Man of steel

Man of steel

Butler Rural Electric Cooperative member Bill Pyles gave himself a valuable piece of advice after a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: “Never say never.”

Back in 2016, Bill found himself lying on the couch, recovering from surgery to repair two collapsed vertebrae in his neck, which he believes resulted from years of demolition derbies and bull-riding, plus a few wrecked vehicles in his younger years. 

Doing the only thing he could at the time, he surfed TV channels in search of something interesting to keep himself occupied. That’s when he stumbled upon a marathon of the History Channel series Forged in Fire. In each episode of the competition, four bladesmiths compete in a three-round elimination contest to forge bladed weapons.

Bill Pyles taught himself the art of steel blademaking while he recuperated from surgery, and ended up as a champion on the competition series Forged in Fire, thanks to Damascus steel blades he created such as the one above.

Bill Pyles taught himself the art of steel blademaking while he recuperated from surgery, and ended up as a champion on the competition series Forged in Fire, thanks to Damascus steel blades he created such as the one above.

“After three days of (watching them make blades), I thought, ‘I bet I can do that,’” says Bill, a self-proclaimed tech geek who works for a company in California. 

As it turned out, he was right.

Bill has a wife, Judy (who now refers to herself as a forge widow), four kids, four dogs, and two cats. He’s been a volunteer firefighter for Milford Township for 23 years and is also a part-time beekeeper. He seems to excel at anything he sets his mind to.

After he talked to his wife, he purchased his first small forge for $150. He already had everything else he needed.

“I started out using lawn mower blades,” Bill says. “I took any scrap steel I could get my hands on to determine whether or not forging was a hobby that would stick.”

As it turns out, it did. In 2020, Bill named his forging enterprise Overkill Knife Works, a reference to his road name with the Fire & Iron Motorcycle Club, a group of  firefighters, first responders, and EMS workers.

Forging quickly became his stress relief. After a long day of work, he’d head out to his workshop, turn the music up loud, and create unique blades out of scrap steel. He eventually began creating blades from high-carbon, Damascus steel, which is easily recognizable by its wavy patterned design. “I usually start with 8 to 12 layers, stacked up and welded together on the corners,” says Bill. “I heat it to 2,000 degrees, then slowly squish it down into one solid mass. Then I draw it out and chop it all up, and repeat the process — heat, beat, and repeat.”

Most of Bill’s projects use 128 to 256 layers of steel. “My favorite part is taking a tiny stack of steel and turning it into something everyone calls absolutely beautiful,” Bill says. “Dipping the piece in the oil (quenching), pulling it out, and seeing what the final product looks like, that’s my joy.” 

Bill used to do woodworking before he started forging.  “It was great because I could use a blank piece of wood and turn it into scroll saw art,” Bill says. “It gives me the capability to be quite creative, and I’m able to do that now with forging.”

Bill never thought he would forge Damascus steel. He never thought he’d make a sword. And he certainly never thought he’d compete on Forged in Fire. But now, he works almost exclusively with Damascus steel. He has a sword that hangs in his workshop, and he not only managed to make it onto Forged in Fire, but he won. “If there’s anything I’ve learned it’s that I’ll never use the term ‘never’ when it comes to anything,” Bill laughs. “Because somehow, some way, I always end up doing whatever it is.”

When Forged in Fire put out a casting call in August 2021, “I asked myself, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’”

He began talking with producers in late October that year. “It was a long process to get to the competition, but in late November they called and said, ‘Can you be here on Dec. 3 for filming?’” Bill says.

Bill flew to Stamford, Connecticut, where he competed against three other contestants in three different challenges, the first of which involved a knife brought from home, the second being the creation of a push dagger, and lastly, creating a replica blade from a past Forged in Fire champion.

Bill’s episode — season 9, episode 7 — aired on     May 25, 2022. He took home $10,000 as the episode’s champion and was the winner of Forged in Fire’s first-ever Knife Fight.

“I had a blast, even though it was one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done,” he says. “I have made some lifelong friendships with the smiths that I competed against.”

The gloves he wore during the competition included encouraging messages from his family. They were highlighted during a segment of the show and signed by the judges and hosts.

“Immediately after Forged in Fire, I had orders coming in,” says Bill. “Anything from letter openers to skinning and kitchen knives.” 

Bill continues to stay connected with those he met during his Forged in Fire experience. However, when Forged in Fire asked if he’d come back, Bill said he chose his words wisely and responded with “maybe.”