As you might expect, I am always on the lookout for puzzles on television.
Sometimes, a complete solvable puzzle appears, like in the seesaw brain teaser from Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Sometimes, they’re only referenced, like in a murder mystery involving a crossword editor on Bones.
But I didn’t expect to stumble across a puzzle in an episode of Forged in Fire.
For the uninitiated, Forged in Fire is a reality competition show on the History Channel where blademakers show off their smithing prowess by forging knives, swords, and other bladed weapons for a panel of judges.
A typical episode consists of four competitors given a material to work with, and challenged to create a weapon of their choosing. They work on the set — known as The Forge — and at the end of the first round, they present their preliminary design, and one competitor is eliminated.
The remaining three continue working to refine their blades in round two, and at the end of that round, after the blades are subjected to testing by the judges, another competitor is sent home.
In the third round, the two remaining competitors return to their home workshops/forges to create a different weapon entirely from scratch.
But that was not how things went in episode 33 of season 7, entitled “Japanese Ono.”
Instead of building a blade of their choosing from a given material, the four bladesmiths were challenged to craft a blade that would fit a particular shape.
They were each given the same amount of raw material, and they would have to shape it to fit a very specific design.
Yes, their finished blade had to be the final piece in a jigsaw puzzle.
So their challenge was twofold. Not only did they have to exercise extreme resource management — they had only enough raw material to fill the space — but they had to exhibit the skill and finesse to make the steel bend and shape to fit the necessary design.
These are two skills that many puzzle solvers are familiar with. Whether you’re dealing with a mechanical brain teaser by filling a particular space with various unwieldy or oddly-shaped pieces OR you’re trying to accomplish a task in a riddle with only simple ingredients, you’ve probably been in a similar situation.
Just not at 2000 degrees Fahrenheit.
The four competitors were Nic, Logan, Keaton, and Dale, each with five to six years’ experience bladesmithing.
They had three hours for the first round of the competition, which would focus on shaping the knife to fit the puzzle.
Dale and Keaton immediately welded their metal in preparation for putting it into the forges, while Logan grabbed a sheet of paper to trace the shape of the knife in the jigsaw puzzle.
Keaton soon joined him, and they helped each other trace, which highlighted one of my favorite things about this show. Unlike so many reality shows where backstabbing and mean-spiritedness win the day, this one is all about competing against yourself. The blacksmiths aren’t sabotaging each other, they’re simply trying to do their best. We need more of that on TV.
Soon, all four blacksmiths had their pattern, following Logan’s lead.
Then, it was a blur of pressing and hammering their heated metal into shape, followed by quenching, grinding, and other steps in the preparation process.
Nic and Logan were making good progress, but Dale was unhappy with how his metal was turning out, so he abandoned his current billet and started over from scratch.
The judges noted that Keaton was the only bladesmith who kept returning to the jigsaw to trace and retrace his shape as he worked.
But viewers would have to wait to see if that technique paid off.
When Logan went to check his blade against the puzzle template, he discovered his blade was too long, so he cut off about four inches of extra metal.
You may recall that the judges said there was just enough metal to fill the space.
Yeah. This plot point would come up later.
But he wasn’t the only smith who had issues. Nic’s blade didn’t come out to the shape he wanted, and the judges joked it looked like an oar. Keaton quenched his blade three times (rather than one) to deal with various problems, but risked stress fractures in the blade by doing so.
And just as the judges complimented Dale for his come-from-behind effort, he actually dropped his blade into the quenching liquid. By dipping his arm in to retrieve it, he coated his arm in a potentially flammable oil mixture. He basically turned his arm and sleeve into a potential wick.
Good thing he brought a spare shirt.
Soon, the three hours were up, and the bladesmiths presented their blades to the judges to see how they’d fit into the puzzle.
Dale’s blade was a decent fit, particularly considering he had to start over partway through, ending up 30-40 minutes behind his fellow competitors. But the judges warned him about several cracks in his blade that would need to be addressed in the second round.
Keaton’s blade fit nicely, showing that the multiple tracings served him well. In the end, his blade would end up as the best fit of the four.
