Fifteen years ago, Ken Hall was feeling the pressure of a three-hour commute to Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. On long train rides into the city, he would pass the time by reading books about knife forging, and he’d daydream about building his own forge. Then, reality would kick in: When would he ever have the time?
In 2006, he jumped at the opportunity to leave the Beltway and move to the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina — a place he’d fallen in love with as a boy during family vacations in the mountains and, later, during getaways in Waynesville. Soon, he did have the time. Slowly, his daydream became reality. Today, Hall commutes to the workshop in his own backyard. And, he says, he’s still feeling the pressure of his job — but these days, it’s from the heating, hammering, and shaping of his functional works of art.
Our State sat down with Hall to learn more about his transition to expert knife maker and his one-of-a-kind creations.
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OS: When did you realize that making knives was something you wanted to do?
KH: In the early 2000s, I was living in the Washington, D.C., area and had been reading some books on knife making. I was interested in it, but just didn’t know how I could ever begin to do that in the area I was living in. But then, a work opportunity allowed me to move to the mountains of North Carolina. When I got down here, I found out that Haywood Community College had a blacksmith program. I started taking classes, and one thing led to another. Now, I’ve been making knives for 11 years.
OS: What was the process of learning this craft like?
KH: It was slow. I had to learn the basic forging techniques of a blacksmith, because I forge most of my blades. I learned from an instructor at the community college, and I went to weekend get-togethers with other knife makers to learn from their processes. And then it was trial and error. I’d figure out how to do something with my own style. It’s learning little bits and pieces from different people and putting your own spin on it.
OS: What’s it like to do this work in the mountains of North Carolina?
KH: I’ve always loved the mountains. Growing up, we’d vacation here, and I fell in love with the area. The craft heritage of the North Carolina mountains is still alive in Waynesville. That means that the community college teaches blacksmithing, and they offer other arts and crafts programs for woodworking, pottery, weaving, jewelry making, and other neat things. So it’s just a great place to get started and dig into something I always wanted to do.
OS: How do you incorporate local materials?
KH: One of the unique things that you can get locally is really good wood for knife handles. I’ve used pieces of firewood that I’ve cut up and treated so the wood won’t swell or shrink due to moisture change in the air. Using local wormy chestnut and old wrought iron, I made a knife for the instructor that taught me. It was kind of an Appalachian throwback knife.
OS: What’s your favorite thing about making knives?
KH: My knives are functional art; there’s a lot of artistic work that goes into the design, the concept, the selection of the materials, the handle material, the steel. The whole process gives you satisfaction. You take these raw materials, and through your own efforts and knowledge and technique, you’re able to create something that has function and can be beautiful. You’re working with steel, you’re working with wood, sometimes you’re working with leather to make a sheath — there are just lots of different mediums that you get to work with in this process. It’s challenging; there’s always something different that you can do or learn in the process of making a knife.
OS: How does it feel to finish a piece?
KH: When I’m done with a difficult knife, one that either had a challenging design or a hard material to work with, there’s a little pride, you know — “Wow, I did that!” It encourages you to take on something else — to either do it again or do something even more challenging.
OS: What does it mean to you to be a “maker”?
KH: A maker is someone who likes to pour out their passion into the item or product that they make. They’re putting in a little bit of themselves — a little bit of who they are, of how they see the world — into the item. It’s like sharing a piece of yourself. It’s part of you that you give to somebody, something they might have for a lifetime.
Ken Hall Knives