Following his work in education, John Summerhill decided to make bladesmithing a second career after he found success on the History channel’s “Forged in Fire.”

Following his work in education, John Summerhill decided to make bladesmithing a second career after he found success on the History channel’s “Forged in Fire.”

Photo by Brian Louwers


‘Strike while the iron’s hot’

Local man retires as educator, forges new path as a bladesmith after competition win

By: Brian Louwers | Metro | Published April 20, 2021

 John Summerhill uses a hammer to shape the blade of a chef’s knife made from Damascus steel. When it’s done, what started as a billet, or bar of steel, is a work of art.

John Summerhill uses a hammer to shape the blade of a chef’s knife made from Damascus steel. When it’s done, what started as a billet, or bar of steel, is a work of art.

Photo by Brian Louwers

 The temperature in the forge reaches 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit as John Summerhill removes a billet that will be pressed on a converted log splitter into a rough form of the day’s project.

The temperature in the forge reaches 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit as John Summerhill removes a billet that will be pressed on a converted log splitter into a rough form of the day’s project.

Photo by Brian Louwers

STERLING HEIGHTS — The forge heats up early in John Summerhill’s workshop.

The inferno reaches a temperature of up to 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit. Soon, he’s pressing hot steel on a converted log splitter into a rough form of the day’s project. He then hammers, tempers and grinds a blade that is later fitted with a handle and sharpened.

What’s left is a trusty dagger, a custom chef’s knife, a Viking axe or a legendary military weapon of war. Maybe today it’s a sword, sharp enough to slice through an upright pineapple without toppling it.   

It’s just another day at the office for Summerhill, 51, of Sterling Heights, a retired educator turned bladesmith at Big Daddy’s Hammerworks, his backyard shop. He’s teaching others the craft, taking custom orders and working to achieve the title of an American Bladesmith Society “Master Smith.”

So how does that career transition happen?

“I was watching the show, ‘Forged in Fire,’ and I just kind of asked myself the question, ‘I wonder if I could make a knife?’ From there it just started,” Summerhill explained.

He built his first forge out of a barbecue grill, fueled by charcoal and stoked with a leaf blower. A coal forge and an anvil came next, as his curiosity and study kept pushing his skill forward to the next level of smithery.

“From there, I started making some stuff. I watched a lot of videos on YouTube, doing a lot of research online. The first thing I actually made was a kitchen knife,” Summerhill said.

The art of making a real blade is about more than shaping the steel. It’s a science, a multistep process that transforms the physical characteristics of the metal by forging it, pressing it, heat-treating it in a 1,325-degree kiln, quenching it in oil and tempering it in the oven at a cool 400 degrees.

When it’s done, what started as a billet, or bar of steel — sometimes made of different kinds of steel that are layered, welded and forged together — is a work of art.

All of Summerhill’s exploration was inspired by the show. He learned by watching videos and reading through online forums.

“I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. You can find a lot of information if you’re willing to go and dig for it,” he said. “And then I watched the show. That was a huge part of learning to do this. I would have never really tried it or thought about it, had I not seen the show.”

Summerhill said he made that first knife at the end of 2017, about the time he started inquiring about an audition for “Forged in Fire.”

“I found an old email that was a couple years old at the time and just sent an email to that person. I didn’t have anything to lose,” he said. “I just kind of asked how to get on the show. They responded back the very first day and said, send us pictures of some of your knives.”

He’d only made one knife at that point, so he went to work in the shop and hammered out a portfolio of fine steel. It worked. He filmed an episode for “Forged in Fire” in September 2018. When it aired the following May, the bladesmithing world learned he had won his competition with three other smiths.

“I’m the least experienced smith that’s ever won on ‘Forged in Fire.’ It’s an amazing experience,” Summerhill said. “I was not ever expecting to win. I just wanted to do well and have a great experience. My thought process was, just try and get on and beat one person. It was one little step at a time.

“They asked me what I was going to do with the prize money,” Summerhill said. “I hadn’t thought about it. There was no anticipation of winning.”

The producers brought him back in December 2019 for a “Beat the Judges” competition that aired a month later. He finished second, but certainly didn’t lose.

During his career in education, Summerhill was a superintendent in Ishpeming, a teacher in the Van Dyke Public Schools district and an administrator in Center Line. He started down the bladesmith’s path because he was intrigued by the show. He decided to make it a second career when he found a degree of success.

About 100 people have taken Summerhill’s classes so far, usually one or two, and occasionally, three at a time. He hosts classes about three days a week. When he’s not teaching, he makes blades for custom orders and works on his Master Smith portfolio.

“I had watched the show ‘Forged in Fire’ quite a bit. I did some traveling for a while and always tried to find somewhere that I could make a blade,” said Kevin White, 31, who lives in Florida and has been working in metro Detroit. “When I got here, I came across his website and saw that he was on the show. I contacted him from that.”

White and his friend, Dustin Schultes, 30, from Alabama but now also working here, made axes with Summerhill first and came back to make chef’s knives from Damascus steel. The layered steel leaves a striking pattern on finished blades.   

Students typically spend 10 or 11 hours crafting a knife in a one-day class. Swords can take two days or longer to make.  

“You watch videos. With YouTube and the internet, you can pretty much learn the basics of just about anything. But there’s no real teacher like experience,” Summerhill said. “To come out and do it, that’s where you really start to pick things up. One of two things is going to happen. You’re either going to get better and you’re going to improve, or you’re going to be like, this is not for me, and stop doing it.  

“Strike while the iron’s hot,” Summerhill said. “This was a great opportunity, having experience on a competition that airs all over the world. I’m getting international orders now. I’m busy every single day.”

You can see more of Summerhill’s handiwork and learn about his classes at www.bigdaddyshammerworks.com.