Many knifemakers have a workspace where they can go be alone. It’s a refuge from the stressful elements of their life where they can put on music or a podcast and be creative. They have their shop just like they like it, whether meticulously organized or a total disaster area. We have a community instead. We find our refuge in others as well as in the setting and the work. It is harder to share a space than to have one to yourself but it is better to share. The chance to work in an environment with other creatives who share your same passion is incredible. The cross pollination of ideas, accountability both personally and professionally, pooling of resources and just good fellowship come with the territory.
The must-be-nicers out there are probably thinking “It must be nice to have access to a place like that, I don’t have a knifemaking community shop in my town.” Neither did I. First I had to take a huge chance on a space that I wasn’t sure I could afford where there were other makers in the same building and room to grow. Then I had to invite people to my shop to hang out, maybe do some work together. I hosted some events and joined some local clubs and actually started meeting like minded folk. Those first couple years, I had several people that seemed like they would become fixtures around the shop but most people just helped around the shop a bit so they could make a knife or two then left. Greg was the first knife maker to stick around. He was already making knives on his own so that showed me that he had his own drive and wasn’t only enamoured by the shop. In those days I didn’t have any forging equipment, just a KMG 2x72 grinder, an Evenheat kiln, a bandsaw and drill press. Greg worked in a genetics lab nearby so he had big tanks of liquid nitrogen with mouse sperm in them that we could dip knives into. Certain alloys of steel benefit from cryo-treatment in sub zero temperatures - mouse sperm optional.
We soon found that shop life was better together than by ourselves. I already shared space with my friend Zach who does welding fabrication so the community space dynamics were already in play. Greg brought valuable knowledge and experience as well as some gear to the shop and although he still technically had a workshop at home, he was soon doing all his work at my shop. Over time other people have come and gone, we have a really solid group now and that will continue to change over the years. The important thing is that we remain open to sharing what we do with others, making everyone better in the process even if it comes with hardships.
Ah the hardships, where do I begin? Actually I’ll start by writing that in community, the best growth comes through the hard times, in the friction that occurs when people are in close proximity for a long time. As the honeymoon phase wears off the same problems that many roommates have experienced set in. Basic issues like clean up, using the last of a shared consumable and not replacing, playing bad music or mooching food can drive you crazy. At first they are just annoying but as you become closer with people, feelings can get hurt over pretty small things. It can feel like a simple, thoughtless act is personally directed at you - when in fact you are not as central to the decision making of your peers as you think. We also tend to project our emotions on the people around us so at any one time there are multiple personalities injecting all kinds of energy into the shared space.
It is quite amazing to see how one person’s bad mood can bring the whole shop down. I will use the term “energy” in referring to this because there is a resonance to our emotions that is poorly understood but undeniably felt. Unfortunately negative emotions have a stronger effect on a group than positive, that must be related to that negative bias concept. Working in a group setting is all about regulating those emotions so that we don’t allow that resonance to build. A good knifemaking metaphor would be breaking the stick tang on a knife while grinding the end. If you grind the steel on the end of a small stick of hardened steel in just the right way. You will hear a tone or feel a vibration. That is the warning tone. If you continue to grind that tang with the resonant frequencies building up, it will break and you may lose all your hard work because you were not sensitive to the “tone” of the knife. In the same way, our shops have a tone and we must be aware when the negative energy is building up to the breaking point.
Dr. Warren Farrell said that “Anger is vulnerability’s mask”. That is a pretty complex idea but I think it is safe to say that we tend to be most angry when things are out of our control. After all, when building a knife doesn’t go well, that’s something that we would rather not have happened but didn’t have the ability to stop. Most people tend to be more angry at their own failures than at some misfortune that is deemed an “Act of God”. I wonder if unrealistic expectations play into those emotions. Anger around our shop has been triggered by feelings of unfairness, frustration, jealousy, physical pain and injustice. Anger’s tactic is always to punish others. Not correction or discipline, but mean, pointless punishment. This is in the “misery loves company” category and unfortunately happens to all of us. The most tempting way to avoid responsibility for the shortcomings that lead to our anger is to blame others. If you find yourself blaming anyone but yourself for your problems, you will never escape them.
