I walk down an alleyway and into a fluorescent lit workshop. Behind an assortment of half-built motorcycles and benches is a man in an apron and gloves, pulling a piece of metal from a furnace with a pair of dramatic tongs. He looks like he’s in his element.
He sees me from the corner of his eye, removes his goggles and turns the furnace gas off. Reaching out to shake my hand with his scarred knuckles and a welcoming grin beneath his beard.
I ask him if I was interrupting his flow.
“No, not at all. I was just making a spork for my buddy upstairs.”
I admire a man who orders a custom feeding utensil usually reserved for toddlers.
His name is Bud. He’s a modest man. An adventurer at heart with a love for winding down roads on his motorcycle. He even went to architecture school but I certainly can’t imagine him in a collared shirt slouching over a desk. Now he forges custom knives with intricate handles made from wood and bone.
Bud spent his whole life in Kentucky before packing up and moving to Melbourne a fews years ago. He worked as a furniture maker when he first arrived but it didn’t last long.
“I couldn’t handle the clients… it’s so wanky haha. That’s why I got away from it. I just wanted ideal clients – people who I could relate with. I was already making some knives on the side and everyone I made a knife for was cool. I met some of my best friends by making knives for them.”
Now he forges out of a workshop on Easey street in Collingwood – sandwiched between a bar (Paradise Alley) and a screen printing shop ( While You Sleep ), surrounded by vintage choppers (BITZER). A photo of his manager is mounted on the wall to make sure he stays in line and doesn’t duck next door for a cheeky midday pint.
All kinds of people walk through the door. Some are knife collectors, others are tradies or hunters. He even made a bunch of throwing knives for a guy in the circus.
Heating and hammering metal has always been in his blood.
“My Grandpa ran a forge and foundry called International Harvester and my dad was a machinist; he made some knives as well. I played around when I was younger but didn’t really make any knives.”
“Grandpa would always give me a knife on my birthday. Actually, even if it wasn’t my birthday. Whenever I went over to his place he’d be like, “do you want this” and hand me a knife… or a BB gun haha.”
Yet, Bud didn’t learn much from anyone else. No fancy knife making school and limiting his internet use as much as possible. Just some helpful pointers from his old man and an old book.
“My dad taught me a bit but I bought a book from 1906 called The Farm Blacksmiths Handbook. That’s it. I try stay away from the internet. People that know how to make good knives generally don’t know how to make good youtube videos haha. So you see a lot of bullshit online. I like it this way. It keeps my head down, playing with what works and realising what doesn’t.”
Knife making wasn’t something he planned for as his career – it just fell into place.
“I just wanted it to be a hobby that paid for itself. I rented a space so I had to be doing something in it. So I built the forge and started making knives – I can’t believe it didn’t blow up haha. I still get scared sometimes when I start it.”
But his current workshop in Collingwood wasn’t his first. He got kicked out of his last workspace.
“I went to this knife symposium up in Tharwa Valley. I spent 3 days riding a motorcycle there, 3 days forging with some of the leading experts in knife making and then spent 5 days riding back. I had no cell phone service and no clue where I was going.
“Once I finally got service I checked my emails and one was from the owners of the studio saying that I had to move out because I was being too loud. It sucked haha. I came from such a high from the past week with so many great ideas. And now I had to find a new place to work.“
I guess it was a blessing in disguise. Otherwise, he might never have found Paradise Alley.
We looked through a bunch of his creations; knives the size or my arm, counterfeit coins, cutlery and vertebrae shaped knuckle dusters. With knowledge of metallurgy, alchemy, chemistry, woodwork, fabrication and everything in between, he can create almost anything he thinks of.
“I get obsessive over things and then never do it again. Recently I had this weird fascination with making counterfeit money.”
“I’ve been second guessing calling it 13 knives. Cause I’m also making silverware and jewelry. So I might have limited myself. Now I’m calling it ‘13k, Quality Goods’. So that’s the transition. I just want to keep it open ended, making knives and whatever else I’m interested in.”
He hands me a couple of the knives from the cabinet and starts rattling off the different types of bone in the handles.
I was a little skeptical. Is this crazy knife-wielding bloke getting black market animal parts from African poachers?
He doesn’t. Relax.
“I get water buffalo horn, zebra bone, warthog tusk. There’s an organisation in Africa that go around and pick up the bones from reservations when an animal dies. There not poachers. The money goes back to the reservation for conservation. Bone lasts for ages when it’s treated properly. These knives will last a few hundred years, I hope.
“The handles are a lot of fun to make. But so is the blade… Actually, it’s all fun haha.”
These knives aren’t mass produced. It takes a lot of time and effort to make a single knife.
“A knife takes around 40 to 50 hours to make. I start with a block of steel, heat it, beat it into shape, harden it, treat it, temper it, and then start doing handle work. The handle work takes forever.”
“I go from one day, brutally bashing out steel to make the blade and then the next day making hidden pins for the handles. There are so many different skills involved in making a single knife. A lot of engineering is involved just to get it all to meet up and feel nice. “
I noticed that he still had 10 fingers.
Which is impressive with all of this hammering, grinding, melting, and fireballs around. I asked Bud if he’s had any accidents.
“Yeah, I ran my finger through the grinder last year. That was pretty bad. I went to the doctor and asked him if it was that bad. He was like ‘yeah, go to the hospital’. They wrapped it in gause really big and told me to take a month off work. I went back to the workshop that afternoon. It was hard though because every time I was grinding, it would shoot sparks straight onto the gause and set it on fire.
He then made a passing comment about getting metal fingertips to prevent it from happening again.
“Not like removing my real nails. Just like attachments. You could do anything with them. My nails are always getting hit on the grinder. That and an exoskeleton and I’d be set haha. I’d be unstoppable, taking over the world making knives.”
I ask Bud what his next line of metal creations will be.
“I really want to make a steam engine haha. That’s my next thing.”
I could get around that. Petrol is way too expensive anyway, I’d much rather buy a bag of coal and a jug of water. Maybe we should start a new series called ‘What’s Bud Making this week’. I think it has legs.
Also, how epic are those photos? I know right. Insane. Make sure you check out their other work: Laurence James – @laurencejamesphotography / www.laurencephotography.com.au and Alberto Zimmermann – @betozimmermann