Making the Cut
An Addison County knife maker takes a stab at an old craft
In the early 20th century, Carlton LaJoie of Vergennes traveled from one Addison County farm to another, shoeing horses. The itinerant blacksmith's tools were posthumously donated to the Shelburne Museum to commemorate a disappearing lifestyle.
But LaJoie's great-grandson, Christopher Dyke, knew nothing about that ancestral heritage when he made his first crude prototype of a knife at age 12. A decade later, the Monkton resident is echoing his ancestor's work ethic as he evolves into a semi-amateur "bladesmith."
"It's really still just a hobby," says Dyke, who has been selling the custom kitchen knives he began handcrafting last year. "But I hope to make it a business."
He thoroughly enjoys transforming a rusty piece of carbonized steel into something as beautiful as it is utilitarian. Dyke's finished products, with wooden or bone handles also of his own design, have dazzled at least one local chef.
"His knives have character in a world of standardization," suggests Michel Mahe, owner of the Black Sheep Bistro in Vergennes. "When I use them, my work has more of an identity."
Mahe bought six knives from Dyke, but doesn't keep them in his restaurant. "I like them too much to use professionally," he explains. "They're part of my personal collection."
That's high praise for a 22-year-old fledgling artisan, who wears his curly brown-blonde hair in an almost dreadlock style. Dyke is still finding his way around the cutting edges of adulthood, and hasn't yet figured out how to apply the principles of commerce to his lifelong obsession with knives.
"Making stuff is still fun," he muses. "If it became boring, I'd quit."
Dyke's notion of fun might seem like torture to a less adventurous soul. On a mild May afternoon, he labors over a 2500-degree charcoal fire for an hour to fashion a single blade. Is this a job that involves cuts and burns? "Oh, yeah," Dyke confirms with a shrug. "All the time."
The equipment -- a stone forge, an anvil, a gigantic bellows suspended from the rafters -- is located in the blacksmith shop at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, where Dyke is a part-time volunteer. The metal he's using has been snipped from a thick steel coil that once was part of a truck.
His own small workshop in Monkton is a bit more modern, with a propane forge, but the sweat equity remains the same. Smithing is no picnic.
Dyke uses carbonized rather than stainless steel. "It tarnishes a bit," says Mahe, "but you can get it the most sharp. My father was a chef as well, and he always used carbonized."
Dyke, who earns a seasonal living as a landscaper, attended Castleton State College for one semester. "I was interested in criminal justice then," he says. "Now I'm more keen on environmental studies. But I need business courses to know what I'm doing if I want to sell knives."
Most of his customers have come to him through word-of-mouth. When friends started buying his knives, Dyke initially undervalued his efforts: "They'd tell me, 'I don't wanna pay this much.' And I was like, 'Dude, I worked 10 hours on that knife.' Now, I charge for materials, plus $25 an hour. I think that's reasonable."
The forging stage alone can take between 30 minutes and 15 hours, depending on the complexity of the piece. The task is repetitive: Again and again, Dyke heats it, extracts it from the fire with giant tongs and pounds it with a hammer to form a general shape. All the while, he fans the flames by pulling on a rope that activates the bellows.
Then the blade has to anneal for a few hours in an insulating material such as wood ash or sand. Once cooled, the knife requires more heating, beating and lots of grinding before it can be "quenched in oil," Dyke says. "That hardens the steel."
One of the more rewarding aspects of this process is that "people enjoy watching their knives being made," he points out. "That's a neat little option."
Mahe agrees. "You can be involved through all the stages of the knife," he says. "No two come out exactly the same, which is wonderful. But I can get just what I want: I wanted an Asian-cut blade with a certain length to roll a certain way in my hand. Chris has a great thing going there. They really are works of art."
Chef Tara Vaughan-Hughes first got a look at Dyke's cutlery because he's a regular in the Vergennes restaurant she owns, Eat Good Food. "I ordered a big butcher knife for my husband Pip's birthday," she says. "That was October. Chris didn't have the right tool then, so it's still a work in progress. By the time he's done, it'll be a masterpiece."
Vaughan-Hughes feels strongly that buying handmade knives from Dyke is "supporting somebody local who's engaged in a lost art."
Dyke's mother Laurie, a teacher's aide in Charlotte, sees his creations as unique. "Someone gave him a deer antler and Chris made that into a knife handle," she recalls. "It was awesome."
Chris ruined his father's drill when he began knifemaking, but parental worries eventually gave way to admiration. "It's a great use of his energy," Laurie Dyke says. "I'm proud of my kids for following their dreams. Chris always follows his heart."
In middle school, he was dubbed Bubba to distinguish him from three or four other kids named Chris. "It stuck," he now says, while dismissing a friend's suggestion that "Bubba the Bladesmith" would be catchy in the knife trade. "That's a bit campy for my taste."
His proclivity for "making stuff" -- not just knives -- surfaced as a teenager, when Dyke volunteered to work on props for high school plays. But as a self-described outdoorsy type, he's drawn to traditionally male pursuits. Only recently has Dyke allowed his commitment to kitchen utensils to overtake his production of hunting knives, utility knives, riggers' knives and replicas of weapons from the Revolutionary or French and Indian wars for battle re-enactors. He also makes leather sheaths, wood blocks and boxes for holding or storing knives.
Dyke has created the occasional candelabra and plant hanger, but decorative items don't really spark his imagination. "People ask me for axes and tomahawks," he says. "I want to learn how to make them."
Two years ago, Dyke spent an entire winter -- October through mid-April -- living in a Pawlet teepee with no heat source. "I'm not too into conventional ways," he notes. "I'm out of place with the times. I probably was born a century too late."
His mother suspects her son's love of knives is "sort of in the blood," thanks to Carlton LaJoie. Dyke thinks it's "cool" that his skill and passion for smithing were somehow inherited from the maternal great-grandfather he never knew.