Interview with Pat Wojciechowski and Whitney Mount (Oaks Bottom Forge)
Walking through Sellwood on a lazy summer day, agenda-less wanderers could indulge in the many facets of the local neighborhood economy: tasting the subtleties of a Portland microbrew at Laurelwood or Oaks Bottom Public House, getting their bikes fixed at Sellwood Cycle Repair, and finding treasures scrounging through the bins at the Bins. If at any point in their exploration of Sellwood they hear the faint, distinct sound of a hammer hitting an anvil, they would think themselves mistaken, submerged in a medieval daydream. However, that ancient sound is alive in SE Portland: local Pat Wojciechowski has breathed new life into blacksmithing, creating an urban oasis for the unexposed art form. Pat founded Oaks Bottom Forge, a business that sells hand-forged knives and also provides blacksmithing classes to share the old world skills with a wider community. While I was interviewing Pat and Whitney Mount, who is the manager, a woman walked in off the street, curious about the boisterous forge in the middle of the otherwise quiet, service-driven neighborhood. Pat said to her, “We make knives by day, and we teach by night. There’s knives up there, you’re welcome to walk around.” If you can’t make it down to their location at 8236 SE 17th St. to explore their handicraft, you can at least journey into the world of blade smithing and knife building by listening to Pat and Whitney in the interview below.
How did your interest in forging knives begin, and who helped you learn skills along the way?
Pat: I started taking an adult blacksmithing class at the Portland Waldorf School. Tom Meyers teaches that class, and he’s been there 21 years. He teaches all the woodworking and blacksmithing. Blacksmithing is a required class for every junior and senior there. When I would pick up my children, I kept hearing the blacksmith. And I’m going, “What are they doing? What am I hearing?” That’s how I got involved.
Are the blacksmithing techniques used by Oaks Bottom Forge fairly old in origin?
Pat: We definitely do an old world style; we call it a free hand style. People have been playing with fire for a long time. It’s a lot of work, that’s why most people don’t do it. Nobody here’s afraid of working hard.
Why do you have that commitment?
Pat: I just love doing it. I like the design and I like seeing results and I like working with people. It’s a great collaborative group here. We all live in the neighborhood, and this is what we do.
Pat: All of our knives are hand made. We hand forge knives one heirloom at a time.
Whitney: Most knives today are made using steel removal, so you end up grinding off the steel. You remove the metal to make the knife. We actually hand forge it so we are blacksmithing and hammering the metal to create knife instead of using the machine.
Pat: There is an art to steel removal too; we just don’t do it. They start out with a blank that is the size of that knife at the end and they very methodically remove that metal until it tapers out. They use a machine, while we hammer and hand forge ours. We hand trace each handle out of wood. There are no automatic machines here that make our handles.
Why hand forged instead of steel removal?
Pat: I don’t like shiny knifes (laughs). There is something about hand crafted that I like. Some people use big drop hammers. We use a hand held hammer and a forge and an anvil. There are plenty of other blacksmiths, but not many that make knives the way that we do.
Are there any other businesses like this in the US or in Oregon?
Whitney: Not many that are making actual hand forged without a drop hammer. Every single knife is unique because they are free hand hammered. Because we’re not using a drop hammer, not doing steel removal, every single one is slightly different.
What is the most challenging aspect of creating the knives?
Whitney: Trying to explain to people what we do. People will ask, “Oh, are these blades made in the USA?” And we always answer “Yep, they’re made right here in Portland at our shop by hand.”
