Ryu Lim: catching up with world-class Filipino blacksmith

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Ryu Lim

It was probably the hardest forging experience I’ve ever had. It was very difficult.
I almost passed out.

Ryu Lim is the Filipino blacksmith who won on History Channel’s Forged in Fire, which “features world-class bladesmiths competing to create history’s most iconic edged weapons.” He bested three other bladesmiths in the “Viking Battle Axe” episode in the first season of the U.S. reality competition series.

Known to many blacksmiths and knife enthusiasts around the world, Lim has a long wait list of orders for his blades. However, that doesn’t stop people from clamoring to own a knife forged by him.

Lim was one of the headliners at History Con 2017 Manila, the second entertainment convention that History Channel brought to the Philippines and which ran from August 10-13, 2017, at the World Trade Center in Pasay. Speed was able to sit down with Lim for a one-on-one interview to talk about his experience on show, his dedication to bladesmithing, and paying it forward by sharing his expertise in the craft.

When was the last time you visited the Philippines before this?
I was actually in the Philippines two years ago. Before this, I was doing some bladesmithing workshops.

That was after the show, right?
Yeah. Actually, I funded that whole trip with the money that I won in Forged in Fire. I thought if I kept that money in the U.S., it’s not really gonna do much. I didn’t really want to spend it on my own if so many people can benefit from it. I wanted it to count more, so I went to the Philippines. It had more value [here] and I used that money to fund those workshops. I had the opportunity to do something worthwhile with the money. I was able to train some people or at least introduce them to the art.

How did you get into it in the first place?
Blade making is something I’ve always done for as long as I remember. I started forging when I was 8 or 9 years old. That’s when I got into it but it’s something that I’ve always done. It’s something that always fascinated me.

Did you grow up here or in the U.S.?
I spent my childhood in the Philippines. I was born in Pampanga. I moved to the U.S. when I was 12 years old and I grew up there.

I started an Instagram account where I posted my older stuff. History Channel found me and invited me to their show. I refused them for months.

How did you get on Forged in Fire?
I used to live in the woods. I was challenging myself in the way of survival. I was doing research about my blades, basically putting myself in a situation where I need to survive. That taught me a lot of things about survival and what features you need on blades and things like that. I was making makeshift forges in the woods as I need them. I was forging my own tools with metals that I find laying around. I started an Instagram account where I posted my older stuff. History Channel found me and invited me to their show. I refused them for months.

Why?
At first, I didn’t know what it was about. I was unsure about the whole thing. It’s a competition. I don’t really join competitions. I have nothing to prove. I do this because I love it. I don’t need to compete with other people. I was at a point of my life where I wanted something new to happen. I thought new things aren’t going to happen if you don’t open the doors for new opportunities. And I thought, “You know what? Maybe I should answer that call from History Channel and try it out.” So, I did.

That was the first competition that you joined?
I used to join martial arts competitions when I was growing up. In that nature, in the bladesmithing world, that was the first-ever competition that I actually joined.

And you won it!
Yeah. I was surprised!

How easy was that?
It wasn’t easy at all. It was probably the hardest forging experience I’ve ever had. It was very difficult. I almost passed out. That was real.

Ryu Lim

What happened?
I was so exhausted because I was living in the woods and then they put me in a hotel room. It’s like taking a domestic animal and throwing it out into the woods. It was the opposite for me. It was a shock. I was very claustrophobic and so I couldn’t sleep for two days and then I went into the competition. I was exhausted. It was so hot. There were 12 burners going at the same time in an enclosed environment, so it was extremely hot. I was very fatigued. I was sweating more than I was drinking. I was dehydrated, fatigued. It was really hot. It got to me. I felt like I was going to pass out. I didn’t want to do it in front of the camera. That’s why I walked out. If I’m going to pass out, I was going to do it in the bathroom. I tried to make it there. I couldn’t even see anything anymore.

It was that bad?
Yeah. My vision got dimmer and dimmer [like] I was looking through a pinhole. That’s why in the end I was holding onto the railing to guide me to the bathroom. I didn’t know they were following me. I thought the bathroom would be a private place but I was wrong.

But to answer your question, again, it was very difficult. That’s because I didn’t know what was going to happen. If I knew what was going to happen, it would’ve been so much easier.

I’m not trying to discourage anybody who wants to try it out. I think they actually should. It’s a great experience. I’m very thankful I did it. I met a lot of good friends. Everybody I competed with are my good friends now, so it’s definitely worth doing.

What’s your favorite kind of knife? Do you have one?
I have no favorite. There are a lot of different knives for a reason. Like in the kitchen, you use different knives to do different tasks. It goes the same way with everything else that you need a blade for. That’s why we have so many different kinds. The design depends on the intended purpose, so I don’t really have a favorite. I like to keep on exploring, making new designs. I don’t really hold onto one thing for too long. It actually burns me out to do that. I like to challenge myself.

They say you can’t buy happiness. You actually can. You’re just not spending your money right. Spend it for other people.

Do you have scheduled workshops lined up?
Right now I don’t have any workshops that are scheduled. I would like to do more of them. I just got to come up with the money because I fund my own workshops. I don’t believe in charity, donating to charity. I don’t want to accept donations. I want do these workshops because worked for them. I want to generate the money myself and put it to use. I’m starting to change my mind about that. (laughs)

Sometimes I’m very stubborn. But I understand that it’s an opportunity for people who can’t be there to do something, too. I definitely encourage people to go out there to take some time off your personal life and make somebody else’s life a little bit better. I think that’s how life should be.

They say you can’t buy happiness. You actually can. You’re just not spending your money right. Spend it for other people. Makes me feel good. I think it buys me happiness.

I guess that means you have plans of coming back to the Philippines.
I really want to come back here and have that opportunity to train people. It’s always in the back of my mind. I always think about it. I just got to make it happen.

You don’t like using machines?
Making blades by hand is actually a preference. There’s nothing wrong with using machines. It actually makes the job a lot easier. And there are some things that you can do with machines that time doesn’t allow you to do by hand. It’s a personal preference.

You can use machines if you want. You don’t have to forge. You can cut out blanks if you want. There’s nothing wrong with that. Actually, forging blades makes the steel worse if you don’t know what you’re doing. You can burn all the carbon out of the blade and it’s not going to retain any edge. It’s going to make it worse.

Forging is [the] more rewarding thing for me personally. But it’s not the right way. It’s not the wrong way. It’s just a personal preference. That’s all there is.

Interview by Aritha Zel Zalamea
Photos by Shoty Pua