Derek Roemer learned metalworking as a matter of necessity.
“I built my first forge literally out of dirt,” the 30-year-old teacher and bladesmith said. “It was nothing more than just a hole in the ground.”
It was 2010 and Roemer was living off the grid in a yurt on federal land between Ashland, Medford and Jacksonville. His gardening hoe, essential for growing his own food, had broken. So after studying a couple of books on the subject, he built his first charcoal-powered forge and successfully repaired the hoe.
Eight years later, Roemer’s forging savvy is helping more than just him. He’s aiming to “inspire a new generation of metalworkers” however he can; the pursuit has taken him from his yurt homestead to a metalshop at St. Mary’s School — and recently to a cable TV show.
“I think (forging) appeals to this sort of primal human in all of us,” he said. “Fire is something that I think we can all relate to. Our ancestors relied on it, we still rely on it. You have to treat it with care and respect, but if you give it the respect it deserves, it will give you whatever you ask of it.”
Roemer’s most public opportunity to bend metal to his will came Sept. 26, when he was a contestant on the History Channel show “Forged in Fire.” The bladesmithing competition works like a cooking show, but the four contestants aren’t whipping up cakes. Instead, they produce weapons, which are put through various tests to determine their quality. One contestant is sent home after each round; the winner takes home $10,000.
Roemer (spoiler alert) was sent home after the second round, when the Thai narong-style knife he forged from elevator cable snapped during the copper pipe baton chop test.
Roemer said he was rushing because of the limited time and didn’t execute the blade heat treatment correctly.
“Because I knew what I did wrong, I don’t feel any sense of regret,” he said.
Whether on TV or leading students through a unit in a metalworking class, Roemer tends to weigh his opportunities in terms of how much he or others can learn.
“If one person who watches me work learns something new, then I can go home feeling happy and fulfilled,” he said, explaining part of his reasoning for going on the show.
Roemer, a St. Mary’s alumnus, said if he had won the TV competition, he would have put the $10,000 toward new equipment for the school’s budding metalworking program. Students who take his material science class learn all four units through a hands-on curriculum.
“It can be a little intimidating reading the course description,” said Josh Hewitt, a senior. “Pouring metal, grinding things down does sound pretty dangerous, sticking something in the big forge. You think, maybe I’m a little hesitant to do this because it sounds like either a lot of work or something that may hurt you ... but it’s a lot more fun than you would think.”
Some of the students who take the class are interested in engineering or other technical careers, such as Heikki Ashby.
“Knowing some of those processes of how things are made will really help me later on down the road when trying to design something,” Ashby said, adding that he enjoys forging because “part of it is stress relief — hitting things with a hammer’s always fun as well as a great academic experience.”
Roemer said he’s seen students who sometimes struggle in traditional classroom settings thrive in the hands-on environment. His students build their own kilns and what they call “politically correct” knives — the thickness and dullness of the blades prevent them from being classified as weapons.
“It sounds obvious now,” said Roemer, “but if you’re a 15-, 16-year-old high school student and you have a choice between sitting in a dry lecture about the crystalline structure of steel or smashing hot steel with an anvil, it’s a pretty obvious choice.”
Roemer, who is trained as a welder, also had to smith his own program — he recently received a grant that will help pay for more supplies for the metalworking shop when it is refinished. In lieu of his $10,000 prize, Roemer said he expects to donate some of his own equipment to help grow the program.
He likely will need some extra help, however, to teach more classes; it can be as difficult to find educators with metalworking skills as it can be diversifying the ranks of the students they teach. Enrollment in the material science class, mirroring the forging world, skews largely male.
Roemer said he tries to create a welcoming environment in his classes for all students through relatively simple means.
“My personal solution is just to treat every individual with love and respect and just be the best teacher I can be and show them it doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from — you can create great things by your own hand, with your own mind and become a better person for it.”