Aaron Wilburn of Wilburn Forge KnivesStory: Amber Galusha Photo: Bret Christensen
Only one-third of journeyman bladesmiths go on to become mastersmiths. Aaron Wilburn of Wilburn Forge plans to gain mastersmith status within the year—a title given to only 110 smiths worldwide.
When Wilburn was growing up in the Bay Area, he learned about metalworking from his grandfather, a metalworker and native of Peru. For 10 years, Wilburn worked in the body and paint business, first for his family, then for Mercedes Benz of San Francisco, where he developed an eye for detail and a passion for quality craftsmanship.
Wilburn moved to Florida and was introduced to bladesmith Cliff Parker in 2002. Their meeting whet his curiosity for the craft, and he’s been on a knife-making journey since. “I watched every DVD available on the topic and read every book I could find,” says Wilburn. To increase his knowledge he associated himself with masters in the trade. Corbin Newcomb taught him to make damascus and fixed-blade knives, while Mike Vagnino showed him the art of constructing folding knives.
At the end of 2003, Wilburn and his family moved to Redding, where he works full-time as a journeyman bladesmith. “To become a journeyman smith is a gut check,” he says. To prove his mettle, Wilburn needed to show that his knives could pass a performance test held at a mastersmith’s shop. “I had to be able to chop through a two-by-four twice, cut a one-inch free hanging manila rope with one swing and still be able to shave hair from my arm,” he says. Finally, the blade had to withstand a 90-degree bend without breaking.
Not only are Wilburn’s knives durable, they are “one-off,” or one-of-a-kind. “I make the leather sheath, the steel, the handle, the fittings, everything,” says Wilburn. For handles, he uses ancient ivory or fossilized oosik. “As these raw materials sit in the ground, they soak in minerals and absorb color, making them unique and very rich,” he says. Wilburn uses the best steel available to ensure the strongest blades: 52-100 ball bearing steel.
Many of Wilburn’s knives are created using a time-intensive process called damascus—layers of metal forge-welded into intricate patterns such as feather, snowflake or snakeskin. “You could have 30 hours into making a bar of steel that you’re going to turn into a knife,” says Wilburn.
Working from his home shop has its perks. “My family gives me a lot of input on design and style,” he says, “and my wife, Anna, is one of my best critics.” In turn, his kids benefit from Wilburn’s knowledge. His daughter, Francesca, is under his apprenticeship (she sold her first knife in 2011 at a trade show) and son, Rocky, enjoys making damascus.
Though owning his own business is fulfilling, Wilburn says it’s the artistry that keeps him returning to the forge, “I never considered myself an artist until a few years ago, but the expression I get to put into my craft is so rewarding.”
And his creativity seems never-ending. All of Wilburn’s knives are crafted on equipment he constructed himself. “The forge, grinder, trip hammer and hydraulic press are all unique pieces of equipment I specifically designed for the knives I make,” he says.
In addition to hunting knives and collector pieces, Wilburn crafts high-end culinary knives. Galen Garretson, owner of The Town Cutler in San Francisco, was so impressed with Wilburn’s work he began carrying Wilburn Forge knives. Since then, Wilburn has been contacted by Williams Sonoma. “People want the ultimate experience in the kitchen. It’s not just about cooking fresh, organic vegetables,” he says. “When you cut your vegetables with beautiful, functional art, it adds something to the culinary experience that’s hard to explain.”
With nearly 500 knives under his belt, Wilburn knows what it takes to turn out a high quality knife. Still, he humbly acknowledges he will forever be a student of the craft. “Will I ever learn everything? I hope not,” he says. “But I’m going to continue to try.”