Wrought with Passion
Jennon Bell Hoffmann
For some people, a hobby is developed and honed over many years, sometimes in fits and starts. But not for J. Alex Ruiz. In less than five years, he has turned his backyard passion—blacksmithing and bladesmithing—into a booming part-time job and a philanthropic outlet. His knives and ironwork creations have earned him titles such as Lone Star Maker in the Texas Knifemakers Guild. Thanks to a dedicated philosophy of learning from others, strong senses of gratitude and humility, and adhering to a rigid schedule, Alex continues to count more awards and recognition, as well as a strong blacksmithing community, among his blessings.
“Since I was a kid, I’ve had an affinity for building and making things, probably born from the curiosity of how things work,” says Alex, now 30 and living outside San Antonio, Texas. “I have been a lifelong student of archaeology, history, and anthropology, so historical techniques fascinate me; blacksmithing seemed like a perfect combination of the two.”
In 2015, Alex wandered into an antique shop and came upon an anvil that became the centerpiece of his backyard forge, which is a 25-foot-by-35-foot metal barn about 50 feet from his home. Alex’s forge became his part-time workshop where he spent hours watching YouTube tutorials and painstakingly learning and honing the techniques and artistry of bladesmithing and blacksmithing.
Success wasn’t immediate. “My first knife looked like a potato,” Alex says. But after some quality time “under the hammer,” his fascination grew into a bona fide passion that now has him traveling cross-country to knife shows, being featured in Blade magazine, and in 2017, winning the season 5 Horseman’s Axe challenge of the History Channel’s series “Forged in Fire.”
And he does all of this in his spare time.
“I’m very rigid with my time and have a very strict schedule I stick to, especially through the weekends,” Alex says. “I am a part-time maker, and as such, I’m only in the shop on nights and weekends. You always strive for more, for better. When you have the right people (YouTubers, blacksmithing teachers, and fellow enthusiasts Alex has met at shows) teaching you, walking you through the process, and giving pointers you need, it makes learning so much more fun.”
By day, Alex is a program coordinator at the Wesley Foundation, a faith-based nonprofit organization that pairs college students with community service learning and local volunteering opportunities.
“It really builds character to work with others to build a house or serve in some capacity that helps others,” Alex says.
Forging An Impact In The Community
While Alex likes to keep his hobby separate from his full-time profession, certain elements have begun to overlap. For one, the philanthropic thread that fuels his day job is also a rewarding aspect of his side gig.
Alex is in a freemason fraternity that actively supports the local community. “Giving back is a big part of what I do,” he says. Alex also donates many of his knives to organizations, which auction them at fundraisers or silent auctions. The proceeds go to charities, including women’s shelters and safe homes that combat domestic violence, PTSD and suicide awareness organizations, and a Shriner’s Hospital, among others.
Recently, Alex and forging friend Steve Calvert posted a collaboration project on YouTube,showing the transformation from raw metal to a fully forged harpoon-style knife with a brass handle. The final product was auctioned online for $345, with proceeds benefitting St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.
In the video, Steve says, “Alex has gone through a very deliberate sequence of steps that he’s executing, and to me, this is blacksmithing at its finest. It’s that moment when everything suddenly falls out and the madness is revealed to be method and you’re staring at a piece of metal that’s been transformed in a very intentional way, a very clever way.”
“[Blacksmithing] is a gift combined with hard work; some people have it and [Alex has] really used it as a springboard,” Steve adds in a later conversation.
With such high praise, you’d think Alex would take a break to enjoy the ride a bit. But, as any dedicated artisan can attest, there’s always room for more learning, more growing, more skill honing. One of Alex’s ultimate goals is to join the ranks of the very few American Bladesmith mastersmiths, which requires completing a demanding and exacting test run by the American Bladesmith Society for the Journeyman and Mastersmith specialties.
Soft-spoken and humble, Alex is quick to point out that his successes come from the support of his community, both local and online. From fellow enthusiasts and part-time hobbyists to professional and master bladesmiths and blacksmiths across the world, Alex credits the welcoming and knowledgeable smithing community with helping educate people and grow interest in the craft.
“I can attribute my skill progression to hanging out with some of the best smiths in the U.S. and learning as much as I can from them,” he says. “I think of a line from Benjamin Franklin: ‘It is therefore the older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more Respect to the Judgment of others.’ Basically, learn from others and apply it.”
While he works toward his goals, Alex keeps plenty busy by teaching bladesmithing and blacksmithing classes at the Southwest School of Art in San Antonio, running his own blacksmithing shop called Volundr Forge, and co-founding the South Texas Association of Bladesmiths, which is currently the only dedicated blacksmithing and bladesmithing school in Texas. One of the nuggets of wisdom he finds helpful for budding hobbyists and his students is to be open to criticism.
“‘Take notes, not offense’ is a motto I use when I put my work in the hands of mastersmiths for honest critiques, and boy do they give it,” Alex says. Surrounding himself with learners—both novice and masters—has proven to be his ticket to continually forging new skills and connections within the supportive smithing community.
Through his meteoric rise from amateur hobbyist with a backyard forge to a renowned, respected artisan blacksmith, Alex has remained persistently humble. He credits any praise to the support of his community. When asked to reflect on his own dedication and drive, Alex pauses thoughtfully before responding with another quote, this time by John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement.
“‘Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.’ That carries into my own [personal] philosophy,” he says.
For Alex, it’s a philosophy forged by a supportive community, being in service to others, and sharing his talent. And for him, nothing could be better.
Building a Backyard Forge
Interested in forging your own decorative ironwork or making hand-forged cutlery? A backyard forge is an easy and inexpensive way to start your hobby, Alex says.
“Anyone can get started with stuff scrounged from a metal scrapyard and basic tools. A simple hole in the ground with fire brick, a hair dryer, a pipe, and hardwood charcoal is a basic forge.”
Alex says YouTube tutorials and local blacksmithing groups helped him create the perfect workspace.
Worried about restrictions?
Each locale will vary, based on permit codes, local government, and climate. Alex has friends in California who have had a hard time getting coal, so they use propane, whereas people he knows in the Northeast and areas like Tennessee have coal readily available, but lack other supplies. The key, Alex says, is to check in with your local guild and outdoors shop, like Tractor Supply, for guidance on tools and materials.
“The manager at my local TSC was really good about getting coal for me and other blacksmiths,” he says. “Coal, grinding wheels, weld rods, clamps, and even the mineral oil I quench my hand-forged blades in come from Tractor Supply.”
You can learn more about Alex and his work on his website: volundrforge.com.
Have you built a forge of your own? We want to know! Send photos of your forge and blacksmith creations to email@example.com.