Pat: Most people don’t know how knives are made. Period. They just don’t know. What they’re used to at any store is a flat, shiny knife. They see ours; they’re hammered. The material starts out an eighth of an inch thick and we hammer it. We compress all the crystals of that metal together, as opposed to just taking it and removing it. People who buy knives or know something think our knives are made out of Damascus. Damascus is layers of different metals that are pressed together, and then folded, pressed and folded, pressed and folded. It is beautifully done. Japan’s been doing it for thousands of years. So people look at our knives and say, “How many layers are in your Damascus?” We say, “It’s not Damascus.” There are drawbacks to Damascus. In the big picture, Damascus has multiple layers of metal touching each other. When you go to sharpen that, each of those metals has a different property. Some are softer, some are harder. So when you do it, you’ll still get a sharp edge, but some layers will stay sharper longer than others. It’s better for us to get brand new metal and hammer it down. Then, there is only one metal on the edge that we have to sharpen, and that is it.
Even when we tell people that we make our knives with a fire-burning forge, an anvil, and a hand-held hammer, they will always be like, “What’s that texture on there?” What is it, it’s a hammer! Some people think that you just hammer it to get a texture.
Whitney: A year after my boyfriend and I started dating, he finally asked me, “Besides just putting texture on the knife, what does hand-forged really mean?”
Pat: See? People really just don’t know. We use a charcoal forge instead of a coal forge. Charcoal is a renewable resource. Most of it is made out of trees that have been removed anyways, palates that have been discarded. Wood is a renewable resource; coal, once you take the coal out of that hill, it’s no longer a hill. Much of the country is being destroyed by coal. We are anti-coal. We do what we do with wood. There is something about the sound of a hammer smacking an anvil that is good. It’s just good, hard work. There’s nothing easy about sanding a handle. But there’s something that is very satisfying and very zen about this thing. You can’t buy this knife at Gerber. They’ll never make this knife at Gerber.
Do you get all the wood and all your other materials from close by?
Whitney: Yes, other than the stuff that we are making for Big Game Hunters. We’re definitely not getting water buffalo horn from Portland. But otherwise, most of the wood that we use is reclaimed and local. We used some of the wood that came from the building of the light rail that’s coming through SE Portland. A guy got some of that wood, kiln dried it, and donated it to us. There was a lady who got a steak knife set made out of it actually.
Pat: We get zebra wood from folks. People come buy and are like, “Do you need wood? We’ve got a lot of wood.” We’ve gotten pink rosewood from Japan, tiger wood, all kinds of different woods. The guy at Saturday Market who makes the wooden puzzles, he has wood pieces from thirty years of making those same puzzles. We trade.
Where do you get the metal?
Pat: We buy it brand new from Pacific Machinery. When we first opened, we tried to repurpose some metals. It just doesn’t pay off though because you don’t know how it’s been stressed. Brand new metal is the way to go.
You all do custom knives too?
Pat: We do! We’ve made things for people’s sixtieth birthdays. We put silver quarters on each side, hammered them flat, and then engraved on them.
How many different kinds of knives do you all make?
Pat: We started at about twenty-two different styles, but we’ve narrowed it down to right about twelve styles. We are designing a folding knife, which we’ve never done. It’s a very old design. Very simple, there are no springs, nothing to break on it. It’s low technology. I am old, so I like old things. Most people are always trying to recreate designs with tactical knives, etc. You can make knives now with colorized, anodized metal now and people are always trying to get some crazy electronic machine that will etch orange tiger strips on the side of that knife. It’s weird. This is a much older art. We are not reliant on much high technology at all. It’s a hot fire and a hand-held hammer and that’s all.
What sort of workshops does Oaks Bottom Forge offer, and how can people get involved in the educational aspect of Oaks Bottom Forge?
Whitney: When Pat started the shop, he said, “I want to make knives and I want to make our living making knives, but I want to offer classes because I want to give back to the community and I think that’s really important.” So we don’t really make money off of our classes, but we try to keep the prices low. We really want everybody to have access to it. That is something that is special that is here that is offered at a more affordable price than other places.
Pat: Some people can’t afford the knives that we make, but we’d just as soon teach them how to do it. It is all utilitarian. We have blade smithing classes, so people who come out and really have an interest in making knives, they can do that. We have knife-building classes where Mom or Dad can bring a son or a daughter and together with their hands, build a knife to make Father’s Day gifts, Mother’s Day gifts, things for grandpas, uncles. They get to spend three hours without Ipods, texting, DS games, or email, and it’s one great opportunity to do that. Those are really successful; we have three of those classes per week.
