College chemistry class rarely leads to a blacksmith shop, but for entrepreneur Reed Moore, that is exactly where chemistry took him. And in the past six months, his blacksmith shop has catapulted from a small start-up business — that was making a few knives a month — to a thriving shop filling orders from all over the world. Humble in his new found success, Reed admits that he now has orders coming in each day. In fact, Chef Ludo LeFebvre, a French chef who now resides in California, put a Red Forgeworks meat cleaver at the top of his Christmas wish list this past December. And when Santa Claus delivered, Chef Ludo rushed to Twitter to gush about how much he loved his new knife. Considering that Chef Ludo’s restaurant was recognized as the number one new restaurant in Los Angeles by Los Angeles magazine, Reed should feel quite proud. Chef Ludo has since ordered more knives.
Reed’s love for chemistry is the root of his thriving career. He has always loved the natural elements of the earth. He is a scientist at heart and now has the chance to blend that passion for science with a keen eye for design.
“I first began blacksmithing while I was studying chemistry at Warren Wilson College and quickly realized how much I enjoy the craft, leading me to learn as much as I could about metallurgy,” says Reed. “I started out doing more architectural blacksmith work my sophomore year in college which included projects like railings, bike racks, and tables, but I’ve always been interested in using the forge to produce functional tools. Even though blacksmithing is one of the oldest technologies, it’s still used today to produce the most critical metal parts and tools.”
He then studied tool making and design in an intensive program at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina where he learned under Brent Bailey, one of America’s foremost makers of hand tools. In 2011, Reed worked as a machinist at an industrial knife manufacturer in western North Carolina where his main job was sharpening thousands of knives by hand. This seemingly mundane responsibility helped him develop a pragmatic understanding of blade theory and certainly honed his skills at sharpening knives.
Reed opened Red Forgeworks in early 2012 in an old room in his father’s warehouse that had a chimney. “When we took off the wall covering by the chimney, we were amazed to find an opening the perfect size and level for the firepot of a forge, so I may not be the first blacksmith to have operated out of this room,” says Reed.
According to Reed, his knives are made almost as traditionally as a knife can be made, but benefit from being made with modern tool steel and offer different characteristics in utility from industrially manufactured knives. Making knives by hand not only requires a much wider skill set, but it also calls for a heavy investment in time and effort in each individual product.
“It is very hard for a machine that is mass-producing knives to give an individual knife the same detail. First of all, many knives are not made with as high of a grade of steel as I prefer to use, but you also can’t get the same effect with machines in the heat treating process that is possible by hand,” he says.
Most companies simply put the knives in an oven at a certain temperature, and it heats the whole knife in once piece. Likewise, it is tempered uniformly. Reed heats a knife up to harden it and then uses a technique known as “differential tempering” where he doesn’t temper the edge as much as the back side of the blade, leaving the back softer. The combination of a hard edge and soft back creates a tougher, more durable knife that should last a lifetime.
“I also temper in three separate stages which gives the knife durability,” Reed explains. “This method in fillet knives, for example, gives you the ability to have a harder edge and a more flexible blade. The knife also stays sharper longer.”
Reed says that there are about 30 different steps that must be completed per knife depending on the type of steel being used, but the basic process is to first cut a knife blank out, forge it into the final shape, grind the blade smooth, and heat treat to harden and toughen the steel. He then finalizes the lines of the blade, etches to reveal the pattern in the steel, makes the handle, rivets the handle on, followed by forming and sewing the leather sheath. Lastly, he sharpens the blade before shipping it out.
“Grinding is easily my least favorite part of the whole process. I don’t like wasting steel, and it produces a lot of dust,” Reed admits.
While it varies depending on the knife, each knife takes several days to make from beginning to end. “I’m working on streamlining the process to be more efficient, but I won’t compromise the quality or the process just to finish knives more quickly,”
explains Reed. “I really enjoy the process of taking raw materials and ending up with a finished product that works the way I want it to. It’s nice to have an idea about how you want something to work, and then to be able to create it. I try to design each style of knife to be the best tool for a specific task, and am always thinking and taking suggestions from friends and clients about the best way you could do a certain job with a knife.”
