William F. Moran, circa 1982
William F. Moran, a legendary figure in the world of custom knives, died yesterday morning in the hospital at Frederick, Maryland of cancer at the age of 80.
Born in 1925, on a family farm near Lime Kiln, Maryland, Moran began making knives as a ten year old boy working in a smithy on his father’s farm, using discarded tools as his source of steel. By his teenage years, Moran had learned the skills of tempering and heat-treating blades, and his homemade knives had already developed a local reputation for holding an edge.
By WWII, he was dividing his time equally between knife-making and farming, working out of a small shop he built from material salvaged from a ruined silo. Over time, Moran decided that he enjoyed knife-making more than farming, and in 1958, with knife orders piling up, Moran decided to sell the farm, and devote his full time attention to the production of custom knives. Moran built a permanent shop, a one room concrete block building, near Middletown, Maryland. He built his own forge using stones taken from the stone fences on his family farm.
The first (of three) Moran catalogues appeared 1959-1960. 21 different models were offered, including a couple of historical replicas, two kitchen knives, and a carving set. By the mid 1960s, there was a four year waiting list for a Moran knife. By 1972, the waiting list was nine years long, and Moran had stopped accepting down payments. By the early 1980s, there was a twenty year backlog. With the growth of the collecting hobby, the demand for Moran knives grew and grew to the point where Moran recognized that existing orders exceeded the number of knives he could possibly produce in the remainder of his lifetime, and he stopped issuing catalogues or accepting knife orders not much later. Naturally, prices of Moran knives soared to stratospheric levels in the collecting marketplace.
Bill Moran was one of only a handful of custom knifemakers in business before the rise of the modern knife collecting hobby, and he played a key role in bringing about a vast increase in the number of custom knife makers, and the even greater growth of the audience of collectors and connoisseurs needed to support that industry’s expansion. Public awareness of the existence of custom knives really began with articles published in sporting and Gun magazines in the late 1960s. Moran cooperated with the pioneer journalists, granting interviews and supplying photographs. Moran co-founded the American Bladesmith Society in 1976, and served as its chairman for fifteen years. In later years, he devoted much of his time to teaching forging and knife-making to a younger generation of custom makers.
Moran was one of the most important innovators in knifemaking. He was the first modern knifemaker to revive the craft of making Damascus steel blades, circa 1972, and shared his knowledge widely. He emphasized quality, and moved very early to an emphasis on artistic work over utilitarian production. When most makers were resorting to stock removal and stainless steel, Moran stubbornly continued forging his blades of tool steel. It is generally thought the superior sharpness of Moran blades was attributable to his own style of “convex edge.”
In 1986, William F. Moran was inducted into the Knifemakers Hall of Fame.
Some of the knives offered in the first Moran catalogue