He’s Got the Point, and the Art and Science of Blade Smithing

By MARIA SCANDALE | Aug 09, 2017
Courtesy of: Mike Colman

Mike Colman’s company is called Oneoffknives, because they are one-of-a-kind. So is its owner, a blade smith whose sharp products and animated passion have him considered a “prospect” for the “Forged in Fire” show, although he won’t tell you that unless you ask.

Time not spent working at his father’s Island Sun store in Beach Haven is consumed by fire at his forge in the two-car garage of his ranch-style home in Asbury Park.

Forging, fabricating, filing – many skills are involved in turning out the custom knives that fly off to chefs, survivalists, fishermen, hunters, historic re-enactors like the guy who needed a Viking sword, or just to me and you.

“My customers are the greatest, man, you can’t beat them. They call me up: ‘Mike, I need a gigantic Viking seax,’” he recounted with a grin. “It’s a German style blade that came from the Barbarians and Vikings. He’s a security guard and involved in a group that does authentic re-enactments.” (The hefty Colman, too, is a former security guard for Bon Jovi and others.)

In days of old, in many civilizations, the farrier was highly respected in the societal hierarchy. Colman feels a distant kinship to those who made and used efficient blades. But he appreciates the learning tools of today, such as the YouTube videos that his generation can turn to for specific techniques.

The 33-year-old is self-taught. He’ll scrutinize a video of a Japanese expert, speaking in Japanese, and translate it to pick up the finer points. That’s how avidly he seeks to learn.

“It’s a passion; I love doing it,” he said. “Some people specialize in doing one thing with knives; I love blades so much that I delve into so many different aspects of doing it.”

His showcase is the 700 uploads he has on Instagram. Mini-cleavers to friction folders to kitchen knives to full-size tomahawks and saw-backed Bowie knives are looking sharp.

Finishes can be “blacked out,” satin edge and more. In addition to carbon fiber, handles include woods such as desert cholla or Hawaiian koa, or burled box elder filled with resin epoxy. One is engraved in an intricate Day of the Dead theme, another bears glow-in-the-dark pinecones. There are handles that are multi-colored through the micarta technique – stacked and glued paper then carved with a Dremel tool.He has done some of the Damascus technique of folding the metals for a layered reveal after fine filing work.

The whys and hows and the allure of blade smithing are best heard in his words, in the following Q & A.

SP: Why do you love knives?

MC: How did I get into doing it? I started collecting knives when I was probably 5 years old, that young.

My father and my uncle used to have a big display case in the jewelry store and it was scrimshaw, so when I was a little kid, I used to always want to play with them. I would take them out and polish them, and I don’t know what caused it necessarily, but every birthday I would get a knife: “I want a knife, I want a knife!” So my father and I built a big wall display in my bedroom growing up. It was under lock and key; he had the lock, but it was my big collection of knives when I was a kid.”

Years and years of collecting went by, and by the time I was in my teens, I had a buddy who was a machinist, a fabricator, and it was a thing where, “how cool would it be to make our own?”

Life keeps going with school, work, college ... on the weekends me and my buddies would all meet up and make blades and forge blades out. It just kept going and I got married and my first daughter is due in October. Anything I can do to make extra money at this point in my life would be great, so I really tried to start making the knives a business more than just a hobby thing, and it’s been doing really well, thank God. I must be doing something right (laughs).

SP: So, your wife is cool with all these knives?

MC: This is the truth now; this is me baring all: I have literally thousands in my personal collection in the basement. It’s like a knife museum. When my wife first met me she was definitely freaked out; she was, like, “what is all this?” I was, like, I make ’em; don’t be freaked out. Try explaining that on a date. It was fun.

This is the worst part. When I got married, my wife said, “What do you want for your birthday, a new Spyderco?” She’s, like, “oh, how much is it?” “A couple hundred bucks.” She’s, like, “wow, they’re expensive ... wait a minute. Those are the red and black boxes?” (I have a whole wall covered with them.) I told her some are less than $200, but that was the first time I really got caught; she knows how much they’re worth! She’s, like, “if our kid needs braces, we know where to go.” No, not my collectibles! (laughs).

“I’m lucky, my wife loves my knives. She always used Henckels, Wusthof, the top names in kitchen knives, German steel. When she started talking about using one of my knives versus one of her professional-made knives, at first it was a mockery ... but I told her, babe, my knives are priceless. She now has an entire block outfitted by me. I was, like, can you do this with your knife? I take a piece of paper, slice it right down.

That’s another thing, pretty much all of my blades you can almost shave with. I do razor-edge work; they’re mirror edges.

SP: Who buys these? Chefs? Hunters? It seems that some collectors wouldn’t want to use them at all.

MC: Most guys in general love knives. Not all. There are some that aren’t into it, but for the most part, most guys will like a good knife. And you do have girls who shoot and they like to have blades. Now what it comes down to is, what are you going to do with that knife.

