CHEYENNE, Wyo. — On an unusually warm morning in early February, James Rodebaugh has just finished up welding a piece of metal in his “office.”
His office isn’t like most others, though. Instead of getting up early every morning and heading out to work, Rodebaugh walks the 20-feet into his backyard to the massive building that sits behind his house.
It’s a large workshop filled to the brim with all types of equipment including two six-foot tall power hammers, a couple of forges, a 300-lb. anvil and scores of metal bars of various lengths. It smells like smoke inside since Rodebaugh just put down his blowtorch. The thin, wispy clouds billow away quickly in the large room.
“People tell me what I do is an art, but I don’t think that’s the case,” he said. “I don’t consider myself an artist. I think of myself as a craftsman.”
Rodebaugh is dressed in a darkly colored long-sleeved button down shirt and jeans, but his outfit is hidden behind a long beige apron, almost like coveralls. The middle of his protective gear has turned black due to his constant work with fire and various metals. He tops it all off with a cowboy hat. The overall effect is the perfect image of a typical Wyoming working man.
Rodebaugh is a bladesmith, someone who makes swords, knives and other types of blades. He holds a “master” distinction in the craft, the highest accolade you can receive within the American Bladesmith Society. He’s one of 126 masters in the entire world and he lives and works in the little city of Carpenter, Wyoming.
As a child, Rodebaugh made his own crude knives that he would use while trapping small animals. While they weren’t refined pieces, he never lost that love for working with his hands and getting dirty.
It just took a little while for him to get back on that path though.
Two decades ago, he was living in California and enjoying a comfortable life with his and kids. He had a steady career and made good money, but his job with the Federal Bureau of Prisons was taking a colossal toll on his mental state.
During this time, his son asked him to make him a new knife. Rodebaugh immediately jumped at the chance to go back to making knives, ones that were much finer than the crude ones he’d craft as a child.
“I got a propane torch, a claw hammer and a vice and I forged out a knife,” he said. “I made this little knife for my son, who loved it. But, while I was working on it, another guy saw this knife and told me he liked what I’d done and asked me to make him one, too.”
It took him a week to create and he sold the piece for around $25.
He decided that if he was going to start a small side business making knives, he would need to refine his methods, since — he admits — he didn’t really understand what he was doing.
He started researching as much as possible, finding every book he could get his hands on. It took two years before he went back to making knives regularly. When he did, he finally felt that he had enough knowledge to make the best quality knives he could.
He bought a forge, obtained an anvil and started to work on making Damascus steel, a complicated process that involves using two types of steel to make a blade and is known for its intricate pattern. Creating a Damascus knife was one of Rodebaugh’s earliest goals.
“That was my driving passion at the time,” he said. “No one showed me how to do Damascus. I just wanted to do it. Surprisingly, there were no flaws in that first knife and it turned out pretty well, especially considering my skill level at the time. I gave my first Damascus knife to my dad and when he passed away, he left it to me.'”
Rodebaugh started showing off his work at various knife shows and started getting more and more offers for his blades. For someone who’d only been making these pieces for a couple years, this was mind-blowing.
By January 1999, he decided to resign from his “real” job after nearly two decades in the field. It wasn’t worth the stress anymore.
Rodebaugh was finally going to follow his heart and become a bladesmith full time.
Within five years, he would manage to move up in the ranks from apprentice to journeyman to a master bladesmith.
“When you walk into the room to be judged to become a master, it’s hard,” he said. “Usually, you’re standing in front of your knife-making heroes. I went through Marine boot camp, I’ve been in some pretty tight spots and I’d rank my master judging as one of the scariest moments of my life.”
When he finally became a master, he was so relieved, he almost got sick.
In the 14 years since he received this prestigious merit, Rodebaugh has become one of the most respected men in the bladesmith community. He regularly travels the country, speaking about being a bladesmith and even teaching classes on how to make knives.
He’s gotten exactly what he wanted: making blades full time. While it’s not the easiest work he’s ever done, he finds it incredibly relaxing.
He doesn’t have a website advertising the knives, swords and other pieces he sells. He mainly gets work through word-of-mouth and talking with people at various gun and knife shows.
Friend and neighbor Cody Smith has bought a couple of Rodebaugh’s knives and has nothing but good things to say about their craftsmanship, and the man who makes them.
“I was skeptical at first, because I figured a knife is a knife is a knife,” he said. “But, once I got one of his knives and started using it, I was amazed. Now that I’ve used Jim’s knives, I’ve realized that we’re accustomed to mediocrity. He has no issue selling his knives and he has a wait list, so I honestly hope I’m lucky enough to be a customer of his again one day.”
For someone who began making blades out of his garage to now having a large operation behind his home, Rodebaugh is living the dream in a tiny town close to the Nebraska state line.
“If you make a superb product and you’re an honest businessperson, people will come to you,” he said. “People aren’t just buying a knife from me — they’re buying a part of my life, a story. These pieces reflect my personality, my work ethic. They reflect me.”
Information from: Wyoming Tribune Eagle, http://www.wyomingnews.com