With the sound of steel meshing to the smash of his hammer, John King gazed into the coal forge before him and was reminded of a familiar past.
Looking into the forge's open flame and then back to the steel bar he was molding, the Chippewa Cree remembered when, at the age of 7 while living on an American Indian reservation in Montana, he learned to make his first knife.
"Basically, I learned how to make one because I wanted one," he said. "Living on a reservation, money had nothing to do with living. If you wanted something, you'd better make it."
Although today Mr. King, now an Appling resident, has retired and long since moved from his meager beginnings, through the years he has never strayed from his childhood ambition of creating rustic knives and axes.
"At a lot of the knife shows, they sell knives that are so bright and flashy you have to wear sunglasses to look at them," he said. "I give people the same thing basically, except I make mine in a rustic form so people aren't afraid to use them and get them dirty."
In the past 10 years, Mr. King has perfected his childhood discovery into a marketable success, selling his hand-sculpted knives and axes at craft shows throughout the Southeast, at the demand of his neighbors and even to a store in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
"At the store in Tennessee, a lot of tourists buy my work," he said. "The owner is always wanting more than I can make. And I've got local people wanting them. They're here, and he's not. So, they usually get them."
Mr. King said the only machines he uses to make his knives and axes are a forge machine, which heats up steel with the crank of a wheel, a grinder and a drill press.
"I try to hand-make a knife," he said while smashing a hammer onto a 6-inch-long alloy steel bar. "I don't have much machinery, as you can see. There's no such thing as totally hand-making a knife, but I come about as close as you can."
Mr. King said it takes him about eight days to make a knife. He sells them at an average cost of $150, which is about half the price a consumer would pay for one custom-made at a store. He typically gets his materials at an annual knife show in Atlanta.
The process of transforming those materials is a painstaking one involving flattening, profiling, grinding and sanding steel bars into a blade. Making the handles is just as difficult; Mr. King often carves elaborate designs into everything from hickory to ivory to walrus tusk.
"I have my own unique design," he said. "I copy no one. And I've found that ivory or things like a walrus's tusk give a good contrast between the blade and handle."
Three initials carved into the blades of his knives and axes -- JTL -- also provide authenticity.
"I put my granddad's name on all of them: John T. LaDue," he said. "That's just because I loved my grandparents."
Lately, Mr. King has begun making his own leather holsters. He said the work has kept him pretty busy.
"About a month ago, I was going to a show," he said. "But a local man came up and brought seven of the knives I was going to take. So, I couldn't go."
Still, despite increasing demands for a childhood discovery that has lasted him throughout adulthood, Mr. King said that even if he had never sold a single one of his works, his love for creating would have endured.
"It's never really mattered to me what the knife looks like," he said. "My first one wasn't perfect.
"To me, I've always just appreciated a man's ability to make his own and to provide for himself."
Gazing back into the forge's fire one more time, Mr. King smiled with the innocence of a child appreciating the ability that a 7-year-old had so many years ago.
Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 868-1222,Ext. 110, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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