ISABELLA, Minn. — Jamiah Mahoney’s forge blazed yellow and orange, as the propane tank buzzed in a low hum.

With a pair of tongs, he removed a rectangular piece of metal from the fire. It shifted in color from red to purple and blue, as if bruised, as Mahoney hammered the shape of a neck.

After a couple of rounds in and out of the forge, he drew a diagonal line on the metal and hammered down on a chisel. A blazing red piece of steel flew to the floor.

“Popped off quicker than I thought,” he said.

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Mahoney turns his steel into knives, and his friend and business collaborator, Paige May, hand-builds their handles and leather sheaths.

When they’re not working as sea kayaking guides on the Apostle Islands, they’re knife-making and collaborating for their businesses Subtle Forger and Wilderness Effects.

While each can create these works solo, they opted for a focus on community functional art. It highlights the personalities of multiple artists, Mahoney said.

Paige May holds one of his knives and its leather sheath, which he also made. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Paige May holds one of his knives and its leather sheath, which he also made. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

* * *

On a chilly Thursday in November, the Herbster, Wis., man hauled his smaller forge to May’s workshop in Isabella, Minn., outside an oversized garage, walled off from the carport.

He swung his hammer high and down hard with a big clank-clank-clank. “It’s slowly eating itself away,” he said of the knife that was taking shape.

The key to hammering is to start with a loose grip. Don’t clench; the wrist will absorb the shock. Keep your shoulder back. Strike through, aiming for the bottom of the anvil, he said.

Jamiah Mahoney pulls a piece of hot steel from his portable, propane-fueled furnace to forge it into a knife blade. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Jamiah Mahoney pulls a piece of hot steel from his portable, propane-fueled furnace to forge it into a knife blade. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

In between heats, Mahoney brushed the scales, or the carbon knocked out of the metal, off of his anvil.

There are many potential hazards working with knives — the hot scale is one of them — along with sharp edges, your tools and the forge itself. Mahoney has a few battle scars to prove it.

He plans his moves before he adds metal to the forge. You only have so much time before the blade cools to make progress, so you don’t want to waste time.

“Knife makers, we don’t make mistakes, just shorter knives,” he said.

Paige May and Jamiah Mahoney
Paige May and Jamiah Mahoney

The pair specialize in kitchen knives and puukkos, a traditional Scandinavian knife. These tend to have a very straight spine, and the grind of the bevel is not terribly steep.

There’s something about this kind of tool that draws people in. As an outdoors person, it’s satisfying to venture out with a puukko you made yourself, Mahoney said.

You can split kindling, prep food and wild game, a really utilitarian blade you can whittle with, May said.

* * *

A piece of steel Jamiah Mahoney is shaping into a knife blade heats his portable furnace. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
A piece of steel Jamiah Mahoney is shaping into a knife blade heats his portable furnace. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

For their puukko and kitchen knife handles, May uses a combination of wood foraged in northeast Minnesota, northwest Wisconsin, and some from the Pacific Northwest.

You can get dead and down firewood in the National Forest and the Boundary Waters, and sometimes, May buys from loggers or offers trades for moose antlers.

Standing in his workshop, May held his latest piece: “Hammered brass bolster, piece of birch bark spacer, this little black piece of wood is 300-year-old oak that was reclaimed from the bottom of Lake Superior,” he said.

And he’s got quite the collection.

Jamiah Mahoney forges a knife blade on his anvil. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Jamiah Mahoney forges a knife blade on his anvil. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

In his living room stood bundles of birch bark and shelves of cut wood. He keeps them indoors to avoid moisture, shrinking or warping.

Some of the wood has spots that look like fish eyes, and others have small swirls. The spalted look of the latter marks the initial stages of rot, essentially fungus and bacteria beginning to work their magic, May said.

If you harvest it at the right time and kill that reaction, the wood remains solid and you can maintain the color and patterns, which make for unique handles.

Jamiah Mahoney hammers out a knife blade. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Jamiah Mahoney hammers out a knife blade. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Harvesting wood and figuring out how to properly dry and prepare it can be challenging, he said.

There’s a drying process that consists of boiling the wood in salty water for six to eight hours. This can expedite drying, but it’s a process he reserves for prime pieces.

In general, it’s a waiting game, and May often finds gorgeous wood he has to wait up to two years to use.

Before drill presses, blacksmiths used to shove a red-hot tang, or neck of the knife, into a chunk of wood. Super basic and crude, said Mahoney, but really gorgeous in its simplicity.

When the materials are in order, there’s a lot of measuring, cutting down and aligning pieces just right so they’re well sealed.

The best part of the process is the final stage, when he sands it down and adds the first coat of oil. All the wood grain pops, and the piece comes to life, he said.

Paige May fits pieces of wood that will become a knife’s handle onto its tang. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Paige May fits pieces of wood that will become a knife’s handle onto its tang. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

* * *

At May’s sheath station sat saddle skirting in black, burgundy and several shades of brown. He measured a blade encased in its wooden saya, cut out a leather square and thinned the edges with a knife, the small shards melting off like butter.

May ran the leather underwater, then fastened it tightly with binder clips.

He demonstrated stitching the seams with waxed nylon thread on dried leather. And, when it’s done, he’ll cover it in a mixture of beeswax and lanolin.

Blacksmithing was a dying art form for a long time. The industrial revolution saw many blacksmiths out of work; now there’s a resurgence, Mahoney said.

And members of the blacksmithing community are willing to share freely, a perk the pair pay forward.

May and Mahoney are preparing to showcase their knives at Great Lakes Gear Exchange in Duluth, but for now, 90% of their work is commissions. Through social media, they’ve sold and sent knives to Canada, Australia and Hong Kong.

As a next stage, they’d like to make knives full-time.

For May, he plans to look at more options in wood stabilization, and the two will produce more Damascus steel kitchen knives.

It’s a fairly modern mentality to have to do it all yourself. Go back to the village concept, with many crafters bringing their specialties to a project. It’s fun to bring some of that tradition back, Mahoney said.

May agreed: “Do what you’re good at, and you don’t have to be good at everything.”

Three knives created by Jamiah Mahoney sit in Paige May’s workshop, ready to be fitted with handles. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Three knives created by Jamiah Mahoney sit in Paige May’s workshop, ready to be fitted with handles. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

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