Gems & Knives: Talking with Ryan from @dragonsnestforge
Ryan is an awesome Texan blacksmith and knifemaker who is hammering metal under the name Dragon’s Nest Forge. He and I talked via Instagram and Google docs in September 2020. I edited the interview below for clarity and structure. If something is confusing, that’s on me. Message us if you would like to tell your story, too!
Hi Ryan! Thanks for making time away from the forge! I’m excited to talk to a bladesmith who is also a jeweler and a gemologist. But let’s start with knives: how did you end up hammering hot metal?
Hi Murat! Ever since I was a kid, I have been drawn to edged weapons. As a little boy, I would find sticks and pretend to fight imaginary foes. When I joined cub scouts, I was allowed to carry a pocket knife, and I remember thinking that this cheap little Swiss army type knife was the coolest thing in the world!
As I began to read about historical weapons and watch movies set in the Dark Ages, I began to see that my little knife was not the best and so, started my collection of ever-better blades. Like most people, I started out buying cheap knives from catalogs and pawn shops. These usually tended to have at least one of two major flaws, they were dull, or they broke. And that is when I began to research what made a good blade.
I learned about the different types of steel and about heat treating blades. About edge geometry and tang construction. You know, the basics. And it stayed a passion for years. Buying a knife here and there, learning as much about making knives as I could, but only on an academic level. I talked about building a forge for years with my dad, but life always got in the way.
It wasn’t until I bought a sword-shaped custom part for a gun I was building that things changed. My friend Christian looked over at the piece I had ordered, and I will never forget his words.
“Looks like shit. I bet you could make a better-looking one.”
And so I did! I used a harbor freight anvil my dad had given me years ago, a butane torch, and a regular ole claw hammer from my tool box and started hammering a nail into a sword-like shape! I made about twenty of those before I decided I needed a better way to heat the metal.
So I bought a forge on eBay.
While I waited for it to arrive, I decided to stop with the small stuff and that’s when I started making knives! That was at the end of last October.
And why the name Dragon’s Nest?
As to the name Dragon’s Nest Forge, I have always had a fascination with dragons. So when I needed to come up with a name for my Etsy shop where I sold fine silver jewelry, I knew I wanted to incorporate dragons somehow. I thought of how dragons are always hoarding exquisite treasures and where a dragon might keep said treasures.
To be honest, Dragon’s Nest wasn’t my first choice, but it was the one that wasn’t taken on Etsy yet and that didn’t return anything on Google, so Dragon’s Nest it was to be!
You started a bit less than a year ago. How much time do you now spend in the forge, how many knives do you make?
The forge is going great! I am able to forge most days and crank out about 4 knives every 3 weeks depending on intricacy.
Is this the level that you like it, or what’s the goal?
Going forward, I would love to be forging every day! My goal is to make enough money to support my family. At the moment, I make enough to continue making knives and a bit more.
What’s keeping you busy the rest of the time?
My current job title is stay-at-home dad. The best part about my daughter is she loves watching and helping me work. If I let her, she would be hammering on hot steel like me. She will often pick up one of my jeweler’s hammers and start banging away on anything she can get her little hands on. Can’t wait to see what she can do!
Really? Hahaha. That is amazing.
Yup, she’s about to be 3, and its only a matter of time before she’s smithin’ away with daddy!
Editor’s Note: She’s now 3—congratulations!
Must be super adorable. 😀 How about a forging class for kids?
I’ve thought about that, would be a lot of insurance involved. If I set the age to around ten, should be fine.
Your other craft is that of a gemologist—a scientist studying gems. What fascinated you about precious stones?
I guess you could say I was a bit of a magpie as a child, always fascinated by something shiny! Lol. As a kid i was always picking up rocks things off the ground and then one day I found an earring with a small ruby in it. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
But I don’t think it was until I was 5 or 6 and watched the movie “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad”. In the movie, a sorcerer tries to bribe the main character with a bag full of loose jewels, and you see them tumble out of the bag as he says “a king’s ransom in jewels.” That was the first time I had seen loose gemstones and I understood the concept of how precious these stones were.
My parents decided to foster my rock collecting and would take me to stores that specialized in gems and semi-precious gemstones. It was awesome! And I was hooked.
I kept collecting, and when a jewelry making class was offered in my high school, I jumped at the opportunity! I made jewelry off and on for many years after that. It remains a passion of mine, but unfortunately not one I can pursue full time.
