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Bladesmith to the Stars

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Bladesmith to the Stars
Written by Chris Chamberlain | Photos by Leslie Ryann McKellar
Quintin Middleton with a slab of live oak for handles.

Friday was a good day for Quintin Middleton. As he packed up his wares after the first day of selling in the artisan tent at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, he mentally took inventory of his remaining stock. “I’m gonna need to go home and make some more knives tonight!”

Middleton is used to working late nights alone, because since he first started crafting cutlery fifteen years ago, Middleton Made Knives has been primarily a one-man operation. Although he has recently taken on some help and moved his operation into a larger shop, Middleton earned his reputation as a craftsman working out of a tiny wooden shed in his backyard in St. Stephen, South Carolina, where he used tools ranging from medieval to industrial to convert sheets of carbon steel into fine cutting implements. Watching him heat the steel in the infernal forge before pounding out the blade on an anvil, it’s easy to believe that his first foray into bladesmithing was crafting swords as a hobby.

“I was a big Conan the Barbarian fan,” he admits sheepishly. “I made big old swords and hunting knives for a while before I finally figured out how to make money in knives.” Indeed, his gorgeous custom blades range in price from $180 for a paring knife up to almost $1,000 for Damascus steel chef knives that feature intricate swirling patterns on the blade from where Middleton laminated several layers of metal, then twisted and poked the hot steel to create works of art.

The handles of Middleton knives are another artistic highlight. Middleton uses all sorts of exotic woods from colorful cocobolo to dense kingwood usually only seen in the inlay work of fine furniture. Not all of the materials in his handles are quite so rare. “I don’t waste anything,” he explains. “I’ll save scraps of wood and burlap and put them in a mold with resin to make something new and pretty.” Middleton adds dyes to the resin to contribute color and accentuate the grain of the wood, and then the handles are baked at 200 degrees to harden them.

Honing a blade.

While Middleton Made Knives are certainly beautiful to look at, they wouldn’t be as popular as they have become if they didn’t work well in the kitchen. As he made the transition from Conan to culinarian, Middleton collaborated with notable chef Craig Diehl when he was first designing chef knives. The young knifemaker learned the specific shapes and sizes that were most utilitarian in the kitchen and about the importance of creating a balanced knife to allow for good tip control.

Diehl still uses Middleton’s knives in his kitchen, along with other chefs such as Sean Brock, Michael Anthony, and Linton Hopkins, as well as food writer Michael Ruhlman.

Middleton designs his knives for comfort and ease-of-use with ergonomic handles and a rounded spine to help the blade fit easily in the hand when a cook pinches it for better control. His heat-treated blades are made from harder steel than most knives to hold an edge longer while still remaining soft enough to sharpen when necessary.

In addition to attending three to four large festivals like Charleston Wine + Food a year, Middleton sells his knives at retail stores in places like New Orleans, Chicago, and as far away as South Dakota. Additionally, he offers his products on his website, although he often sells out of inventory. But that’s not a big issue, because Middleton will gladly custom-make any of his knives ranging from 6-inch and 8-inch chef knives to the utilitarian santoku shape with your choice of handle, as long as you’re willing to wait for him to catch up with production. “I tell people to follow my Instagram feed and email me when you see something you want. I’ll get it to them in a few weeks.”

Middleton’s goal has always been to expand beyond his solo operation to a larger facility where he can hire more employees to work with him and learn his craft. As a stepping stone to that dream, he has developed a new, less expensive line of knives under the ECHO brand. Middleton uses local machine shops to help with the manufacture of these knives, but stresses that, “everything comes back to my shop before it ships, and I make sure everything is done the way I want.”

Middleton realizes that his custom knives are truly special creations, but they’re not for everyone. “Not everybody can afford a $400 knife to use in a restaurant kitchen. I wanted to be able to make a great knife that a line cook could afford and actually use.” So now, whether you’re in the market for a Damascus steel blade or a more affordable version, Quintin Middleton has got the knife for you. He just might need to get home earlier to make it.

Knife Care

With proper care, Middleton knives can last a lifetime and go quite a long time between sharpenings. “My knives are harder than most, so it’ll be a while before you need to take a stone to it. I do suggest honing it frequently, but when that’s not enough to keep it sharp, just contact me and I’ll resharpen it for you.”

This generous offer does require a little work on the consumer’s side, as knives should always be carefully wrapped in several sheets of newspaper and then packed in a box padded with bubble wrap or more newspaper to protect the knife (and your mail carrier). To put off the need for sharpening even longer, pay attention to your cutting surface. Middleton advises, “Only cut on three things: wood, composite resin and wood fiber, or plastic. Never cut on marble or glass because they’re even harder than my steel and can bend the edge over on the blade.” Middleton also cautions knife users to never put their cutting knives in the dishwasher, but not for the reasons some might think. Yes, there is the possibility of damaging the blade or the handle as plates and dishes shift around during the wash cycle, but it’s the heating element of the dishwasher that poses the greatest danger to the longevity of your cutlery. “When I heat-treat my blades, I keep them at a lower temperature for a longer time than most manufacturers,” explains Middleton. “That heating element inside your washer can actually soften the steel and mess up the edge.”