Flylords got the chance to sit down with Joe Mangiafico, a knife craftsman based in Bend, Oregon. Joe has been hooked on fly fishing since he first picked up a rod while in college, and has a special love for snagging False Albacore at Cape Cod. He combines his knack for design and his love of fly fishing to create fish-inspired designs that seamlessly combine artistry and utility. Check out Joe’s story and fishy handiwork below!
Could you tell us about how you entered the fishing world?
I’ve been fishing really since I was about [a year old]. I grew up in Atlanta, and I would spend summers on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. My grandfather taught me how to spin fish for saltwater fish on the Cape, and that’s what really sparked it off. Even when I was a year old, I was just fascinated with the excitement of it and interacting with pretty big animals.
I went to the University of Vermont right after high school, and I started fly fishing at UVM my freshman year for little brook trout and things like that, using dry flies in mountain streams. I had been meaning to get into it, even before college—I was fascinated. I loved the gear and the look of the fly reels and everything. I was like, “That’s so cool.” And, you feel bad just hooking trout on a spin rod.
What inspired you to start making knives?
I’ve been interested in knives my whole life. My dad was an avid knife collector. He always carried this beautiful case pocket knife. I was like, “Wow I want one of those.” Then I was like, “Wait, I can make one eventually.”
I actually got into making knives when I was in college. My sophomore year I was working at this place called Shelburne Farms, an inn in Vermont. They harvested and burned all their own firewood. I would see all these beautiful cherry burls that were being burned. I was like, “Man you could make a lot of money off of this [wood] if you made something out of it.” A buddy of mine said, “I’m going to make a knife.” He actually never did, but [I thought], “I want to make a knife.” So I got a bar of steel and a hacksaw and I started making knives in my dorm room. With each knife I made I would get another tool—I would need this tool or that tool—and before I knew my dorm room [became] a knife shop. Fortunately my roommate was very forgiving.
For a long time it was just a hobby for me—not until the past two years did I get into the industry. I work for a knife business—Burnley brand. Last June I signed a royalty contract with a German knife company called Boker and they are reproducing my brook trout knives in Germany. They’re giving me a royalty which is pretty exciting, but they haven’t launched yet. They’re going to launch this fall. I’ll be in their catalog—it’s a production collaboration, which is a whole other part of the knife industry. Most knife makers, after a certain point, rely on production collaborations as a part of their income.
So that’s another thing that’s fun—I can basically make a prototype and send it to them and if they approve it they’ll make a lot of them.
Could you walk us through the process of creating a knife from start to finish?
[It starts with] just drawing an idea over and over and over until you’re satisfied with it. You have to design all the parts to work together as a folding and locking mechanism (this is called folder design, in which the knife maker draws all pieces of the knife on paper to ensure that they will fit together and function properly). It all starts with pen and paper and then when I’m satisfied with the design, I will just cut out the [paper design], spray adhesive to the back of it, [and stick it to] a piece of plastic.
Then I will bandsaw the profile and drill all the holes and make a prototype that I can hold to make sure it feels good. I make about 10 prototypes before I’m satisfied with a model—I adjust hole locations and stuff like that. Once I have a plastic prototype, I can trace it again and again. Once I’m satisfied with the plastic prototype, I get a bar of steel and I dye it blue. Next, I take the profile of the plastic knife, clamp it down, and scribe the profile over and over on the bar of steel. I usually get a 6 X 48 bar of steel and then just go to the bandsaw and make the model.
Definitely the trickiest part of making a knife is grinding the bevel (the angle at the back of the blade, just before the knife handle), and getting it totally even on both sides. That’s what production companies really look for in custom knife makers when they’re seeking out designers for their companies.
[Once the steel components are finished, the handles, or scales, go on]. If I’m making a fish-themed knife, before the handles go on I have to do the actual inlays in the handle. The brook trout ones are fun because I map out the blue halos and the brass spots and everything. It’s really just little workshop mosaic in a tiny, little profile. I try to make them trout-shaped a little bit.
