As tools go, few are older and more basic than knives. First made of stone, they then became the province of metal, forged from fire and beaten into form by brute force and skill until the industrial age had manufacturers cranking them out by the millions.
For some people, however, there’s nothing like a knife made the old-fashioned way.
When South African custom knife-maker Stuart Smith visited Baton Rouge this month to demonstrate his craft, amateur blacksmiths from the area — and one from Houston — showed up to watch him begin the process of making a bowie knife and get insights into his techniques.
Why? An appreciation of an ancient craft and the artistry that turns what could be a humble utensil into something unique, something that catches the eye.
Knife connoisseurs pay hundreds, even thousands of dollars for the finished products.
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“You’re buying into someone’s story,” said Philip Schrei, who came from Houston. “It’s their blood, sweat, tears and passion that they’re putting into the product. Now, I have a piece of them. … I am buying into that person’s story and passion. I am buying into their artistry.”
Schrei considers Smith an inspiration for his own passion for knife-making, which he’s been doing full time for about 18 months. Schrei won a recent competition on the History Channel television series “Forged in Fire.”
Smith, 43, had made knives as a hobby until 2004 while working in a sales job he hated.
“I eventually said to my wife, ‘I hate my job. I’m miserable,’” Smith said. “The only other thing I knew how to do was make a knife, and not even a very good knife. She said, ‘Why don’t you make knives for a living?’ I tell people I retired at 27 because I started making knives.”
He went to flea markets and craft fairs, wherever custom goods were sold, then learned about the Knifemakers Guild of Southern Africa and started getting his work critiqued by other knife-makers. Smith received guild membership in 2014 and more recently earned journeyman status, which he calls “my bachelor’s degree in knife-making.”
Those who came to Smith’s appearance in Baton Rouge got a freshman seminar in the craft as Smith took a steel plate, heated it in a gas forge and hammered it into the beginnings of a bowie knife. Along the way, he spoke about the finer points of his craft, such as how he swings the hammer with the shoulder instead of the elbow when making the harder strikes, the desired temperature of the forge and how to avoid common mistakes.
Had he been in his own facility, Smith might have shown the advanced aspects of blacksmithing, such as using power hammers and how to forge alternating plates of high-carbon and high-nickel steel into a solid piece, then turning those alternating layers into complicated patterns that add additional artistry to knife blades. He also makes handles out of a variety of woods or more exotic materials.
It caught the attention of Nathan Reynerson, a former minister who became interested enough in unique knives to travel to South Africa to visit Smith and other artisans. Reynerson turned his interest into the local business, African Custom Knives.
“It’s like art. What makes a painting more desirable than another except an artist sees something, and there’s minute distinctions between certain metals that they see and draw out?” Reynerson said. “So, they’ve created a way to take something that’s very utilitarian and also make it very desirable.”