2012 marked a point in Ferrum Forge history when forces converged and I took major steps forward as a knife maker and business owner. Two very important things happened that changed my life forever. 1) My daughter, keep in mind I was the stay-at-home-dad, were both old enough to go to preschool and 2) I started making folders.
With the girls at school for 8ish hours a day I finally got to spend full days in the garage working on knives and it taught me some very important things about process management. There are some things, like drilling holes and doing cutout, that can be grouped together into one day so you can then spend the rest of the week doing processes that are best done in sequence. For instance; shaping a week's worth of rough cut blades so they can all be heat treated in one day allows you to rough cut handle scales for all the knives and rough shape them while your blades are in the oven. Thus, I would group knives into batches with distinct process flow from layout, to cut, to rough shape, to heat treat, to handle work, to grind, to finish work, to sheathing, to sharpen. While my garage looked like general chaos to the casual observer it was actually staged in process batches. And while those batch looked like wild piles for material, they were actually set up so I never had down time during my precious knife making hours.
Since I had some sort of process flow it started to become clear what I lacked in terms of machinery. One old Delta drill press was not enough and I really needed some sort of mill. I was also lacking quality grinding machinery, which really I didn't fully realize until 2013, when I finally got a proper 2x72in belt grinder. I was still rough shaping steel and titanium on a bench grinder, which actually was fairly efficient since I could shape grinder wheels to fit choil radii. But it made edge clean up a nightmare since the finest grinding wheels I had were 60 grit, and that meant I was shoe-shine finishing every edge with sandpaper.
The biggest change in 2012, the one that lead me to making knives full time, was starting to make folders. They dominated my knife making once I sent my first folder to Arizona Custom Knives and orders started coming in. But I didn't send a folder out for sale until May. Between the end of 2011 and May 2012 I made 5 really crappy folders that have basically all been destroyed at this point since they were... well, terrible. But that was how I learned what not to do. I said in the first blog that the story of Ferrum Forge is the story of failure and I did some epic fails in those first folders. I learned the importance of flatness, parallel surfaces, and how to transfer holes with as much accuracy as humanly possible. Then I learned how fix all of those things when inevitably screwed one or all of them up. I also acquired a little Sher-line hobby mill, which was very helpful, but since I was not a machinist, it took me a few scales to figure out how to do what I wanted with it.
By May of 2012 I finally had a folding knife I thought was good enough to sell and sent it to Arizona Custom Knives (pictured below) It sold in a few hours of being posted and the emails started coming soon after. Now, compared with what we make these day it was pretty rough, but back then it was the best I could do.
In my next blog entry I will go into the business side of what happened in 2012 because changing to full time meant I needed to change Ferrum Forge into an actual company. I will also talk about Chris for the first time and his apprenticeship.
Writing this blog is kinda challenging, surprisingly so, in fact. Not only is it hard to carve out time to write it, but it’s also hard to not get lost in looking at all the old photos I have. However, looking back through them has made me re-appreciate how far we’ve come from the garage days.
2011 wasn’t really that big of a jump in the amount of knives I made, since I only sold 20 that year, but it did mark advancement in tooling and my overall knife making skills. One of the drivers behind the advancements in tools came from my buddy Jon, who has a unique ability to find things on the cheap. It was Jon who found the 2x36 belt grinder attachment for a bench grinder that became my main grinding tool as well as the big steel welding table that we still use today in the shop as the table with all our grinders bolted or welded onto it. Having a better means of grinding really changed the game for me and made grinding much more enjoyable. In fact once I got a KMG 2x72 years down the road I wondered how I ever made knives without it. If you are thinking about making knives I would highly suggest saving your pennies and buying a nice 2x72 belt grinder, it will make knife making much more enjoyable and give you better results.
The process did not change from 2010 to 2011, it was still cut out rough pieces with an angle grinder, shaping with various grinding implements, heat treating the blade in my modular furnace and temper in my kitchen oven, making handle parts, shaping to fit to the blade, making some sort of sheath, and sharpening. Now that is a massive simplification and that whole process, since it was taking place in my “spare” time could take an entire week… or longer. People ask me why I don’t do many hand rubbed satin blades these days. Well, back in 2011 I had no other options for blade finishes so every knife I made was hand rubbed, and that continued into 2012, where I made a lot more knives, so part of the reason I don’t hand rub much is because I used to do it so much that I kind of burnt myself out on it. The other reason is that once I had other ways of finishing blades, people didn’t ask for hand rubbed satin. In fact, once I had blast and tumble capabilities, 87% of my orders were for blast and tumble finishes.
