Forging a place on reality TV
Sixty-four people showed up recently to watch Chuck Cook's appearance on Forged in Fire, the popular History Channel show that puts four bladesmiths' talents to the test in hopes of winning a $10,000 cash prize.
The Dundee man appeared July 17 in episode 19 of the fifth season, headlined "The Wind and Fire Wheels," which turned out to be the weapon Cook and competitor Rebel Rodriguez, of Spicer, Texas, were assigned to craft for the show's finale.
On the reality show, competitors assemble at a studio in Stamford, Conn., for the first round, where they are charged with producing a crude blade from metals provided to them. One competitor is eliminated after the first round, based on the quality of their work. In the second round the remaining three competitors refine their blades, adding handles and other attributes. Three judges then test the blades for sharpness, durability and killing ability before another competitor is sent packing. The remaining two bladesmiths are then assigned a specific weapon from history and return to their home forges (with films crews in tow) for five days to complete their tasks.
The theme of the first round of episode 19 was bicycles, so the foursome were charged with gathering bits and pieces of metal taken from a bicycle and forging them into a Damascus blade using the canister method. A Damascus blade is one where the metal has been heated, folded, flattened and forged repeatedly until the metal has dozens of layers. The canister system requires that the bits of metal are encased in a square metal tube, heated until melted, the canister removed before the molten metal is forged down to a quarter-inch thick blade.
"It's like a chunk of metal tubing and you weld up your own can out of metal tubing and we put all the parts in," Cook said. "For me, I used a chunk of bicycle chain and a piece of spring from the seat."
Of course, that's only the beginning.
"You now have to make an object that is 10 inches of blade and five inches of handle," Cook said. "The whole thing is like 15 inches long. So you squeeze that four inches into 15."
Cook had three hours to create a hardened blade ready for a handle. In round two, Cook had two hours to clean up the blade, address problems the judges pointed out, install the handles and sharpen the blade for testing.
"It went really well; they had a lot of good stuff to say about it and they pointed out that I had a small bend in my handle," Cook said. "I made the choice not to address it because I felt like I did not have time in the two hours."
The finished blades were subjected to a durability test where a judge struck the blade against a bicycle frame 10 times. Cook's knife suffered the least amount of damage.
The second test required the knives to cut through bicycle tubes. Cook and Rodriguez survived the tests and were named the finalists.
The pair then returned home to construct their Wind and Fire Wheels, an ancient Chinese weapon that consists of steel rings with blades jutting from the exterior.
Cook was followed by a film crew to Dundee to monitor and film the process at his home forge.
"They were pretty nice guys," Cook quipped. "You get to set some rules. If you don't get along with them you can tell them they have to use the bathroom at the gas station."
Constructing the weapons can be dangerous.
"I was grinding on my grinder. (The weapon) is 22 inches across and has these seven points on the outside of it and I did something wrong and it caught the drive wheel on the grinder and ripped it out of my hands," Cook said. "I got a pretty severe cut on my left hand when it flew out of my hands. It flew onto the concrete floor and the blade just broke off. It was in the middle of the day on Day 4 and it took me all that time to get to this point. So at that point, I just welded that point back on. I just kept going."
The decision would prove to be catastrophic.
When the pair returned to Connecticut to test the blades, Cook's creation lost a blade on the first test. On the second test a second blade broke off and testing was discontinued after a no-confidence vote by the judges. He was asked to relinquish his blade and Rodriguez was named the winner.
"I don't mind losing to Rebel, he came up with a brilliant design," Cook said on the show. "I may not have won, but I always figured if I can get a good 'It'll kill,' out of (judge Doug Marcaida), I won. I did and I'm pretty excited about that."