William Francis “Bill” Moran Jr., an innovator in custom knifemaking, died on Feb. 12 of cancer. He was 80.
The Maryland native began making knives when he was only 12 years old. Working in a smithy on his father’s dairy farm, Moran used discarded tools as his main source of steel. By the time he reached his teens, he had learned how to form, temper and heat treat the blades into homemade knives.
Moran dropped out of high school in the ninth grade and earned a living as a farmer, even as he continued honing his knifemaking skills. By 1958, however, Moran’s reputation as a bladesmith allowed him to sell the farm and make knives full-time. He built his own forge using stones taken from the fences on his family’s farm.
Moran always placed an emphasis on quality over quantity, and preferred to give each blade an individual sense of intricate and artistic beauty. By the mid-1960s, there was a four-year waiting list for one of his hand-forged creations. The backlog of requests eventualy grew so large that Moran finally stopped accepting down payments — the demand for his work simply exceeded the amount of knives he could create in a single lifetime. In response, the popularity of his knives skyrocketed, as did the prices for them in the collecting world. One of his Bowie knives, named for 19th-century pioneer and soldier Jim Bowie, recently sold for $30,000.
Known as “The Father of Modern Damascus,” Moran was credited with reinventing Damascus steel, a highly specialized craft of forge-welding that dates back to the Middle Ages. He was the subject of several books, including “Moran: Fire and Steel,” by Wayne V. Holter and “Master of the Forge” by B.R. Hughes and C. Houston Price. In 1976, he co-founded the American Bladesmith Society, and served as its chairman for 15 years.
Moran was inducted into the Knifemakers Hall of Fame in 1986. He was entered into the American Bladesmith Society Hall of Fame a decade later. The Moran School of Bladesmithing was opened in Washington, Ark., in 1988.
The world-renowned artisan loved telling jokes, chewing tobacco and playing with his dogs. He spent the final years of his life forging knives and teaching knife-making skills at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y. Moran willed his forge and tools to the Frederick County Landmarks Foundation. A museum featuring these items is being planned in Frederick, Md.