By Val Schoger, Photography by Michael Booini
He has owned a knife as long as he can remember. Inconspicuously, a leather sheath is tethered to his belt wherever he goes. For Ethan Clements, 22, a knife is a go-to tool for hunting, camping, and fishing trips. Every outdoorsman should have a good knife. Of course, “good” is subject to opinion and the degree of usage.
His appreciation for a durable cutting and survival tool grew with every outdoor adventure that he accompanied his grandfather on since he was a boy. The next logical step: making and manufacturing his own brand of bushcraft knives. His now 2-year old daughter, Birdie, was the namesake of the business venture – Birdie Forge started in 2015. While the forging is not a full-time occupation yet, the demand for Ethan’s knives is steadily growing and orders are coming in from all over the country.
Ethan knows his stuff about metals, the making process, the history of blacksmithing, and the best use for his knives. He is not exactly what you would expect from a guy who spends his evenings hammering steel into shape. His enthusiasm reflects in every blade he makes and he cuts through our questions with a genuine smile.
Do you always have a knife on you?
Generally, yeah. Normally I have a belt knife. (points) This is an old knife from my grandpa. So, I always carry something with me. It’s nice. It’s a good tool. It’s useful.
What was the first knife that you made? And why did you think you needed to make your own knife?
I wanted to have my own handmade items to bring into the outdoors to use. My first knife was made from a railroad spike. It’s a thick hunk of metal. It’s readily available and a lot of people say it’s good to start out with because it’s not an expensive piece of steel or a very high quality piece of steel. You’re not going to necessarily ruin it. When I was done with it, it resembled a glorified butter knife I’d say. It wasn’t the nicest thing by any means, but after I got the hang of just how it felt moving the metal underneath a hammer and an anvil, I quickly started creating different knife styles after that.
Tell me about the process of making/forging a knife.
The goal is to do as much forging as possible. It is the physical act of the hammer with the hot steel on the anvil, get as much shape as you can to forge it, to shape it as close as you can. It doesn’t have to be a certain way. It doesn’t have to be a certain length. I just let the metal
talk to me as I am working with it. Whatever it decides to shape into, is what you’ll be working with. And obviously, you just want to get your shape all dialed-in and then after that, you let it cool down. You go to the grinder just to clean up those lines, just get a nice profile on it. I try to do the least amount of grinding I can, the most forging that I can.
Can you give a few more details about the forging process? How involved is it?
It takes several hours, up to 10 hours per knife. The steel, I let it get to a critical temperature, upwards of 1,500 degrees and then I pull it out until it’s cooled down enough to where I can handle it with my bare hands. So, I do that about five times before I actually do my final heat treating, the normalizing. When I’m grinding, and I’m putting a lot of pressure into it, I’m getting hot spots while other spots might be cool. So, you’re changing the orientation of that steel the whole time you’re working with it. Before you finalize everything, you got to bring it all back to a nice equal playing field before you do your final heat treat.
With the heat treat, you’re actually taking it from that critical non-magnetic temperature … It could be anywhere from 1500 and up depending on the steel, and you’re rapidly cooling it off in oil.
I’m disproportioned now. My right arm is bigger than the left. (laughs)Thankfully my wife is a massage therapist and very into flexibility and range of motion. So, she helps a lot with that, and I try to be smart about the work process. That’s why it is important to research technique … technique is really everything, because anybody can just swing a hammer and hit the metal all day, but it’s the tilt, the angle you hit, which part of the hammer you contact with, the way you hold the metal, the way you work your anvil. Everything. There are ways to do it to really minimalize stress on your body and that’s fun too. You always have something to improve upon. So, it’s not quite like a craft where you can do it and you’re done. It’s endless, the amount of knowledge you can gather on it.
So, it is something I must be mindful and conscious about. Posture is important. But that’s important for everyone, down to people who work at a desk.
I noticed that there are some scars on your arm.
Yeah, which is funny because none of these are from knife making. (points) That’s from making popcorn on the stove for my wife. The scars on my left arm are from a skateboarding accident. It’s a good thing I am right handed.
You make your knives for use, right?
Yes, all knives can be used and I test them extensively. Every knife I make, I either will beat it through a log or I’ll cut a tree down if I’m camping somewhere where I can do that. But, yeah-
So, what’s your ideal and favorite knife? What’s the blade size, and as far as multi-use…
A bushcraft knife, a small bushcraft knife with about a four to five-inch long blade. It’s called a scandivex grind where a Scandinavian grind is real steep, kind of a wood carver’s style edge, and then it is slightly rounded. I prefer a high carbon steel for the blade. It just adds a step to knife maintenance, which I like.
Do you have to keep it oiled all the time?
Keep it oiled, or just dry. It will form a nice patina and protect itself through use, which is another cool thing. It creates its own story as it goes. You can take a hard rock to a piece of high carbon steel, the back of my knives, you can take a hard rock, like flint, hit it, and get sparks. You’re taking a little bit of that carbon and creating sparks.
I love knives so I love having a reason to spend a little more time taking care of them. But, it’s not that much work. My personal knives that I use, if I don’t leave them soaking wet, they’re fine, and I’ll take them out camping in the rain. I’ve gone swimming with them.
As far as the business aspect, you said you’re spending a lot of time doing your day job and then doing this on the side. Where would you like it to go within the next two years or five years?
I would love to go full-time with it eventually and that does involve a lot of an online outreach. That’s mostly wants and dreams and I do believe I can get there through hard work, but I am having so much fun with it. I have tremendous responsibility with a wife and a daughter. But as long as I’m enjoying and I’m building my skills and building a reputation, I think I can get there within the next few years.
It is a huge goal and I take it extremely seriously, but I always remind myself, this is my passion that I pursue when I have free time. I’m not going out doing this or that, I’m going to work and I think there is a certain type of person that has some sort of drive to want to come home and work some more.
For instance, yesterday, I went to work before nine in the morning, got home around 8:30 at night, and then I worked in the garage until 11. So, it was a good full day, but it’s very rewarding. It’s a nice type of work, knife making. I call it the lawnmower effect, or the mowing the lawn effect. It’s just my weird way of describing it. But, you see your progress. And the whole process, you’re watching. It’s a physical, tangible, immediate response that you can see. So, it’s fulfilling the whole way through and like I said earlier, it was a lot when I started, but when you mess something up, it’s not the end of your whole day. I enjoy the forging because every time you hit that piece of metal, there’s that much more skill that you’re adding to your time spent with it. So, it’s enjoyable regardless of the outcome.
For more information visit Birdieforge.com or find the company page on Instagram and facebook @birdieforge
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