Dragon’s Breath Forge, Wolcott
Swords. Knives. All kinds of swords and knives. Types of swords and knives that no one not deeply involved in the world of swords and knives have ever heard of. And who, pray tell, is “deeply involved in the world of swords and knives” in our little state?
Matt Parkinson for one. A terrifying mountain of a man with asbestos-concrete hands. I mean, just look at this dude.
Matt has spent his whole life working with his hands, from trade school to blacksmithing to winning prestigious competitions on television. He’s made countless weapons that can kill people. Kill people dead.
Knowing that, I was scared to reach out to Dragon’s Breath Forge for a visit. I mean… just look at me. I can barely hold a sword, let alone make one. But I was nearing the end of my journey through Wolcott and anyone seeking to “complete” everything to do in the town obviously needs to pay Matt and his smithing partners a visit. Obviously.
After a few email back-and-forths, a date and time was set. I had my friend Kevin with me. Strength in numbers. Maybe… maybe the two of us could combine to make up one manly man and hold our own at the Forge. Talk about hammer presses and lathes and all that. Maybe.
Dragon’s Breath is tucked away on a hillside above Route 69 near the Waterbury border. You have to know where you’re going as you’re not going to find this place by accident. We entered but saw no one. Kevin was ready to leave.
Through a messy office area, we were officially trespassing now. In a place full of deadly weapons. I was determined. We, ahem, forged ahead. Into the shop.
Wow. It’s cavernous and full of machinery and the musky smells of oil and metal and fire and sweat. I work with large datasets and research life insurance stuff for a living. My hobby is writing about museums. I was out of my depth.
“Hello? Scary dude? Hellooooo?”
We heard a rustling and scary dude appeared from the pits of hell. As he approached he grew larger and larger; each hand was Mjölnir unto itself. My friend Kevin, a former cop, hid behind me.
“Hi guys, welcome to Dragon’s Breath Forge. Great to meet you.”
Disarming. Downright charming. Great ruse. I kept up my guard.
Scary dude stroked his beard and wiped his hands on his well-worn work pants. What was he wiping off? Goat entrails? Orc blood? Molten steel drippings?
It was a nice honey dijon from his demi-baguette. We could exhale.
Matt Parkinson is the super talented, humble, hilarious, family man who is part of the small fraternity of blacksmiths, bladesmiths, and metalworkers who are more than happy to make knives and swords for a living. He’s also one of the nicest people I’ve met on this decades-long journey of meeting nice and passionate people.
Dragon’s Breath Forge is a partnership of three Forged In Fire Champions, Jamie Lundell, Matthew Parkinson, and Matthew Berry. Forged in Fire is a History Channel competition show where men (it’s always men) are tasked with making certain types of swords and knives in a set amount of time. In the world of bladesmithing these guys are superstars.
I asked Matt, “Are you, like, famous in this world?” He sheepishly admitted that yes, indeed he is. We only met Matt, as the others were not there. Everything they make is hand-forged and one of a kind and refined to meet their high quality standards.
I cannot impress upon you how accomplished these guys are. The are members of the American Bladesmith Society, the Society for Creative Anachronism, and the Artist Blacksmith Association of North America. Their work has been published around the world and they give workshops and lectures across the country. And all three appeared on that Forged in Fire show and won competitions. (I learned that this is a pretty small and friendly fraternity; it seemed like Matt knew every other bladesmith at his level in the country – and that they pretty much were all friends.)
We got a tour of the shop. Matt is super proud of his shop. Much of the equipment just looked like regular machining machines to me, but I learned that the lathes and other things I don’t know the names of are top of the line. One tool is able do whatever it does with almost imperceptible precision. Matt was very proud of that tool, and I was proud of Kevin for understanding the conversation. Matt said something about a lathe being the only machining tool that can make itself. It is known as “The King of Tools.”
I didn’t even know what that meant, so I just went down a fascinating rabbit hole that began as a simple discussion of lathes and their history and wound up in a weird matrix of self-replicating lathes and 3D printers somehow tied into making babies. But I’m back here now. With you. Just wanted to share this from somewhere “out there”:
The lathe is known as the King of Machine Tools for a reason. There are very few things that you can’t make with one. In fact, people love to utter the old saw that the lathe is the only machine tool that can make itself. While catchy, I think that’s a bit disingenuous. It’s more accurate to say that there are parts in all machine tools that (arguably) only a lathe can make. In that sense, the lathe is the most “fundamental” machine tool. Before you harbor dreams of self-replication, however, know that most of an early lathe would be made by hand scraping the required flat surfaces. So no, a lathe can’t make itself really, but a lathe and a skilled craftsperson with a hand-scraper sure can. In fact, if you’ve read the The Metal Lathe by David J. Gingery, you know that a lathe is instrumental in building itself while you’re still working on it.