Reed is not only detailed about the functionality of his knives, however, but he is also specific in the aesthetic appeal. “There is a lot of detail in the way I like the knife to look. I prefer a rustic appearance with angular geometric shapes for the handles. And there are a lot of parts of the process that most people don’t get to see that are really beautiful. Knife making fits well with the way that I work because it really requires a lot of precision, and I can really be a perfectionist about certain details. It allows me to be creative and work hard, as well to work with a lot of different materials and solve problems.”
To accomplish both functionality and artistic beauty, Reed uses the highest quality domestically produced steels available. While he doesn’t use reclaimed steel due to the ambiguity of the quality, he enjoys using both reclaimed wood and locally harvested wood for the handles. “There are so many interesting hardwoods that grow around here,” he says. “Old, reclaimed wood usually has an interesting story behind it, and I think a lot of domestic woods are somewhat under-represented in the knife making world. They are usually overlooked since many of them are common lumber, but there are interesting grain patterns everywhere when you know what you’re looking for.”
Reed explains that all the wood he selects are very durable in addition to having interesting grain patterns and, if properly maintained, should last for generations of hard work. In order of relative toughness, the current hardwood options available at Red Forgeworks are Black Locust from Western North Carolina; Reclaimed White Oak; and Spalted Red Oak; White Ash from North Carolina; Black Walnut from South Carolina; and reclaimed Old Growth Black Cherry.
Red Forgeworks currently offers nine different types of knives, ranging from kitchen knives to outdoor blades to butcher chopping knives, and he says he has a few new utility knife styles that are not available yet that might be his favorites. For example, the Damascus Vegetable/Herb Chopping Knife is a small cleaver designed to chop herbs and dice vegetables quickly and efficiently. The knife weighs just under eight ounces and is balanced slightly forward of center, allowing for deft handling and precise cleaving. The curve of the blade enables a smooth rolling chop action with one or two hands. The blade is differentially tempered so that the edge retains a high degree of hardness, while the backside of the blade is softer to absorb shock. The handle wood is reclaimed from an industrial paper roll chock block. The handle is attached with high quality marine-grade epoxy, before being hand riveted with solid brass rivets. The handle has been finished with food safe butcher’s block oil.
His Hand Forged Damascus Bird and Trout Fillet Knife, however, is designed completely differently due to the nature of its use. This hand-forged Damascus fillet knife is designed to be the finest trout or sunfish fillet knife available. The Damascus blade is five and three-quarters inches and 386 layers composed of four types of steel. The blade too is differentially tempered, but in such a way that the body is spring tempered for flexibility, while the edge retains a high degree of hardness for edge retention. The combination of flexibility and edge retention is fairly unique for a fillet knife as it is exceptionally difficult to temper such a long, thin blade this way. The blade also features an extremely sharp, Scandinavian inspired, single bevel, flat ground edge and has a fitted leather sheath.
Reed also makes what is known as a “Hog Splitter” — a cross between a cleaver and a sledge hammer. “This traditional butcher’s tool is something of a throwback to earlier times, when butchering was performed entirely by hand,” says Reed. “Before modern-day slaughterhouses began using band-saws and conveyor belts, butchers used these large cleavers to quarter animals into primal cuts quickly and efficiently. Old-school butchers and barbecue enthusiasts today use the hog splitter to process large game or livestock.” This “knife” weighs about 10 and a half pounds and has an entirely hand-forged 17 and a half inch S-7 tool steel blade, with an overall length of 36 inches. Understandably, this one tool takes more than a week to make and usually requires Reed to call in extra help.
“Right now, I am the only blacksmith,” says Reed. “I have a couple of blacksmith friends who help me occasionally with architectural work and with the hog splitters, and I have a handful of people helping currently with some of the business operations, like handling orders, shipping, and bookkeeping, so that I have time to work in the forge. I’ve enjoyed both the creative process of guiding this business as well as the creative part of working in the forge.”