On a snowy afternoon shortly after New Year’s Day, Aaron Wilburn is working on a new knife, dipping it into an acid bath to finally reveal the Damascus pattern that’s been hiding in the steel blade. He’s working in the chilly garage of his home in Idaho Falls, Idaho, which he’s turned into a workshop with a forge and an anvil, yes, but also an electric, heat-treating oven to raise the knives’ temperatures to a precise 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, several grinders and milling machines, a tank of liquid nitrogen, and a tool cart with drawers packed full of ram’s horn and other handle materials.
One of only 120 “master smith” knife makers in the world, Wilburn, who is 53, has turned down several invitations to compete on the History Channel’s popular Forged in Fire reality show. With fingers stained gray from metal dust and a brawny left forearm that is shorn from testing the sharpness of his blades, he has been making Wilburn Forge knives full-time since 2012, and his whole life seems to have been a run-up to this.
Having grown up in Twin Falls, Idaho, Wilburn came to the Bay Area for high school and worked in his uncle’s auto body shop, learning how to weld and machine things. He spent his early career as an auto body specialist for Volvo, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz dealerships, then owned several leather-repair franchises, and most recently built custom homes in Redding, California. In 2003, he started to pursue knife making as a hobby, inspired to make something better than the disappointing knives that he used while hunting game—and to learn how to forge Damascus. The most difficult technique for making blades, Damascus steel’s elaborate swirling patterns have names like “feather,” “mosaic,” and “ladder” and are made by stacking layers of steel and cutting, folding, and flattening them together. To do so, Wilburn uses a seven-foot-tall power hammer salvaged from a pre–World War II battleship, along with a smaller power hammer and a hydraulic press, both of which he built himself.
After forging either a Damascus or a regular carbon-steel blade, Wilburn tempers it by heating it in the electric oven and then cryogenically freezing it in liquid nitrogen. Between these heat-treating cycles, he hardens it by dunking it in fast quenching oil—the secret to making a very thin but strong blade that doesn’t chip easily. He then hand-grinds and sands the edge to its final razor-thinness. He makes the handles himself from exotic hardwoods and natural horn and bone, as well as custom leather sheaths.
In 2017, Wilburn learned of California’s recent ban on the sale of ivory and items containing ivory, including the mammoth ivory that he occasionally uses for handles. Chafing at the restriction, he decided to move back to Idaho, landing in the Redding-size town of Idaho Falls. Wilburn doesn’t take orders for his knives, though he does take requests. He simply posts photos of the knives on Instagram, and followers snap them up, typically within minutes (occasionally a few are also available through BladeGallery in Kirkland, Washington, and Town Cutler stores in San Francisco and Chicago). “You can buy a $500 set of stainless steel knives, but they don’t stay sharp,” says Wilburn. “It’s the difference between buying a regular wrench and buying a Snap-on tool—these knives are the top of the line of what you can get.”
Lydia Lee writes about architecture and design from the San Francisco Bay Area and is working on a book about Napa wineries.
Three more kitchen essentials
• Provence cutting board: A ruggedly handsome partner for any knife, this board is made from a single slab of quarter-sawn fumed oak by the Wooden Palate in Los Angeles. $175
• King combination waterstone, 1000/6000 grit: To keep your knives super sharp, learn how to use a Japanese whetstone; you start by using the side with the coarser grit and then flip it over to fine-tune the edge. $69
• Schmidt Brothers Acacia Magnetic Wall Bar: Knife strips save counter space and allow you to display your blades rather than hide them away. $60