North state’s “Hattori Hanzo” creates $8,000 knives
Posted on Saturday, September 20 at 6:00 p.m.
By Tom Stienstra
The craftsman hunched over at his bench. With jeweler’s magnifying glasses, he inserted a micro pin into the body of a $2,500 folding knife.
Aaron Wilburn, the master behind the name, Wilburn Forge, held up the knife as if looking into a crystal ball. It was like he was gazing into his future.
He turned to me, clear brown eyes lit with zest, his creation nestled in his giant palms like a newborn.
“I used to paint cars in San Francisco,” Wilburn said. “I wish I’d been doing this my whole life. But it took all my previous experiences to prepare for the art that I do now.”
Wilburn, 49, is one of America’s top knife makers, one of 110 master bladesmiths in the world. He lives and works out of his house and connected garage/shop on the outskirts of Redding in Northern California. His wife, Anna, and Aaron, just celebrated their 26th anniversary. Their daughter, Francesca, 19, is an apprentice bladesmith and is forging her own blades. Their son, Rocky, 25, also works in the shop. There are no other employees.
Wilburn’s knives are sold world-wide, including Russia, Hong Kong, Israel, Australia — you name it — at prices from $500 to $8,000. They are used for hunting, fishing, collecting — and by the best of chefs for cutting meats, fish and vegetables with razor blade-like precision. They can swipe through an inch-thick diameter rope, chop through a block of wood and still remain sharp enough to shave the hair on a forearm.
“I’m driven,” Wilburn said. “I have a thing about doing the best I can. It infuriates me to see anybody with an ‘I-don’t-care attitude.’ I can’t do anything about them so I give it my whole-soul effort on every aspect of every knife I make.
“Isn’t that what integrity is? To do your best even when no one is looking?”
When somebody orders a knife, it takes Wilburn about eight months to create it. It’s like a Hattori Hanzo sword out of the movie “Kill Bill,” one-of-a-kind that can’t be replicated.
“Only the artist can pour his heart and soul into that creation,” Wilburn said.
His specialty is the forged Damascus blade, which is made out of multi-layered steels. He forges it, hammers it, works it with self-made machines to control the layers of steel to the shape of a blade and scroll work that penetrates all the way through the steel, unlike any other knife. Wilburn then finishes it with heat-treating techniques, tedious hours of hand polishing — and then fabricates a matching handle and puts it all together with a tolerance of .001 of an inch.
Wilburn starts, not with a block of raw steel, but with an idea. From that idea, he matches the vision with the finest high-carbon steel, which he buys from a supplier, “The Steel Baron,” in New Jersey. He then forges the steel. That means he fires up his forge to 2,300 degrees, heats the steel to where it is so hot it turns yellowish white. Wearing safety glasses, ear plugs, Kevlar gloves and leather apron, he then pulls out the white-hot steel and pounds it with his air hammer. “That forge welds the different layers of metal into one piece of steel.”
This is called pattern-welded steel, or Damascus, and is at the heart of the quality of steel, which some call “Wilburn Steel,” that he produces. This is the beginning of the artistry. His blades come in an endless series of designs that boggle the mind, from “Feather,” where the design replicates the quill of a feather, to Persian Ribbon, a complex and intricate mosaic, and many others.
In his adjacent office, Wilburn held up an 11-inch Bowie Knife with a ladder pattern, finished with an ironwood handle.
“This one knife is worth $2,500,” Wilburn said. “It’s going to attorney in Saudi Arabia. Some might say it took me 40 hours to make. But it actually took me 30 years to learn how to do it.”
For information on Wilburn Forge, go to www.WilburnForge.com, follow on Instagram at wilburnforge or phone (530) 215-9911. First 10 callers do not get a free knife, but you can get on his waiting list.
Tom Stienstra is the Chronicle’s outdoor writer. Daily twitter at: @StienstraTom. E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.