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Making the Cut

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Making the Cut
Photos by Paul Cheney

Jason Knight / The Master

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Photo by Paul Cheney

Jason Knight’s studio, situated by a pond behind his house in Harleyville, South Carolina, is a makeshift jumble of wood, swords, handcrafted hammers, metal shanks, and machinery—an artist’s den, a sensory experience. His forger emits a steady roar, its interior glowing at an infernal 1,950 degrees, designed to turn cold, hard steel into pliant butter. He has accidentally set the place on fire three times.

A corner stashes a treasure of handle materials: African blackwood, maple, rosewood burl from Bolivia, birch from Denmark, red stag antlers. On a table lies a sketchpad brimming with ideas for future knives.

Knight keeps his eye on the color of his metal bar, checking for the telltale radioactive salmon glow, the color of the rising sun.

“If I could be any color, I would be that bright orange yellow color,” he says as he grips the long welded handle, swinging the steel around to a contraption he calls his “little giant power hammer,” a towering beast almost a century old that mercilessly pounds at the hot metal with rapid-fire clanks and rattles, compressing and stretching it. Then swiftly, before the metal cools too much, the glowing steel is hoisted into a hydraulic press that further mashes and shapes it with a high-pitched whining squeal.

Knight is making Damascus: a marbled steel. Different types of steel are alternately layered and forge-welded, then twisted, squeezed, and elongated into a metal candy cane. The result is a mosaic blade, rich with abstracted Rorschach imagery, almost holographic if he gets it just right.

“Chatoyance,” he explains over the roar of the forger. “It comes from the French for the cat’s eye effect—the gleam in your eye, that little shimmer,” he says with a gleam in his eye. Then he gently chastises his dog Bullet for jumping up on a visitor and leaving a carbon dust paw print.

Knight is one of only 110 individuals in the world who have achieved the Master Bladesmith rating, a hard-earned title granted him by the American Bladesmith Society. Years of apprentice work are interspersed with “torture tests.” A bladesmith’s knives must be able to slice through thick ropes in one cut, then through two-by-fours, and still be sharp enough to shave the hair off your arm. They must be flexible enough to be put in a vise and bent ninety degrees without breaking. They must cut pennies in half without damage to the blade.

And that’s the easy part. The hardest part is submitting multiple knives of your own design to be scrutinized by a jury of your peers. If accepted, you become part of a very elite, tight, and passionate group—many of whom who are now branching into the growing world of making chef’s knives for folks who dream of being the next Bobby Flay. Knives can run from $250 into the thousands or even tens of thousands. The most expensive knife auctioned to date, made by Seattle bladesmithing legend Bob Kramer, sold for over $50,000.

Obviously, the more unusual the design, time-consuming the process, or exotic the materials, the more zeros on the price tag. If a handle is made out of walrus ivory that was buried for centuries in permafrost and imbued with color from nearby copper ore, you’re going to pay more.

Knight, however, is clearly not in this for the money. It’s the Zen. He’s an artist who digs the “songs” of his old machinery, eschewing modern pneumatic equivalents, a philosopher constantly asking, “Why?”

“I don’t have a plan, I have a dream,” he says in between pounds of hammer on blade on anvil.

“Think about it: Martin Luther King wasn’t famous for saying, ‘I have a plan.’ He had a dream, and people embraced it. That’s kind of the way I think about it. I’m doing this, and it’s fortunate that I can support my family by doing it. I’m definitely not such a great businessman. I wish I was better at it. I’m learning all the time.”

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Photo by Paul Cheney

So, what trajectory leads a little boy who grew up playing with sharpened sticks in the swamps to become a Master Bladesmith? In Knight’s case, it wasn’t a straight slice. He dabbled in sculpture (stone and wood) and worked in a tire store. He didn’t discover bladesmithing until age twenty-seven, when he took a course in Arkansas on forging and heat-treating of knives. It opened his eyes, but still he kept his day job.

