10 Questions with Lon Humphrey of Lon Humphrey Custom Knives
Today, we sit down with Lon Humphrey. Lon is one of our favorite knife makers, specializing in high quality forged knives built to work. Check out our selection of Lon Humphrey Custom Knives.
Q: Lon, let’s jump right in. What first drew you to knife making?
A: When I was a kid, I didn’t own a knife I couldn’t destroy. That inability to find a knife that could hold up to my adventures was what drove me to knife making. At 13, I was thinking that I sure can do better at making a knife than what was commercially available. At this time, I was just beginning to learn blacksmithing so a lot of metal objects were under my scrutiny. It took a long time – but I did build a better knife than I could buy. Thus began a lifelong passion.
Q: What exactly is a forged knife and how does it differ from stock removal both in performance and how it’s made?
A: A forged knife is a knife that is made from manipulation under a hammer or press. The hammer reduces the size and alters the shape of the stock into the final knife form. When you are doing stock removal you just cut out the shape of the knife and grind the bevels out of a bar of steel. Forging lines up the grain of the steel to the profile of the knife making it inherently stronger
Q: What is differential heat treat and why do you do it?
Differential heat treat is getting two or more hardnesses in the same piece of steel. I do this mainly to get a soft spine and a hard edge resulting in a knife with a hard edge making it hold an edge very well with a softer backbone for the toughness and flex needed in the hard use knives I build.
A: Lon – you’ve done some blacksmithing in the past. Talk to us about that experience and how it has worked into knife making.
When I started blacksmithing I wanted to make gates and wrought iron railing and really artsy stuff. This market is even tougher and more competitive than the knife making market. The love for working with steel and creating was a natural progression into knives.
Q: Lon – you’ve been a blacksmith, a millwright and a US Forest Service Intern) in Montana and a knife maker. How have these hard-working, blue collar jobs molded you as a man and a knife maker?
A: I was never a full-time blacksmith but I was a millwright for 20 years at a local veneer mill/ sawmill. Long hours 7 days a week fixing just about anything the operators could destroy taught me that tools including knives need to work and continue to work without failing whenever possible. I learned that if things are overbuilt they won’t break down and lead to costly production losses. I build my knives with this in mind.
The Job in Montana was probably the best job I ever had but was also the lowest paying. I did an internship with the USFS as a summer for college credit. I did a lot of hiking and fishing that summer in the Bridger Mountains. That was in the early 90s and at that time the USFS had a indefinite hiring freeze. They were doing plenty of seasonal jobs but I couldn’t see myself as a summer job kind of guy so I walked away from the forestry degree and looking at the things that are going on today with the Federal Government I’m glad I did.
My years at Blind Horse Knives as a handle finisher and that taught me how to go fast and keep things as uniform as possible in production.
Q: Talk to us about the shop in as you affectionately call it “Area 51” and how that came to be and why it’s a special place for you
A: Area 51 is a highly secure and top secret installation in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains
(OK – I’m joking but it is remote and off most all maps). Not very many people know where the shop is and those that do aren’t talking LOL. When I was forced to move my shop because of local zoning bureaucracy and foolishness I moved the shop to a piece of property out in the country with no neighbors and no “big brother” looking over my shoulder hindering my ability to earn a living. This land is land my father bought it in 1990. He worked hard to clear this land and plant Christmas trees. There is a lot of Humphrey family sweat in that chunk of ground and it’s far enough off the beaten path that no one bothers me when I’m working. If I want to go shooting for a few hours I don’t have to pay a range fee – I just walk out the door and start plinking. Area 51 is truly my escape as well as home to Lon Humphrey Custom Knives.
Q: There are times in a person’s life where they have an “aha! moment” – that moment where they realize that they’ve turned the corner and things are solid in life or in their profession. What was your “aha! moment” in knife making when you knew that things would work out and it could be a way in which you could earn a living?
A: Oh I don’t know if there was any real “aha! moment” (laughs). I will tell you that when I built the new shop built and went back into production I did feel as if I had really accomplished something great. I made this big step without going into debt and paid for it with hard work and working sometimes brutal hours to build up the cash to finance the move. I no longer have to worry if I will have another batch of knives ordered because I am backordered several hundred knives and have hired an apprentice. Having all of these knives ordered and committed to is really a great feeling.
Q: Your daughter Amber is very special to you. We all know you come across as a rough, tough take no BS guy 24/7 but those of us that know you well know you have a huge heart and that knife making allows you to spend extra time with Amber and that your knife making also provides for your family. I think people assume that knife makers are wealthy guys and sometimes don’t realize that buying one of your knives not only provides the customer with a world-class knife but also helps to provide for you and your family. Is there anything you would like to add to this?
A: Buying a Lon Humphrey Custom knife not only helps support Amber and I but also Cassie (Lon’s significant other) and her daughter Savannah. We are a true family run small business. I also have a part time employee now and we are helping provide for him and his family. At some point I want to bring Cassie on full-time to do the shipping and some of the bookkeeping and social media.
Q: Lon – we see that your work oftentimes has JS behind your name. What does that mean and what is the importance of that?
A: The JS stands for Journeyman Smith it’s a rating given by the American Bladesmith Society. To achieve JS you have to forge a knife that will cut a piece of free hanging 1 inch hemp rope then chop a 2×4 in half twice. The knife must then shave hair from your arm. After inspection by a Mastersmith the knife has to be bent to 90 degrees. That is just the first part of the test. After that you have to make 5 knives out of carbon steel and present them to the ABS judging panel in Atlanta, GA at Blade Show for either a pass or fail grade. I attained Journeyman Smith in 2013.
Q: Lon – all of us that know you know you are an American Patriot through and through. I’ve met few people in my life with such love and conviction for this country (our mutual friend Jim Nowka is another). Huge companies that employee thousands of people get all the publicity. It is where the media devotes all of its attention. But I look at numerous industries from beer making to knife making and I find that there are hundreds and thousands of small (even one man operations) popping up across this great country we live in that are creating small batch, high quality products that are not only creating products that overseas companies can’t but also creating a lot of jobs. Talk to us about how buying a Lon Humphrey knife helps this “made in America” movement. (Talk about how you buy American steel, wood from the Amish, etc)
A: At one time Made in America meant something. It meant you were buying a high quality product that wasn’t going to break the first time you used it. Now, it’s very rare you can find anything in the department store that is made in the USA. I am VERY proud that I use American steel in my Lon Humphrey knives. 100% of the curly maple I use I buy from the Amish locally so I know its locally harvested timber. My corby bolts are made in Michigan by a small machine shop as are my leather sheaths. I almost forgot, even my boxes and packaging paper are made in the Midwest. I really strive to keep everything I put in or on my knives as local as I possibly can. I do have to admit though my Whiskey does come from Scotland (laughs).