Jeb Taylor, a small-batch knife-maker, hopes to move to a wholesale model once the pandemic wanes.
"Last year wasn't a good year for the fancy knife world, and recognizably so," he said. "In my heart, I recognize that I make 'wants,' not 'needs.' ... But I'm pretty excited, I've got some good momentum in the butcher knife world."
Taylor's target demographic? Chefs, obviously — and people in the competition barbecue circuit.
As one of maybe five butcher's knife-makers in the States, Taylor is uniquely qualified to serve those who whip out their setups 30 or 40 weekends a year.
“It’s an expensive hobby, because the materials that go into it,” he said. “So a lot of guys do it professionally, become de-facto caterers.”
Growing up in North Carolina, Taylor was aware of the custom knife-makers guild in his state. Then he spent more than 20 years traveling in the Army and meeting craftspeople. For about 10 months afterward, he worked for a production knife company — a pivotal experience.
At first, Taylor toyed with the idea of making tactical knives — then realized he'd been in military combat five times, and "never stabbed a guy once."
"I opened a lot of snacks, I opened a lot of cardboard boxes, I cut into a lot of things," he said. "I don't even know anyone who's ever been in a knife fight. And my heart just wasn't there."
About 10 years ago, Taylor started “messing around” with his own crafts. As a machinist, he said the detail work of knife-making kept him going. There’s nothing quite like spending hours on the perfect blade and balance.
“It’s not for everybody, but if it is for you, manufacturing is a good choice,” he said. “You have to hold a standard over and over. Every time’s a new opportunity.”
The best blade plans
Currently, Taylor’s shop has three options: a standard boning knife, and options for chef’s and custom boning knives.
There’s more to that boning knife than meets the eye. Taylor designed the blade himself, then sent it to people he trusted to give honest feedback — butchers and the like.
Butchers tend to wear out knives too quickly and readily to be frequent customers, but for testing whether a product can speedily debone a carcass, they were perfect.
There are also a few tests Taylor can run to determine that a knife is “food-sharp” — not so fine-edged that it’ll bend if it hits a cutting board, but keen enough to cut nicely. For example, he’ll test the edge against receipt paper, which broadcasts any burrs via ticking sounds.
“The knife’s been around for a bajillion years, so the format is already well established,” he said. “What you can tweak is your design aesthetic. Now, your design aesthetic may not be the best performance aesthetic — that’s happened to me before. … It’s the marriage of your design and the function.”
Some orders also take more time — as much as 20 hours of polishing, as went into a blade for a friend. Simply grinding the surface of a chef’s knife takes at least two hours of slow, methodical hand-grinding before Taylor even gets to the handle. If Taylor uses a signature blue fabric with red pins, hardened by resin, that may take another three or four hours of polishing to make the fabric “shine like a marble.”
Custom jobs aren’t his favorite — Taylor works slowly and prefers the repetition of hand-crafting his own designs.
After they’re finished, the knives are sent out, and Taylor’s workplace quiets.
Fortunately, he likes the silence and solitude of his crafting career.
“You have to be at peace in your own mind,” he said. “For me, it’s perfect.”