Forged in Fire and FunctionSep 01, 2020 11:54AM ● By Maggie Barnes
JD Hungerford has discovered his life’s work, an impressive feat at any age, but particularly when that life is only twenty-two years long.
While apprenticing with a cabinetmaker in Gillett, Pennsylvania, JD had a chance to work with metal. That moment sparked a passion that now burns at 2,000 degrees in his blacksmithing shop in Breesport, New York. Learning such a skill is a slow process, he says. The memory of the first thing he made still makes him cringe. “A small hunting knife from a saw blade. It was terrible.”
Those first skills have grown into an impressive catalog of custom-made items from chef’s knives to hunting and fishing supplies to high-end tools. He calls it “tool art,” and it has its foundation in the functional demands of the country life he was raised with. “Hunting, fishing, firewood...all the things I grew up with,” he says. “That’s how I want my creations to be used.”
Functional and beautiful are not opposing concepts to JD. He excels at making pieces both lovely to behold and practical for years. He watched all the videos he could, observing and learning from the techniques of others. In 2018, he came across an application for the History Channel show Forged in Fire—think of it as a baking competition for blacksmiths. He admits he applied “as a sort of joke.”
“Then they called and things happened really fast,” he remembers. After testing his skills against three other blacksmiths, the final challenge was to produce a medieval crossbow. JD was confident, as he had made crossbows before, though not quite as elaborate as what the show wanted. Confident or not, he was still shocked when he won the $10,000 first prize.
“The orders flooded in after that, from all over...California, Maine, Australia, Mexico...it was crazy,” he says. “Took me months to catch up.”
JD’s business is very much a customized experience. Buyers give him the details on the size, style, and functional use for a piece and he heads into the workshop to produce it. As a one-man operation, he does not yet have a formal inventory of items, so it’s still a per order process. Depending on the specifications, getting an order to completion can take anywhere from three to thirty hours.
The most popular request is for kitchen knives, from the basic home model all the way to professional. He often uses stainless steel, as it is the right weight and durability. But his personal preference is for something called Damascus steel, a high-end carbon whose properties bring forth beautiful markings on the blade when melded by skilled hands. “It leaves a wavy etching on the blade that is really nice,” he says. “Damascus is all-around awesome.”
The handle of such a knife is hardly an afterthought. Customers often bring in wood that is special to them and JD incorporates it into their order.
“I try to source as locally as possible, but definitely within the United States,” he remarks, noting that the recent trade conflicts haven’t impacted his business very much.
His favorite piece is an eighteen-inch presentation dagger, but his true passion is for things more tool than art. “Things like fantasy blades are popular, and that’s fine. But it’s not what interests me. The best thing my customers do is send me a photo of the knife being used. That’s the best compliment.”
While trying to make the most of his fifteen minutes of fame, JD is still working full time as a machinist. “I do the day job, then head to the shop and work until my eyes give out,” he laughs. To enhance his skills, when he has free time, he tries out new techniques and looks in on what other blacksmiths are doing.
September brings a new development for Hungerford Blacksmithing that JD is very excited about. “I’ve gotten new equipment and I’m going to start doing folding knives,” he explains. “I’ve been working for a while on a new kind of locking mechanism using ball bearings, and I think it’s going to be really good.”
The holidays are his busiest season, and he tries to work on a two-month lead time for orders. As for the cost, that runs the same gamut the production time does. Kitchen knives run from $150 to $350. That precious Damascus steel jumps it to between $300 and $600 dollars. Hunting knives have such a wide range of styles they span the spectrum from $150 to $600.
JD’s long-term hopes include a storefront and a distribution relationship with outdoors/gun stores. All that would be a little tough to handle as one person.
“Someday, I’d like to hire some help, but folks like that are hard to find,” he says, noting that blacksmithing is a slow-developing skill learned at the knee of an accomplished practitioner. His combination of function, personality, and art is more intuitive than taught, so JD is probably going to be on his own for some time.
There is one thing he regrets about appearing on Forged in Fire—they kept his winning crossbow. “I’d really like to see it again,” he says. Someday, there may be time for a visit. But right now, JD has his fire blazing and his hands full.
Hungerford Blacksmithing is in Breesport and can be found online at hungerfordblacksmithing.com or by phone at (607) 331-0937. There is a contact form to fill out if you are interested in commissioning a piece. You can also follow JD on Facebook and Instagram. If you are thinking of a Christmas gift, best move quickly. And if you aren’t in the market right now for a knife that will probably outlast you, you can show your support for our very own blacksmithing champion by buying a T-shirt.