Justin Burke – The Knifemakers Series
Knifemakers From Around the World
For the fourth installment of Knifemakers From Around the World we had a wonderful Q&A session with an amazing traditional artisan and avid outdoorsman from the beautiful mountains in northeastern Tennessee. His name is Justin Burke. Some of you might be familiar with his work, but for those that aren’t, it is my pleasure to introduce Justin and his work to you…
Justin grew up in Pigeon Forge and Morristown, Tennessee, and parts of North Carolina as he grew older. His love for the traditional way of life was first inspired by his 8th grade history teacher during a lesson on Native Americans and how they tanned hides. From that moment on he was committed to learning primitive skills and keeping the old ways alive. His tenant is “Purveyor of traditional and old time skills. Handmade items with form and function. Inspired by a traditional way of life.”
Justin is a naturalist and avid outdoorsman who is devoted to keeping the old-ways alive, often crafting things from nothing with his own hands, and foraging and hunting for his own personal enjoyment and growth. While learning primitive technology and all that it has to offer is always on his mind, so is teaching and passing along the skills and techniques that he loves so much.
At the age of 13, Justin started working with leather and tanning hides for a living. Then he got into blacksmithing a few years later so he could begin making his own tools. While he is completely self-taught and never been formally trained, he has learned much of what he knows from many old-timers and smiths that he has met over the years.
Over the last 12 years, Justin has been living and breathing the old-ways surviving off-grid in the southern Appalachian Mountains. First in a teepee, and later a log cabin that he built with the help of others. In fact, some of the chestnut logs used in the construction of the cabin were salvaged from an old barn that had fallen down nearby.
These days, Justin is a full-time artisan and blacksmith living and working in the northeastern part of Tennessee. He primarily makes knives, axes and tomahawks, but tomahawks are his real passion. All of his axes and tomahawks are hand-forged using traditional methods with two different metals, high-carbon steel for a harder cutting edge and wrought iron for a more durable and a resilient body. They are designed to be multi-purpose tools meant for use in the woods and around camp.
Justin’s knives are made from high quality steels with a beautiful, yet functional design. Most are made using the stock removal method rather than forging, but he does make his own Damascus. His leather work and other crafts showcase the care and quality craftsmanship and the natural beauty of the materials that they are made with. His philosophy is that life should be simple and the tools that he creates reflect that belief.
Once in a while Justin can be found at craft shows and reenactments all around the Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and Southern Virginia area, though he is not doing much selling or demonstrations at them anymore. Currently, he does all of his business online and that is the easiest way to contact him. Be sure to check out his website [burkesblades.com] where you can contact him regarding his handmade wares, or to commission a custom piece. You can also drop by his business’ Facebook Page. Sometimes pictures of his work can be found on Facebook Axe Junkies group so be sure to look for him.
And now for a little Q & A…
How long have you been making things with your hands?
I got a scar from using my dad’s pocket knife, making a spear when I was five. I’ve always been interested in creating things, but it has only been the last twelve years that I’ve done it seriously.
What are your favorite things to make?
Whatever I feel like on any given day. It could be tanning a hide, making a bark basket, carving a spoon–really whatever comes to my mind.
Where did you learn your skills?
I’ve had numerous teachers over the years but no one has specifically trained me and I’ve dissected many different craftsmen’s work. Along with years of failing and trying again.
How did you get into blacksmithing and leather work?
I job-shadowed a leather worker in the eighth grade. After that, I started tanning hides, and then wanted to make my own tools so I picked up blacksmithing.
Do you make anything other than axes, knives and hawks?
I make things for the enjoyment of making them, whatever they may be.
What is your Every Day Carry?
None of your business.
What led you to start up your own business?
Passion and determination.
Is smithing a full or part time gig for you?
Tell us a little about your shop…
It’s a metal building with a gravel floor. It is small but usable, and always a work in progress.
Which industry shows do you attend?
I don’t attend any shows.
How long does it take on average to make one of your creations?
That is proprietary.
What was your favorite custom project?
Iron ore smelted in Virginia that I refined and forged into an axe for a benefit auction.
What is your most popular product?
What are you currently working on?
What is your design process?
Muscle memory and a good eye.
What are your favorite steels to work with and why?
Wrought iron and high carbon steel. They are tried and true, and primitive still works.
Do you forge, do stock removal, or both?
Do you do your own heat treating?
What handle and scale materials do you like to work with?
For axes hickory is king. But I also use osage and locust. For knives I like curly maple for its visual appearance.
Do you make your own sheaths?
Yes, I started out as a leather worker twelve years ago.
What do you like most about making things with your hands?
I have to make things. I have to create what I’ve envisioned.
What do you like least about making things with your hands?
The pain, wear and tear on my body, and the hazardous working environment.
What equipment do you use most in your shop?
Power hammer, hydraulic press, and belt sander.
What tools do you use most?
Hammer and anvil.
Who are your favorite knifemakers, bladesmiths and blacksmiths?
Anyone who creates beautiful working pieces of art. Including people who aren’t very good but still try.
Who in the industry has influenced you the most?
Same as above.
It seems like every knife maker has some new skill that they are learning. What new skill are you trying to learn?
I am always open to learning. Any time I see a new technique I immerse myself in it to see if it’s right for me. I love learning from other smiths but we each have our own techniques and sometimes they don’t mix. I will listen to what anyone has to say about a process, try it out, and make my assessment. Currently, I am focusing on edge retention.
What was the hardest lesson to learn related to business?
Have you ever been injured in the shop?
What advice would you give someone trying to get into smithing?
Everything you have ever wanted to know is on the internet and “just do it”. Always be open to constructive criticism. It’s only recently been this way so you should take advantage of it. No excuses.
Do you have any tips that you can share?
If you want to do it, it has never been easier.
Thank you very much for taking time out of your busy day to talk with us and share your primitive and traditional art. I always love talking with people who strive to keep the old ways alive.
All photos were provided courtesy of Justin Burke.