The Wootz Hunter
Sometime in the 1800s, long after the Persians had beaten back the Crusaders, the technique for making the mighty swords that won those battles was mysteriously lost. Then, in the 1980s, a lone horseshoer in Florida named Al Pendray started tinkering with steel recipes, determined to recreate the recipe for wootz.
A CRAFTSMANSHIP mini-doc.
By TODD OPPENHEIMER
In the course of a 50-year career as a farrier (a horseshoer), Al Pendray shod, by his estimation, some 250,000 horses. Among those were five winners of the Kentucky Derby, and several dozen others that placed in a Triple Crown race. During that time, Pendray parlayed his skills at the anvil into a side career as a custom knifemaker, eventually earning the hard-won title of Master Bladesmith.
Armed with those skills, and many years of patient tinkering, failure, and still more tinkering, Pendray started making tiny breakthroughs in an extremely elusive quest: to become the first man in the modern world to recreate Persia’s long-lost method of making steel called “wootz.” Before this technique disappeared, sometime in the 1800s, blades made with wootz were some of the most lethal in the world. Wootz swords, in fact, were the primary weapons that Muslim warriors used in the 11th and 12th centuries to defeat the Crusaders. (According to legends from that time, Muslim soldiers not only sliced up their European opponents, but their swords as well.)
I first met Al in the late ’90s at America’s biggest blade show, in Atlanta, Georgia, when I was reporting on another talented knifemaker, Bob Kramer. (My profile of Kramer, which was first published in The New Yorker, and included a delicious section on Al, now appears in our pages in expanded form as “The Kitchen Bladesmith.”) Even before I knew Al’s full story, it was clear to me that he was unusually gifted. Despite being almost entirely self-educated, Al had a piercing ability to see through the nuances of metallurgy; and he did so with that homespun, folksy Southern manner that endeared him to anyone who took the time to listen to him.
What stunned me even more, given how colorful this man was, was that at this point, no one had ever gotten Al and his work on film. So, a few years after meeting him, I put together a small film crew and travelled to Al’s home in Williston, Florida, a small rural community in the northern center of the state that, not surprisingly, is home to a lot of racehorses. Al’s two partners in his wootz explorations—John Verhoeven, an emeritus professor of engineering at Iowa State University and a renowned metallurgist; and Bill Dauksch, a former executive at the Nucor steel company—joined us. So did Bob Kramer, who considered Al something of a mentor.
Many months later, when we were putting the finishing touches on our short film, Al suffered a major stroke. After fighting for weeks to recover, Al finally lost the battle. Before he died, I sent his wife, Bonnie, a rough cut of the film, but to my everlasting dismay, Al never felt well enough to watch it. We now offer it here, as an homage to this remarkable craftsman.
Hordes of people—in Florida and beyond—were saddened by the death of this brilliant country boy. Many a bladesmith can tell a good yarn when it comes to war stories at their forges, but Al could take this patter to a whole new level. I remember one interview in particular, when Al was explaining how, with wootz, an unusual alignment can occur on a blade’s edge of the steel’s “carbides.” These are compounds that result when carbon and other elements, such as iron or chromium, bond during forging. (Bladesmiths love carbides because they are hard and sharp, like tiny diamond rocks, and they will do nearly anything to create more of them.) If luck strikes, Verhoeven explained, the carbides’ microscopic points can line up along a knife’s edge. Pendray’s response: “Now I’m just a dummy backwoods blacksmith. You mean to tell me I got a micro-chainsaw going here?” Well, Verhoeven said, that’s one way to look at it. “Oh man,” Pendray replied, “don’t come tell me this stuff!”
Pendray and Verhoeven tinkered with steel recipes like this for 10 years, trying out ingredients as varied as fresh-picked tree leaves, broken glass, and oyster shells. By the end of his trials (and we’ll let the film explain their results), Pendray could talk about the innards of steel with anyone, blacksmith or physics professor. And he loved every molecule of it—carbon in particular. Carbon, he once told Kramer, is “one of the fastest moving little atoms. They’re very active. They boogie all around.”
What a loss that Al is no longer boogying all around with his passion. Nonetheless, in the film below, which runs about 15 minutes, it feels like a lot of his spirit is still alive. We hope you enjoy it.