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Quintin Middleton On The Holy Art Of Knifesmithing

Quintin Middleton has been making knives by hand for 18 years in Saint Stephen, South Carolina, a city just outside Charleston. He has made custom knives for some of the world’s most famous chefs under the name Middleton Made Knives.

After I graduated high school, I went to a technical school to be an aircraft mechanic. I also started working in my local mall, at this store called Outland Knife and Cigar. I would sell manufactured knives like Benchmade and Spyderco, and swords and also cigars. My passion for swords and knives came from fantasy movies, and wanting to go on my own adventure.

My mentor, Jason Knight, walked into the store one day. I didn’t know who he was, he looked crazy to me at the time. But he bought this sword, and he was just like, “Oh yeah, I make knives for a living,” and to an 18 year old—my eyes just lit up. Like, okay, wow, can you teach me? He allowed me to come to his studio and showed me some things. But a lot of things I learned on my own. He pointed me in a direction, and if I got stumped on something, he would help out. But it was mainly trial and error.

I didn’t really start selling my own knives until maybe 2009. At first, I was making hunting knives and swords. It was after I graduated from college, and I was working as an industrial mechanic for Mercedes Benz. We made those big ugly Sprinter vans—what FedEx and UPS drive. I built those.

Photo: Andrew Cebulka.

While I was making hunting knives and swords and working at Mercedes, I had a dream. I had a dream that the Holy Spirit, God, told me to make chef knives.

I decided to research chef knives, and I made a few from knowing how to make hunting knives and swords. I thought it would be the same. I made a long list of every top chef in Charleston. I called every last one of them. And every last one of them turned me down. I was like a telemarketer—hey, would you like to buy some knives?

And then the Holy Spirit told me to call back one of the chefs on that list and ask him to help me develop a knife. That was Craig Deihl, and he allowed me to come into his restaurant Cypress and show him and his sous chefs and his crew what I made, and everybody was cool, everybody was nice. And then I’m expecting, maybe they want to buy a few knives. I have five, and maybe they’ll buy one. Everybody picked it up, put it down, and everybody went back to work.

Photo: Andrew Cebulka.

Afterwards, I said to Craig, “Hey man, what do you think about the knives?” He said, “The knives are cool, but it’s too thick, it’s too heavy, it’s like an axe, so I can’t be precise with this. The only thing I can do with this is chop bones or something.” And that kind of hurt at first because I’m thinking I know exactly what they want. But he said, “I want you to make me a knife with my specifications. I want you to make it light, I want you to make it thin.” And so he gave me tidbits.

I took in the information that he gave me, and I went back to my shop and tried to make something. Craig and his sous chef Bob Cook were instrumental in the progression of my knives—they gave me a lot of feedback for what a professional chef would want in the kitchen. I reached out to other chefs, and they allowed me to come to their kitchen and watch how they work. I started to design my own knife, and then it kind of snowballed from there. I think it was 2011—I was featured in Garden & Gun, and it blew up. I haven’t slowed down since.

Early on, my mentor Jason told me something that I tell people who want to learn how to make knives. If you see a knife that you like, copy it. Make it. And if you see another one, make that one, too. Each thing that you try to make, you learn a different skill. It’s just like cooking. Making biscuits, you might learn something different then when you tried to make chicken and dumplings. It’s just different things that you pull from to create your own style.

Photo: Andrew Cebulka.

I always want to encourage people. I’ve failed. I’ve been fired from jobs. But I didn’t allow my mistakes to define who I am.

I still make custom knives, but more early on I would take specifications on what people wanted. And then it got boring for me. It’s like telling Picasso, “I want you to draw me a scene.” Even though he might do it for the money, that’s not what he is, or what he does. This is my craft, and this is my art. So I said, “My name is out there now. I have the freedom to make what I feel is great. And I put it out there and if someone would like to buy it, that’s cool.”

