Keith Hill has packed a lot of living into his 52 years. He has the quiet confidence of a man who knows who he is and has figured out his place in the world. Part of his journey to this place included serving as a police officer for 20 years, being a 9/11 first responder, a builder and landscaper, as well as a devoted husband, father and grandfather. He’s also a talented bladesmith who has appeared on the History channel’s Forged in Fire, walking away with top honors and a $10,000 prize.
Down a sleepy country road in Ocklawaha, I find the Hill family farm, where two horses contentedly graze in the pasture. As I reach the barn that houses Hill’s rustic home forge, he steps out into the dusky late-afternoon light and flashes a welcoming smile. He is ruggedly handsome with a chiseled jaw and all-American good looks. His “silver fox” ponytail and flashing eyes bring to mind a swashbuckler out of a historical novel. But beneath the rugged exterior, beats the heart of a man with a child’s sense of wonder.
“All I wanted to do was be outside,” he recalls of his childhood in Ridgewood, New Jersey. “I wanted to hang out in the woods and go fishing. My parents had other ideas. They wanted me to fit into the community more,” he continues, hinting at the town’s air of high culture. “But I wanted something different.”
The something different Hill was seeking was adventure.
“I’ve always thought, ‘Enjoy life, have fun,’” he explains. “That’s what’s most important.”
Luckily, Hill found his partner in the adventure early on.
“I met my wife, Janice, when I was 16 years old,” he shares. “She pushes me at the right times and pulls me back when I need to not push so hard. She knows all my stupid quirks and just gets me. She’s a great woman. I adore her.”
Their love story helped pave the way for Hill to follow his dreams and survive some dark times.
“I was there when the second tower came down and for seven weeks after that,” he confides about his experience with the terrorist attacks of 2011 that felled the Twin Towers. “I was on an emergency services unit. Seven weeks, digging in the pile.” he explains. “She went through it with me and knows exactly what I’ve been through. It was the best and worst part of my career. It made me cherish life, the here-and-now and my loved ones. Because you never know if tomorrow will be there. I try to live my life as fully as I can every day. That’s why I do crazy stuff,” he offers, gesturing to the anvil a few feet away. “Because I never knew I could. When I started making the blades, I was like ‘Wow, I can actually do this!’ It got me really excited.”
His first blade was inspired by Janice—or perhaps prompted would be a better word.
“When I retired from the Sheriff’s department in New Jersey, we moved down here. We’d been through the area before and just thought it was a special place,” he recalls. “It took me about a year and a half to adjust to retirement. I was looking for something to fill my time,” Keith recalls. “One day Janice said, ‘I bet you can’t make a knife out of these two horseshoes.’ Being a guy, I took on the challenge. After six hours of beating, I had made a blade. I’d done some blacksmithing, out of necessity. I learned how to shoe our horses. I had a little anvil, a forge and some basic hammers. That’s how I learned to shape the steel,” he continues. “I personally think you have to be a blacksmith before you become a good bladesmith.”
But Janice admits she had a hidden agenda behind her challenge. As a history buff, with a passion for historical reenactments, she naturally got Keith involved, too.
“We’ve traveled all over,” she explains. “These days we do a lot in St. Augustine or Cedar Key but also around here. One year, the Bunco Babes had a theme of “Shipwreck Cancer,” and they wanted a bunch of pirates. That was fun!”
And although Keith was on board, she felt like he might have been just going along for her sake.
“I thought, ‘How can I make this more interesting for him?’” she recalls.
“My wife nudged me into knife making,” Keith interjects. “Then a reenactor friend heard about that first blade and asked if I could make him one and then came another friend. It took on a life of its own. A lot of the reenactments are set around the 17th century right up to the 19th century, so I research the type of weaponry they would have carried back then. I study the geometry, the angles, the weight, how it was made, the whole package. That’s what drives me, the journey to create a blade as close to the original weapon as possible.”
He soon began taking orders through his Facebook group page BD Blades by BD McGee (a play on his nickname Big Dog), and then Janice nudged him again—this time into a much more public arena.
“We’ve watched every episode of Forged in Fire,” Keith admits. “She kept poking me, ‘Come on, you gotta do this.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know. These guys are really good.’ She said, ‘Just do it!’ So I finally agreed. I emailed the producer, and she emailed me back an hour later. After exchanging 40 or 50 emails, Skyping and signing all kinds of waivers, they decided to have me on the show. It was an awesome experience.”
But Keith says that he never really looked at it as strictly a competition.
“I find that in competition you lose the artistic part of it. It’s more hurry up and get it done. When I was with the other three smiths, I didn’t feel any pressure. For me, it was more like a hammer-in,” he explains. “That is where a bunch of smiths come together to make stuff, throw jokes back and forth, exchange ideas and techniques. It’s such a small society that when you come into contact with another smith, you have this rapport. I had an instant bond with all three.”
That didn’t mean that he wasn’t out to win.
“I wanted to win from the moment I walked in,” he admits. “Anything that I do, I go at it 110 percent. I race mountain bikes, too. Racing forces you to pace yourself. Mentally, you’re going into it to thinking, ‘I’m not going to go 200 miles for the first hour, so I have nothing left at the end.’”
And although he has created many different types of blades since, including some specialized ones for a sword-swallower, he says the Xiphos Sword he created for the show was the most memorable.
“The reward of bladesmithing is being able to stand back and look at something you’ve created. You start out with a big block of steel and somewhere within it is a blade. It’s up to you to give that blade a soul, a life and a direction. Part of me goes into every single blade I make, whether it be my sweat, blood or emotion. After beating, forging and shaping that blade, I took the grinder and cut off the ingot…or as I call it, the umbilical cord. I thought, “I just birthed a baby,” he continues with a satisfied laugh. “Something I also took away from 9/11 was to laugh,” he confides, his thoughts stretching out to connect the past and the present. “You have to wrap yourself up in life as much as you can.”