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The Art Of The Knife

In his Orient workshop, Mike “the Knife” Johnson turns scraps of steel, wood and antique ivory into the most functional kind of high design.

Mike Johnson is never not working with his hands. During the day, he’s a modern-day lumberjack, clearing trees and grinding stumps all over the North Fork with his business, Johnson Tree Company. When he isn’t doing that, he’s taking care of his four vintage cars, fishing or playing the drums. But behind his house in Orient is an entire barn converted into a workshop dedicated to his No. 1 one passion: bladesmithing, the art of making knives and blades using old-school tools like a forge, hammer and anvil. 

The place is filled with intimidating machinery and loud metal equipment? with lots of buttons and knobs. When he is working, the forger is on, heating up long sticks of steel, or the grinder is turning, shaving away sheets of metal. “You start with a raw piece of steel, and you just start hammering it,” Johnson said. “There’s no math, there’s no real science there. There’s a perfect crossroads of function and design going on here.”

In front of him on a large metal work surface that he welded (another of his hobbies), lie several different knives that he made. Some are large and shiny, others short and stubby; some have a leather sheath, others are protected by a hard plastic cover. Johnson points to the small knife with a short pink handle, about four inches long overall.

(Photo Credit: David Benthal)

“If I had to say I had a favorite knife, this weirdly might be it,” he said. For a six-foot-four-inch man, his right arm covered in tattoos (yes, a knife is included) and an impressive array of knives in front of him, this is surprising. “This knife is tiny,” he continues. “You can carry it around. You can keep in your car. It’s stainless steel. I’ve brought this on boats, I’ve cut cheese, like crudite platters. You can do anything with it. And it is a necklace,” he says, slipping it around his neck with a smile. 

Johnson’s passion for knives started back in art school. As a college freshman at SUNY/Purchase, he made chisels for sculpting and thought knife-making was a natural progression. “I see something and then I just need to make it on my own. I see knives, cars, tools, whatever and get inspired to create something for myself,” he says. “Let me make something useful from this useless piece of steel.” 

From there, the Westchester native got serious, taking bladesmithing classes at Peters Valley School of Craft in New Jersey. In 2004, he moved to the North Fork, where he had summered as a child, and began making knives full time. “There were a million compromises that I made because I was young and didn’t know what I was doing,” he says. “I needed to make sales so I was saying yes to making things I would never do now. Now, it’s just about refining my own design.”

He started his tree company in 2011, after working in the business with his brother for three years. But making knives remained a constant in his life. He doesn’t take commissions anymore. He lets his creativity come out through bladesmithing and posts whatever he makes on Instagram (find him @mike_the_knife_johnson). Most of his knives are for sale.

It’s easy to see how passionate Johnson is about something so niche. Back in the workshop, he switches between two drawers full of different materials for making handles — everything from wood to plastic to centuries-old walrus ivory. He pulls out one of his favorites, a block of wood with a natural grain resembling tie-dye. 

“That’s insane, right?” he said, holding it up to the light. “That’s inspiring. It looks like Saturn. I’ve been wanting to use this and this design just spoke to me.”

From that inspiration, Johnson will start his craft. He heats the steel until it’s pliable using the gas-powered forger, an oven-like metal box with a side opening. He grabs a long, flat piece of steel and sticks it in the forger, allowing it to heat up and glow. Then, the hammering process begins. A constant banging of metal fills the room as the rectangle narrows with each hit. After 15 to 20 minutes, a knife shape emerges. 

Next, he moves over to the back of the shop to the grinder. Dozens of sanding belts hang on the back wall, each of a different grit. The rougher the grit, the more metal is removed. The softer grits are saved for finishing the knife. The machine turns on. 

This is the hardest part of knifemaking – walking up to the grinder and having an idea of exactly what you want. I’ve done thousands of hours at this machine.

Mike Johnson

From there, the knife goes through a series of thermal cycles and heat tempering to harden and toughen it. The bevels, which take the knife from a triangle of steel to a sharp blade, are added back at the grinder and a handle is made. The process sounds straightforward enough, but by that point Johnson had put in a cumulative 15 to 30 hours of work. 

Most of Johnson’s knives sell for $350 to $1,200, but some of them are never really meant to be used. 

“This is an example of a knife someone’s gonna buy and really never use,” he said, handling a 10-inch Bowie knife with a walrus ivory handle. “They will just appreciate it for the piece of work that it is — you know, take it out, polish it.” 

Other knives are meant to be used over and over. 

(Photo Credit: David Benthal)

“If you’re going camping, you could do all your food prep with it,” he said, holding a three-inch camping knife. “You could chop 10 steaks, you could do anything. This knife can handle the abuse of what an axe could do, like chop firewood.” 

These two pieces of work — both knives, but with such different intended uses — are what make bladesmithing so intriguing for Johnson. He hopes it is something he’ll keep doing for life, and full time in retirement. 

“You think this thing up, you draw it and then you want to make it totally functional,” he said. “You get to use design and you get to use function. They just meld together.”

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