BY DAVID RYALS
Rachel Oliver describes her work on the History Channel’s reality show “Forged in Fire” as “grueling and surreal.” She fought long and hard – filming for 10-15 hours a day on set – and won second place during season four of the show.
“It was the most exhilarating, exhausting, exciting, humbling experience of my life to date,” said Oliver, who recently returned home to Wyandotte from Brooklyn, New York where the show was filmed. “I learned so much about myself in the short amount of time I had. My work was critiqued by world-renowned bladesmiths. The amount of stress and effort that comes with competitions and working on a TV show, as well as working with bladesmiths and blacksmiths with many more years of experience than I have – and being able to hold my own against them.”
“Forged in Fire” is an original competition series hosted by weapons expert and U.S. Army and Air Force veteran Wil Willis, featuring world-class bladesmiths competing to create history’s most iconic edged weapons using a wide range of metalworking equipment including propane and coal forges, grinders, power hammers and hydraulic presses. In each episode, four of the nation’s finest bladesmiths come together to put their skill and reputations on the line, trying to avoid elimination and win the $10,000 prize.
“There were some times I wasn’t sure I was going to make it out alive,” said Oliver, who manages a rare adrenal deficiency that affects her cortisol and hormone levels. This condition affects her heat tolerance and creates a poor response to stress. A little sleep in between shoots made the unbearable possible for Oliver as did her motivation to compete.
“It was one of the greatest places to be as this is the place that many of my bladesmithing heroes have competed and I’m standing with them,” she said. Oliver is well aware that bladesmithing has long been a predominantly male craft, but she thinks it’s “amazing” to make a living forging knives, blades, and weapons.
“The majority of the guys have been real cool about me entering the world. They’ve been even cooler about not cutting me slack just because I am a woman. If I make a poor quality blade be it aesthetically or physically, they let me know, no frills,” she said. “They treat me as an equal and that is, in itself, an honor.”
When it comes to knowing other women in the smithing field, Oliver said, “Unfortunately, I only know one, personally. Most women I am familiar with do another method that doesn’t require forging, a more modern technique known as ‘stock removal’ – equally as valid, simply different.”
“Forged In Fire” encourages diversity in the industry. The History Channel’s VP and head of programming and development, Tim Healy, told Decider in February 2016 that, “I don’t want to shoehorn in female characters for the sake of having female characters. So what’s really important to us as a brand is the level of authenticity. I think as a network we’re constantly striving to be more diverse and to expand the range of our characters, but it really comes down to that authenticity.”
Becoming a Bladesmith
Oliver spent much of her youth exploring Michigan’s wilderness with her father. “My dad raised us as adventurers in the woods, camping, living as minimalists, relying on our planet, aka bushcrafting,” she said. After working in a big-box store and learning about the bushcraft knife, Oliver said she “fell in love with the blade style and started researching anything I could to learn more about this world of handmade knives from the adventurers to the chefs in the kitchen.”
As her life and work progressed so did her self-awareness. Oliver identifies as a genderqueer lesbian.
“Some days, I feel unlike either gender and use the family bathroom. Other days, I want to doll up my eyes and feel like a woman. I’m me with a splash of fire and sass,” she said. Now that Oliver is back home, settling into her groove, she and her girlfriend will be building a new forge and revamping her basement-style operation, BlackTagMi, where she will continue producing blades of all cuts, shapes and purposes using reclaimed steels and repurposed woods.
“I will be repairing my Kachin Dao from the show, as well as forging a new one, as a nod to my knowledge and abilities gained since competing on the show,” she said. “I feel this has given me a new outlook, a personal connection and appreciation of this time-honored craft.”