December 2015
Youth Matters

Knife Works: A Lifelong Passion

  Will Bagley hammers steel on the anvil that his granddaddy gave him. The anvil once belonged to his great-grandfather.

Self-taught, teen knife smith heads his own business, honing skills for the future.

Growing up on a small farm in the Sandflat community, south of Thomasville, Will Bagley learned firsthand how useful and necessary knives are on a farm. Early on, he developed an intense fascination with knives, causing him to read books and magazines related to knives. He would spend hours talking to dealers and collectors, wishing he had the money to buy all the knives that captured his attention.

A family vacation to Pigeon Forge, Tenn., would change the youngster’s life and help him find a way to satisfy his passion for collecting knives.

While in the mountains, Bagley visited his favorite shop, the Smokey Mountains Knife Works in Sevierville. He watched intently as the knife maker forged horseshoe knives. The cutler explained his techniques and took the time to answer the young boy’s questions. It was here that Bagley became convinced he could learn to make his own knives. Before leaving the store, Bagley used his savings to buy a miniature forge and a paperback book on knife making, convinced that he could teach himself to make knives. He was 11 years old at that time.

Back home, Bagley started to collect old nails, railroad spikes, rebar and scrap iron. He spent many hours planning and designing his knives before he would heat up the forge. He learned by trial and error. Even though knife making is a slow, intense process, he never gave up, spending long hours heating metal in his forge, using a hammer to shape the steel on his anvil and grinding to finish the knife.

Before long, Bagley realized he needed a larger forge than the small one he had brought home from Tennessee. That’s when his grandfather, John Bagley, stepped in to help. The elder Bagley had grown up when times were hard, and people "made do" with whatever they had.

Making a knife is a very labor-intensive process. It is also requires that the knife smith always be focused on what he is doing.  

"Paw Paw said that we’d just have to make what I needed," Bagley laughed.

And that’s just what they did! The twosome made a forge out of an old tire rim and fashioned a tripod to support the rim. Then they combined clay, dirt and mortar mix to place inside the rim to insulate the area and keep the heat in one place. They ran a pipe through the center for airflow and connected it to some old crank-type bellows that had once belonged to his great-great grandfather. He used a torch to strike the coal to heat the forge.

"A recycled forge," he laughed, "but it worked. It was too slow, and the sulfur smoke would get to me. I burned myself a few times, and even got a sliver of steel in my eye. But I quickly learned a lot, especially to always use my safety glasses and take more precautions."

His first attempts may have been awkward, but, as he progressed, he began to produce knives he was proud of.

  Will Bagley says his granddaddy, John Bagley, has been a great influence in his life by giving him tools to get started and helping him build his forge.

"I showed a few of my knives to some friends, and they liked them. It wasn’t long before people were asking me to make knives for them," he stated.

He continued to hone his skills on the homemade forge in his backyard shop.

Fast-forward six years, and now, this self-taught knife smith heads his own business, called Sandflat Knifeworks. He owns a larger forge that is much faster and hotter. Most of his materials are still ones he finds or that someone donates to him, but he can now be more selective of the steel he uses for blade smithing. He has expanded his shop to two rooms, one to forge and one to finish.

Bagley has also diversified his business. He now makes shepherd hooks, flower hangers, key chains, letter openers, hoof picks and other items upon request. He made his own chisel from an old crowbar, and he now uses it to sculpt decorative leaves for ornamental uses. These items are very popular, so Bagley markets them on Facebook, at Black Belt Treasures in Camden and at his home in Sandflat.

Knives are still his first love, however. Historical knives are some of his favorites. He has made many Bowie knives, which sell as quickly as he can finish them. On a whim, he also made a Khopesh, a crescent-shaped war knife used by ancient Egyptians. He still has this knife and proudly displays it for visitors to see. Bagley admitted that he does have some knives he will not sell, however. These are some that have very special meaning to him. He keeps them in a protected area of his home, and gets them out occasionally to look at them.

Left to right, Bagley displayed his work at Depot Days in Pine Hill. A large crowd watched as he went through the process of changing steel into a knife. Many youngsters came by to ask questions about knife making. These decorative leaves are made by Bagley to be sold at Black Belt Treasures in Camden. He also makes keychains, letter openers, flower holders and many more decorative items.  

Bagley also enjoys making machetes. He recently made a replica of one used in "Rambo 4," and it sold very quickly. Even though he enjoys making various kinds of knives, he prefers to make knives that are used as tools for constructing things.

Bagley has seen his business grow, especially through social media.

"I want to keep what I make about 99 percent of the time," he stated, "but somebody comes by or messages me and offers me money for it, so I sell it."

Bagley says that his Granddaddy John has been a great influence in his life.

"He gave me his anvil and the tools I needed to get started," Bagley explained. "He also helped me build my forge and find the materials to get started."

He added that his Granddaddy has always encouraged him and believed in him.

This past August, Bagley began a new phase of his life. He entered the University of West Alabama on an academic scholarship. He plans to study nursing, specializing in becoming either a nurse anesthetist or an emergency flight nurse. Each weekend, however, he drives back home to Sandflat to work in his shop.

Bagley displays at local festivals, setting up his forge to show visitors how he makes his knives. His exhibits attract many spectators, most unfamiliar with knife making. He enjoys explaining what he is doing, especially to children; just like the knife-smith back in Tennessee did for him so many years ago.

His goal is to produce functional, affordable knives, but one of his future goals is to master Damascus steel. Damascus steel knives are stronger and beautifully etched with intricate designs. He looks at the creations of other knife makers and hopes one day to create his own artistic blade patterns that would bear his own signature style.

He now uses social media to network with veteran knife makers, who share their techniques and give him advice. One of his favorites is Jesse Hemphill at Skirum Knifeworks in DeKalb County.

"Mr. Jesse’s stuff is just awesome," he said. "One day, I hope I can be half as good as he is."

For now, Bagley spends his weekdays studying and his weekends forging. His future looks bright. There is no doubt, with his dedication, determination and drive, he will succeed at whatever he chooses to do.

"I plan to keep making knives for a long time," he added. "I love making stuff; especially things that can help people do a job easier."

Check out Will Bagley and Sandflat Knifeworks on Facebook or you can contact Sandflat Knifeworks at 334-456-9547.

Carolyn Drinkard is a freelance writer from Thomasville.