Church Hill blacksmith turns scrap steel into unique knives

George Thwaites • Aug 10, 2013 at 10:44 PM

CHURCH HILL — If Steven Ball had a hammer, he’d hammer in the morning. He’d hammer in the evening.

As a matter of fact, he has a hammer and that’s pretty much what he does with it.

The backyard blacksmith from Church Hill has spent seven years learning how to coax pieces of scrap steel into ruggedly handsome cutlery.

“I tell people these are ‘Hard Way Knives.’ Because I learned how to do this the hard way,” he quips.

Ball thinks of himself as a creative recycler of quality carbon steel.

He has forged knives from the steel spokes of a wheel taken from an old horse-drawn hay rake. He’s forged kitchen knives out of sawmill bandsaw blades. Discarded lawnmower blades and leaf springs from vintage vehicles provide the material for other projects.

“Sadly, there’s not a lot of money in it. But I just love to make things with my hands,” said Ball, who set up a portable forge at Netherland Inn for a blacksmithing demonstration this past spring.

“The way I sell my work, I’m a peddler. I could go to the barbershop or wherever. Somebody asks if I have any knives and I sell them one,” he said.

“That’s the way I sell my work,” Ball said with a chuckle. “Just an old peddler.”

He used to sell his knives at flea markets, but finds more potential customers at area gun shows and fairs.

Ball’s face-to-face school of marketing doesn’t move at light speed, but it has developed a small but growing fan following.

Frontier re-enactors are particularly fond of his small patch knives, which are frequently paired with a traditional neck sheath. Ball knows they’re good for more than cutting patches for a muzzleloader. He’s actually skinned a fox with one.

Women are the biggest customers of his paring knives. These knives are like the carbon steel cutlery that was common in country kitchens for most of the 20th century. Nostalgia may be part of the appeal, but these blades are still practical.

“There is still a market for those old carbon steel (kitchen) knives because you can sharpen it yourself. You don’t need special tools to put a really good edge on one,” he said.

He continues to branch out into other styles. Variety not only keeps his creativity stoked at the forge, it broadens his potential customer base.

“I’ve made a few that if I felt like I needed to, I could chop a tree down with it. Those old discarded lawn mower blades can make a good bushcraft knife ... all that weight and thickness on the back spine,” he said.

“But then, you couldn’t take something like that and skin a squirrel. One man might want to filet a fish and another man might want to peel potatoes. I’ve learned to keep a variety of sizes and styles on my tabletop.”

A man who admits to leaving high school a credit and a half shy of his diploma matured into a lifelong learner. In addition to trial and error at the forge, Ball avidly collects and reads books dealing with traditional blacksmithing, metallurgy and knife building.

Ball credits a Church Hill librarian with setting him on his career path. She introduced him to Eliot Wigginton’s “Foxfire” series of books.

“I read all of them, but the one that really stood out for me was about a man who made knives out of old crosscut saws. I thought that was something I wanted to try,” he said.

He’s continued to try new things. For instance, he’s recycled old files into strikers for flint-and-steel fire-making kits. Those, he said, have proven popular with Boy Scouts.

His latest project is teaching himself how to make billets of “poor man’s Damascus” steel out of lengths of logging cable.

“You have to weld the ends of it and forge-weld it. You twist it hard and hammer it flat. The steel gets a grain to it, like wood. It has a real pretty pattern and it’s really sharp,” he said.

“You really have to know your colors. I can get it forge-welded a little, but I haven’t made a complete blade yet. It usually takes me about five mistakes to learn something. But once I get it, I never forget it.”

He doesn’t get easily discouraged. His idol — late knife maker William F. Moran, founder of the American Bladesmith Society — was also largely self-taught. It was Moran who essentially reintroduced pattern welded steel to American knife making.

You probably couldn’t find a more appropriate role model in Ball’s line of work. The Church Hill craftsman intends to keep learning, keep forging, keep selling.

“A lot of guys started out similarly to what I’m doing. Somewhere along the way, somebody recognized them, I believe a door opened for them and they took that step and went through that door,” he said.

“I’ve never done anything else I’ve wanted to do as much as I want to make knives. I don’t want it to become something I don’t enjoy anymore. But I would like to make a living at it.

“If that door opens for me, I want to walk through it.”

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