Waiting for the Quench

Waiting for the Quench

by Alberto Mella

The heating, the pounding, the grinding. “Forged in Fire” is a competition-style show in the History Channel where blacksmiths face-off forging knife blades in a ridiculously short amount of time and starting with what seems at times like scrap metal. Their purpose is to take a hard, inanimate piece of material and create a beautiful weapon.

The format of the show will be familiar to anyone who has watched cooking competitions. You get the standard background stories of the contestants and the obligatory commentary of the judges, but what draws you in is the process. Taking hard metal and bending it to your will is the art and science of blacksmithing, one of the oldest and most respected crafts in human history.

Forged in Fire Show

“Forged in Fire” © 2020, A&E Television Networks, LLC.

The contestants apply heat to the metal by placing it in a forge. The heat makes the metal malleable enough for the smith to practice his craft while also changing the microstructure of the metal. Once the metal is hot it gets pounded on by a hammer. It is this pounding that starts getting it into shape. Then there’s more tapering, bending and twisting. If the metal starts to cool off, back into the forge it goes to get heated again. Comes back out and the pounding, bending and twisting starts anew.

Oftentimes, material needs to be “shaved” off, so the metal is moved to a grinder. The grinder consists of a belt covered in abrasive materials that runs at variable speeds. The smith carefully applies his blade to the belt and removes excess metal to shape and fine-tune the edge geometry. Between the heating, the pounding and the grinding the blade starts taking shape. 

But more than shape, this process creates the crystal microstructures that will result in increased strength and hardness for the steel. Once the craftsman believes that the metal is ready, it is time for the breath-holding part of the process. The part viewers like me wait for; the quench.

Quenching, the show explains, involves the rapid cooling of a metal to adjust the mechanical properties of its original state. It is the most crucial and delicate part of the process. This is the moment where the smith discovers if all of the hard work he has put into forging a blade will pay off or if he has made a mistake that will render his piece unusable. The blade is heated to critical temperature, then it is quickly dunked into a cooling medium (usually oil or water) which causes the steel to cool down and harden. If not done right, it can cause the metal to crack, bend or warp which can mean catastrophic failure for the blade. Producers of the show make a point of telling you that is the make or break moment of the process, both figuratively and literally with a well-timed slow-motion camera shot. 

When the blade is removed, smoking, from the liquid the audience holds its collective breath while we find out if the metal made it through the process or if it broke or warped; whether the blade is hard or brittle. To test this, the smith runs a file along the blade. When the file skates along the metal we feel relieved that the most arduous part of the blade’s journey is over. The hardened blade is then polished, sharpened, and tested. The best blade-smith wins and we’re off to the next episode.

The heating, the pounding, the grinding. Halfway through this year and it is impossible not to feel like a piece of steel under the care of an unseen blacksmith. With the pandemic, the loss of income and the quarantine, we were wondering what else could come our way. Then the markets crashed around the world and insect plagues the size of New York were assaulting the African continent as natural disasters also claimed their place in the headlines. And just as local governments started easing down policies enacted during the beginning of the pandemic, the number of new cases increased and simmering racial tension reached a boiling point. Riots and protests in every state turned the map fire red. 

All this heating, pounding and grinding sends us inevitably into a cycle of anger, denial and despair. Anger at what is happening, at the ones we deem responsible; God, politicians, “them”. Denial at the prospect of a solution or that there will ever be one. We get on our knees and pray for “this” to be over. We have faith in our politicians to come up with the right policies, or not, and in our scientists to come up with a cure…or not. It is a human basic instinct to run towards pleasure and away from pain. But when pain follows you into a corner, and there’s no place to run from it because you have to stay put…then we fall into despair. That feeling of impotence, that there is nothing that we can do. Our mental health takes a hit, some fall back into addiction and a scary number of us into depression.  We harm ourselves, or worse others. If we stay in the cycle, it has the potential to make us a useless piece of junk, a brittle piece of metal. We have to realize that these times are our trial by fire.

“AS A BLACKSMITH USES HEAT TO TEMPER STEEL, SO SHOULD A TRIAL BY FIRE STRENGTHEN ONE’S METTLE” -J. FRY.

We need to arrest control of the situation and become active participants in what life is throwing at us. We have to become the masters of our fate and following the example of blacksmiths through history, bend mettle to our will. 

THIS IS HOW WE DO IT: ACCEPT, ADJUST, ACT.

Accept that what is happening is real, it is here, and if it is not affecting you yet, it will. Your health might take a hit, your economy might be affected, and your lifestyle will change. There’s no hiding from it, no sense in being apathetic about it. Heat is going to be applied to you whether you are ready for it or not. Just face it, clap your hands twice and slap your face. Here we go!

Adjust, make the necessary changes to your life. Like a hammer hitting hot metal, the structure of your life is going to change, there is no going back to how things used to be. The once-in-a-generation events of this year will forever change who we are as a person and to a greater extent as a society. But if your life is going to change anyways, why not have a say in it? The new normal will be the one you create. The current events have laid bare the chinks in the armor of our current way of life. Will you change the way you pursue physical fitness? Should you get ready for a career change? Is there room to improve your current position at work? Are there processes within your business that could use some tweaking? Are any of the adjustments that you have made so far, good enough to make permanent? Answering questions like these will help crystalize in your mind the idea of your perceived future and give structure to your plans.

Act! That hammer is not going to swing itself. You are in control of how your mettle is being forged. Once adjustments are made, it’s time to put your plans into motion. Grind your teeth and push through the inertia that has forced you to stay put. 

Action is a muscle that gets atrophied if not used. Are you procrastinating? Thinking that there would be a better time to act later? or you are stuck thinking that your goals might be hard to achieve? Keep in mind that a hard goal is made up of many easy steps. Try this: Are you familiar with brainstorming? Try action-storming? Make a list of all the things you need to do to achieve your goals and start every step with the action to take. For example: Ask Jim about…Search Google for…Get materials for…You get the picture.

Jeffrey Fry Quote

Progress will be slow and steady, but it is to be expected if what we are talking about changing is that which we are made of. But all this work will become the last step as we wait for all these different crises to wind down. And just like hot metal plunges into water to seal all the physical work the blacksmith had done, so will our hard work during these trying times show up once things come back to some degree of normalcy.

The heating, the pounding, the grinding. There’s more of that coming our way; hurricane season in the east, fire season in the west and a presidential election for all United States with a very polarized public. We’ll take the heat of the moment, the pounding of events and the grind of our action to forge, shape and temper our mettle. We’ll come out a stronger, harder, better version of ourselves. Ready for normal to come back into the lexicon. Waiting to breathe fresh air. In expectation of the moment that will seal all our hard work and the vision for our future is realized. We yearn for the day when we, like a fine blade, can go on to be polished, sharpened, and tested. Until then, we’ll be waiting for the quench.


Alberto Mella is an award-winning speaker characterized by his inspiring message, dynamic and humorous presentation style. Alberto is an Army veteran and has been a martial arts practitioner for the past three decades. To learn more about Alberto Mella visit AlbertoMella.com or send an email to: albertoemella@gmail.com


Photo Credits:

“Forged in Fire” by History Channel © 2020, A&E Television Networks, LLC.
“Medieval Blacksmith” by Hand Splinter is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0


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