Now one thing that gets lost in the tides of time is that I made completely custom knives back in those days, meaning I would design knives specifically for people based on what they wanted. It would take weeks of emailing sketches back and forth before I had a design to even start making. Since I was doing it for the love of the craft, that time cost never registered in my mind, but on average I was spending 10 hours of design time for every knife I eventually made… and the ones I didn’t make. What that really means is that I actually paid to make knives for people even if I set my hourly wage at $5 an hour. The most expensive knife I made in 2011 was $250 and that is the dagger in the pictures. I had $2,540 in total sales in 2011 and I spent 4 or 5 time that much on tooling, consumables, and material.
People often don’t see that every full time knife maker came from making knives at a deficit at some point in their career. In fact, when I look back at all the time and money I spent getting to the point I am today, I know I still haven’t broken even. It’s not so much the money I’ve spent, but the time. Time is the real non-renewable resource and one that becomes more expensive as you get older and it becomes more limited. The real cost in making anything is not the materials, but the time. When you buy anything what you are actually paying for it the time from someone’s life it took to make that product. Now you can slice that time up and aggregate it over many items and drop the cost down, you can use machines to speed up the process so you can make more items in the same amount of time, but time still remains the basis of all economy. I mention this at this point because I wouldn’t learn this particular lesson until years later, but even back in 2011 I could see that if I was going to keep making knives I had to make more money so I could have better tools to make better knives. I had no idea that knife making would become my vocation at that point and would be how I fed my family, but once it did become my full time job in the summer of 2012, I had to do some learning about running a business and not just making knives.
2012 will have several posts about it because it was a year that changed my life. It has significantly more documentation both photographically and that was when I started making Youtube videos.
Thank you for reading!
I'm not going to lie, I didn’t think anyone would read this blog, but you do and so I shall keep writing it!
By 2010 I had some sort of idea what I was doing when it came to making knives and I had stopped using “found” steels and started buying small pieces of various steel from Alpha Knife Supply. I was playing with N690, Elmax, D2, and 154CM. For the most part I was using G10 for handle scales, but I made a few knives with stabilized wood too.
For tools I had an old Delta 8in drill press, a dremel, an angle grinder, a 48in flat sander/disk sander, a old Craftsman 6in bench grinder (which we still have and use every day), and I had acquired a bunch of fire bricks that served as a modular heat treat kiln with a weed burner as the heat sources. I can still remember fondly the jet engine sound it used to make when I was burning it on maximum output to get up to 2100 degrees.
The process was pretty straight forward: Cut steel with the angle grinder, get to the final shape with various parts of the sander, bench grinder, files, and the dremel, drill holes, rough grind the bevels on the disk sander then get it really hot in the inferno kiln, quench, and hope like hell the blade didn’t warp. Then piss my wife off by tying up our kitchen over for 4 hours to temper.
As you can tell it was very scientific… but using simple checks like heating steel till it lost ferromagnetism I was able to heat treat various steels with working parameters. It certainly was not the level of control we have today with our computer controlled ovens or when we send blades to aerospace heat treaters, but it worked.
Once I had a heat treated knife-ish chunk of steel then came the handle work and finishing work and this part would take days. Because I was working with open flame and oil quenching I would get heavy oxide layers on my blade and it would hours to get off. Then I would have to cut my handle materials with the angle grinder and shape the down much like I had the blade. Then the whole knife would get assembled and final shaping would occur on the handle scales.
Because I was working in “spare” time it would take several day to complete a knife, usually an entire week. The most expensive knife I sold in 2010 took me two weeks to make. I charged $200 for that knife and it was the most expensive knife I had ever made.
Now I didn’t come to knife making without any knowledge of metal or wood working. I had done plenty of welding and general metal work on an industrial level so I knew basic things like drilling and taping steel, how to peen softer metals without messing it up. I also knew about sanding progression, something that is actually very important to knife making but doesn’t get much press.
And so with a little know-how and a lot of elbow grease I was able to make knives that people actually paid for. Granted it was not many people, but my hobby was showing signs that it could be self-funding. So I bought some new tools like a heat gun! That way I could make Kydex sheaths. To this day I still have that heat gun and box of various Kydex and the rivets and screws I used to use.