In 2001, he got serious, made his first five knives, took them to church, and sold them all. Then he made eighteen knives, took them to the Atlanta Blade Show, the biggest knife show in the country, and sold out the first day. “That was kind of unheard of,” he laughs. “I was just a chump, you know, the new kid. But I did something just a little bit different than the other guys did. And that difference has influenced a lot of other makers.” Now French and Belgian bladesmiths are emulating his style.

Though especially well known for bowies and fighters, Knight says his chef’s knives bring him the greatest personal reward. “I like to get a knife into the hands of someone who loves to cook. If I can, I’ll deliver it. I’ll hang out with them in their house and say, ‘Let’s cook something, let’s cut something up.’ I like to see the joy on somebody’s face when they say, ‘This is nice to use.’”

Oyster Knife Hero
Photo by Paul Cheney

Quinton Middleton / The Apprentice

The fields of St. Stephen, South Carolina, north of the Francis Marion Forest, have seen a lot of traffic lately: chef traffic. Quintin Middleton’s metal shed could use a drive-thru window for all the chefs making the pilgrimage down his dirt road to pick up their handcrafted knives.

Middleton is a towering, jovial soul, a spiritual man who, in his own words, “stepped out on faith” to pursue his knife-making passion as a means to support his family.

He’s quick to laugh about his childhood inspiration: Conan the Barbarian. “I watched the opening scene and I was hooked. I said, ‘Man, I wanna make a sword!’ So I took the tubing off the swing set, grabbed a cinderblock and a hammer, flattened the metal tubing into a sword, and started running around the yard with it.”

When eight-year-old Middleton crafted an ice pick, his concerned father stashed it high up on a china cabinet. There it hid for twenty years, only to be discovered by Middleton after his father’s death. The prized pick is now on studio display.

Following his instinct for hands on metal, Middleton studied aircraft mechanics while working part-time selling knives and cigars in a mall. One fateful day, master bladesmith Jason Knight walked into his store to peruse swords.

“I’m Jason Knight,” he said, expecting that to ring a bell in a knife shop.

“I’m sorry, man,” said Middleton respectfully, “but I don’t know who you are.”

“I make knives.”

“For a living?”

“Yeah, I make knives and swords and sell them.”

Middleton was astonished. He had never before conceived of his passion as a potential profession.

After that, Knight’s studio, about an hour west of Middleton’s house, became hangout central for the nineteen-year-old. He came often. Knight would sometimes disappear into his house for an hour, come back out, and be surprised to find Middleton still waiting for him. Middleton suspects Knight was testing him.

One day, Knight handed Middleton a long piece of steel and said, “OK, make something,” probably expecting the kid to hammer out a small, crude knife. When Middleton returned with a sword, Knight knew this was a serious student.

But Knight had been burned before, investing time and energy in a student only to have the student walk away with a beautiful knife, never to return. So he dared Middleton to invest in his own grinder. Middleton happened to have some gold coins. Knight promised him that if he sold those coins he could reap tenfold by investing in his hands.

At first, Middleton focused on making hunting knives and swords, but three years ago, he dreamt that God told him to make chef’s knives. The idea had never occurred to him, but he took the challenge. When he had some culinary knives ready, he made a long list of every top chef in Charleston.

“I called every last one of them, and every last one of them turned me down. They probably thought I was a door-to-door salesman,” he laughs. But then he gave Chef Craig Deihl a second call, and Deihl agreed to work with him.

After analyzing Middleton’s earliest creations, Deihl spoke frankly: make this wider, bring this up, swoop that down, this part is too thick, make it rock, make it flush with the cutting board at the heel, make it ergonomic. The two addressed a chef’s tendency to “pinch up” or “hug up” on the knife and came up with the idea of rounding off the spine to make it more comfortable. They discussed grip and contour, how to make the handle more shapely so the pinky could hold it, like the curves of a Coke bottle. “Or a woman,” Middleton says with a smile. “My wife is my inspiration.”

Now his knives are in demand by top chefs from New York to San Francisco and carried in stores such as Charleston Cooks!, SieMatic, Southern Season, Cooks Market in South Dakota, Town Cutler in San Francisco, and Whisk in Brooklyn. He’s in talks with Dean & Deluca and working on custom knives for le Creuset and Chef Works.

