If you’re ever driving on the quarter-mile stretch of Haywood Road running north-south between Lexington, N.C., and the Yadkin River, slow down and roll down your windows.
You may hear a soft but deep roar, or a high-pitched squeal – or a loud, rhythmic clanging.
If you do, tap your brakes and look for a gray-sided building with a sign that reads “Bad Squirrel Forge.”
Inside, depending on when you’re there, red tendrils of flame may leap out of a homemade forge. An electric hand saw may throw yellow sparks across a workshop as it cuts steel. A hammer may be shaping white-hot metal. And amidst the machinery you may see the source of all the clanging and sparking: a white-haired man wearing a green hat inscribed “1st Battalion Ranger, 75th Infantry,” following his passion, making knives.
This is Andy Sharpe.
He always thought it would be cool for a knifemaker to have Sharpe as a last name. But he relishes telling what a fellow member of the North Carolina Custom Knifemakers Guild told him at a meeting a few years ago: “That is the perfect name for a knifemaker, because everybody needs A sharp knife.”
He stamps “A. Sharpe” on every blade he forges.
Sharpe, 61, has been working with his hands nearly his whole life. He began even before starting elementary school, helping his father in the shop in their backyard, about 4 miles from his current home in Tyro, N.C., about 60 miles north of Charlotte. Sharpe says he was “watching him make things he needed. I knew fractions from handing him tools long before I started school.
“I started making knives because I have always liked knives – even as a child. I guess hanging out in the butcher shop with my grandfather probably ignited that interest.”
As an 8-year-old with a hankering for a machete, he made his first blade out of wood, sharpening it in that family workshop. Once his buddies found out what he could do, Andy became the neighborhood “knife”-maker. Sharpe formed wooden swords and machetes so that he and his friends could pretend they were chopping through the wilds of some far-off jungle or battling as Vikings or knights, which sometimes left a bruise or two.
“Those wooden swords did hurt if you caught a hit on the hand or head. Heck, it hurt pretty good no matter where you were hit.”
Sharpe says he grew up in the country and always had toy guns and real knives.
“I got my first real gun at age 6, a .410 shotgun. My friends and I would go camping and take our guns to hunt rabbits. Can you imagine the jail time a parent would get now for letting four kids, ages 6-9, take guns into the woods unsupervised for three or four days?”
In his teens Andy progressed to making knives out of metal but, looking back, feels they were pretty poor attempts. Then life and the military got in the way of making knives. In 1974 Sharpe joined the Army and became an originating member of the newly reformed 1st Ranger Battalion at Ft. Stewart, Ga. He’d eventually be stationed in Alaska as a recon sniper. After leaving the service in 1980, he lived in California, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada before moving back to North Carolina in 1991.
“It seems I spent the younger part of my life trying to get out of N.C. and the latter trying to get back.”
Returning home also meant a return to knife making.
These days you can find Sharpe melting steel in the forge he built, and pounding molten metal with a 3.8-pound steel hammer into all sorts of blades, some simple, some complicated.
He says making a knife like the kukri (a long inwardly curving Nepalese knife used to harvest grain and by Gurkha warriors in battle) takes about two days. Something like the Damascus clip point hunter can take five to seven days. He adds that knives made using the Damascus technique – with multiple layers of different kinds of steel and complicated patterns – can take him a week to make the billet (the block of steel you start with), even before shaping the blade.
Sharpe says he has a soft spot for members of the military that want one of his creations. He’ll donate or sell knives at a steep discount to men and women in uniform.
“They stand on a wall, far from home and say ‘Sleep in piece, nothing will harm you tonight, not on my watch.’ For that I can lose a few bucks. I consider it an honor when a service member chooses one of my knives to carry,” he says.
And one of his very sharp knives helped a service member get out of Iraq with some leave time, he says.
“Apparently he and his buddies were throwing their knives at a piece of plywood. His hit the plywood and bounced back and went through the top of his boot and through his foot. He had to be shipped to a hospital in Germany for surgery. So I guess one of my knives helped bring at least one soldier home alive.”
Sharpe takes pride not only in the sharpness but also in the artistry, beauty and longevity of each of his blades.
“To create a tool that can be passed from generation to generation to generation is my ultimate goal,” Sharpe says.