I spent nearly a year searching for a North Carolina knife maker that specialized in fine, handcrafted, custom knives, and the entire time he was right in front of my nose, making some of the South’s best knives in my own backyard, literally. Steve Watkins of Ironman Forge, crafts fine knives out of a garage just two blocks from my own home in Charlotte’’s Stonehaven community. I had the pleasure of visiting his shop and witnessing his entire process, an experience that was truly one-of-a-kind. Watkins’s beautiful pieces of useable steel art, from chef’s knives to cleavers to tactical knives and every kind of knife in between embody precision and execution, are crafted with the upmost attention to detail, and are worth every penny (and quite honestly, more).

Before he crafted knives full time Watkins trained horses for 18 years. With the equipment he used to shoe horses, he started ornamental ironworking and “one thing led to another.” According to Watkins, “I grew up in the Midwest and we hunted and fished and we thought knives were cool. I made a couple when I was younger, in my twenties. I kind of got away from it until about four years ago.”

Both Watkins and his wife are foodies and “love to eat out and watch the food shows.” According to Watkins, “I love knives and I was always looking to see what the chefs were using. I sat down one day and said ‘you know I still have all my stuff and my equipment and I think I want to start making knives again.’” With a decision made, Watkins attended Western North Carolina’s Haywood Community College. The knifesmithing program there focused on historical bladesmithing techniques and classes were taught by mastersmiths from all over the United States. Two of the South’s premier knifemakers, Burt Foster of Virginia and Jason Knight of South Carolina made a huge impact on Watkins. Both are still his mentors and friends today. Watkins took the knowledge gained from both the classes at Haywood and the lessons taught by Foster and Knight, and applied it to his own vision: chef’s knives.

Watkins specializes in crafting the finest chef’s knives money can buy. His knives can be seen in the very best restaurants in the city from Customshop and Harvest Moon Grille to Rooster’s, Halcyon, and Nolen Kitchen. They are desired because of how they function in the workplace but this execution didn’t take place over night. It took time and a lot of questions to get the level of quality that Watkins has reached. According to Watkins, “I have lots of friends that are chefs and I put my knives in their hands and I have learned what makes a good knife over time and I’ve tweaked my designs.”

For the foodie, home chef, or professional chef he has a plethora of options for you. His knives are all custom or semi-custom allowing you to choose from several features including style of the blade, wood for the grip, bolsters, perimeter pins, and other aesthetics. His blades are made from carbon steel and not stainless to ensure that they are both strong and flexible while maintaining an edge. According to Watkins, “stainless steel is great because it doesn’t rust but it is extremely hard to sharpen. Carbon steel gets harder, sharpens easier, and then stays sharp. The only draw back is it will rust so it needs more care. Carbon holds an edge. It does what it’s supposed to do. If you get the heat treat right you can chop wood with it and afer chopping wood it’ll still shave like crazy.” His knife grips are made with wood produced in Pennsylvania. There a stabilizer injects polymers into the wood, filling all of its pores and making the wood waterproof, a perfect solution for chefs. He uses curly maple and amboyna burl, among others, and when sanded and polished these woods appear almost glass-like and give the knife a fantastic finish. All of the materials he uses have been thoughtfully chosen to improve the quality and performance of the knife.

Materials aren’t the only thing he’s been thoughtful about. Watkins has been just as astute in the details, planning, and production of his knives and he possesses a very high level of passion and dedication to his craft. As Watkins puts it, “sometimes I look up and I haven’t left the house in six or seven days. My truck hasn’t moved. I haven’t been anywhere. I haven’t talked to anybody. I’ve just been building knives.” This is what he loves to do and he’’s damn good at it too, guaranteeing that when you order a knife from Ironman Forge it will deliver.