Heart of Steel: How an Ancient Craft Has Evolved

By Mark Rotundo

“I have a saying that every knife you make cuts you. Making good shit hurts.”

Theodore Nazz, a Brooklyn son and bladesmith, is someone who has always relished in the hurt.

The ultimate drive for a human being is the will to create. To create means to take a piece of yourself and put that into a piece of the Earth. 

For millennia, the human condition was defined as such. From the moment we discovered fire we have done nothing but create. From our creations came the advent of civilization and organized society. 

The unnamed founders of human civilization came not in the form of warriors or kings, but rather from the craftsmen. The farmers, the leatherworkers, the potters, the poets and most especially the blacksmiths.

Justin Kirck, a former “Forged in Fire” contestant, works with Theo in his Brooklyn forge and can be seen working on a blade.

Blacksmithing is a craft that can be traced back to as early as the Chalcolithic Era and the Bronze Age, approximately 7,000 years ago. 

Theo is one of countless others who have continued to pass on this ancient trade.

As a child he learned the value of working with his hands. His father and mother, a carpenter and painter respectively, were the ones to plant that seed of creativity that bloomed into the man Theo is today.

“As a child I always had a stick in hand and was pretending it was a sword. I didn’t realize that people still did knife making and sword smithing until later on.”

Theodore Nazz

His first project was in high school, when he attempted to turn a stainless steel ruler from the art supply store he worked into a sword. The final result was what he described in a former interview as something that did not really “act” like a sword.

Theo pointed out that this made him learn that, like any craft, your first steps should be slow and that to become good takes practice.

He would take his artistic instinct to college, where he attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan for 3D computer animation. In between the hustle and bustle of the average metropolitan college student, he would freelance as a designer for different companies.

After college he traveled to the United Kingdom to study for six months under Owen Bush, a master bladesmith who was featured in  Sky History’s “Forged in Britain” video series. 

In 2017, Theo’s advanced skill landed him a spot as a contestant in the History channel’s “Forged in Fire” bladesmithing competition TV show. There he crafted a “naginata”, a Japanese bladed pole weapon that earned him the title of champion and $10,000 in prize money. He returned later that year to the show where he earned the title of Champion of Champions and another cash prize.

Justin Kirck can be seen performing a “quench”, a common blacksmithing technique to rapidly cool a piece of hot metal back to room temperature to avoid malformations.

“Forged and Fire was a great experience,” Theo said. “They did a great job of making the competition impartial and fun at the same time.”

He noted how the competition allowed him to meet some great bladesmiths he calls friends today, adding how even in a competition setting, it’s hard to “draw the drama out of a bladesmith”.

“You end up getting a lot of positivity,” Theo said. “It’s hard for people to shit-talk one another when you have such immense respect for what the other person does.”

This prize money allowed him to fully pursue bladesmithing as a career where he started his journey teaching to other wide-eyed, prospective students.

He opened his school in Brooklyn in 2017 and established himself in Industry City. His school currently employs four teachers from different walks of life, including other “Forged in Fire” contestants. 

“I’ve always enjoyed teaching. I feel like I’m good at it. But also, I get a lot out of it. I think it makes me a better blacksmith.”

His lessons start students off with a simple bottle opener all the way through to a magnificent longsword. Theo has taught students from all varying backgrounds and ages. He has worked with people as young as 10 all the way to 80. 

Theo can be seen holding an unfinished longsword that a student had been working on pre-pandemic.

For Theo, he describes his need to teach as instinctual. He notes how as young as 12 he would help as a teaching assistant, before his dive into blacksmithing. Now in his late twenties, his teaching career and business ventures have led him to an obstacle that many business owners across the country have had to overcome: COVID-19.

“We had to shut down for quite some time,” Theo said. “For several months, we had to pause even just working on personal projects or commissions. And then we were slowly able to reopen for teachers to come in and work on their own projects or commissions.”

The transition has certainly been different for Theo and his coworkers. It wasn’t until November that Theo was able to reopen his school and even then his lessons have been primarily one-on-one lessons. 

On the window sill in his Brooklyn forge lay several unfinished pieces from students who have had to stop coming to the shop due to the pandemic.

Longswords, knives and bottle openers alike just waiting for the day their masters return to the forge.

Theo ultimately believes that he and his fellow bladesmiths will make it through the crisis, creating a safe environment for students that still fosters their creative potential.

For a craft like blacksmithing that has persisted through the centuries, it is easy to assume that the ancient craft has evolved. For Theo, he doesn’t seem to think so.

“Principle stays the same, get it hard and hit it. We just happen to add a lot of extra tools along the way that make things easier, a little faster and sometimes more safe.”

The ultimate lesson that he wants his students to learn, is a lesson in developing your creative potential and putting that into your work.

“What we do is both an art and a craft. And as a craftsperson, only the best will do. And as an artist, you only do your best work when you’re really in that zone. It’s important to be able to say, ‘today’s the day that I just organize and step back and get things ready.’ And when that feeling is there again, you’re ready to dive into it. And then you can do your best work.”

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