Joseph Schrum’s handmade chef knives are as much a piece of art as they are an everyday kitchen essential.
Ettie Berneking / Sep 23, 2016
Photos by Zach Bauman
At first glance, Halcyon Forge looks like any other backyard machine shop. The concrete floor is scuffed and dirty, and the popcorn ceiling peels back in fist-sized patches. Wooden workbenches littered with scraps of steel and hand tools wrap around the perimeter, and circular saw blades hang from the wall, with orange rust slowly eating away at their sharp, toothed edges. There’s an organized chaos to the shop, and if you look closely, you’ll start to see hints of the usable pieces for the artwork being made here.
Halcyon Forge is the creation of 26-year-old Joseph Schrum, who began making chef knives in his garage in Sedalia, Missouri, two years ago. It took him a year and a half to hone his craft, but it didn’t take long for hunters and chefs – and even home cooks – to take notice.
Schrum, who sells his chef knives through Bertarelli Cutlery in St. Louis and via custom orders on his website, made his first knife three years ago after attending a hunting trade show. With little more than a handsaw, two propane torches, a $30 sander, some Osage orange wood and metal files, the knife took Schrum 50 hours to complete and is just 9 inches long from tip to end. But the tiny knife was just the beginning of his new fascination. “It’s really a hobby gone awry,” he says, gathering four blocks of wood needed to complete one of the custom orders he’s currently working on.
Few of the knives Schrum makes are for himself. Most are shipped out, but he did have a moment to make himself a small hunting knife for his 26th birthday in July.
He used 1095 high-carbon steel for the blade, and the handle was made with old curly bubinga wood he picked up from a woodturner friend. The finger guard was made with nickel silver.
Schrum mostly hunts deer and small game, and he always carries one of his knives with him when hunting. “My hunting knives have a nice belly in the blade to help clean larger game,” he says. Since launching Halcyon Forge, he’s completed several orders for hunting knives, but what he’s best known for are his chef knives.
“I really wanted something that was usable every day, not once a year, so I started making chef knives,” he says. It took Schrum a year of research after making that first small paring knife and a dozen or so small hunting knives to figure out the dimensions, thickness and grip he wanted for a chef knife. Even now, with dozens of custom orders in his queue, Schrum says he’s still learning and experimenting.
Every knife he makes starts with a piece of high-carbon steel. Schrum sources his steel at swap meets, through local sources and even from his dad. This is why the shop is littered with rusted saw blades, metal files and ball bearings.
“This hay knife is from the early 1900s,” Schrum says, describing a 15-inch toothed saber blade as he sorts through the pieces of steel scattered on a workbench. He points again. “That is a leaf spring from a ’72 Chevy pickup. This is a round rod, and this is a Nicholson file. It’s made in the U.S. and was probably used in a machine shop.”
Before these pieces of steel can be shaped into blades, they have to be hammered to the desired shape and length. “It’s sort of like flattening out Play-Doh,” Schrum says with a laugh. “Except this is a lot harder than Play-Doh.”
To get the metal hot enough to shape, Schrum hauls it out to the forge, which is housed in a small unfinished room off the side of the shop. Gravel crunches underfoot, and an American flag hangs against the back wall near the forge – a small 12-by-6-inch furnace propped up on a wooden stump. Schrum slips his safety glasses into place, flicks on the propane and watches as the inside of the forge bursts into flames.
Using a pair of tongs, Schrum slides a piece of steel into the fiery inferno and waits. Once the steel glows red hot, he hammers it into the rough shape of a blade (and he repeats this step many times). It’s then cooled overnight in vermiculite, a mineral often used for insulation, and shaped to the finished profile on a belt grinder. From there, it’s stamped, heat-treated and dipped in oil. The blade is then transferred to an oven where it’s tempered to reduce brittleness. Next, it’s placed in a Rockwell hardness tester that uses hydraulics to test the strength of the steel on what’s called the Rockwell scale. Schrum performs this test on all of his knives to verify that they’re hard enough for everyday use. At this point, the blade still looks ragged, with hammered edges and a tarnished surface. To give it a mirrored sheen, Schrum presses the blade against a grinder, which shoots a firework of orange sparks toward the ground, until the foggy coating of age and use is ground away.
Although some blades are left bare, others are treated with mustard and horseradish to force a darkened patina. Because Schrum uses high-carbon steel instead of stainless, his blades develop a patina with use.
“This is a way of helping to protect the steel and also to add aesthetics,” Schrum says. “A freshly finished blade will stain and tarnish quite easily, and some precautions need to be taken until a full patina has formed. The forcing of the patina helps get to that full patina a bit faster and also looks pretty cool.”
When the blade is finished, Schrum turns his attention to the knife handle.
Each handle can take several hours to make and varies in material from wood and bone to handmade laminate. Bone is tricky to use. From his stash half-hidden on a shelf, the knobby deer antlers have to be a sizable width to make a decent handle, so most pieces become chew toys for his dog, Ezra. Wood is easiest to work with.
