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Steve Watkins’ knives are becoming bragging rights for chefs

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/02/11/40/ZYem6.Em.138.jpeg|316
    DAVID T. FOSTER III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
    Custom knife maker Steve Watkins uses a hammer and anvil to shape a piece of steel.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/02/11/40/TiIsx.Em.138.jpeg|191
    DAVID T. FOSTER III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
    Custom knife maker Steve Watkins checks the balance and shape as he works on one of his custom knives.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/02/11/40/w0UX3.Em.138.jpeg|210
    DAVID T. FOSTER III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
    Steve Watkins of Ironman Forge, a custom knife maker in Charlotte, holds up one of his custom chef knives, while in his workshop.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/02/11/40/1r8NjF.Em.138.jpeg|299
    DAVID T. FOSTER III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
    Custom knife maker Steve Watkins locks down a vise to work on one of his custom knives on Oct. 30, 2013. The knife will go though a Japanese-style heat treatment on the blade, called a hamon, which will appear as clouds across the finish of the blade.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/02/11/40/MohGw.Em.138.jpeg|210
    DAVID T. FOSTER III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
    Custom knife maker Steve Watkins fires up his forge while preparing to work on a custom knife , while in his workshop on Oct. 30, 2013.

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The carport behind the house off Rama Road looks like most suburban carports. Open sides, concrete floor, utility room at the back. Nothing out of the ordinary, even the yapping dachshund at the kitchen door.

But then you look around and start to see implements of destruction. Tall propane tanks, one with a welder’s mask dangling from the handle. An anvil that looks like something you’d drop on Wile E. Coyote’s head. A half-finished knife clutched in a vise grip.

This is not the garage you’d want to wander into on a moonlit night.

Unless you’re a chef. And then Steve Watkins is the guy you want to know.

Watkins’ carport houses Ironman Forge, and the knives that Watkins makes there are starting to be an emblem of bragging rights when Charlotte chefs get together to compare … whatever it is that guys who work with knives compare.

“People kind of stare all day long and say ‘nice knife,’ ” says Bill Ryan, the owner of Clean Catch Fish Market on Selwyn Avenue, who has an Ironman knife with a blue and black handle that matches his company’s logo.

“They are showstoppers. He’s all about custom.”

Think sharp

It was a chilly morning when Watkins took us through the basics of knife making.

Good thing. A morning with Watkins can include waterfalls of sparks, flames erupting from a forge that ignites with a whomp like a jet engine, smoking metal and boiling oil.

“Hang on – I’ve got to turn on the oven,” said Watkins, 46, when he shuffled to the door to corral Kielbasa, the barking dachshund. By oven, he meant a small kiln, the size of a toaster oven, and by turn on, he meant heating it to 1,400 degrees. That takes a couple of hours.

He’s a talkative guy with a shaved head, a tiny silver hoop in one ear and a gleeful obsession with weaponry. A few hours with him will include more science than you probably got in shop class. Brace for metallurgical terms such as Rockwell, a rating for the hardness of steel, and instruction on knife geometry. (Regular people hold the handle, but chefs pinch the top of the blade.)

One lecture is on molecular movement, when you heat and cool metal in a precise temperature range so that carbon and iron molecules jump around and attach to one another, making something stronger than either one alone.

“Cool!” he promises. “Well, cool if everything goes right. If I miss that window, it’s worthless.”

Watkins makes his carbon steel knives by two processes. One is stock removal. You take a piece of metal, such as a ruler without markings, and draw a knife on it. Then you use a saw to cut out the shape and remove what won’t become a knife. Heat that, quench it in oil to set it, bake it, polish it and sharpen it. The other way is forging: You repeatedly heat a piece of metal in a forge and beat it with a hammer until it is the shape of a knife. Forging is more creative. Stock removal is more mechanical. Either one will get you a knife.

For Watkins, though, it’s about aesthetics, making something that is both utilitarian and beautiful.

His paring knives start at $150 and a chef’s knife, one with an 8 1/2- to 10-inch blade with a flat top and curved blade, usually starts at $280 and goes up, in $50 increments, for things like hand-finishing, copper rivets and vivid curly maple handles. Most end up in the $500 range.

“A $500 knife doesn’t cut any better than a $280 knife,” he says. “The cutting doesn’t change, but the aesthetic does. If a cheap car will get you around, why do people buy Cadillacs? Partly because it’s a statement, it says you’ve arrived, it says ‘this is what I value.’ 

And a custom knife will last forever.

“It’s like a sword handed down in families. Your kids will have it.”

Cuts like a knife

OK, we’re not talking about Excalibur. But how about The Green Mile? That’s the nickname chef Marc Jacksina of Nan & Byron’s gave his Ironman Forge knife, which has a copper bolster, pins and a deep green curly maple handle.

Jacksina already had a fancy knife, custom made in Alberta, Canada, for close to $1,000. But when he met Watkins and saw his knives, it was a must-have, he says.

“It was one of those things like when you buy a pair of boots. You don’t necessarily need another pair, but you see something you have to have.”

A custom knife with a carbon steel blade does make you work differently, Jacksina says. You have to care for the carbon blade and be aware of it. It makes you mindful and focused, like zazen, or Zen meditation sitting, in yoga.

He didn’t just work with Watkins to get a knife, though. He worked with him to work with him.

“He’s doing something he’s passionate about, which speaks to me. He’s doing craft.”

In these shoes?

Watkins’ path to knives started with horses. He grew up in the Midwest with a father who was an outdoorsman, “a real Marlboro man,” and a mother who collected antiques and appreciated the beauty of things.

Watkins started out as a horse trainer. It was hard to make money in the beginning, though, so he branched out into shoeing horses. That led to blacksmithing and ironwork.

When he moved to Charlotte in 1996, he left metalwork and just trained horses. And then, in 2009, he realized it was time for a change.

“I never lost my love for the horses,” he says. “But I lost my love of the owners. I woke up one day and I was done. I can’t work for somebody else. If I could, my life would be easier.”

His wife, Amanda, is in banking, assets-based lending. So Watkins had a little financial wiggle room to figure out what he wanted to do. He loves cooking and good food, and he loved to watch chefs on TV.

One night, sitting outside after dinner with a glass of wine, he started to wonder. Could I do that? Not the cooking part. The knives.

“I thought, ‘I’ve still got my anvil and hammer.’ 

He ended up at Haywood Community College in the mountains west of Asheville, in a knife-making program.

Since he’s an athlete who has run 13 Ironman competitions, the name of his business was a natural. He didn’t intend for it to be in the carport, though. When he started, he didn’t know if it would be a viable business. So he made all his own equipment.

Now, he’s upgrading equipment as he goes along and making plans to build a real shop in the backyard.

He made the knives used as prizes in the statewide Competition Dining series that included Charlotte’s Fire in the City. He also makes custom hunting and skinning knives.

One banker paid him to make a seriously scary knife with a double blade and a bashing implement for a handle. Watkins calls it “a zombie apocalypse knife” (and we don’t know which is creepier – the idea that Watkins can make them, or the idea that a banker feels like he needs one).

Part of what Watkins loves is knowing that no matter how many knives he makes, he will never know everything there is to know about making knives. No one does, he says.

Like cooking, knife making is both craft and art, and always evolving.

“Chefs, we get him and he gets us,” says Marc Jacksina. “You can’t be a race car driver if you don’t have a race car.”

Purvis: 704-358-5236
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