South Dakota bladesmith designs, crafts original knives
BERESFORD, S.D. (AP) — Steve Grosvenor sorted through a drawer of different types of wood before reaching for a pristine white bone resting on his workbench.
“This is bison,” Grosvenor said.
Some of the most incredible aspects of Grosvenor’s artistry are the materials he uses.
Leather, bones, wood and smelted metals. Not mention a dash of French’s yellow mustard.
The hot dog condiment is part of the treatment process he uses in his custom knife-making.
Grosvenor is one of fewer than 200 journeyman bladesmiths in the world with the training and credentials to do what he does: forge high-end knives. The 50-year-old South Dakota native entered the national spotlight last year by appearing on the popular History Channel competition, “Forged in Fire.”
“I tried to focus on the project and not on the environment,” Grosvenor said. “If you make a mistake you really don’t have time to recover.”
Grosvenor did more than just compete.
He won the four-way contest in an episode that aired in May, impressing judges with a blade made from a steel cable and an Afghan knife called a Charay, the Argus Leader reported .
Grosvenor is a native of Beresford, where he owns and operates Red Rock Tools with his wife, Kay. His knives are all hand-crafted by Grosvenor in Red Rock’s unassuming warehouse just east of Beresford’s small downtown.
His dedication doesn’t end when the blade leaves the shop, Kay Grosvenor said.
“He always says, as long as I’m alive I’ll take care of them, sharpen them, or whatever,” she said.
Grosvenor is a journeyman smith, which means he spent years as a member of the American Bladesmith Society before eventually designing a knife that holds up under the organization’s strict testing.
He’s the only knife-maker in South Dakota with the credential. Each blade gets one-on-one attention from Grosvenor. Each one that leaves his forge is singular.
“No matter what I do, I can’t make one like it,” Grosvenor said.
When a customer orders a forged knife from Grosvenor, they can expect the work to take months. (A quick public service announcement: If customers want a Red Rock blade by next Christmas, they need to get orders in by the end of February, Grosvenor said.)
He not only displays his journeyman certificate on the wall, he also hung the performance knife that helped raise him up from the apprentice level.
During the test, the knife must be able to cut through a hanging piece of rope, chop through a two-by-four without getting deformed, shave hair and bend 90 degrees without cracking beyond one-third the width of the blade.
It’s that level of skill that helped get Grosvenor a spot on “Forged in Fire.” Grosvenor got the casting call in September in a direct message through Twitter. He flew to Brooklyn, New York, in March to film the first part of the episode, which ran in June.
Following a model similar to other reality TV competitions, four contestants are asked to make a blade in three hours to make a blade determined by the show’s judges. After the first two elimination rounds, the finalists are given a week to make a judge-assigned style of blade at their home forge.
Kay Grosvenor asked her husband to keep the results secret and watched him win the competition when the episode aired.
“It seemed like it kept going to commercial, it’s like come on,” she said. “I pretty much knew he won just from a few comments he had made about different things, but still.”
The first knife Grosvenor made came from a kit. The second, he made for his cousin in Michigan to fillet salmon.
That’s the one Grosvenor remembers as a turning point — the spark that would eventually lead him to light a forge for the first time and start making knives that are stronger, sharper and last longer.
He once brought six fillet knives on a Michigan fishing trip and wound up sharpening them afternoon and night to keep up with all of the cleaning. The knife he made his cousin sliced through 80 salmon, no problem.
“We never had to sharpen it,” Grosvenor said.
Knives he makes now, his top-of-the-line forged blades, can clean hundreds of fish before going to the stone, Grosvenor said.
“It’s just kind of amazing what they can turn into,” Kay said. “He tries real hard to make something that he’s proud of.”
What Grosvenor saw in his hand-made work was a new future. At first, it was something to do on the side of the tool franchise he owned and operated in Beresford. By the time he decided not to renew the franchise on the retail store in 2013 to focus on Red Rock Tools full time, he already owned the shop at 114 E. Hemlock St.
Like any artist, Grosvenor sees a complexity in blade-making that most people either miss or take for granted.
He’s never done learning. Never done perfecting his craft.
“A simple score in music, right? A simple score is just a few notes and it’s very straightforward. Nothing fancy,” Grosvenor said. “When you get into a forged blade, the score can be Beethoven. I mean, it’s just where do you want it to end?”
He likes the science of bladesmithing. He likes the techniques used by master smiths — a credential he is working toward. Grosvenor plans to take the test this year to earn the highest level of qualification offered by the American Bladesmith Society.
Every inch of his forged blades is made by him and no one else.
Making a knife involves wood-crafting, leatherworking, smelting, forging, chemistry, metalworking and more, not to mention running social media, taking photos and tracking online orders. Some of the knives Grosvenor is working on using rock-based steel and a technique called “Damascus,” which requires folding the metal thousands upon thousands of times before making the blade.
“This was a rock in North Carolina in March,” Grosvenor said, hefting one of the knives he made using the technique.
Grosvenor designs and crafts every piece of each knife he makes, from hilt to tip to sheath.
As for the French’s, he uses it to force a patina on blades. Vinegar reacts with the steel to create a protective coating.
Forged knives are in a whole different class than what Grosvenor calls the “knife-shaped objects” most people have in their kitchen.
He can spend a week — sometimes two — on a single knife. The end result is a knife with better balance, better flex, better resilience and a design that is intentional.
Every piece is built from within: Grosvenor’s own soul administered over the rocks and metal and the remains of living things that he takes, treats, carves, sews, grinds, polishes and sets ablaze.
That’s probably why he can’t hide a grimace when he mentions some of his pieces get left at fish-cleaning stations, never to be seen again.
“This isn’t just a slap-it together-and-throw-it-out-the-door type of thing,” Grosvenor said. “That’s not who I am. In the end, it’s my name on the blade, so it has to represent me.”
Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com