Forging History

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Two Lakelanders continue the Florida legacy of  forging and appreciating knives

Photography by Penny & Finn

knives-0038Knives have always been part of Florida’s culture. The first native people who settled in Florida nearly 12,000 years ago used knife-like tools. The storied Florida Crackers were fond of Bowie knives,  and those blade designs are still widely used today. Today, two Lakeland  men continue that tradition.

One of those men, Patrick Gaskins, runs The Knife Place, a small knife  shop on the outskirts of town. Gaskins grew up in Georgia, where using  knives was as common as getting dressed. “I grew up in a small town, and  we always used knives,” he says. “It was just one of those things where, as  a man in a small town, you always carried a pocket knife. We hunted a lot;  we fished a lot; so you always had one. Otherwise you weren’t prepared  for the day.”

Gaskins collected knives as a child and was first acquainted with  The Knife Place when he traveled to Lakeland from his hometown in  Nashville, Georgia, with his parents. It wasn’t until he began working in  the produce industry in Plant City that he revisited the knife shop he had  frequented when he was young. Gaskins said that once he rediscovered  The Knife Place, he would go there and spend his paychecks on knives  to add to his collection. He never suspected that he’d buy the store itself. The shop’s original owner, Dick Plank, opened the store in 1989 and  ran it for 20 years. Gaskins bought the shop five years ago, even though  he’d only intended to buy a knife. “I kept aggravating Dick about a certain
knife,” Gaskins says. “I kept asking, ‘Dick, when are you gonna sell it to  me? When are you gonna sell it to me?’ And one day I came in and asked,  ‘Dick, when are you gonna sell me that knife?’ And he said, ‘If you’ll just  hold up a minute, I’ll sell you the whole darn place.”

knives-0057Since then, Gaskins has stocked The Knife Place with  every kind of knife imaginable. Throwing knives and tactical  knives sit next to cases full of bone-handled blades. In pride of
place, a display of locally made custom knives is full of unique,  handmade pieces. Axes in tooled leather sheaths and magnetic  strips stacked with more pieces line the walls. Despite the variety in the shop, Gaskins has a preferred style. “You’ve got  people who carry modern pocket knives,” he says, “but I’m  more of a traditionalist.”

The Knife Place’s regulars undoubtedly share his  traditionalist mindset. One group of men gathers at the shop  nearly every day to swap stories with strangers and friends  alike. Gaskins notes, “They want to hear everybody’s stories,  what’s going on. You’ve got several older custom makers that  come in regularly on Wednesday mornings. They just want to
talk to everybody.”

knives-0058The regulars are full of stories and knowledge about knife-making. Several of them are older custom makers, and they’re  willing to share their insight: “They never meet a stranger,”
Gaskins says. “Lots of times, [someone new] will come in and  want to know about a custom knife, and I’ll just direct them to  those guys. They’ve been doing it for 40 years.”

Despite the wealth of knowledge and knife-making history  in his shop, Gaskins is uncertain about the future of knife  collecting. The Knife Place stays busy, but he says that many  young people today have less disposable income. Student  loans, rising housing costs, and other expenses leave little room  for younger people to build valuable knife collections. “It’ll be  interesting to see what happens with it,” he says. Regardless,  Gaskins will continue offering knives, new and old, curating  his own collection, and sharing stories at his shop.

Knife-making may be an ancient art, but  Jonathan Porter is keenly aware of the science  that goes into each knife. Every stroke of the  hammer has an effect on the finished product.

On the other side of town, another man connects with knives’ history in a different, more physically demanding, way. Like the old-timers at The Knife  Place, Jonathan Porter of DogHouse Forge forges his own custom knives. Porter, an American  Farrier’s Association certified farrier, shoes horses when he’s not working in his forge. His profession  was his gateway into forging knives; his blacksmithing know-how and familiarity with the required  tools made the transition relatively easy. “I started forging knives at horse shows,” he says. “I just got  bored and decided to do it.” His hobby grew, and he eventually opened DogHouse Forge. Each of Porter’s knives is hand-forged from assorted pieces of high-quality carbon steel, from  vintage sawblades to railroad spikes. His steel often comes in the form of farrier rasps, the tools  of yet another historic trade. Farrier rasps are long, coarse, steel tools used to even a horse’s hoof  before fitting it with a shoe. Porter says the rasps can be used for only a few jobs before they’re  discarded. They’re readily available; between his own farrier work and his network of colleagues,  used rasps are abundant. “I have friends with whole trash cans full of them,” he says.