Their classes include various levels of blacksmithing, knife building, and woodworking. Check out the full list and schedule here.
How does Oaks Bottom Forge support, and receive support from, other organizations/individuals/businesses in the local community? Is Oaks Bottom Forge a part of any collaborative projects?
Whitney: We shop local, we get all of our charcoal from the True Valley Store down the road. We used to make our own charcoal, but we lost our chimney. In the big picture, we support our local groups. We’re part of the Sellwood-Moreland Business Alliance, the Northwest Blacksmith Association, the Artisan Blacksmithing Association of America, the Oregon Knife Collector’s Association. We have donated a lot of knives to schools and organizations. We have done a lot of school auctions. The Portland Homestead Supply Store is really great about advertising our classes.
Pat: They were actually the first store ever to sell our knives. Back then, it was just me hammering and sanding handles and doing the work. It was before Christmas. My baby’s mama said, “You should go down there, and I did.” Kristl, owner of the Portland Homestead Supply, bought a dozen knives right there; she has always been our biggest supporter. So cool.
Pat: We opened the shop last spring. Our first fire was last March, at the spring equinox at 6:00 a.m. in the morning. Everybody came and wrote things on pieces of paper and put them in the forge. We started our fire that morning.
It’s amazing that you all are this close in in Sellwood.
Pat: The landlord actually wanted us here. We went looking for a lot of buildings. This landlord, who owns a lot of buildings, didn’t have to rent us this building. He called me and said, “You sure you don’t want this building? I really like what you’re doing, making hand-forged knives. I like that you’ll be teaching; our community really needs that.” He said, “I just don’t think we need another nail salon in Sellwood.”
We hoped that the difference between having the forge in the window instead of tucked away in a warehouse would be to sell a few more retail knives a month. We can make a fair living for all of us. My big goal was for blacksmiths and artisans to make a living, which is something that no one else is doing. Anyways, we got a window front kind of like a fishbowl. It’s nice to be able to share it. When children walk by, they love watching the fire. It’s not a lost art, it’s just not a very exposed art.
What is Oaks Bottom Forge’s next step? What is your vision for Oaks Bottom Forge ten years down the road?
Pat: We’re into more stores now. My big goal is I’d like us to be Portland’s destination for hand-forged cutlery. If you’re looking for a unique, hand-forged gift, I’d like to be Portland’s choice. We would like to be more well known.
Go Africa, which is an African safari group, likes our knives. They’ve been field tested from Oregon to Africa. Our knives passed with flying colors. If it works in Africa on the biggest game out there, it certainly works in your kitchen.
How do you see your work fitting into the larger homesteading movement?
Pat: People my age come in and say, “My grandfather was a blacksmith.” Well, yeah, back then, everybody’s grandfather was a blacksmith. That’s what they had to be. Back then, there wasn’t IKEAS, they wasn’t box stores, everything was custom. If you needed a dining room table for your house and you didn’t have the woodworking skills, you went to the family that built tables. That’s what they did. It is a primitive skill. It’s a good thing to know. I think some people just want to get back to their roots, to what their grandfather did. They remember seeing their forge at their grandfathers or they got to hang out with grandpa while he was hammering. I think it’s a really good skill. I think people are interested.
Whitney: Beyond that, if you can’t take the classes, having something that you know is handmade is important. Our products appeal to the DIY community, knowing where your food comes from. You know nothing is imported from overseas, not only in the US, it’s made in your city here, and you can come and see it. You know how it was produced and who made it. You know it’s going to last for a long time, which is totally against the culture and buying something cheap and having to buy it twenty times in your lifetime.
Pat: Our knives last for generations. That’s what it’s about. It’s nice to know that you’re making something functional that someone will inherit. Every kid wants their grandfather’s knife!
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