“This is a Missouri walnut tree I hauled out of a river,” Schrum says, kicking a knobby stump shoved under a table. Like the rest of the wood Schrum sources from riverbanks, old warehouses and even his own backyard, the walnut is first dried and cut into 1¼-inch blocks. It’s then shipped to Arizona where it’s injected with resin, which hardens and stabilizes the wood.
The resulting blocks are smooth to the touch, and the glossy surfaces reveal webs of veining, from a discoloration in the wood called spalting that’s caused by fungi trapped inside. The blocks appear to shimmer with faded purples, deep greens, blues and blacks. Some have been dyed, but others reflect these colors naturally. Either way, Schrum can identify each type of wood in his collection. There’s the apple tree from his front yard that died and was cut down, and then there’s a pile of wood blocks made from a Maker’s Mark bourbon barrel. He picks up block after block, naming off wood types: Missouri walnut, California redwood burl, curly bubinga, pistachio, honey locust... the list goes on.
Besides bone and wood, Schrum even creates his own laminate for handles. He soaks fabric in resin before cramming it into a tube, where it hardens into what looks and feels like a rod of plastic. Everything from scraps of denim and flannel shirts to burlap coffee bags, aprons and flour sacks have wound up as handles. Schrum even made a handle using a Kevlar vest, which produced a rich woven pattern the color of honey.
When he takes custom orders, Schrum asks if the client has material he or she wants incorporated into the knife. One of Schrum’s first orders was made from a flannel shirt, hedge clippers and a shovel cover dating back to World War II. Another family who lived through Hurricane Katrina sent in chunks of the cypress tree ripped from their yard to be used in a knife.
Each knife starts with a pencil sketch. The handle pattern is then cut out with a saw and sanded down until smooth and polished. The size and shape of the handle varies based on the type of knife he’s making, but most of Schrum’s chef knives have a gentle curve, which makes them easier to hold in your hand. Once the handle is sanded smooth, the steel blade is fit into place.
It can take 10 hours for Schrum to complete a knife from blade to handle. Right now he’s booked six months out with custom orders.
Schrum doesn’t have a marketing budget and has only spread word of his work through Instagram and his website, but it’s been enough to spark people’s attention. Since starting Halcyon Forge last year, he’s shipped knives all across the world, from Canada to Sweden, which is especially impressive considering Schrum still has a full-time job as a production supervisor at a feed mill. “I work 50 hours a week,” he says. “This was just a hobby until Dan Bertarelli [of Bertarelli Cutlery] said he wanted to wholesale my knives. I didn’t even have a name yet.”
After racking his brain for company names for two months, Schrum landed on Halcyon Forge last March and sold his first wholesale knife in July. “It’s spiraled out of control from there,” he says, adding up the work hours he’ll put into two upcoming trade shows. “It [takes] 600 hours to complete the 60 knives I want to take to shows.” With a full-time gig filling his days, Schrum makes knives at night, but he loves the work.
“Thin is in!” he says, shuffling through several colorful knives ready to be shipped, adding it’s all about “thin blades, thin handles.”
Because Schrum rarely gets to make a knife for himself these days, he relies on customer feedback to improve his products, and he checks in with them a few months after he’s shipped a knife. Charlie Hammond, co-owner of Vain Foods, an artisan vanilla-extract company in Kansas City, is one such customer. He discovered Halcyon Forge at the inaugural CRAFT event at Crown Center in Kansas City last year and quickly placed a custom order for a chef knife and matching paring knife.
“I was very impressed by the work [Schrum] was doing,” Hammond says. “It’s now my go-to knife. The blade is beautiful and incredibly sharp.”
The high-carbon steel requires more maintenance than stainless, so it’s crucial to keep the blade clean and well oiled, almost like a cast-iron skillet. “That’s part of the fun,” Hammond says. “You watch the blade change as you use it.” Schrum even has a full page on his website dedicated to knife care.
Halcyon Forge knives range in price from $150 to $600, depending on the size and design. The blades range from 2½-inch paring knives on up 10-inch chef knives. Once an order is placed, it can take six months before it arrives, and most of that time is dedicated to the design. “None of my knives are the same,” he says. “They might use the same pattern, but the material and details are always different.”
For those interested in placing a custom order, you’ll have to wait until next year, but you can purchase one of Schrum’s finished knives at the Artisan Chick Event pop-up trade show at Kansas City’s Crown Center on Oct. 8 and 9.
Standing in Schrum’s shop, gazing at some of his smaller original knives still scattered around the space, you can see how far Halcyon Forge has come. That $30 sander Schrum started with has been upgraded, and last spring, he used his tax return to buy his forge and grinder. He still can’t believe how much the business has grown, especially given that, for now, it’s just a hobby.
“I have no family connection to this trade,” he says. “I just saw other guys making hunting knives and figured, well, I could do that.”