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Forging A Path

Forging A Path

A young Northern California knife maker creates stunning blades—and an integrated artistic life—finding inspiration in the work of his heroes.

Forging A Path

A young Northern California knife maker creates stunning blades—and an integrated artistic life—finding inspiration in the work of his heroes.
Summer 2024 issue of American Craft magazine
Knife maker Everett Noel lives in this cabin his parents built near Grass Valley, California. Photos by Gabriela Hasbun.

Knife maker Everett Noel lives in this cabin his parents built near Grass Valley, California. Photos by Gabriela Hasbun, unless otherwise noted.

Knife maker Everett Noel lives in the cabin his parents built near Grass Valley, California.

Knife maker Everett Noel lives in the cabin his parents built near Grass Valley, California. Photos by Gabriela Hasbun, unless otherwise noted.

Everett Noel lives in the same off-grid cabin in which he was born, by candlelight, on a sprawling plot of land near Grass Valley, California, nestled in the foothills of the Sierras a couple hours from Sacramento. Noel’s father built the cabin in the 1990s; his mother made the bathroom and living room tiles while she was pregnant with him. Today, Noel’s 72-square-foot knife-making workshop is set up in what used to be a chicken coop, before a bear made a banquet of the poultry population.

Not far from a creek, surrounded by a grove of moss-clad canyon live oaks, Noel’s cabin is a cozy, spare refuge. On a rainy November day, a wood-burning stove throws off heat and candles cast a soft glow around the kitchen, illuminating a chef’s knife made by Noel during the second year of the pandemic, and a Damascus kitchen knife of more recent vintage.

Born to a family that fostered creative expression, self-reliance, and a deep connection to nature (his parents and grandfather still live just a five-minute walk away through the woods), the 25-year-old Noel has been making knives since he was 13, forging a singular path from mostly self-taught novice to master of his métier. In his hands, knives are not only perfectly balanced tools for pruning vines and chopping onions, they are also conduits for emotional expression and artistic connection.

Noel’s first forays into knife fabrication consisted of thrusting bits of metal into a campfire, then removing the metal and pounding away, with a railroad tie as his anvil. He also perused YouTube tutorials on the stock-removal method, in which saws, belt sanders, and abrasives are used to strip material away from a piece of steel in order to fabricate a blade—much as a sculptor coaxes shapes from a block of material. He practiced carving handles out of oak and madrone burls foraged from the family woodpile. “There was a fair amount of trial and error,” Noel says with amused understatement. For an eighth-grade project, he apprenticed with a local blacksmith, Eric Clausen, to learn about forging Damascus steel, a labor-intensive process that requires repeatedly heating, layering, and folding different alloys, resulting in a hard blade with a telltale swirly pattern and patina. And by the time he was 14, Noel was selling his belt knives through Kitkitdizzi, a home goods boutique in nearby Nevada City.

That same year, Noel attended his first West Coast Craft (WCC) fair in San Francisco. “As we wandered the show, my mom kept watering the seed that I could do this too,” recalls Noel, who applied for, and won, a scholarship booth (WCC awards four per fair to emerging artists). His first display was cobbled together from a shipping palette and sawhorses, with his knives arrayed atop rock salt. “It was super scrappy, but successful,” Noel says. “And for the first time, I felt confident that Oh, wow, I could actually make a living with this.

After graduating from high school, Noel devised a way to spend a year combining three of his favorite pastimes. Inspired by a mobile clothing repair vehicle made for Patagonia by painter, woodworker, and surfer Jay Nelson, one of Noel’s artistic and life inspirations, he built what he calls a janky wooden trailer. Loaded up with his propane forge, belt grinder, and hand tools, as well as a surfboard and skis, he hit the road. “At the fairs—West Coast Craft, Mercado Sagrado, Renegade—I’d wheel in my trailer and set up shop, so people could watch the process firsthand,” says Noel, who also made knives by the side of the road.

Noel examines knives he made over the past 12 years for his “Spring Cleaning” sale.

Noel examines knives he made over the past 12 years for his “Spring Cleaning” sale.

Weapons that the maker sketched as a child still figure into his project designs.

Weapons that the maker sketched as a child still figure into his project designs.

In the studio, Noel uses a belt grinder to bevel a vegetable cleaver.

In the studio, Noel uses a belt grinder to bevel a vegetable cleaver.

Last summer, Noel had occasion to collaborate, after a fashion, with another of his aesthetic beacons, the legendary sculptor, furniture maker, and ceramist JB Blunk, who lived with his family in a redwood cabin and art studio he built in the Marin County town of Inverness on Tomales Bay. Noel, who was only 3 when Blunk died in 2002, asked for a monograph on Blunk—edited by Blunk’s daughter, Mariah Nielson—for his 18th birthday. “His aesthetic, his approach to life and to the land—it was as if he were speaking directly to me,” says Noel, who was impressed by the way Blunk blurred the boundaries between the functional and the artistic. “Basically, everything he touched was a work of art. In the same way, I want my knives to be like sculptures that hang on the wall and transform into tools when you take them down and use them.”

Soon thereafter, Nielson, who lives in the Blunk House with her husband and son, recalls receiving a handwritten letter from Noel, expressing his admiration for her father and interest in making knives for Permanent Collection, a rarefied line of objects and homewares that Nielson cofounded. “I imagined, from the tone and maturity of this beautiful letter, that it was written by some weathered, 80-year-old character from the backwoods who’d spent his whole life crafting knives,” says Nielson. “When I called, and this young man answered, I was so surprised and impressed.”

