A couple of weeks ago, Wheat and I ventured up to Athens, Georgia for a quick weekend getaway. While we were there, knife designer, maker, blacksmith, and new friend Will Manning was gracious enough to allow us into his workshop at Heartwood Forge.
This is his story.
Will, a Tallahassee, Florida native and Leon High School graduate, became interested in creating with metal while working at Sullivan & Son Sheet metal in Tallahassee just after high school during his first year at Florida State University, where he started out studying music. “Across from Vinyl Fever, where I spent a lot of each paycheck,” he laughingly added.
The shop closed and reopened out Highway 20 as Steve Ross Sheet Metal, and is still owned and operated by the best boss Will says he ever had. He traded access to his tools and shop space for labor from the talented local artist and sculptor Mark Dickson, who turned Will on to metal fabrication. As an aside, Mark Dickson has also recently created a piece for the newly revamped Star Metro, Tallahassee’s bus system, and he also has permanent installations at Valdosta State University and North Florida Community College.
Hooked, Will and his brother began playing around with forging in their backyard on a small setup loaned to them by a close friend. This friend introduced Will to the the junkyards around the region, where Will first collected many of his source materials. These junkyards opened Will’s eyes to the amount of waste we as humans are capable of producing. “It was hugely inspiring for me that steels that only 300 years ago would have been considered magical for their inherent qualities, were being sent to China to be mixed together to form rebar to sell back to the United States. I love intercepting these precious steels before they get down cycled.” This became an important aspect of Will’s philosophy in both life and business. Thus, much of Heartwood Forge’s raw materials are not raw at all. They’re simply reused, reclaimed, and recycled.
Realizing that his love affair with metal was serious, Will went on to take a master craftsman class at FSU for one hour credit to further hone his skills. He then shifted into high gear and began a more well-rounded study of design at Savannah College of Art and Design. He continued to work at Sullivan & Son on holidays from SCAD.
From there Will got involved with FABA, a group of Floridian blacksmiths (Florida Artist Blacksmith Association). They awarded Will a scholarship to take a tool-making class in North Carolina, and eventually in 2011, he became the editor for FABA to keep in touch with the blacksmiths who taught him so much.
Around the same time, Will became the resident blacksmith at Mission San Luis, honing his skills for two years while performing blacksmith demonstrations. “It was a great experience, except I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen to forge in costume,” Will remembered jokingly. The many basic blacksmithing techniques he demonstrated to school children during their field trips from all over the Panhandle resulted in many hundreds of hand forged nails and a mastery of his technique.
While working at the Mission, Will fell in love with his now fiancé, Lee Carella. She lived within walking distance of the Mission, and Will admits that he often snuck over to her house on lunch breaks – in full costume. Will was already committed to metal working, but in his words, “it was in her very flavorful kitchen that I was inspired to start making knives.” Smitten now with both metal working and Lee, the two drew out the first few knife designs together. The very first knife Will made was based on those sketches, and it became a wedding gift for one of his best friends.
Lee, accomplished in her own right, received an assistantship in the Food Science program at the University of Georgia, so Will, too, left Tallahassee and followed Lee to Athens. Now Will, Lee, their two precious pups, and a hive full of honeybees have made a home in her family’s cabin on a pond, just far enough north of the city to feel disconnected from the buzz of the college town.
Will began forging knives in his workshop once they got to Athens, and named his business Heartwood Forge based on the fact that Lee’s family’s property was full of old heartwood pine stumps – one of which Will got his truck stuck on when he was clearing out the shop! Heartwood pine is what Will and Lee use for kindling in the winter in their wood burning stove and it’s also his starter of choice for his coal-burning forge. However, not long after the couple had moved in, they had to remove a tree. When cutting it down, they noticed that the rings in the center of the tree were shaped like a heart. That’s when they knew that the name was the right one. That’s the story on how Will got the name for Heartwood Forge, but I’d imagine that it rings so true because of the heart Will puts into each and every knife.
Glancing around his workshop, you’d never guess that such beautiful knives could come from such rough and humble beginnings. Actually, I felt quite at home there – not only because of Will and Lee’s hospitality, but also because it reminded me a lot of my dad’s workshop: full of odds and ends and bits left behind from some bygone craftsman. I couldn’t help but snap a picture of this old Planter’s peanut can peeking out from amongst the saw blades and grinder belts.