I can’t keep filet knives in stock. In these nautical towns, I have boat captains that are buddies and they just grab them. And the smaller 6-inch, one-finger filet knife for $75, I can’t keep these in stock ... if you want to take the skin off in one shot.

Hunting, fishing, a lot of people when they buy one of these, they use the hell out of it, because they spent the money. Now, $200 may not seem like much on this island of million dollar homes, but for local hunters, a lot of these guys are doing it because they want to feed their family and save some money at the end of the day on buying meat. Not a lot of the people are super-rich, but a lot of the guys who would be my clients, I know them personally; I know their families. That’s one reason why I keep the prices moderate, I want to get them in the hands of the people who are going to actually use them and need my items.

I try to keep prices reasonable for the fact that I want to sell my knives. I enjoy making them more than anything; I’m not money-hungry. I feel like I make a great knife; I feel like if I don’t give people the opportunity to own one and testify to that ...

If you’re a chef who has to hold a knife for 12 hours a day and somebody says, how are the ergonomics on one of his blades, it’s important for somebody to be able to say firsthand. You can’t put a price on happiness. It makes me happy to know that the thing I’m making is doing its job.

I have sold knives for up to $800 to $1,000 for full-size, big blades, if people want a huge Bowie knife.

Every year on Veterans Day I pick a veteran, either somebody I know or one of my Instagram followers, which is almost a thousand people, and I give them a free knife.

The beauty of being a custom knife maker is that I can make it to scale for whoever wants it, in whatever materials and colors. You pick it all.

SP: What type of steel do you use for your blades?

MC: Forging my own steel, making my own blade stock, is something that a lot of people don’t do.

Most of my work is high-carbon, either L6 or 1084. I’m in the process of getting into stainless and have done a few. Stainless is less likely to rust, but it doesn’t take as fine of an edge. The best sushi chefs ... they’re going to have a high-carbon knife. I do more traditional chef knives, which is a French knife or a Japanese gyuto. I’ve done both.

SP: You would be interesting to watch on the “Forged in Fire” show.

MC:  I would love to be on that show. Right now I’m what they call a prospect. I was interviewed three times and it came down to the fact of having experience in forge welding. She said, “We’re looking for people who have everything in their skill set, because they’re making the challenges harder and harder to keep people watching the show. She told me, “Practice your forge welding, and I’m going to put you on the prospect list and let you know.”

I’ve purposely been training to make knives in less than three hours, to match up to the “Forged in Fire” competition. That way, if I had to do it, it would be second-nature to me.

The knife makers get along really well. We all learn from each other. Matt Parkinson, the first champion, I met him a couple times at the East Coast custom show, and then Ryu Lim is from New Jersey. He’s currently the new Jersey winner from “Forged in Fire.” He’s a really cool guy. We all follow each other on Instagram, too.

SP: Can you describe some of the complex blade smithing and forging process?

MC: I’ve got a double-overhead running propane forge. I harden the blade and quench it. I heat a blade up to around 1,600 degrees so it is nonmagnetic. My forge goes up to almost 3,500 degrees. You’ve got to forge in the dark, or else I won’t see the colors and how hot the steel is. Your glowing blade is what you’re seeing by. You want to go for what I call almost a vintage Camaro orange. Too white means the steel is too hot. You’re burning out carbon and if you go to harden that, you’re going to have soft spots along your edge. Believe me, I learned this the hard way.

I quench in a mix of Parks 50 and canola oil. That blade will now be covered in slag, a black soot. I let that cool to air temperature and I let all the carbon start to form. There is actually work going on in the metal. You go from austentizing to martinizing, then to actual carbon. I take that to the grinder and finish my grind, from dime width to fine. Once that’s done, you temper your blade and lock it in. Tempering is softening minutely to a desired hardness. I do a cycle of three tempers.

After it’s tempered, I clean the knife up. To get the mirrored edge, I use the Wicked Edge system, one of the No. 1-selling systems in the world for sharpening knives.

SP: You still have all your fingers.

MC: Oh, boy, I’ve got all the knife scars. I got to the point where I take selfies now when I get stitches at the doctor. My hands are scarred from over the years getting into all types of situations with blade making.

My advice to anyone making their own blades: Do not skimp on safety equipment – safety glasses, full face shield, respirator. The steel dust you breathe in that comes off the grinding wheels, it’s so bad. I was told by somebody that if I ever needed to get a CAT scan done, I’d have to have a special CAT scan because of the metal that’s in my lungs.

And you need fireproof clothing. Do you know how many times I’ve caught myself on fire? I can’t even count. Good thing the teacher taught us “stop, drop and roll” in kindergarten. That flashed in my head when I was on fire. I remember running out of the garage, diving in the driveway and just rolling around. My neighbor is a Russian guy. He’s, like, “what are you doing, Mike? You OK?” (laughing). I’m, like, “I’m fine.”

They put up with my craziness. And as a knife maker I have to carve some pretty cool pumpkins or the neighbors are let down.

mariascandale@thesandpaper.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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