On the other hand, patience and forgiveness can be powerful. Healing and restoration are not just lofty concepts that are reserved for clergy and therapists. There are opportunities every day to make things at least a little better than yesterday. In fact, I would argue that the real work of restoration and forgiveness is accomplished on the interpersonal level rather than on grand scales. This may take the form of giving someone an opportunity to feel like they really belong to a group for the first time. It may be a large act of forgiveness for a major transgression but more often looks like patience with a recurring bad habit. The context here is still a knife making workshop so there are limits. We have had many “time bandits” over the years that feel attracted to the knife shop but are really only there to hang out or maybe mooch whatever they can. All communities have boundaries which limit inclusion based on a person's relevance to that group and the activities and behaviours involved. Even a very open spiritual community that takes all comers will likely not accept people who are not interested in any kind of transformation or eventually submitting to the religious guidelines.
We have found that a key to a healthy working community is only including trusted and committed working members in the core group. There is no need to actively exclude others but there must be an inner circle or council that can be relied on to hold the needs of the group in higher regard than their own personal wishes. This keeps the wider community healthy and inviting. It disperses the pressure of leadership from one person to a cooperative effort, even if there is a single person with ultimate decision making power. When a leader or owner of a shop brings people into the decision making process, everyone usually feels better about the outcomes.
In the knife making world we have the ABS (American Bladesmith Society) and the Knifemakers Guild for our national groups and hundreds of local and regional organizations centered around knife making and blacksmithing. Although these groups usually have a president, there is always a council of leaders and voting members. These are not new initiates but people held in high regard both personally and for their craftsmanship. These leaders not only carry out the organization and direction of the group but also influence the culture over time. They stand as aspirational figures for the new and advancing members and are invaluable resources of the traditions and techniques of their esoteric craft.
Another key concept is the fact that leadership sets the tone for any organization, be it family, corporate or smaller groups. I once was a carpenter. Our company did work with an electrical subcontractor and the electricians were not pleasant fellows. On every job site they had complaints about pretty standard stuff, and God forbid that there was a task that required any creativity or patience. I wondered why they were always so sour and then I met the owner. Ugh, I'm glad I'm not related to that guy! (at least the guy he was then) He had the same everything's-a-pain-in-the-ass attitude as his subordinates and it all made sense. Those electricians that worked for him were just going with the tone that he set. In another work environment they might have had great attitudes, willing to go above and beyond. With his guidance, they were gripy workers that wanted to skate by with as little effort possible. We did not use that subcontractor for long.
It really got me thinking about the power of authority. Many of us don't like the idea that we have authority over others at all, we don't want the responsibility. We also might think that we are not deserving or prepared for that. The truth is that we are not ready. Only serving in that position can train you to set the right tone. When we set a tone of serving others, attending to their needs, not reacting negatively too easily and being a peacemaker, we can start the process of building a community. Authoritarianism is the opposite and not an enactment of true authority. "My way or the highway" is a masked way of saying "I'm too insecure to be challenged even though I may be wrong". There is a popular branch of philosophy that believes that hierarchy and value are arbitrary as is power itself. Real leaders do not grab power and authority, they are entrusted with the direction of an organization to the degree that they have earned that trust. This shows that true authority is the opposite of arbitrary, it is willingly bestowed on the deserving by the value system of the group. Another way of stating this would be that if I'm too crappy, no one will submit to working alongside me. If I want people around me, they have to be able to put up with me.
Here's a downside to the servant leader thing: you will be taken advantage of. For sure. If we want to avoid confrontation by just doing everything that needs to be done rather than reminding everyone of their responsibilities, we will just be the janitor. This is called the martyr syndrome. "I guess I'll do it again, somebody has to do it and I seem to be the only one around here...blah blah blah" said with a sigh in that long-suffering tone. No one respects that. It's either obviously passive aggressive or people don't even notice that you're picking up after them. Sometimes serving everyone means singling one member out for not pulling their weight. That is the hardest thing about leading, having an obligation to correct a peer that most likely isn't interested in growing in that area and may or may not accept your authority. Oh they'll accept your authority when it comes to taking care of all the little hassles of running a shop or spending your money on improvements and necessities but changing their behaviour in the interest of the common good? They'll be the judge of that, thank you very much. Doing the right thing is usually accompanied by the risk of exposing yourself to harm. That's why it is exceptional behaviour. You may be burned here and there but you just take it as it comes because it's better than the alternative: running everyone off and becoming bitter and resentful or abdicating all responsibility and becoming bitter and resentful.
