Old-timey with a twist
When it comes to historic pursuits or hobbies, watching a blacksmith work steel has to be one of the more interesting processes to watch.
Zoe Crist, owner of Crist Metalworks, has been working steel for about 23 years now. Crist, originally from Los Angeles, moved to Pocahontas County in 2004 to work his forge. He said he's really a knife-maker by trade, but blacksmithing techniques are definitely involved.
He uses a forge, he uses a hammer and an anvil, and his leather apron looks like something you'd see in a medieval village, but Crist has incorporated modern machinery into the trade, as well.
Crist Metalworks isn't really up-and-running quite yet, but Crist started moving equipment into his Marlinton workshop about a month ago. He said he's still waiting on a couple high-dollar machines that will allow him to to crank out large amounts of Damascus steel to sell to big-name cutlery companies.
According to Crist, his steel is even used by some folks you see on the Food Network. Crist said chefs Bobby Flay and Guy Fieri have their own cutlery lines and they buy Damascus steel from him to make their blades.
Damascus steel isn't a specific kind of steel, and it's not named after any one person — it's actually named after a technique of folding one metal into another to ultimately form a stronger alloy. The name really comes from the capital of Syria.
Crist said during the Middle Ages, Christian crusaders used high-carbon steel to make their swords — and they held an edge well — but when it came to sword-to-sword combat with their enemies, their swords would often shatter.
“They were getting their butts kicked,” joked Crist. “So they started taking swords back to Europe to kind of reverse-engineer them and try and figure out what was going on with them. They found out they were folded steel, high carbon and low carbon steel in the blades. They started figuring 'oh, if we fold a softer steel into it, we can actually get more strength out of it.' They were getting a different steel. So the technique really came from the Middle East. Nowadays, people call it Damascus, but it's not really Damascus — it's actually pattern-welded steel.”
Crist said the method is very similar to the approach employed by Japanese samurai-sword makers. He said it's not that they use a certain kind of metal, but they hammer the metal and fold it and hammer and fold it repeatedly — that's why samurai swords also have a very slow, long pattern in the blade.
Crist has been making knives since he was just 16, and he's self-taught. He admits being a bit of a wild-child growing up, and working metal provided an outlet that kept him out of trouble.
“I had seen an article in a magazine and something about it intrigued me,” remembers Crist. “I started kind of playing around, teaching myself. At that time there wasn't any Internet or anything, so there really wasn't a way to contact people that you wanted to learn from —and being a kid I didn't know who to call anyway — so I started playing around myself trying to get metal to stick together.”
Crist said across the country there are only a handful of people that make Damascus steel, and over the years he's developed his own technique that stands out from others — that's what makes his steel so desirable.
“It's different than the other stuff that people are producing,” explained Crist. “A lot of them are trained by the same people, so they do the same styles, the same patterns — there's not anything really unique about it. I have my own technique that I do. I go from the forge, put it in the press for the first weld, then I flush it again, and go do it under the hammer.
“I like to use the hammer, while a lot of guys just use the press,” he said. “The thing about a hammer, for me, is that it kind of imparts an organic flow to it — it gives the metal more movement. Everything isn't so lateral and straight. When you use a press it will press everything very straight, very even. A lot of people like that. My designs have more figure and movement to them.”
Crist said it was in 2009 that he attended his first class about knife-making.
“It wasn't a class on Damascus, it was a class you had to take to become a journeyman with the American Bladesmith Society,” said Crist. “I went and took this class, Intro to Knife-making. There's a few different schools all over the country, but I went up to Maine and studied with a guy named Don Fogg. He and I have become great friends, he's been like a mentor to me. He's one of the pioneers of the whole craft, and he's been really good to me. It's been great to be able to study with him and learn from him.”
Crist said he travels around quite a bit for conventions and knife shows, and even teaches classes now on how to make Damascus steel. He said he still works with high-carbon steel now and again, but he focuses on Damascus.
“I work with regular carbon steel for making knives, but my main thing is Damascus,” he said. “I just love the way it goes together — to actually make steel, it's just like nothing else. It's not different in the sense of how the metal works, but it's different in the beauty of it.”
Although Crist still owns his knife-making company — Zoe Crist Knives — his new venture will be making Damascus steel on a large-scale to sell to other knife-makers across the country.
“We're gonna be supplying three or four different companies with the Damascus steel that I make,” he said. “It's pretty unique, so then they're gonna use it to make their high-end knives. I've always made knives and made Damascus and kind of supported myself with that, but then I got hooked up with these other companies that wanted the steel. Before, I wasn't able to provide everything that they needed with the equipment that I had.”
Crist said he was contacted by someone who had bought knives from him years ago, wanting more knives, and a partnership was formed.
