Not in a million years did Trevor Crowell, rural McCracken, think he’d win the Season 7 Episode 26 championship of History Channel’s serial bladesmithing competition “Forged in Fire.”
A self-taught blacksmith who has cranked out thousands of hand-crafted knives over nearly four decades, Crowell bested three opponents in the TV show that aired Wednesday night, taking home $10,000 in winner’s money.
“With everything going on I’ll probably end up living on it,” Crowell said Thursday, speaking from his blacksmith shop in rural Rush County, about 3 miles east of McCracken.
Crowell wound up on the show, which was filmed last September, at the urging of his sister, Patty Crowell, and with signup help from his nephew Matthew Crowell.
Screened through multiple interviews over a months-long process, Crowell indicates now it was an unforgettable experience. He competed against blacksmiths from Texas, North Carolina and New York.
“It’s one of the best times I’ve had in a long, long time,” he said. “Meeting those other blacksmiths, that was a good time. Those guys I was on the show with, we communicate all the time now; we’ve all become good friends. We talk about what we’re making, what we’re working on, what we break.”
The self-employed Crowell makes his living driving an escort car for oversized loads, mostly large oil tanks headed from Hess Services Inc., of Hays, to Texas and North Dakota. With $16-a-barrel oil, that work has slowed.
“Anytime I’m home, I’m out in the shop,” Crowell said, explaining that he makes solid steel knives to order, depending on what the blade will be used for and whether the person is right- or left-handed. Handles are made from horn or antlers.
Crowell works on a hand-crank, cast-iron, toolmakers forge that burns coal. It was a gift to him at 14 from his dad, Gary Crowell, who purchased it from a junk dealer in La Crosse. Self-taught, Crowell now makes everything from chef’s and paring knives to hunting and skinning knives, sometimes 1-inch blades for trappers and whittlers, and other times 10-inch blades. Most popular are the 3-inch and 4-inch blades that deer hunters like, but he makes machetes too.
“Every steel has its quirks,” Crowell said. “It’s the alloy of the metal that determines that. Steel starts out as iron. I’m not a metallurgist, but then they add carbon, and from there they add cobalt or chromium and that’s how they control how hard or soft or flexible it is.”
He said he mainly uses 5160 spring steel, which is easier to find, easier to work with and a little more forgiving but doesn’t hold an edge as well, or 52100 ball bearing steel, which is a lot harder and a little more fragile but holds an edge longer.
“If it’s for skinning or butchering, I’ll use the better ball bearing steel,” Crowell said. “If it’s a camp knife for splitting wood, then I use the spring steel. It just depends on what the guy wants.”
It takes roughly four days to make a knife. Part of that is waiting time, including letting the blade soak in a 500-degree oven for six hours, then cool for about four.
Over the years he’s figured out his method, but he’s also still learning, he said.
“I’m always messing with the quench, and the heat treat, to get it where I want it,” Crowell said, “for a better blade.”
After using a belt grinder on “Forged in Fire” and liking it, he came back to his shop and built one.
“I’ve ruined several knives on it,” he said, laughing. “It’s what happens.”
To film the first three rounds of the four-round show, Crowell flew out of Hays to the studio in Connecticut last spring. The fourth and final round, with Crowell going head-to-head with one other finalist, was filmed with him working in his own forge, charged with building a sword.
“We had four days to build that sword,” he said. “I told the camera man, it’s going to come down to the weight of it, I’m sure.”
Crowley weighed his before shipping it off: 1 pound 6 ounces. Back at the studio, the two swords were put through the paces, with the judges testing each one for strength, stabbing a ballistic gel mannequin, stabbing a chunk of ice, and stabbing through cans and plastic tubs of water.
“Neither of our swords failed in any way,” Crowley said.
Crowell says being a blacksmith who makes steel knives used to be a rarity. That changed with “Forged in Fire.”
“I believe the show has caused more and more people to start,” he said, noting that his two nephews have been big fans since the show started but that he’d never watched it until last year.
“There’s not many of us, and when I first started I was the only one around here,” Crowell said. “Now you can’t hardly throw a rock without hitting a knifemaker.”
Crowell’s episode of “Forged in Fire” airs again Wednesday, April 8, on the History Channel. Stream it at https://bit.ly/2UXFjXZ.