Logan’s blade was well-shaped, and actually followed the pattern nicely. It was simply too small, because he wasted metal early by making the blade too long and then cutting off the “excess.” Judge Doug Marcaida couldn’t even let the blade sit in the puzzle like the others, because it would fall out.
Finally, Nic’s blade was solid and well-made, but just doesn’t fit the pattern, either toward the hilt or along the edge. Beyond that, there was a big crack near the tip of the blade.
The shape alone was reason enough for Nic to be eliminated.
And then there were three.
In round two, the remaining bladesmiths had two hours to address the problems raised by the judges, refine their blades, AND use two different kinds of handle material on each side of the tang (the metal on the back end of the knife) to make the handle.
Plus a harsher test awaited each blade in round two, as the blades would be subjected to chopping a bone (to test its strength) and slicing a series of apples (to see how the blade retains its sharpness).
Logan and Keaton focused on grinding out the issues with their blades, while Dale had to try to weld shut the cracks in his blade to ensure it would endure the strength test. But in doing so, he noticed more cracks. “It’s make-it-or-break-it time,” he told us, prophetically.
While Dale was still grinding, Logan had moved on to choosing materials for the handle, focusing on building a resilient knife and worrying less about appearances.
As Keaton worked on his handle, it turned out that he viewed this — getting the different materials to line up correctly and fit the design — as the puzzliest part of the whole endeavor.
He also confessed that he didn’t pay much attention to which materials he chose — he just wanted it to look like a puzzle.
Soon enough, the two hours had expired, and the three bladesmiths presented their refined blades to the judges for the dreaded bone chop test.
The judge, J. Neilson, happily slammed each of the knives against these unforgiving bones, interested in seeing what damage the bones inflicted on the blades and how the blades weathered his treatment of them. This would test not only the overall strength of the blade, but how well they retained their edge.
Logan’s blade was first for testing, and it went through the first bone like butter. The next five swings of the knife barely made an impression on the second bone. But Neilson complemented the handle design (which allowed for a secure grip), even though the knife had some pitting and metal tearing from the test.
Much like Logan’s blade, Keaton’s blade went through the first bone and was chewed up by the second. He lost some of his handle in the testing, and his blade showed similar damage to Logan’s, but again, the blade mostly held up against the strenuous field test.
I actually liked Dale’s handle design the most. It looked and felt like pieces of a jigsaw put together, and really fit the aesthetic of the episode’s theme.
Unfortunately, one chop into the testing, despite slicing through the first bone, Dale’s blade catastrophically failed.
So Logan and Keaton moved on to the final round, where the puzzly theme fell away and the episode’s actual title came into play.
The two bladesmiths were given four days in their home workshops/forges to build a Japanese ono, a double-headed battle-axe used by samurai in Japan during the 17th century.
Logan, based in Bryan, Texas, and Keaton, based in Nantucket, Mass, set out to recreate this unfamiliar weapon.
Similar to his approach with the puzzle knife, Logan’s technique again involved cutting off the excess metal, but this time, he then stacked the extra metal to reforge and weld to make the large, unusually-shaped blade.
Keaton, meanwhile, focused on using a single piece of metal and shaping each end into one of the blades.
On Day 2, Logan’s blade shattered, and he had to start over from scratch. As it turned out, his welds failed to hold the blade together.
[Logan’s finished second effort.]
Meanwhile, Keaton quenched his axe head and was overjoyed with how it turned out. He had ample time to cast heart-shaped ornamentation out of bronze for the axe while working on the handle.
After the four days had elapsed, they returned to The Forge and presented their blades for testing. Each Japanese ono was tested against a ballistic gel dummy (to test lethality), a bamboo wall (to test strength and resilience) and a series of water-filled plastic tubes (to see how well it retained its edge).
Both blades performed well, but in terms of balance, design, and execution, Keaton’s was considered the superior blade, and he won the day, becoming a Forged in Fire champion and winning $10,000.
While this wasn’t the traditional sort of puzzling we usually cover in a Puzzles in Pop Culture post, I do feel like the ingenuity, problem-solving, and resource management shown by each of the bladesmiths easily fall under the puzzle-solving umbrella.
Like a key into a lock, they had to forge the final piece of a very unique puzzle, and for the most part, they succeeded. That sounds like solid puzzling to me.
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