The smiths competing on History Channel's Forged in Fire get plenty of attention for their craft on the reality competition series, as well they should. They're performing hard, dangerous work under strict constraints with the pressure of a $10,000 prize hanging over their heads.
But equally impressive are the credentials and works produced by the Forged in Fire judges. If you've ever wanted to know more about these skilled experts, read on to learn about the current judges, J. Neilson, competitor-turned-judge Ben Abbott, Doug Marcaida, and David Baker.
James Neilson, who goes by his first initial professionally, holds the rank of Mastersmith with the American Blacksmith Society (ABS), a title shared by just over 100 people in the world. He has been with the show since Season 1, Episode 1 — though that's not to say he's been in every episode. In fact, back in Season 3, fans worried J. has decided to leave the show when he went missing from the judges' panel. It turns out, he needed to take a leave of absence to have surgery on his hand, and fellow ABS Master Smith Jason Knight stood in for him while he recovered.
In some episodes since Season 4, he was replaced with two-time champion Ben Abbott, making fans worry again J. was stepping back. However, they both occupied a seat at the judges' forge for the two-part "Road to Redemption" competition that kicked off Season 6.
When he's not judging people's weapons-making skills, J. is putting his own craft to the test in his forge, located in Towanda, PA. Neilson's Mountain Hollow specializes in custom high carbon and Damascus steel blades of all sizes and lengths, as well as handmade handles and sheaths.
Ben comes to The Forge with the unique perspective of having walked through the fire (so to speak) as a contestant, winning first in Season 2 and again in the Season 3 Champions edition that pitted him against three other past winners. His interest in making swords and knives stemmed from tours of English castles as a young teen and is largely self-taught.
If you note a slight British accent, he originally hails from across the pond, though he now calls Pasadena, CA home. The former Caltech electrical engineer operates Ashgrove Forge, where he makes just about anything metal you can imagine. His wife Mandy credits him for making most of the pans and cutlery they use in their kitchen.
Doug may not make weapons but he definitely knows how to use them. His role on the show since Season 1 has been to test the strength and utility of the smiths' weapons. The military vet is also a Filipino martial arts expert and operates his own studio, Marcaida Kali, in Rochester, NY. He also teaches classes in weapons awareness for military, law enforcement, and security professionals.
He credits enrollment in martial arts for teaching him discipline and responsibility, which drove him to join the military. There's no better pro to assess whether a blade will cut or kill.
David Lain Baker specializes in historical weapons and has been tasked with recreating realistic and period-accurate weapons for television and film. Though he started out in Hollywood as an actor, he developed an interest in props and eventually came to work in the art department on films like Beowulf and Dragonball Evolution and several television series.
David also served as weapons master for the Spike (now Paramount Network) show Deadliest Warrior, which pitted historical and fictional fighters against each other to determine who would be most effective in a one-on-one battle.
Whether it's a katana or a catapult, David knows what it looks like and how it should be made.
Watched Forged in Fire Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on the History Channel.