Fawn Grove blacksmith preserves tradition, competes on The History Channel

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

In the Fawn Grove workshop he built by hand, using materials from an old oak tree and a house built in the 1860s, Derick Kemper forges steel and iron into works of art.

The 34-year-old is a traditional blacksmith. The hammer, anvil and coal-fire forge are the basic, though not the only, tools of his trade.

"At the end of the day, you’ve got something you made by hand," Kemper said. "It’s a lot different than something you’ve made with a bunch of machines."

On a cold mid-January morning at his workshop, he crafted a small knife.

Kemper moved the glowing steel from the forge to the anvil and began to draw out the blade, using precise pressure for each drop of the hammer to get the width and shape he wanted.

Derick Kemper of Damselfly Forge in Fawn Grove hammers out heated steel into the shape of a knife blade. Wednesday, January 23, 2019. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

Through his business, Damselfly Forge, Kemper makes a variety of knives, including kitchen knives, hunting knives and traditional blades such as the Viking seax —pronounced "sax" — which originated in northern Europe. 

In addition to making knives and doing custom iron work, Kemper is a trained farrier, a trade he learned at the Kentucky Horseshoeing School.

Derick Kemper of Damselfly Forge in Fawn Grove hammers out heated steel into the shape of a knife blade. Wednesday, January 23, 2019. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

(Farriers specialize in forging and fitting horseshoes, as well as trimming, cleaning and shaping the horses' hooves.)

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Other work: When he's not shoeing horses or working on the latest project at his workshop, Kemper travels the country attending knife shows and doing custom projects.

Most of his shows are out of town, but Kemper said he'll have a table at the Lancaster Muzzle Loading Rifle Association show on Saturday, Feb. 2, and Sunday, Feb. 3.

He also teaches, both independently at his shop and with the Central Maryland Blacksmith Guild.

A high-end kitchen knife, rear, and a general purpose knife are some of several styles of hand-forged knives created by Derick Kemper of Damselfly Forge in Fawn Grove. Wednesday, January 23, 2019. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

"In the 1800s and early 1900s, people were fiercely competitive," Kemper said. "You know, the largest trade was blacksmithing, and everyone was keeping their secrets."

Now, he said, blacksmithing is not a necessary trade, so it's important to keep the tradition alive.

"We have machines that can do pretty much anything, but it’s the artistry of it," Kemper said. "And if we don’t perpetuate it, if we don’t share our knowledge, it’s just going to vanish."

One traditional aspect of Kemper's workshop is his anvil, which belonged to a distant relative who reportedly used it to shoe horses in York City in the early 1900s.

TV debut: Kemper competed in a Season 5 special tournament edition of the History Channel TV competition series "Forged in Fire," which features metalworkers competing to build a superior weapon.

The tournament, which aired over several weeks in October 2018, featured four episodes focused on specific metallurgists: armorers, farriers, blacksmiths and modern metal workers.

The winners of those episodes advanced to a final, single-episode championship.

Derick Kemper of Damselfly Forge in Fawn Grove hammers out heated steel into the shape of a knife blade. Wednesday, January 23, 2019. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

In the first round of the blacksmithing episode, Kemper and his competitors were required to forge a Damascus steel blade.

Damascus steel is made by forging different steel alloys together to form a pattern, which Kemper said is purely aesthetic and has no impact on the strength of the blade.

Kemper designed a Viking seax for the challenge, and the contestants had only three hours to complete their blades.

"To make anything in three hours is really, seriously challenging," he said. "It’s not really rational to try to make something that fast."

Kemper said he'll normally spend a whole week on a single knife, but he advanced through the competition's first two eliminations.

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In the final round of that episode, Kemper and one other contestant were sent back to their home forges to build a knightly poleaxe, a medieval weapon consisting of an ax blade, a hammer and a spike at the end of a stake.

Kemper won the challenge, and after the episode aired, he got an email from a new customer who wanted his own knightly poleaxe.

"The thing nobody knows or really realizes? It’s 140 degrees in that shop during the competition," he said. "Because there’s like, four forges going, (and) the doors are closed because it’s a sound stage."

Kemper made it to the final championship round but was eliminated after a mishap with a broken blade.

Still, he said he doesn't regret the experience.

The episodes are available to watch online through a cable provider at history.com/shows.

If you go: Kemper will be at the Lancaster Muzzle Loading Rifle Association show, where knives, swords, guns and other hunting equipment will be displayed for sale.

The show is Saturday, Feb. 2, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 3, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Farm and Home Center, 1383 Arcadia Road in Lancaster. Parking is free. There's a $5 suggested donation for admission.