“I didn't have anything at the time, and we started talking about how I'd like to sell Damascus. I like making knives too, but I love forging steel. He called me back a little bit later and he said 'do you want to go into business?' So he's kind of supplying a lot of the start-up cost for all this.”
Crist said they've been working on the idea for about a year now.
“It's just slow — having to deal with taxes, the Department of Labor and all that. They say this country wants more small business, but man, trying to start a small business is a nightmare. It's amazing we've even gotten this far,” joked Crist.
“Right now we're just getting by and we're basically buying contracts — showing that we can do it,” he said. “We've got the three biggest ones that we wanted and we got them onboard. The thing about having those contracts is it enables us to see what we'll do the next year and if we're gonna have enough contracts to cover our cost. So instead of just making it and selling it one piece at a time to knife makers — which is fine — and we will do that, we do need to have the bigger clients. There's no way a single knife-maker will buy enough steel to support me and my guys.”
Crist starts out with alternating layers of steel he buys from Spring Supply Company, and salvaged band-saw blades from sawmills. He said the metal he buys from Spring Supply is the same metal used to make leaf-spring suspensions for trucks.
The propane-fueled forge Crist uses is heated to above 2,000 degrees — and it's dangerous work, Crist lost the tip of one of his fingers about a year ago.
“This is probably at about 2,250 degrees,” Crist said pointing at the forge. “At around 2,400 degrees is where the stuff starts to become liquid. The thing about heat and pressure, you have all those molecules in all those layers of steel, and when you press 'em together, those molecules actually jump plates and it becomes one piece of steel. It's not melting, but it's hot enough that it welds to itself and becomes one solid piece.”
The next step in the process involves using a machine press to lengthen and stretch the steel out. He still uses a hammer, but the machine press allows him to apply an even amount of pressure to the entire bar of metal.
Crist said he has a background in welding and machine work. With that knowledge, he manufactures his own forges and presses to save money.
“I make about 70% of the machinery we use and I've built my own forges. Before, I didn't have any money, I was broker than broke,” he laughed. “But I needed one, so I'd go to the junkyard and scavenge a piece of pipe — it's all just plumbing fittings really. I'm building a couple of new forges right now, and they're gonna have temperature indicators on them.”
Crist said over time, and hammering, he learned what the metals do at different temperatures. He's been working steel long enough that he's trained his eyes to be able to tell the temperature of the glowing metal based on its color. Now that he has a couple of employees working for him, and an apprentice from Hillsboro, he wants to install the temperature indicators on the new forge so that they'll be able to start learning to gauge the temperature by color, as well.
Crist has hired a couple local guys — Kevin Malcomb and Cyrus Bennett — to start learning the trade. He said once he gets other pieces of machinery in over the next couple of weeks, they're going to start making large quantities of Damascus steel to supply his clients. He also said he hopes to hire a few more employees over the course of the next few months. Crist has had the opportunity to outsource to shops overseas, but he refuses to sacrifice quality for quantity.
“I have a design for a knife that we want to get marketed,” Crist said. “My investor said 'well, why don't we send it to China?' He was just looking at the bottom line. I'd rather make it by hand. There's this whole sub-culture of people that are into knives, but very few collectors that want value. They'll come up to me at a show and say 'why should I give you $400 for that knife when they got one right over there from China or Pakistan for like $45?' Well, go ahead. I'm not saying people in China or Pakistan don't know how to make knives, but the problem is they don't have the same quality. They just want to put out a bunch of knives to feed their families. I want to feed my family, too, but I'm in a very high-end market and I can't go back down.”
Crist said he makes just about anything with a blade — knives, swords, even pizza cutters, but they're not cheap. He said you're really paying for his time in the workshop and the skill he's acquired over the past decade. He's sold a few hunting knives to some locals here in Pocahontas County, but his blades aren't cheap.
“Most of my knives go to people that have disposable income to play around with. They're not your average, daily-use hunting knife. I just got an order for a double-headed broad axe — he's paying $20,000 for it — but that is a two year project. He'll probably put it up on his wall or something, he's a very wealthy individual.”
Crist said it used to be that he'd make around 30 knives a year. Now he's going to be supplying the steel to companies that produce 600 knives a month. He also uses the scraps from his shop to supply his wife Shio's enterprise — jewelry making.
“She'll take this and use a band saw and slice it real thin. It'll make nice earrings and pendants and stuff,” smiled Crist.
Anyone wanting to do business with Crist — or if you're interested in watching a fascinating step-by-step video of him producing Damascus steel — can visit his website at www.zoecristknives.com
“It's kind of old-timey, but with a little bit of a twist by bringing in some of these grinders and equipment,” Crist said. “With those we can really speed up a lot of the process. Kind of old-timey, kind of not.”
To see more photos, visit http://www.pocahontastimes.com/gallery/2012/12/05/old-timey-with-a-twist