So how can we submit to one another well? I suppose it is much like a business relationship. I sell some of my knives through companies that buy wholesale from me and then sell online or retail. We work for each other in a mutually beneficial way. I serve them by fulfilling their knife orders and they serve me by purchasing and reselling the knives - acting as a sales and marketing team in a way. There's no reason to view these as one way transactions like buying a pack of gum at the gas station. If we want to continue doing business with each other then we have to treat each other well. It's the same in the shop. Whether community members are paying in, volunteering in some way or just coworking as friends, there is a transactional nature to the relationship.
Human relationships are fundamentally emotionally transactional but I'm referring to actual goods, services and work transactions that can lead to fairness issues. An attitude that is protective of our own sense of fairness is just not a good baseline for these community relationships. It can turn an otherwise generous person into someone who, in their obsession with fairness, tends to overcorrect fairness in their own favor. Even when cutting a donut we have a hard time splitting things perfectly evenly. Our sense of fairness varies greatly from person to person so it becomes a gauge that leads to strife more often than agreement. The best way to use our sense of fairness is to apply it to others’ benefit, making sure our peers get their fair share and trust that they are looking out for our best interest as well.
One of our core members named Billy calls our community an organism of thought. I love that. Not just ideas but emotions, worldviews, philosophies, real world material concerns and taste preferences all clash together to form this new entity. All we can hope for is that more of the good influences stick than the bad. It’s much like how culture forms I suppose and we are members of a subculture. Knifemakers have their own language, customs and fads. There is so much to learn in this craft that it really is critical to be taught by others and share our own breakthroughs too. I have learned more from new students of bladesmithing who are absorbing any and all information that the good old world wide web has to offer than I ever would have thought. Fresh perspectives from beginners are valuable because they don’t have any biases yet and are more open to new ideas. Sometimes the longer we do things and the more experience we have to draw on, the less interested we are in improving a process that could use some revision.
Who knows how much we influence each other when working side by side often if not daily? After we work together for long enough and can feel reasonably sure we won’t be betrayed in any significant way by the people around us we start to trust them. We can submit to one another once we have learned to trust each other. It can be hard to put yourself in the power of another person, even a friend, by sharing your work. What if your hard work is not appreciated or worse, ridiculed? Investing time in these relationships makes them safe for us to be ourselves, ask stupid questions and take risks. You don’t just get that with anybody but you earn that with friends.
Another way that trusted friends are important is in the ability to disagree well. Our world has no shortage of divisive issues and cloistering ourselves in an echo chamber is worse than useless. The only way we can be sure that our ideas and worldviews are reasonable is to test them against opposing narratives. That is a waste of time online and can be dangerously risky with family. When we are a part of a trusted group that has a shared mission, with no fear of exclusion, we can be free to actually debate any idea based on merit rather than group identity or political alignment. This may be the toughest part of being in a community, especially with the type of hard headed eccentrics you find in the knifemaking world.
Knifemaking as a healing activity?
I don’t know why this should be but I have seen and experienced real personal healing in the knife shop. We have people with PTSD, substance abuse, self worth issues and even relationship problems come to make knives at the shop. I have seen very real transformations in people’s lives and I don’t think it is the technical process of aligning handle material that does it. One thing that comes to mind is our knifemaking classes. Our forged knife class is two 8 hour days in which attendees forge, grind, heat treat and finish a handle on their knife. For 14 of those hours, people do not tend to be very positive about their knife project. You can see the discouragement on their faces while they are forging and grinding because the process is much tougher than they thought and their abilities are not living up to their expectations.
Somewhere around the last couple of hours, they start to finally see what the final product is going to look like and their countenance begins to lighten. By the time they finish with their handle on the buffer, their face is glowing like the freshly buffed Rosewood on their knife. The glow is a sense of accomplishment. Most people that come through the class do not make their living in manual labor or creative jobs. Most jobs that you would call a career these days are accomplished in meetings and at computers. It can be hard on a person to never really get to stand back and admire their work. Even though a job may be high paying and accompanied by power over others in the company, if it is not interesting and exciting to others in your life, there can be a sense of dissatisfaction.
So can guiding someone through the process of making a knife provide something missing from people’s lives? I kinda think so.