The main reason I stopped making fine jewelry was the terrible cost it takes on my hands. I have to take 3 days off for every full day making jewelry. My arthritis is horrible.
Sorry to hear about your arthritis. 🙁 How come working gems is so much worse for your hands than bladesmithing?
With jewelry work, everything is on a smaller scale. The files you use are tiny and hard to grip without stressing your hands. The process of filing and polishing is full of tiny, repetitive movements. I often have to take a day after hand sanding blades, but it seems the scale of the movements you use is the biggest factor for my hands.
First collecting gems, then knives … you love collecting stuff. 😀 How many knives do you have? What are your favs?
I have well over 100 knives in my collection. And I don’t count my throwing knife sets in that. My favorites tend to be ones I have made or received as gifts. For a long time, my favorite was a Gil Hibbon original stiletto. Got that from my wife for a birthday.
Because the gift knives have stories and memories to them?
You are correct! Lately, my favorite blade tends to be the one I’m working on at that moment. lol
Haha, that is a good sign! Let’s say there are bladesmiths out there who see your knives and get curious about adding a gem to their knife. How should they go about that? Any big NO NO or must-do that they should know about?
Stay away from eBay for buying gems. There are a few great sellers on it, but fully half the gems I bought were fakes or had undisclosed treatments done to them. Best place to go if you don’t know much about gems is a gem show. The vendors are typically fairly priced and have a vested interest in not selling fakes.
That makes sense. Not too different from knives then. 🙂 Any tips you want to share about handling gems during knife making?
I am toying with making scale pins with gems in them to sell. So, an easy way to get into gemstones in anyone’s knifemaking!
And one of the biggest tips I can give you is to only handle loose gemstones in a room with a very clean and preferably soft floor. You will drop a gemstone eventually and if the floors aren’t clear then good luck! And if it falls and hits cement, it will likely scratch or fracture the gemstone.
You’re so right, I can totally see that happening. 😀 One question I’m always wondering about is where you bladesmiths get your ideas from. Do you have any big inspirations or role models?
There are several people that have influenced my work. I have taken a lot of inspiration for my bowies from Jason Knight and Kyle Royer.
Ilya Alekseyev has been a huge inspiration in furthering my skills and pushing myself past my comfort zone. Matt Stagmar inspired me to learn how to grind better and make a better-looking final product.
The first blacksmithing videos I ever watched were Alec Steele making an amazing American flag damascus, and when I saw that, I was blown away. And of course, there’s Forged in Fire.
But I think reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is what originally got the “fire” going for me. Pun definitely intended. It was either that or the “forging” scene in Conan the Barbarian. Seemed like the most badass job ever!
I just remembered that some blacksmiths do courses, like a 1 – day or weekend experience. Do you have any specific plans there?
I have thought about it. First, I need my own place to host it. There are places I could rent or borrow to host it, though. Some historical places have a designated metal shop for use by the public, so that’s an option.
And I already have four or five anvils, so it is definitely something I have considered.
Hahaha you’re collecting anvils, too?
Lmao, of course! 😅
Amazing! So, what’s up next? What is the next bigger project you’re working on?
Well, my one year anniversary of forging is coming up fast, Oct 26th I believe, so I should expect to see something pretty cool stuff coming up! Haven’t hammered out the details yet, but it’s safe to say there will be plenty of sparkle and shine on whatever I decide to make! I have some gorgeous 24 karat gold I plan on using! Maybe even some engraving if everything works out! 😉
24 karat gold woven into the handle, or gold-plated in the outside?
I have three strands of it for three handle flutes.
I don’t understand. How would you use it? How would that look like?
Wrapped around the handle, set into grooves that are called flutes.
Anything you learned recently when pushing yourself about forging/bladesmithing that you didn’t before? A mistake you avoided or learned about?
I learned a lot recently about etching metal and getting a good hamon line. The key to a good hamon line is precision in your claying so it lines up on both sides. And the key to etching in acid is patience and a high grit sandpaper in between etchings. Lots of trial and error to get the etching on the wrought iron.
Any chance I missed a video on your feed of you applying the clay?
Unfortunately, that didn’t work out the first time. The important parts were obstructed so you couldn’t see anything. But I didn’t get the hamon detail I was after anyway so I will be doing it again!
Hahaha So much is about trial and learning! 🙂
Especially when you are self-taught!
Ryan, there are a good bunch more things I want to ask, but it’s midnight here, so I gotta call it a day. It’s awesome of you to answer so many questions, though. Thank you for your time!
Want to see what Ryan is forging now? Here you can find more: