Born to be a Blacksmith, Goodson knew he was going to take up the trade long before he even had the tools or knowledge to do it.
Photograph by Kelly Moore Clark \\ Article by Starla Gatson
It wouldn’t be surprising if the image that popped into your head after reading the word “blacksmith” was of some big, burly man in a medieval-looking workspace, hammering away on an anvil. He’s probably making horseshoes or armor. And thanks to the common blacksmith trope used in most books, films, or television shows centered in the Middle Ages, the work these artisans do appears to be outdated and irrelevant.
The realities of blacksmithing that aren’t typically seen in popular culture are worth highlighting, especially for those who hope to gain a better understanding of the trade. First of all, the big, overly-muscular men seen wielding a hammer on a screen weren’t the only ones who dominated the trade; historically, women regularly owned blacksmith shops, forged metalware, and took on apprentices, too. And contrary to what one may believe, blacksmithing in modern times isn’t so unheard of. According to NPR, between five and ten thousand Americans practice the trade today. Monroe native Drew Goodson is one of them.
Goodson was born to be a blacksmith, and though it’s an unconventional dream for a child to pursue, he notes that he knew he was going to take up the trade long before he even had the tools or knowledge to do it. “I don’t remember waking up not wanting to do it,” he says. “Somehow, it’s always been something that I’ve wanted to do. It wasn’t a choice; it wasn’t, ‘Oh, hey, this is cool.’ It’s always been something I wanted to do for as long as I can remember.”
Though the desire to learn the skill always seemed to be present, he says hearing tales like The Sword in the Stone further ignited his passion. While other children dreamed of removing the sword from the rock and ruling the kingdom, another idea was taking root in Goodson’s mind: “I didn’t want to be the guy that held the cool sword and went and killed the dragon. I wanted to make the cool sword.”
So, the summer before he began high school, that’s exactly what Goodson set out to do. With a bit of innovation and about a hundred bucks in his pocket, the then 14-year-old got to work making his dream a reality. “It doesn’t take that much to start, in all honesty,” he says as he thinks back to his humble beginnings, complete with an old aluminum grill with steel plates welded to it, a shop vac, and a hardware store anvil. After about a month of swinging the hammer, his creation was complete. While it wasn’t exactly Excalibur, the finished product, a knife, was something Goodson could be proud of.
Because he simply enjoyed learning the trade, Goodson didn’t set out to make blacksmithing his primary occupation. Besides, he explains, he was raised with the idea that he was to “go to college and get an office job” in the back of his mind. So, when he first began creating, his only real goal was to make cool things — that is, until Forged in Fire debuted on the History Channel.
The competition series premiered in 2015, and throughout the course of each episode, bladesmiths, or blacksmiths who specifically focus on crafting knives, swords, daggers, and other types of blades, competed for the chance to win a ten-thousand-dollar prize and the coveted title of “Forged in Fire Champion.” As the teenager watched each episode, Goodson’s blacksmithing goals began to shift. It was decided; not only was he going to make things just for the fun of it, but he was going to be on Forged in Fire.
Fast forward to the spring of 2018, when a new season of the show was set to premiere. As usual, Goodson was looking forward to the show, but not just so he could watch others do the trade he was so passionate about. This season would be different, as Goodson was no longer anticipating Forged in Fire as a dedicated viewer, but instead as a contestant on the eighth episode of the season.
Though he was not eligible to compete on the show until his eighteenth birthday had passed, Goodson’s path to Forged in Fire began two years prior at Blade Show, the world’s largest blade convention. He was simply a 16-year-old attending the event with his father, unaware that the experience would ultimately be the catalyst for his time on the television show. While there, Goodson met a few judges from Forged in Fire and showed them some of his work. Unbeknownst to Goodson, those interactions were just the beginning of a life-changing experience.
“I went back home, and the History Channel started following me on social media,” he recalls. “They watched me. It was really cool. They saw me progress, and a few months before I turned 18, they sent me some paperwork and said, ‘Hey, we want you on the show.’”
Goodson describes much of the show’s production process as a time to “hurry up and wait,” but once filming actually began, the experience was better than he’d imagined it would be. “Not only seeing the set and the judges and meeting all of them but actually doing my passion in front of all these cameras and excelling at it was a dream come true,” he says. Then, just when he thought things couldn’t get any better, they did. Before he knew it, the young bladesmith was no longer just a competitor on the show; he was a champion and the youngest in Forged in Fire history. “It’s what I had always wanted and I never thought I was going to get, and all of a sudden, I was there doing it.”
Naturally, with winning the show came life-changing perks, namely the monetary prize. “I was able to buy a car, I was able to eat good food, I was able to pay rent for the first time in a while. I needed the money more than I thought I did,” Goodson admits. Life as a champion started off on the right foot for the teen artisan, but as the old adage goes, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems;” it wouldn’t be long before he realized not every part of the victory was quite so sweet.
“It kind of made me complacent,” he says. “I wasn’t wanting to work anymore. I quit the job that I was at that day, and like an idiot, I went and spent all the money, so then I had to work again.” Goodson had been hoping his newly-earned champion status would be enough to kickstart a full-time blacksmithing business, but there was too much supply and not enough demand to make it work and things didn’t pan out as he thought they would. “I was still making a few knives here and there. I was trying to get a bigger customer base, and that’s the thing that people don’t quite realize: the market is so saturated right now,” he explains. “It just wasn’t enough money.”
Blacksmithing was no longer enough to sustain him, so Goodson made the decision to step away from his craft. “At the time, I needed to change things up,” he says of his choice. “I needed to actually look at myself and say, ‘Oh, I need to work. I need to do something better than just bladesmith.’”
Goodson put down his hammer nearly two and a half years ago, only brandishing it to do community demonstrations from time to time. He works as a mechanic — a job that makes perfect sense for the man who has always loved working with his hands. But that doesn’t mean his days of bladesmithing are over forever. In fact, he’s itching to get back to his craft. “It’s a little bit depressing seeing something that you’ve put all this work into just wither away,” he says. “It’s sitting there. It’s waiting for me.” Once he goes back to his first love, however, Goodson has resolved to do things differently this time around.
He’s going back to his roots and getting back to the simple reason he started smithing in the first place: because he wanted to make cool things. “I don’t want it to be a business,” he says of his future bladesmithing endeavors. “I want to perfect it for myself. I don’t want to be trying to keep up with orders and what everybody else wants. I want to make something as good as I possibly can for myself because I want to better myself. Selling things like that, it didn’t help my passion.”
Goodson’s getting back to the heart behind his efforts, remembering why he was and still is so intrigued by the trade, as well. “I think it’s mostly being able to take something useless — a chunk of steel, an old file, a piece of round tube — taking it and forcing whatever that is into what I really want,” he muses when asked why he’s so drawn to blacksmithing. “It’s also a conversation between the material and myself. It’s kind of listening to what the steel wants to do and kind of coercing it that way. It also just makes you feel powerful. You take this what seems like an invincible chunk, and you mold it like Play-Doh.”
Since he plans to create for the sheer joy of it and won’t be burdened with keeping track of orders and promoting a business, Goodson will have plenty of time to make the things he wants to. He’s even already got a few projects lined up to get him back into bladesmithing, starting with a sword to honor the memory of his late father-in-law. “He had a passion for Japanese swords, so that’s kind of how I want to get back into it,” he explains.
The Forged in Fire champion’s bladesmithing hiatus seems to have put things into perspective for Goodson, reigniting a fire in him that dared to go out. As he gets back into the smithing game, he is determined to progress his skill by building things with meaning, a piece of advice he offers other creatives. “I don’t want to sound cliche or anything and say, ‘Pursue your passions!’ That’s a given,” he says before adding, “Don’t do what you love to impress somebody else. Don’t create things for someone else, or you’ll lose that passion. If you want to make something, make it so that you are better for making it.”
The twenty-something feels a tugging toward the timeless art form again, and it’s not a want to create; it’s a need. “I need to get back into it. I need to hone my skills, and I need to make things that have meaning.” And as Goodson gets back into the groove of creating, he will work toward a new goal: improving his passion project until it’s a masterpiece in his own eyes.