QUAPAW – Quapaw resident Norman “Buddy” Thomas wields his forging hammer with a precision that defies the difficulty of his craft in creating signature pieces that echo his earnest.
Driven, he is not only the owner of Tree of Liberty Bladecraft and Forge, a professional grade knife-making business, but also shop manager at Metal Fab Trophy and Screen Printing in Miami.
Thomas is also a family man. He and his wife, Sundae, have two daughters, Kaity who will be 10 and Anna who will be 13. Both have birthdays in October. Their first daughter, Daisy Elizabeth, passed away in 2002.
Still, he aims to do more, specifically, helping others who are deaf “chase their own passions and dreams.”
His journey has not been an easy one, but there has been no slowing him down.
Recently featured for his knife work in the national Blade Magazine, it was revealed that Thomas lost his hearing when just a toddler as the result of a childhood accident. He and another little boy were playfully crushing toy cars with hammers when he was mistakenly struck.
Decades later and he now controls with great talent and passion tools similar to the one that altered the course of his life. He has made 200 knives or other weapons, but Thomas considers himself an apprentice. A look at the Tree of Liberty Facebook page quickly reveals that although he is humble, his attention to detail and use of quality components shine through in every creation.
It’s already a hot day when Thomas fires up his forge in the driveway of his Quapaw home to demonstrate the first stage in the knife-making process. He wears a heavy welder’s glove and expertly uses tongs to insert a mechanic’s box end wrench purchased at a flea market into the flames.
“I want to focus on getting the whole piece heated up,” he said through a sign language interpreter. "I’m trying to get the heat distribution even.”
Thomas, who uses a hearing aid, also communicates effectively with speech.
After the scrap steel glows orange, he takes it carefully from the forge and hammers it first on one side and then the other on an iron anvil wrapped in chains. Thomas then returns the metal piece to the forge and repeats the process again and again.
“I just shape it and manipulate it in the form of the knife I want,” he explained. “Then, once I’m done with it, I dip it into ‘the Quench,’ which is basically an oil solution – almost like a quick freeze if you will – that hardens it.”
After the profile of the blade is complete, Thomas will grind a bevel, sand, polish and sharpen the blade, while continuing the heat-treating process as needed.
He does not mass produce knives using blueprints or templates, but instead takes “an artist’s approach for each product, so the finished result is different.”
“I just look at the knife and envision that knife, and I decide what feels right to me…,” he added. “I just start running different ideas through my head and then I browse different materials, (like) wood, turquoise and then I find what I want that fits my idea.”
Thomas plans to earn Journeyman Smith and Master Smith ratings established by the American Bladesmith Society, which require passing a set of stringent tests to document that the knife-maker’s ability is among the best in the world.
It is this focus and hard work that have also resulted in his being selected the 2017 spokesperson for Disability Employment Awareness Month by the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services. DRS is the state employment agency for Oklahomans with disabilities and the annual Disability Employment Awareness Month event is celebrated each year in October.
Thomas, a 1999 graduate of DRS’ Oklahoma School for the Deaf, received guidance, counseling and hearing aids from DRS’ Vocational Rehabilitation counselors Robbin Rogers and Kristi Hutton.
“I learned about metal fabrication and welding at Oklahoma School for the Deaf from Dwayne Bryant... and then Jimmy came along,” Thomas said. “I feel like OSD is where I credit most of my skills that I have today.”
Jimmy Joe “J. J.” McGill is currently OSD’s metal shop and welding teacher. Bryant is deceased.
A Tulsa native, Thomas first attended public school in his hometown.
“It was very tough being in that mainstream environment, trying to find your bearings … around people that were not always understanding and aware of my deaf culture,” he said. “It was a challenge, but when I moved to OSD, things greatly improved.”
In fact, Thomas went from an educational environment at the age of 15 where the faculty was unable to communicate with him effectively to OSD where he would graduate a salutatorian.
Someday, Thomas hopes to share his bladecraft knowledge with others.
“I could be a liaison to provide that counsel, mentor people, especially deaf people, in this kind of work who might not know how to get their foot in the door,” Thomas explained.
Thomas' work is available through Tree of Liberty Bladecraft Forge, 304 W. 2nd St., Quapaw. Contact him at email@example.com; on Instagram @tree_of_liberty_bladecraft and on Facebook at Tree of Liberty Bladecraft and Forge.
More than 320,500 working-age Oklahomans, ages 18 to 64, have disabilities, according to a 2015 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau. The statistics reveal that 24.5 percent of the disabled population are employed, compared to 66.9 percent of persons without disabilities.
“People with disabilities are the single largest and most diverse minority in the U.S.,” DRS Director Noel Tyler said. “That’s why we recognize the contributions of thousands of Oklahoma workers with disabilities like Buddy Thomas during Disability Employment Awareness Month.
“DRS and our Oklahoma Works partners are fully committed to achieving Access for All,” she added. “This means that all workers including those with disabilities should have equal opportunities to achieve employment and self-sufficiency.”
Last year, DRS helped 83,406 people with disabilities through all agency programs. Vocational Rehabilitation and Visual Services served 12,954 job-seekers and helped 2,125 Oklahomans go to work, earning an average yearly wage of $20,952.00. As a result, they became taxpayers, reducing the need for government assistance.
For more information about services offered by the Department of Rehabilitation Services, visit www.okdrs.gov or phone 800- 845-8476.
Jody Harlan is Communications Director for the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services.
Dorothy Ballard is the managing news editor of the Miami News-Record. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @dm_ballard.