Evansville Blacksmith Forging a Path in the Tool Making World [Tour de Tri-State]
When you head to the hardware store or some big box store to grab a knife, axe, or garden tool, I imagine it was made in a factory somewhere by machines designed to crank out hundreds, if not thousands, of them a day. Will they do the job? Yes. For a while anyway. But, like most mass-produced products, quality is sacrificed for the sake of quantity. However, there was a time when each and every one of those tools would have been made by hand. Forged from raw steel by a blacksmith using nothing but fire and the strength of their arms to hammer them into whatever shape they needed to be. For one Evansville blacksmith, doing it the old-fashioned way is the only way.
30-year-old Benton Frisse first caught the blacksmithing bug from his stepdad, Wayne, who has been working with steel and iron himself since the 1970s welding and shoeing horses. Fascinated by the profession, Benton began working alongside Wayne making horseshoes at age 11. He continued to learn all he could from Wayne before heading to Maine where he attended the New England School of Metalwork on scholarship and became a professional blacksmith in 2012. He hasn't looked back since.
Blacksmithing is in His Genes
While being introduced to blacksmithing by Wayne, Benton is also tied to the profession by blood. His first cousin, James Poag was a knife maker and engraver that Benton told me was "one of the best in the country" when I spoke to him at the forge he shares with Wayne out in the St. Joe area of Evansville's west side recently. According to Benton, James' was commissioned by corporate CEOs to make custom knives for their own personal use and collections. James passed away in 2015 at the age of 72, but a piece of him lives on as Benton was able to keep the engraver he used to make intricate designs on the knives he forged. One of those knives was put up for auction back in 2011 and can still be seen on the Cowan's Auctions website.
Hollywood Connecticut Calls
I first became familiar with Benton back in 2019 after finding out he was appearing on an episode of one of my favorite shows, Forged in Fire. It's like Food Network's Chopped, but instead of chefs, the contestants are blacksmiths and bladesmiths, and instead of cooking food, they make knives, swords, and other weapons from scratch. The winner each week gets the title of Forged in Fire champion, and a check for $10,000.
Producers reached out to Benton to ask if he'd be interested in doing the show after finding him on Instagram. Obviously, he said yes, so they flew him out to Connecticut where he filmed episode 27 of season 6 <SLIGHT SPOILER> where he made it to the final round and was tasked with recreating an Indian Bhuj, an early 19th-century weapon that is part sword, part axe, and features a hidden dagger in the handle. The full episode is available on the History Channel website as well as Netflix if you'd like to see how he did.
These days Benton splits his time between his day job at Bristol Meyers, and the forging axes at his forging business that he started in 2017, River City Forge & Tool, which operates out of a barn on his mom's and Wayne's property. There is makes mostly axes but will also forge the occasional knife and pry bar. All of which he sells through his website to people around the world. Axes he's crafted are being used right now by people in Ireland and Austria in addition to those being sold to people right here in the U.S.
More Than a Job
I spent about two hours with Benton at the forge and it's clear by the way he talks about forging that it's not a job or a hobby, it's a passion. He told me he's always been the type that wanted to try new things, but once the novelty of the new experience wore off, he moved on to the next thing. That's not the case with forging. I could hear it in his voice when he spoke, I could see it in his body language, when he's in that world, he's like a kid after seeing his first monster truck show in person. He's animated, there's emotion in his voice. It's what he lives for.
You can see all the products Benton has to offer at River City Forge.com