knives-0040Porter spends days transforming a single rasp into a knife. They’re heated, hammered out,  shaped, ground down, and hardened. It’s a very physical process, requiring extreme temperatures,  heavy mallets, and all manner of hammers and hand-tools. Watching Porter swing a piece of  red-hot metal from forge to anvil recalls the centuries-old old vocation of blacksmithing, though  he is sometimes aided by more contemporary tools like an air hammer and mechanical grinder.  Finished blades are outfitted with a unique handle made from a variety of woods from all over the  globe. The process takes about three days from start to finish. Knife-making may be an ancient art, but Porter is keenly aware of the science that goes into  each knife. Every stroke of the hammer has an effect on the finished product. Every beat of the  hammer on one side of the knife is repeated on the other side — otherwise, Porter says, the  finished knife will be unbalanced. “In order to recycle a rasp or file into a knife, you need to  completely break down its structure so that you can move it around into the shape you’re after,” he explains. “By breaking that structure apart, you disrupt the  uniformity of the atoms and, in turn, the molecular alignment  in the steel. The goal in forging and rehardening a blade is to  get this uniformity and density as evenly spaced as possible in  order to guarantee the blade’s strength is equal throughout.”

knives-0026The knives made at DogHouse Forge are attracting interest  around the country. As Porter gains more customers, his  work gets more attention. He’s gained a substantial following
on Instagram and Etsy, among others. His clients — from  professional chefs to home cooks — all recognize the quality  and workmanship of his knives. The knives are a perpetual
work of art; the steel changes ever so slightly after each use.  Porter says, “A very special thing for me about a forged knife is  the patina it develops during its lifetime of use. Each food has  its own enzymes and acids that react with the steel to give its  patina life. This becomes your knife’s story or its fingerprint.  Every time you use it, the meal you’ve prepared is added to  the log book.” Porter’s beautifully forged knives continue to  improve and change as they are used — a creative process that  is never truly finished.

Perhaps Porter’s knives will one day sit in The Knife Place’s  case of locally made knives. He and Gaskin both share a similar  appreciation for the storied skill of forging steel, although they  pursue their interests differently. In Gaskins’ shop, the rows  of knives gleaming quietly in glass cases are the result of a  childhood appreciation for well-crafted blades that inspired a  career. In Porter’s shop, the same appreciation for a well-made  knife is expressed in hot steel and flying slag.

knives-0006Knife-collecting and blacksmithing are no longer common  hobbies or vocations, but Gaskins and Porter both have advice  for those interested in exploring those topics. Gaskins’ advice  to fledgling knife collectors is to start small. “They just need  to figure out what direction they want to go in,” he says. “If  they’re going into the older-style knives, I would tell them  to pick a style and a brand that they like. Otherwise it’s too  broad, and you can invest way too much money really quick.”  He also suggests collecting knives by year and recommends  that fans of contemporary, tactical-style knives focus on  collecting a particular brand.

Learning the art of hand-forging knives is not as simple.  Porter cautions, “It’s not a process you can just jump into,  and start-up is expensive. Forges, anvils, grinders, belts,  hand tools, and a heat-treatment oven are not cheap or ligh-hearted investments. People should be prepared to ruin lots of  attempts and for the process to be much more laborious than they probably imagine.” His advice is to explore the hobby  before committing to getting started, ideally by watching  other artisans work in their own forges. Porter warns,

For those that get bit by the forging bug, I will warn you, it’s very  addictive and hard to stop once you find the freedom that being able to forge steel allows.

Knife-collecting and metal-forging may not be popular  trends or hobbies right now. But the art of knife-making  and deep appreciation for the beauty of the tools live on in  small shops and out-of-the-way workshops. With artisans  like Jonathan Porter and passionate collectors like Patrick  Gaskins, knife-making and collecting are sure to remain a part  of peoples’ lives for many, many years to come.