His shop is small, but Will Manning’s handiwork can be found slicing food all over the world. His notoriety as a knifemaker–under the shop name “Heartwood Forge”–has been spreading faster than he can grind them out, and patrons of his online store who select a made to order knife must stand in line four months before receiving their new favorite kitchen tool in the mail. His accolades are amounting, too; in addition to being selected for Timber Update’s Craftsmen Series for his use of old sawmill blades, he recently scored a runners-up standing in Garden & Gun’s 5th Annual Made in the South Awards.
“I have a method to balancing my knives.”
With his left hand, Manning holds a crude steel shape that will soon become an eight inch chef’s knife. He’s not quite smiling, but there’s a noticeable satisfaction in the squint he aims at the object. “A distal taper runs toward the front of the blade, starting from here,” he points to the center of the knife, just above the future handle, and runs his right index finger across the top spine, “So the blade gets thinner as you move toward the tip.”
For entering a line of work that traditionally celebrates companies with several generations of experience, Manning is something of an instant success. A backyard blacksmith for just under a decade, he learned the fundamentals of steel while working at a metal shop in high school. Deeply impacted by his new love for metalworking, Manning went on to Savannah College of Art & Design, and after graduating in 2007, he was hired as the resident blacksmith for a 17th century Spanish colonial reenactment museum in Tallahassee, Florida, where he spent three years doing traditional blacksmithing, solidifying his skills with a hammer by pounding basic iron into nails in front of second graders on field trips. But at night and on weekends, in his own backyard shop, he would stir hot coals in a forge and mold steel into knives.
“The tang will also get a taper.” He slides his fingertip along a section of steel that will serve as the handle’s backbone once it’s sandwiched between two blocks of polished wood or halved deer antler. “And the bulk of your weight is right here, in the center, where you want it.”
Like most craftsmen, Manning’s familiarity with making things runs deep into his childhood. His father, a physician by day, was a hobbyist carpenter.
“The smells are different,” says Manning, reminiscing about his father’s woodshop. “I grew up in a different kind of shop, with wood lathes and such, and I was like his lifelong apprentice. His shop smelled like freshly chopped wood and sawdust. It was a different aesthetic,” he says as he glances around his modest, dimly lit shop. “I feel like I’m on the dark side now,” he jokingly adds, “but maybe, one day, I’ll approach working with wood more than I do now.”
Other than the neat stacks of lacquered handle blocks organized by wood type on a tall metal shelf in the corner, his ten by twenty foot shop feigns no pretense of belonging to a carpenter. Steel scraps and black iron tools lay about in what appears to be a lackadaisical manner, disguising the truth that the brute materials of his workspace are thoughtfully arranged by function and order in a process that, though simple, revels in hundreds of humble complexities.
And despite the obvious deviation from his dad’s craft, Manning’s ties to wood aren’t quite severed: Manning makes his knives from old timber sawmill blades.
“The timber industry uses these giant sawblades that are made of amazing steel,” his eyes light up as he rolls out a single blade, four foot in diameter and stained with orange surface rust, from behind a propane tank, “and there’s life for them after they get wrecked at the mill–you can still make a hundred knives from a single blade.”
The thought of repurposing quality steel was a major factor in Manning’s decision to commercialize his backyard project. Having been mentored in blacksmithing by several older men in the Tallahassee area during his early twenties, Manning began seeing himself as a link between his retired, hobbyist mentors and a generation of green-minded, artisan-loving foodies.
“I saw a void. They [the older blacksmiths] were connecting with me, and I’m dorky enough to want to be in the blacksmithing world. But with the whole-foods movement, green movement, and people-utilizing-their-resources movement, it seemed like others would enjoy having handcrafted knives from reclaimed materials. The knives I made were well received by my closest friends and family, so I thought, ‘I’ll take some pictures and try a website.’”
He hasn’t looked back since. And from his bold resolution to repurpose old sawblades into elegant tools, a new type of relationship was born between the blacksmithing world and the timber industry.
“I work with one saw mill specifically. We have a really good relationship, to where if I call them, they’ll say, ‘Oh, we saved you some sawblades.’ In working with some of their modern steels, I see how far steel [technology] has come. They can have steel this thin,” he nearly pinches his thumb and forefinger together, “and it cuts a four foot oak–just slices it! Hundreds of knife shops could exist just from their waste. There’s so much room for growth. There’s no need for knives to be made in China and sent over here–though I do appreciate the Japanese knife makers–” he says with a smile, “but we could start to produce something like [the Japanese] do in our own country, something that we feel good about.”
Manning, the carpenter’s son, seems to have been predestined for a revolution that bridges the timber and blacksmithing industries. As he describes his experience with the older men in the Florida Artist Blacksmith Association, he can’t hold back a grin as he recounts the hours of training and wisdom given him: “They’re passionate. Their mission is to keep the craft alive. They latch onto any young people who come in there. They say, ‘Hey Will, come out to my shop one day; let’s make something you’ve never made before–let’s make a tool.’”
Manning knows he’s fortunate to have had these relationships. He doesn’t take them for granted.
“I’ve had exposure to some really great mentors. Like my seventh grade earth science teacher who used to play on a semi-pro baseball team in south Florida and gave it up to teach science to middle schoolers. He told us, ‘Make sure you do what you love, because you’re going to be doing a hell of a lot of it.’”
Manning certainly took that advice to heart. But his story represents more than one young man’s attempt to carve a place for himself in the world; it speaks to the unique societal function of generational transitions to mold together things that were once separate, once wasteful, and make way for the beautiful and efficient. Most of all, Manning’s story is a clarion to all twenty-somethings to recognize real opportunity when it presents itself, to accept responsibility as the next generation’s leaders by connecting yesterday’s wisdom with today’s needs, converting one person’s waste into another person’s tool, and, with diligent precision, taper off the unnecessary weight at either end, pursuing always a perfect utility that, like a Will Manning knife, is as balanced as it is sharp.
Editor // Timber Update
For more information about Will Manning, or to order a knife, visit HeartwoodForge.com