You may know Philip Long as the writer of our recurring comedy column “Sunny Side Up.” This month, we get to see him in a totally different, unexpected spotlight – as the one and only Knife Artist! Take a look.
Nonahood News: Tell me a little about how you got your start in woodcraft/woodwork.
Philip Long: About four years ago, while I was a journalist, I was writing with the nonprofit organization Cru. There were periods where I needed a break from the screen and something to do with my hands. One weekend, I decided to carve a wooden car for my seven-year-old son from a piece of mulch from our front yard. Looking back, it looked terrible, but I was so proud at the time.
From there, I got a table saw and made some rustic coffee tables and stools but didn’t have as much fun as when I was whittling. So I continued to carve. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that my desire to whittle was birthed in me when I was about seven and my mother read to me Treasures of the Snow by Patricia St. John. In the story, an old man teaches a boy to carve animals and the boy makes “Noah’s Ark.” Carving revived my memory of a deep boyhood curiosity about how people shape beautiful objects. I soon moved to carving any wood I could find into toys, spoons and kitchen tools.
NHN: You specialize in making knives for any kind of woodwork. What goes into the process of making a knife from scratch?
PL: Yes, now I make knives for a living. Early on, I was having a hard time keeping my manufactured knife sharp. While searching on YouTube for sharpening videos, I also saw guys making knives with minimal tools. I learned that with a bench grinder, a butane torch and some effort, I could make a knife. The first knife I made looked like a nail stuck into the end of a stick. However, I could carve with it and I’d made it. It was a thrill like nothing else.
Making a knife sounds complicated, but it’s not too bad. First, you need to find some steel that you can use. A saw blade or a file will work as they both respond well to what you’re about to do. From there, it’s a series of heating, shaping and reheating the steel. Then, you heat and quench or harden the steel in oil and finish by tempering or softening in an oven or toaster.
Once you’ve done all this, you can do some final shaping of the steel and clean it up and get it razor sharp. I like to think of sharpness as three levels. Level one is leg hair sharp; it shaves my leg hair. That’s okay for my hatchet. Arm hair sharp; means it’s good enough for my wife’s kitchen knife (unless I’m making a chef’s knife). Lastly, peach fuzz and face sharp. I didn’t even know I had peach fuzz under my forearm hair until I began making knives. Needless to say, now it’s hard to find hair on my body.
At this point, there’s still a lot to do. I’ll check the blade for edge retention by carving with it and attach an exotic wood handle and sand or carve it into shape. Next, I make a custom leather sheath for the knife.
NHN: Can you break down the process of whittling for readers who might not know exactly what goes into the art?
PL: I use the terms whittling and carving interchangeably. But carving gets more into using chisels and seems to take more time to set up.
Obviously, it’s helpful to have something in mind when you begin whittling, but you don’t have to. And first, you want to watch some YouTube videos that explain the different kinds of techniques like the push-cut, pull-cut and stop cut. If I’m carving something specific, like an Ewok from Star Wars, I’ll try to find a photo online and study it as I remove wood. I try to be brave and carve challenging things. However, I often opt for more relaxing whittling or chip carving to make a staff or a spoon covered in cool designs. It’s funny, but there’s really very little use for the Boy Scout technique where you cut away from yourself in a big forceful arm push. That works for removing bark and making a spear point, but that’s about it.
Key to all of this is to not be afraid of the edge of the knife. You want to hold everything close to your body and use minimal force to remove wood. That way, the knife is never coming at your hands or body from a distance with force. That can be problematic. If this happens, I always keep super-glue handy.
NHN: How would you classify your style as a woodworker? What themes crop up in your carvings?
PL: I’m inspired by myth and story. So, I draw my inspiration from great stories, like Lord of the Rings, Robin Hood, or contemporary stories, like Star Wars and Marvel. These stories and themes generate ideas of what I could make, like what kind of pocket knife would Boba Fett carry or what would I find Will Scarlett whittling with.
Also, I like things that look like they’ve been hand-made, not manufactured. However, I have manufactured knives I love because a lot of human ingenuity has gone into their design. In fact, I’ll often study manufactured knives and see how close I can get without taking any shortcuts. I like trying to keep what I’m making as close to what I see while incorporating mistakes into the knife. I don’t sell these, but these studies inform the knives I design. And the tiny nuances that happen as I make my knives make every knife beautiful and unique.
A theme I’ve found inspiring is that in making a knife, I’m playing a key role in an artist’s ability to create. I’ve seen this firsthand as I’ve watched someone in Switzerland using my knives to make spoons and buttons; and someone in England to carve an armadillo, bees, and most recently an alligator for friends; and someone in Norway to make a knife handle.
NHN: Which of your projects were the most challenging and why?
PL: There are times when I make a big mistake. Like I over-tempered or softened the blade and only find this out when I’m doing final edge-testing and I’ve finished the handle. I often can’t save the handle, and it’s sad. But even with these little losses, I often learn something invaluable moving forward.
I’m a high, high feeler, so when I’m asked to make a knife I’m not excited about or I’m not currently using, I can find fabricating motivation difficult. For example, my sister asked me to make some mini-peasant folders that I’d made a while back. They’re time-intensive and I’d forgotten a lot of the steps in their process, so I was discouraged with the time it was taking. However, I’ve found that trusting the process and just getting started helps a lot and that if I have a firm deadline, the inspiration will come.
With my sister’s folding knives, the inspiration came near the end as I was polishing them up and thinking about how, now that I know the process again, I could make a whole batch for folks. I kind of think of making knives like using a recipe to bake cookies.
NHN: Which of your projects were your favorite?
PL: Usually whatever I’m working on in the moment is my favorite. Right now, I’m making batches of knives for camping and survival. I call them “Singing Bushcrafters” after the annoying singing bush in one of my favorite movies Three Amigos! I love making these guys as they’re beefy and their look harks back to a simpler time. You can use them to split wood as well as make all sorts of fun stuff from shelters to marshmallow sticks.
NHN: I noticed from your pictures that you generally work outdoors. Do you get inspired from working out in nature? (If not, what inspires you most?)
PL: Yes, I love to be outdoors, unless it’s hot. Just kidding, we live in Central Florida! So, yes, I am inspired a lot by nature. While nature is wild by nature, hmm, it’s also full of patterns, design and things that are full, wholesome and, if not perfect, extremely close.
My faith plays a huge part here as it does through my whole knife-making adventure. In nature, I find glimpses of my creator. The Hebrew Bible says, “I will praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Fear can also mean being made with extreme care, skill and creativity. I believe God has baked into the patterns of creation, or nature, a world that calls so deeply to our hearts that we can be tempted to simply worship nature. It’s only natural, har. But I prefer to see in nature a fearful and loving passion that’s as simple as a rock yet as complex as a flower, tangible to touch yet untamable like a black panther. Nature reflects the nature maker and inspires me to create in kind.
NHN: Future goals/plans?
PL: I want to become the greatest knife-maker in the world! No, while this would be amazing, I want my knives to continue to bring joy to others on a broader scale. So, for me that literally means embracing the grind of my work. The more quality knives I can make in a day, the lower I can keep my costs for my customers (whom I consider friends) and the more joy I hope to bring into the world.
If you want a knife, visit me on Instagram @philipatmendedtwig and DM me with a screenshot of any of the knives you want. I’ll make you a unique copy.