As a kid shoeing horses, Erich Ouellette developed an affinity for blacksmithing, finding he had a knack for using a forge, hammer and anvil to design and create different tools, hardware and decorative art.
As his skills progressed, he transitioned to bladesmithing — described as the ancient art of making knives, swords and other blades with blacksmithing tools.
“I had been working as a professional farrier for 20-plus years,” Ouellette said. “That kind of morphed into the knifemaking. We hunt and fish, spend a lot of time outdoors, so it’s a natural progression for those of us who are blacksmiths to start making knives.”
The more adept he became at making knives, the more family and friends encouraged him to start selling his work, if nothing more than to supplement his costs for tools and materials. He developed a clientele, and Prophecy Metal Works was born, run literally out of his garage. His company has a Facebook page showcasing his work, which also includes crosses and other ornamental art made from horseshoes; a website is currently in development.
“About 10 years ago, I really started getting into making knives other than just the occasional blade for a buddy who wanted a knife to hunt with,” he said. “That developed into more and more knifemaking and blacksmithing. That got me a little more exposure, and people started placing orders.”
A drilling consultant in the oil fields by trade, the recent downturn in the industry left Ouellette with more time on his hands between gigs. He used that time to fine-tune his craft, making knives and decorative horseshoe art at a faster pace and accepting larger numbers of custom orders.
“With the oil fields taking a dump the last couple of years, I’ve been home a lot more and able to pursue what I love to do,” Ouellette said.
And the History Channel took notice. Told by friends that competitors were being sought for “Forged in Fire” — an “Iron Chef” style show focusing on bladesmithing — Ouellette sent an email of interest, and promptly forgot about it. About a month later, a producer of the show emailed him back. The rest, as they say, is “History.”
“Everyone kept telling me ‘Man, you have to get on that show,’ but I’d never seen it,” Ouellette said. “I looked it up and thought it was terrific.”
After that initial email from the producer, a series of phone and Skype interviews followed, giving Ouellette an opportunity to showcase his work and convince producers he knew what he was talking about.
“I sent them a bunch of examples, and then they watched me make a blade in the forge via Skype,” he said. “I hadn’t heard anything from them for about two or three months, so I figured that was that. All of a sudden I got an offer out of the blue to come and be on one of the episodes.”
Ouellette jumped at the chance, calling it an “incredible opportunity” to have his work featured nationally and to work with other bladesmiths and blacksmiths from around the country. The show flew him out to New York City last August, and filmed the episode on a set in downtown Manhattan in sweltering 105-degree heat.
“The set was a pretty big building, with very little ventilation,” Ouellette remembered. “They can’t ventilate the air because they don’t have the proper filtration systems, so they just kept some bay doors open on the sides of the building, and everybody sweats and dies inside.”
Now in its third season, “Forged in Fire” follows four bladesmiths as they compete in a three-round elimination contest to forge bladed weapons, with the overall winner receiving $10,000 and the day’s championship title. One bladesmith is eliminated after each of the first two rounds, with the final two competing against one another for the top prize.
“It looks like it all transpires over three hours, but it actually takes three days to film,” Ouellette said.
In the first round, the bladesmiths must design and forge a blade out of provided material in a set period of time, usually three hours. Despite working under a time crunch, and with $10,000 up for grabs, Ouellette said there wasn’t really a competitive feel to it.
“You might be surprised by this, but competitiveness was not even a concern,” he said. “When the round starts, all you’re doing is making a knife again. We’re not really working against each other. I never felt like I had to outdo this guy or that guy.”
But the show is ultimately a competition, and unfortunately, Ouellette’s blade didn’t make the cut. He was the first bladesmith eliminated from the contest.
“Unfortunately, I started running short on time,” he said. “I just got to the point where I was getting frustrated with myself. I needed to get something done to present to the judges and I got the blade done. Ultimately, my blade wasn’t chosen to continue on.”
There is talk amongst producers of the show about staging a special Veterans Day episode, featuring previous competitors with military backgrounds. A former Army Ranger, Ouellette said he would love the opportunity for another shot at television immortality.
“We’ll see how it goes,” he said.
Despite getting the least amount of airtime on his episode, Ouellette wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. The friendships he cultivated and the added exposure to his work made it all the more memorable.
“I had the most incredible time of my life, I really did,” Ouellette said. “The three other guys that were on the show with me will be lifelong friends; we’re in contact with each other all the time. I can’t say enough good things about the experience, it was phenomenal.”
Ouellette’s episode, “Forged in Fire: Season 3, Episode 14,” can be viewed at www.history.com/shows/forged-in-fire.