Soon thereafter, Nielson, who lives in the Blunk House with her husband and son, recalls receiving a handwritten letter from Noel, expressing his admiration for her father and interest in making knives for Permanent Collection, a rarefied line of objects and homewares that Nielson cofounded. “I imagined, from the tone and maturity of this beautiful letter, that it was written by some weathered, 80-year-old character from the backwoods who’d spent his whole life crafting knives,” says Nielson. “When I called, and this young man answered, I was so surprised and impressed.”

A couple of years after Noel began working with Permanent Collection, Nielson invited him to mount a solo show at Blunk Space, the gallery she founded in Point Reyes Station, a few miles from her home. She also offered Noel access to her father’s house and archives—including photography, writings, ephemera, and slides—for inspiration. At first, Noel was unsure how to proceed. “I love the idea of sampling in music, but have been reticent about ‘borrowing’ elements,” Noel explains. “But then I realized, this was such a rare opportunity to dive in and explore Blunk’s world.”

J.B. Blunk’s 1969 monumental redwood sculpture The Planet.

J.B. Blunk’s 1969 monumental redwood sculpture The Planet.

Knives from Noel’s “Spring Cleaning” pop-up sale at Blunk Space.

Knives from Noel’s “Spring Cleaning” pop-up sale at Blunk Space.

All of the 27 knives that Noel made for the show react to, echo, or allude to something made by Blunk, and some even share a common material. Noel was gifted offcuts for his handles from both Blunk’s woodpile and that of sculptor Bruce Mitchell, who assisted Blunk on projects including The Planet, a massive redwood installation commissioned by the Oakland Museum of California that inspired Noel’s quartet of Planet steak knives. Just as Blunk explored a variety of approaches to his material within a singular sculpture, Noel created four different iterations of the same knife.

Some of the visual relationships with Blunk’s work are explicit, others more nuanced. Noel’s redwood-handled Man in Steel Ulu (2023) is a mirror image of Blunk’s basalt Man in Stone (c. 1995–97). With a notch carved into its brass handle, Muse Folder (2023), one of Noel’s rare folding knives, is a love letter to Untitled (1976), a notched walnut bracelet Blunk carved for his second wife, Christine Nielson. And Noel reunited with Clausen, his eighth-grade mentor, to forge Inverness Ridge Nakiri, whose Damascus steel blade with cutout hole poetically evokes the moon rising over the rippled waters of Tomales Bay. A slew of culinary implements used for filleting, harvesting, spreading, and shucking are informed by Blunk’s sculptures as well as by Noel’s childhood memories and dreams for the future. “These tools are both nostalgic and aspirational,” says Noel. “As I worked, I thought about exploring the coast as a kid, JB’s life in Inverness, and how now, as an adult, I can feel the two worlds coming together.”

After seeing the sold-out show, Michael Tusk of three-Michelin-starred Quince in San Francisco commissioned Noel to craft a set of bespoke steak knives for his restaurant’s redesign. Visually light but pleasingly weighty in the hand, the knife is a portmanteau of associations. The brass handles trace an oval outline that mimics the shape of Quince’s brass-accented tables. And they riff on Noel’s personal muses: a detail on Blunk’s abstract ceramic sculpture of a woman’s torso (Untitled, c. 1974), and two black oaks on Noel’s property that have partially grown together, creating an oval window in the middle that frames the verdant landscape.

Chef Michael Tusk of Quince in San Francisco commissioned Noel to create these brass-handled stainless steel steak knives for the restaurant’s redesign. Photo by Sarah Huber.

Chef Michael Tusk of Quince in San Francisco commissioned Noel to create these brass-handled stainless steel steak knives for the restaurant’s redesign. Photo by Sarah Huber.

Two black oaks converging near Noel’s cabin inspired the handles of the steak knives for Quince.

Two black oaks converging near Noel’s cabin inspired the handles of the steak knives for Quince.

Back inside his bucolic cabin, Noel leads a fairly ascetic life. Neatly stashed banker’s boxes are filled with fodder for projects, such as a passel of unfinished knives he has since completed for a recent pop-up sale at Blunk Space called “Spring Cleaning.” Another box contains sketches for a more tricked-out version of his mobile knife shop—“much more like a sculpture on wheels I can live and work out of, like a self-sustaining ecosystem,” says Noel. And he has notes for a mandolin he plans to make with his younger brother Bay, a woodworker.

In the longer term, Noel dreams of building his own home. “I want to make everything, inside and out, with my own hands—not only the knives, but the clothing I wear, the furnishings, the dishes, the art,” says Noel, who pauses a beat before continuing. “I guess what I’m really describing is some version of the Blunk House. As JB said, ‘This whole place is a sculpture.’ And that’s how I see my life.”

everettnoelknives.com | @everettnoelknives

On July 18, Everett Noel will join knife makers Bob Kramer and Vu Nguyen in a conversation with James Beard award-winning chef—and Iron Chef alum—Via Yang. Learn more about the ACC Forum, "Knives Out: Craft of the Bladesmith", and join us!

Learn More and Register

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This article was made possible with support from the Windgate Foundation.

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