A simple knife usually takes Will a full day to make from start to finish, and a larger more complicated blade and handle build can take him up to five. There are always exceptions, of course. He usually works on five to ten knives at a time to make his process, fuel, belt changes, tooling setups and finishing go the extra mile. This labor, care, and love that goes into this process is obvious in the quality of the knives, but it also explains why Heartwood Forge knives are currently backordered for approximately 14 weeks. I think it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that these knives are most definitely worth the wait.
Each knife from Heartwood Forge starts with a saw. Will sources essentially all of his carbon steel from reclaimed lumber mill saws, obtaining most of them from a friend who owns a lumber mill in Wrens, Georgia. This steel is some of the most durable, strongest metal made, which makes for similarly sturdy knives.
Will cuts a small piece from each saw he salvages, sending it off to St. Louis for testing to determine the exact makeup of the steel. He also tests a small bit of it himself in the meantime to see how it reacts to forging. “You can tell a lot about what the steel is made of by how it behaves,” he explained. He likes to get a feel for each saw, and often guesses the general composition of each blade before he even receives the results.
Once he is ready to begin a knife, he sketches it out – often on walls and equipment in his workshop with chalk – and then rough cuts an appropriately-sized piece of steel from the saw blade. Each knife begins its life looking much like a steel ruler.
He then rough cuts it a little more, cleans up burrs and begins the forging process.
The forging process can be summed up rather quickly from an onlooker’s perspective: heat the metal up and hit it until it’s just right. However, this process is anything but quick.
Will carefully removes the knife from the forge, hammers it until it meets his keen eye’s satisfaction, and places it back into the forge to heat back up. He focuses the heat on this part and that part, hammers here and there, and repeats this process until what was once a sliver of steel becomes a blade.
Then he gives each knife a rough grind, hand stamps each blade with his signature HWF metal stamp, heat treats them, and gives each blade a final grind, one by one.
When the blade is finally ready to meet its handle, things really get interesting. He sources the wood for the knife handles from various origins, all of which are reclaimed or scavenged. Many of his handles are cherry flooring from his childhood home in Tallahassee, as well as some walnut from home, too. He’s been using some reclaimed North Georgia maple that he has stabilized and dyed, and has managed to get his hands on some osage orange and other exotics from local carpenters’ scraps and castoffs. No two knives are ever the same.
He does make custom handles with customer-supplied materials, and has even used pieces of silk and lace from a wedding dress to create a spacer on a knife that was given as an anniversary gift. Will is currently working on a set of knives for a father and his two sons made from applewood sourced from their family homestead.
He uses reclaimed copper and brass to fabricate the bolsters and spacers by a combination of sawing and filing, and uses silver solder to connect them. The pins are generally the only non-reclaimed portion of the knife, but upon request, Will has used reclaimed copper grounding wire.
Each knife from Heartwood Forge comes with the option to add a bottle of Handle Oil, a small burlap bag full of #0000 steel wool, and a care card. This gorgeous little 3-inch paring knife with a reclaimed Cherry flooring handle came home with me. A little bit of Athens and Tallahassee all rolled into one knife.
Each knife from Heartwood Forge comes wrapped up in a cardboard blade sheath made from Will and Lee’s favorite beers. A Terrapin sheath adds the perfect little touch of Will, Lee, and Athens to the final package.
Since I’ve gotten my knife home, I’ve used it countless times, and it slices through everything like butter. It is contoured just right and is comfortable to use. There’s nothing I love more than utilitarian art.
I’m so grateful to Will for allowing me into his workshop, patiently walking me through his process, and for this gorgeous knife. It’s always a pleasure to watch a true artisan at work, and even better to make a new friend.
To order your own Heartwood Forge knife or for custom order information and requests, visit www.heartwoodforge.com
Panhandle and SoWeGa locals: Heartwood Forge will be at the
Due South Makers Market in Thomasville on April 26th!
Make plans to come see Will and all the other makers in the Maker’s Market.