I also was making leather sheaths by 2010, nothing fancy, usually pretty ugly, but I progressed my leather working skills in 2011 to the point where my leather sheath did not suck.
The biggest lesson I learned in 2010 though, was that I needed a better way to grind. Since my grand total in sales for 2010 was $1,234 the thought of buying a $3000 grinder was way out of the question, but I have a buddy, Big Jon, and he is particularly gifted at finding things on the cheap. He’ll be mentioned a lot in 2011’s post since it was his help that scored me some of the major tool upgrade that came in that year.
Thanks for reading and next week we’ll start looking a 2011, which is where things get far more interesting since I was getting actual knife orders and trying to figure out the business side of making knives and not going broke in the process. I also actually have pictures from 2011 so I'll be putting some in the next post!
As the years roll by and more and more people are seeing Ferrum Forge for the first time, I (Elliot Williamson, CEO and Lead Knife Maker) figured it would be a good time to start a blog detailing where we came from, how we got here, and where we are looking to go in the future.
This isn’t going to be series of written rambles about how great our knives are or how awesome our company is, in fact, it’s going to be quite the opposite. The story of Ferrum Forge is the story of failure, well, failure in the sense of the way experiments fail in the scientific method, but failure nonetheless. To start this story, you have to meet me. Not the sound-bite snippets I write on our website or the overly hairy guy you see in our videos these days, but the me in 2009 who loved knives and wanted to make one.
I was in my senior year at UCSD and taking a class on the Iliad and Odyssey, I actually do have a degree in English, even though it might not seem that way given all the spelling errors and left-out word in my posts and emails. I chose to take this class because I was very well acquainted with both texts and figured this was going to be an easy A for me to round out my undergraduate studies in style. There was just one problem…
I had been looking around the internet on how to make knives and swords because I have always been a blade nut. I was just starting find the “custom knife” industry and it fascinated the hell out of me. I was already considering making a forge and I already had a fantastic piece of railroad track to use as an anvil. So there I was watching blacksmithing videos by guys, whom if you watch Forged in Fire you would know, and learning some basic metallurgy. Halfway through the Iliad and Odyssey class I found a bizarre little simile about the heat treatment of steel… in a book that was supposed to have been written in the bronze age.
It sounds weird to type it, but it was that super book-nerd moment that made Ferrum Forge. I wrote a research paper about that simile and found it was actually a topic of major debate in the academic community and as I stuck my nose deeper into the debate I needed better knowledge of metallurgy, archeometallurgy, and the history of steel in specific. I got some very nice guidance from UCSD’s Archeometallurgy department and before I knew it I knew a history of steel that spanned the entire historical record, not because I actually needed to for the paper, but because it was astounding.
So built that forge and I tried my hand at forging knives. It did not go well, in the beginning. Forging is not for the faint of heart or meager of limb. It take time, patience, and a whole lot of sweat. The knives I made were… rough to say the least, but it was exciting and deeply satisfying at a primal level. Through this whole time period I was going to school, working part-time, and I already had my first child, but I was finding time to make knife-ish objects. I was also devouring books and internet content about knife making. Where did I find the time to do all this? I literally do not sleep much, maybe 7 hours every 48 hours of being awake.
In 2009 I sold 12 knives, all fixed blades, all very rough, some forged, some stock-removal via a disk grinder. I made more than that, but most of them were given away or trashed. I used any steel I could get my hands on; files, leaf springs, and I was starting to buy small plates of steel from Alpha Knife Supply. I would use anything for handles, woods, g10, micarta, corian, paracord, there was even a cork experiment that did not go well. I had a propane forge and my kitchen oven to do heat treat, a drill press I stole from my dad, a disk grinder/flat belt grinder combo my dad gave me, and a dremel. It was not a high-tech operation to say the least. Sand paper, files, and Sharpies were my friends.
I made my first website, which was super basic since I actually wrote the html code myself, but people found me, some of them heard about me from friends and family, but I was getting emails and designing full custom fixed blade by the beginning of 2010.
I’m going to stop here since 2009 was a pretty simple year in my knife making career. I was a pure rookie and trying to figure out how to make basic knives while doing all the other things in my life. It wasn’t until 2010 that things got a little more complex, and by that I mean I sold 13 knives that year! But the knives were much better and that was because I got new toys and I had a year of messing stuff up to know what not to do! In the next post I’ll look at those tools and start talking specifically about how long it took me to make a knife then and how I was doing it.