90 degrees in two directions and it cannot break. You have to have it certified by a master smith. The master has to certify that you did the test correctly and that there were no problems. You have to submit five knives as well as your test knife and your certificate to get your rating. If any of the knives are not visually perfect, you don’t pass. The ABS board is a harsh master. It’s got to be perfect. 

I’m an ABS member. You have to wait three years in the apprentice stage before you test for journeymen. Technically, I’ll be eligible to do that in the summer of 2018, but I’ll probably wait until 2020 to perfect my skills.

Dating don’t

I usually tell people, "If you’re getting into this business and don’t have a girlfriend yet, don’t lead with ‘I’m a knife maker’ as a conversation starter. You’ll turn more girls off if they find that out." Women think it’s kind of weird and they don’t really like it very much. They seem to think you’re some crazy guy in a cave with a stick. 

Centuries old

I’m using modern steel and some modern tools, but technically if you were to take away my electricity and my gas forge, I could still do this by hand. I like the forging of the steel and being able to make a historical-ish copy of something. It’s fun to know that you can still do something in the traditional sense that people have been doing for thousands of years and that you’re not stuck too far in the future where you can’t do these things anymore.

Some like it hot

I sweat a lot in summer at the forge. Earlier this month when it was like 12 degrees outside, I had this place up to over 100 degrees because I was forge-welding Damascus steel, and you’ve got to run it at 2,300 degrees. So I had the garage doors and the back door open and the fan running. I took my thermometer over near the forge and it was 68 degrees right in that area, but  there was a cross-draft, so I could can see my breath at the same time I was sitting there.

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