Next, we checked out some swords. I was surprised at how light swords actually are. I had it in my head that they’d be these monstrously heavy medieval broadswords like Conan carried. Swords are pretty cool. The precision work that goes into them, and the edging and etching is incredibly intricate and impressive. These things sometimes take months.
My wife had asked a question knowing I was going here: “Who the heck is buying swords?” Matt’s custom order backlog is years long and in fact as of December 2022, he wasn’t taking any more orders. Awesome, but who the heck is buying swords?
Turns out, there are lots of people from Renaissance Faire nerds to collectors to people who just like swords. I then learned about the Sikhs. Sikhism is an Indian religion that originated in the Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent, around the end of the 15th century CE. It is the most recently founded major organized faith and stands at fifth-largest worldwide, with about 25–30 million adherents (known as Sikhs) as of the early 21st century. It was developed from the spiritual teachings of Guru Nanak (1469–1539), and… that’s enough.
Anyway, Sikhs love swords. Sikh weddings require fancy swords. Expensive, fancy swords. “My partner just completed some swords for a Sikh wedding. $60,000 dollars worth I think. Oh, we love the Sikhs here,” said Matt with true feeling. I just looked and yeah, every image of a Sikh wedding, the groom is holding a fancy sword. Like this:
In reality, Matt sells more culinary and chef’s knives than swords and weaponry.
My son Calvin had a question too: “Can you get me a katana?”
“Matt, can my son have a katana?”
“No. I hate [bleeping] katanas. Oh I can make them. And I have made them. I had to make one for the TV competition. But I hate them.”
Oh. Okay. Swords are not just swords. Different types contain different steel alloys and are… just different. And apparently katanas are made in such a way that Matt dislikes. He does not like the Japanese aesthetic. Too light. Too delicate. Looking at Matt, I can understand that. No 3-year waitlisted katana for my 11-year-old son then.
One of us made the required Highlander reference which led to the required Highlander movies and television series conversation. Once again, I was out of my depth, but this time I had backup. In an effort to increase my cred with Matt, I secretly texted an expert:
That’s my girl.
About halfway through our tour and sprawling conversation, I realized that Hoang would actually have loved being here with us. She likes making stuff and would certainly appreciate the art and artistry involved with what Dragon Forge does. But she also knows a few things about knives, and as we moved past the massive hammer press – which was fixed by “the only guy in America who can do it. He’s from Texas and he had to come live here for a month to do it.” – and into the classroom, we focused our conversation on Matt’s journey.
After seeing a blacksmith at Old Sturbridge Village as a little kid, he was fascinated with forging and smithing. He never wavered from that path, short of a short stint at a factory somewhere. He first made knives and swords for Renaissance Faires before opening his own forge which became this place, and here we are. Matt’s work has been featured in Blade Magazine, Knives Illustrated, Knife Magazine, Messer, Excalibur, Knives Annual, and Pirate Quarterly.
There can’t be something called Pirate Quarterly. That has to be a lie.
We were shown the showroom, which is really just a closet. Matt, and I presume his partners, sell random stuff through etsy. He kept dropping terms like Damascus and Gyota and I pretended to understand. There were rings with male and female genitalia, which is supposedly some Viking tradition or something.
We wound up talking about chef’s knives and German vs. Japanese for the higher end mass-market options. Matt learned my wife is Vietnamese and therefore knew my mother-in-law likely uses scissors instead of knives for many things. He began talking differences in cuisines and how knives followed suit. He mentioned certain Japanese knife styles and how a full Japanese high-end kitchen would have dozens of knife types, each for very specific tasks. His pronunciation of Japanese and Chinese words was on point. We talked French kitchens and German boars and different serrations on steak knives.
The conversation was easy and interesting. We laughed naturally at each other’s jokes. We had high-minded discussions of cross-cultural similarities (the need to eat food and therefore cut food) and lowbrow jokes about Naruto and The Princess Bride. It was a great hour for me – I won’t pretend Matt or Kevin felt the same though.
If you’re remotely interested in making your own knife or similar, I encourage you to sign up for one of the courses here and give it a go. Trust me. Matt loves what he does. No matter how dirty or hot or frustrating it gets, he loves it. I’ll leave you with a quote of his from the Dragon’s Breath Forge website:
It is not my goal to be the best at any one thing, I do not desire to be the “best bowie” maker or “best damascus” maker. I want to be very good at a wide range. I want to be able to make anything, to be able to dive deeply into whatever form interests me. What ever calls to me, for me this work is a calling and a huge part of that calling is to pass on what I know.
I teach, I work, I learn, I am a smith.