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I met Michael Bell on August 26, 1984 at a knife show in San Jose, California. It was a momentous meeting which I recall vividly. There were some star players at this show. Of special import was Bernard Levine who introduced me to Michael Bell and, in turn, also introduced Michael to Bob Loveless. Michael lived in San Francisco and was the owner of Mission Cutlery; and in addition to selling, sharpening and repairing cutlery, he also was making and repairing Japanese swords.
When Bob Loveless was told that Michael made Japanese swords, Bob asked to see his work. Michael had a sword with him but was reluctant to show it to Loveless. After some coaxing, the sword was brought out for viewing. Bob Loveless went over the sword with a discerning eye and considerable praise. Praise from Mr. Loveless was difficult to earn, but the sword was that good. When Bob asked Michael why he was slow to show it, Michael informed him the sword had a flaw in it and was destined for destruction. The sword was again given close scrutiny, and Bob admitted he could find no flaws. At that point Michael pointed to the one microscopic carbon flaw that was in the side of the blade. It actually had to be pointed out since it was very small.
Bob scoffed at this and stated that this was not a flaw but was a personality mark that singled out this one sword from all others Michael might make. Bob Loveless also stated that he could make perfect knives; but in order to give each a personality of its own, he incorporated a mark or flaw in all his knives. We purchased a Loveless knife at that show, and it did indeed carry an intentional flaw just as he had suggested.
Michael Bell is known world wide for his skills at making Japanese swords. The very best for sure. His skill was learned during a five year apprenticeship with Nakajima Muneyoshi in 1970.
Nakajima Muneyoshi was born and raised in Japan and studied all phases of Japanese sword making. Nakajami learned the total sword with all of its parts including making the furniture of the sword and also polishing. In the early 1960s he came to the United States at the urging of the Japanese Sword Society of the U.S. It was desired that a person be placed in this country that would be able to identify the missing treasures of Japan which could be returned to Japan. Also, this person would be able to identify the work necessary to restore a Japanese sword. Since Nakajima was skilled in all facets of Japanese sword making and restoration, it was a wonderful opportunity for Michael Bell to serve his apprenticeship with a master. It was this traditional education that Michael Bell learned and is the same style he teaches in the courses that he offers today. History is being passed on. For more information on this refer to Michael’s web page at www.dragonflyforge.com.
Michael moved to the hills of the coastal range of Oregon in 1987 and started the Dragon Fly Forge. Michael chose the name because he has always had respect for the dragonfly and considers it a being of beauty. His home and shop are near the top of a high hillside, and there is a half mile road that requires other than a passenger car to reach the top. Near knocked my teeth out from getting tossed around on this steep climb. But what a view! Awesome. And just how he got the two ton trip hammer up this hill is a mystery. Where there is a will, there is a way. There certainly is very little in this environment to distract Michael in the patient approach each sword requires in order to be made.
I recently purchased a small tanto knife from Michael; and although it is an item of great beauty, it was the maker that held my greatest interest. I know little about the language of the sword or its history, but I am content with this. Being a part of the legacy of the maker and his philosophy is even more exciting to me.
Part of the uniqueness of the swords made by Michael is the use of forge-welded damascus cable steel. The finished steel has superior and aggressive cutting capabilities, durability and remarkable strength. This was evidenced by the sword my son, Ray, has – which he used to decimate many trees while visiting with Michael. The blade survived this tortuous testing over and over again. It should be mentioned that all parts of the swords are made by Michael, from the blade to the smallest parts.
The Oregon Knife Show has seen many years of Michael Bell. Not only does he participate as a tableholder but also supports the organization. One year the Bell family entertained at the opening ceremonies and played on the Japanese taiko drums. Michael has also garnered numerous awards at this Show for his swords and knives in the custom knife competition held each year. At the 2007 Show Michael won Best Art Knife for the tanto that is now in my custody.
The school of sword making that Michael is now teaching deals with many aspects of traditional Japanese sword making just as he had been taught. He does not re-invent the techniques, but refines the art. It is this art that Nakajima Muneyoshi gave to Michael Bell, and this needs to be passed on. The classes teach traditional blade forging, along with courses structured on Habaki, Koshirae, Tsuka and Kajioshi.
There is one story that needs telling in regards to the swords of Michael Bell. At the Oregon Knife Show in 1992 we decided to have some very unique entertainment at our Saturday Night Social. There was a juggler that threw pointy and sharp objects in the air and managed to keep them in motion without a single cut. There was also a magician team that thrust swords into a straw basket in which his lovely assistant was housed. There were other acts of prestidigitation with the cutting edges that enthralled the audience. And then there was the sword swallower…
When the sword swallower arrived on the afternoon of the Show, I asked him if he would walk around and find a sword that was on display that he could swallow that would prove credibility to his act. After cruising the Show, he said that he had found a sword that he wanted to swallow. You guessed it… a Michael Bell traditional Japanese style sword. I suggested that Michael’s swords were using swords, they were curved and extremely sharp. The sword swallower insisted, and I asked Michael if he would allow such use of his sword. Michael repeated the same cautions as I had but said that since the sword could not be hurt, if he really was intent on doing this then it was alright.
After the magician’s swords had been swallowed to the amazement of the audience, the performer brought out the Michael Bell sword. I doubt whether there was a single person in the room that didn’t know about Michael and his swords. The silence was absolute as the sword entered the mouth and was guided down to what appeared belly depth. I still have wetness in my palms thinking of this event. It was recorded on film, and I still look through my fingers as I watch this.
That in itself was an event to see, but what happened after was even more interesting. I saw Michael after the performance and asked if his sword had been returned. It had been but he was concerned because there was blood on the tip of the blade; and he worried that the sword swallower might have punctured an internal organ. I ran back to the staging area and saw the man as he was changing to his street clothes. I asked him if he felt alright and was assured that everything was fine. I suggested that maybe he should get medical attention as there were traces of blood on Michael’s sword. With great apologies he said he had intended to wipe the blade off but had forgotten. The blood had come from his finger which was now bandaged. It seems that prior to the performance he had tested the sharpness of the sword and accidentally cut his finger.
Michael Bell’s swords are for using and are not designed for museum and wall hanging. And on that day in 1992, the sword got used in a way that very few Japanese style swords will ever be subjected.