Then from that point it’s onto sheathing and then logo-ing. For logos I have a graphic designer make stencils for my logo—the “JM” and the antlers—and I use an electrochemical etching machine. With the machine I can stamp on the logo and it electrifies—actually etches the steel away—where the logo is. [I can use the same process] to personalize [clients’] products a little bit, too. I’m working on a set of knives for Abbie Schuster’s new fly shop that have a permit inlay and are sea-foam blue, and [using the using the electrochemical etching machine] I’m going to put “Kismet Outfitters” on them, so that’ll be fun.
What keeps you hooked into knife design—why do you keep doing it?
I wouldn’t consider myself an artist, but I think in any art or craft having a passion that you can influence your craft with it makes it a lot better. The thing that has really kept it exciting and interesting for me is creativity in knife handles and combining the fly fishing industry with the knife industry. There’s so much trout-themed stuff out there, and I said, “Wow I can do a brook trout. How would I do that with a knife handle?” It’s not easy, it’s all inlay mosaic that takes a lot of time. But it’s kept it fun and different, instead of just grinding steel all the time.
[Knife making] also really keeps me sane—honestly sometimes more than fly fishing. When I’m sitting down to make a knife I have control of something and that’s all I have to worry about right now. When I start a knife, I do it in batches. It’s the most efficient way to do it. When I cut out that first blade I’m not going to see that finished product for probably a month or two, so knowing that I always have something to do is nice. It keeps me going, I guess that’s why I still do it, and even before I finish the set I’ve already got plans for another. So I guess I’ve just kept doing it because I like it.
What I really like about the job that I have currently working for Burnley is I can go to work, make things, and I don’t have to worry about supply and demand of materials. I don’t have to [constantly interact with] customers—I’m not that much of a people person. In fact, what I really dislike about my own knife business is selling [because] I don’t like putting a price tag on my work. I’d much rather just gift a knife to a close friend or a family member.
When you’re designing a knife for a client, how do you combine the client’s ideas with your own creative process?
Sometimes it’s hard—it’s really hard if they’re not a fishy person. But, over the winter, I did a groomsmen’s set of knives and none of them really fly fished or fished generally. But [the client] said, “I don’t want just a plain knife handle, but I want it to be artsy and look handmade with wood accents and brass accents and that kind of thing.” I took what I used from the brook trout process and made knife handles with amboyna burl inlays with brass accents around them.
I try to ask what colors [a client likes]. Another thing with personalizing the knives is that there are so many ways you can personalize them just by finish of the steel. You can have a dark finish or you can have a highly polished finish.
I also design based on how a knife is going to be used. The tricky thing about making functional art is that it has to function. For example, if you take just a straight sandblasted knife or etch knife into saltwater, it’s going to rust in 20 minutes. Or if you take a wood-handle knife into saltwater, it’s going to warp a little bit and dry out. So it’s about making things that function well and people would like to carry.
I do make what I like to make. I make what I would want to carry into a situation. Design is probably the most fun part about it—designing not just the profile but also how it’s going to look.
What reaction do you hope for when someone receives one of your knives?
My favorite part of it is when people pick up the knife and look closely at it for a while, and they look at the details and imagine how it was done and they’re like, “Wow.” I think attention to detail in customers is my favorite thing—when people recognize how much work it took.
Honestly, I also get a lot of ideas from customers being like, “Hey I want a custom knife with this detail.” I’m like, “Oh, how can I add onto that or build onto that?” So, that’s pretty fun, too.
What advice would you give to our readers who want to pick up a creative hobby, but don’t know where to start?
When I started making knives, I ordered a bar of steel and a hacksaw. I wasn’t that handy when I started, and I wasn’t really a tools guy. YouTube has been my best friend over the past eight years on how to do a certain process, grinding bevels, shaping handles, inlays even. My first knife was a terrible knife. It was very ugly. But I said to myself, “I want to do that again because I know I can do better. Now, here I am eight years later, still doing it.
Just get what you need to start. It doesn’t need to be the fanciest equipment because you don’t want to invest in something that you don’t know you’re going to love. I think just getting the ball rolling on it is the best way to do it. [It’s basically the same advice I give to people] who say, “Ah, I’ve been really meaning to get into fly fishing. I just haven’t done it.” Buy a fly rod. Don’t buy the most expensive fly rod. Go to a stream, cast a dry fly, and see how you do!
Joe’s line of brook trout knives produced by Boker will be available this fall.