A lot of manufactured knives are square and boxy. From that time of me watching line cooks work, I’m thinking, okay, they need to be comfortable, they’re working 14-hour shifts. So my handle is almost shaped like a coke bottle. When you grab the knife, there’s a notch, or a little groove right where the blade starts. So when you’re doing a pinch grip, that middle finger sits in that area—it makes the knife more of an extension of yourself. You become one with the knife, and those simple details will make a big difference. I can make my knife very elaborate, very busy, but I like simple things. Like beef stew, it’s really simple but it depends on the ingredients to make it sublime.

Photo: Andrew Cebulka.

When I met Jason, I was using a lot of high-carbon steel—recycled steel, like saw blades that cut concrete, or springs off of trucks. I’ve used all kinds of stuff because I can go to the junkyard and get it. And at the time, I didn’t really have money to buy high-end steel. Like cooking food, steel has a lot of ingredients. Depending on what ingredients you put inside the steel, that’s what makes it tougher, or it’ll be able to hold an edge longer, or be erosion resistant. The steel I’m using now is very close to high carbon, but it has chromium in it to make it stainless.

I forge it to shape it. The forge I have is fueled by propane. It forces the gas inside the chamber, and it has refractory cement inside. And when that refractory cement heats up, it reflects the heat so it kind of bounces back and forth. All steels have a critical temperature where the grain structure inside the steel changes, and it’s a bit more pliable. It’s almost like kneading dough.

When I get to that desired temperature—it might be 1,500 degrees—and then I’ll hit it on the edges to kind of peak it to come to a point. And then I hit the edge of the steel so I can widen it out. If I’m trying to make an eight-inch chef’s knife, then for the width, I’m trying to draw it out to maybe about two-and-a-half inches or so. And then I draw out the handle to get it to the length I want.

Photo: Andrew Cebulka.

I grind the profile of my knife on the grinder. Then I have to harden the steel, so I put it back into the forge—this process is called heat treating. I allow it to soak at the critical temperature for around five minutes. The next process is called quenching. I take the knife and dip it in oil, bringing it down from 1500 degrees to maybe 700 to 800 degrees within seconds.

At that point, this steel is really hard—it’s almost like cast iron. If I was gonna throw it on the cement floor, it would shatter. Sometimes I do that on purpose—break the knife to check my process, to see the grain structure and look at the cross section of the knife.

But if I didn’t break it, now I need to bake the knife. This is at a lower temperature, around 400 degrees over a longer span of time, about two hours. Now it’s so hard and brittle, I need to massage it back—I need to relieve the stress so it can have a middle ground between hard and soft, so you’ll be able to sharpen the knife, and it’ll hold its edge and still be tough. Once I do that, it’s time for me to grind the bevels so it can be sharp. I start with a 50-grit belt, then go through a progression of finer grinding belts along the way to polish it. When I get the desired finish, I tape it up with masking tape and pick what kind of handle material I want on the knife.

Photo: Andrew Cebulka.

For the handles, I like maple burl. The tree must have gotten nicked or hit somewhere and it tried to heal itself. So it’s starting to curl up, and it just grew over time. When you cut the wood in half, you see the burls and the knots. I like the warmth and colors in maple. I’ve also used desert ironwood from Arizona—it is very dense, oily wood. And African blackwood, which is naturally black.

I drill a hole into the handle of the knife and the wood so that they correspond to each other and go together smoothly. I coat it with an epoxy, a two-part resin, and then I put a pin through the knife. When the glue is dry, I go back to my grinder and start to shape my handle. I hand-sand the knife handle to around 1,000-grit sandpaper, and then I put some wax on it, let it harden, and then buff it with a buffing wheel. And that’s it.

I’ve made knives for Emeril Lagasse, Robert Irvine, JJ Johnson, Roblé Ali, Sean Brock, Mike Lata. But that first one I made for Craig Deihl has stuck with me. That’s the one I always talk about. That’s the one that has more merit to me and that helped build who I am as a maker.