Hazel Margaretes and the Art of the Knife

Hazel Margaretes has been obsessed with knives since she was a teenager, and her zeal for weapons and metal evolved into a full-time job. For the past 13 years, Margaretes has been working in her custom blade studio in SoDo, located in a massive 1930s warehouse that is currently divided into studios for artists and artisans working with industrial-grade materials or large-scale projects. The ambient clatter in the place is ear-shattering for the uninitiated. In one corner of the studio, a gas-powered oven constantly churns, emitting steady, broiling flames visible through the eye of its glory hole. As it roars, it produces a wall of blistering heat that warms an otherwise cavernous, cold space meant more for machines than humans. When Margaretes begins to demonstrate the process of constructing the seemingly-simple blade for her most popular knife, the shrill clank and thunk of metal on metal adds to the cacophony. 

“I’ve been wanting to make knives since I was a kid,” Margaretes says, by way of introduction. “I was a dirt bike-loving, sword-loving, tomboy type.”

Margaretes moved to the Northwest when she was three and grew up in Ravenna. Her career in metalwork started gradually, beginning with a jewelry class at North Seattle Community College. It wasn’t long before she realized that working at that small scale didn’t sate her artistic appetite. Her next step was fabricating intricate steel handrails for restaurant remodels and other commercial and residential clients. After a year and a half collaborating with other metalsmiths, she launched her own business, and has been metalsmithing more or less full time for 18 years. She’ll be the first to admit that commercial workflow can be mercurial with plenty of boom and bust; however, as time goes on, her business has turned increasingly to the production of knives, both simple, functional blades and the elaborate stuff of fantasy. 

According to Margaretes, the number of artisans getting into knife-making as a practice is increasing—even staggering. 

“It’s blowing up on Instagram. It’s insane. Look up “everyday carry’ or ‘EDC’. It’s got its own online culture I’ve discovered. There are utility knives, kitchen knives, tactical knives, the folders. You’ve got Bowies—the old-school, cowboy-type things that are really high end. Many have progressed to high art with the amount of craftsmanship involved. And the science of knife-making has come a long way in terms of metallurgy and heat treating and materials. Handle materials is a whole other great new thing. Stabilized wood, treated with epoxy, wood-plastic hybrid, the colors available.”

Her prices range anywhere from $150-1500, depending on the time, style and materials that go into making a piece.

“It’s hard work and it’s cold here, especially in the winter,” Margaretes says. The rough shape she produces over and over for her basic knife is a 3/16 x 1.5 inch blade made of medium carbon steel. “The harder you make it, the more brittle it is,” she says. “You want some flexibility, which requires a two-part heat treating. That’s part of the art of making a blade that’s strong and durable.”

On heat treating: “You bring the oven up to a critical temp, which, depending on your steel is 1475 up to the 1800 range. You bring it up to critical then you bring the carbon into solution, then freeze it. It’s like melting chocolate chips. You quench it and bring it back to temperature. It freezes the carbon molecule in that state. You can go to school for metallurgy for a long time—indefinitely. There’s so much to learn, so much science. I know enough to make an edge and a good blade!”

There’s one knife that looks unlike anything else in the studio: It’s much longer, with terrifying flourishes that threaten evisceration. “This was part of a sci-fi build-off for one of the online knife groups I am a part of,” she says. “It’s called ‘Futuristic Fire.’ We have a limited amount of time to design and build and post our images. I’m so busy I missed the deadline, but I’ll finish it anyway. I want it to be a functional fighter, apart from just being a design. You have to get it in there just right, but theoretically if you were in a fight with a Martian with a sword for some freaking reason—because no one uses swords anymore—you could theoretically break a blade with that. It’s gonna get blackened and have a garnet embedded in the handle.”

“Steel is really what I love working the most,” Margaretes says. “The way it looks, the way it feels, the way it smells. It actually has a smell to it, especially when you weld it. I’m always spotting people’s scrap bins, spying on them. There’s no such thing as scrap as far as I’m concerned!”

“I have my work cut out for me, literally!” she says as she demonstrates grinding down the edge of the knife blade. “The metal is cut with water jet, with high pressured water,” she says. “You make the design, scan it into the computer, the high pressure water cuts it out for you. There’s no way I could cut this with the bandsaw: the edges would be too jagged.”

Among the sinuous, twisted scraps of railings and segments of rope steel that will eventually be cut and hammered into knives is a smattering of bric-a-brac and ephemera, like a babydoll in the rafters: “I found that at Goodwill,” Margaretes says. “I just had to have it. It was 59 cents! I thought it was terrifying but, truly I had to have it. I tend to collect weird shit.”

Margaretes’ motorized power hammer: The arms will lift the hammer up and down—about 50 lbs worth of pressure. She built it herself, based on a original design by east coast metalsmith Clay Spencer.

“It’s a good little hammer,” she says. “This is actually a really small iteration. There are 250 lb. hammers, but this is all I need for blades. If I were full-time black smithing, I’d get something bigger. Of course I want a bigger one!” she says, laughing. “But there’s only so much floor space.”

On the amount of time Margaretes spends on the construction of each of her pieces: “It depends on the knife really. I can forge and heat treat a really basic knife in six hours. Then there’s putting on a handle, then hand-sanding. In all, probably two days for a basic knife. But then some will take me months, and I’ll work on them for a while then come back to them. Some are just too mind-boggling—you’ll get caught up in the process and stuck and not know what to do for the next ten steps. Then sometimes, if you don’t get the right angle, you might have to throw the work away. Or just make a smaller knife!”

“I’ve been on fire I don’t know how many times. You start walking around and the embers follow you.”

“One more and we’ll call it pretty good,” she says as she places her demo knife in the flames. “Each time it goes in and out, you’re losing more carbon, those little flakes flying off. You want it to go in as few times as possible. Some days you have a good day—with this shape a good day it goes into the fire 20 times. Sometimes it’ll be 50 times. I can be here for one hour or many hours. Some days you just walk away.”