Recently Middleton delivered a cleaver to Chef Deihl, a collaboration between master and apprentice. Knight designed it, Middleton ground it, Knight heat-treated it, Middleton fashioned the handle. Within moments of Deihl’s sliding the cleaver out of its sheath hand-sewn by Middleton’s mother, Deihl Instagrammed a photo of the cleaver and its butchering handiwork. And just like that, Middleton received exposure to over 30,000 potential new customers.

“A lot of times,” explains Middleton, “when people pick up a knife, they say, ‘I like it, but…’ I want to take the ‘but’ out of the equation. I want my knives to really speak to people.”

Chris Williams / The Entrepreneur

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Photo by Paul Cheney

Step inside Chris Williams’s workshop on James Island, South Carolina, and you can expect three things: (1) the jolly, rambling tunes of the Grateful Dead blending with the whizzing of grinders; (2) giant sacks of dog food and cat food that his wife keeps handy for neighborhood strays; and (3) a massive line of knives in progress, most of them oyster knives in various stages of handle production.

“We sell five-to-one of these things, more than anything else, more than hunting and fishing knives and our new kitchen line. I would have never dreamed in a million years that an oyster knife would be so popular. This is extreme knife making here!” says Williams with a genteel grin. “We make two hundred fifty knives per month.”

There is a calm demeanor to Williams, despite the heat he has taken from the bladesmith community for not forging his own blades. He chooses the stock removal method (cutting and grinding down) rather than forging (heating and shaping by force). The majority of cuts are done off-site, in a machine shop he has partnered with in Hayesville, North Carolina.

“There’s a lot of old-timers who don’t like the way we’re doing it,” he says matter-of-factly, “but this method guarantees consistency. The one that I make next December will be exactly the same as this one here. The heat treats are all perfect. I can guarantee the quality.” The technique is called CNC-cutting, which stands for “computer numerical control.” Williams draws something out on paper and spits it into a CAD machine, which sets coordinates and maps out the precise cuts. The blades are shipped to Williams’s studio where he and his assistants grind the bevels.

Thus begs the metallurgical debate: which yields the better product, forging or removal? After all, in the end, steel is steel. Forging is really more of an artistic choice. Williams, who happily shed his business suit after thirteen years in investment banking, has enacted some production shortcuts to meet a very real demand for his product.

Is this the future of culinary knife making? Yes and no, says Williams. He continues to accept one-of-a-kind commissions, sketching, cutting, and grinding the blades himself, but those take time and command much higher prices. Meanwhile he oversees high-quantity production of more standard blades such as filet knives. “I didn’t invent the shape. Why go make the wheel square when I know it rolls round?”

One thing is certain: no matter the cut, length, or shape of the blade, the heart of Williams’s business lies in his wood closet at the rear of his workshop. There, shelves are piled high with rare wood, exotic antlers, and old mounts to be repurposed into exquisite handles, stabilized with resin, and crafted with artfully subtle layers of dyed Micarta and accents of ostrich bone, Ram’s horn, amber stag, pearl, abalone, or camel bone.

Sometimes folks bring him centuries-old walnut or pine from a collapsed family barn, asking that the wood be repurposed into a set of carving knives for extended family members. The wood grains are gorgeous in their final state—trimmed, smoothed, shaped, sanded, and buffed to a thing of beauty, an heirloom to be cared for and handed down to the next generation.

It was Williams’s hunting buddy, golfer David Love III, who suggested that one of his skinning knife designs would make a great line of steak knives. No doubt this new line will take off as exponentially as the oyster knives.

To the right of Williams’s desk in his side office, mounted behind glass on the wall, is his grandfather’s rustic knife collection. “He taught me this crazy business,” says Williams with wistful smile. “I like to say that if I was just after my economic checkbook, this isn’t what I should be doing. But if I was just after my heart checkbook, this is exactly what I should be doing.”