Story by Devin Pyle, Photos by Kelsey Halbert
The lost art of hand-crafting knives is alive and well for two local artisans. For them, it’s a passion.
Justin and Kelsey Halbert make up Snake River Forge, the husband and wife partnership producing handmade kitchen and field knives here in Boise. Starting out with steel bars, Justin forges the high-performance blades and fits them to intense specifications. Together, they select from a variety of woods, brass, antler, and copper to assemble one-of-a-kind handles for their work, and if the customer requests, Kelsey finishes the blades with a unique fine-art etching.
“They’ve made some amazing knives for me,” says Nick from Phoenix. “They stay sharp and have a great feel and look to them.”
“It is so nice to know that there are some things left in the world that are still handmade,” says Cole from St. George. “My knife is awesome and never fails.”
Peek into the small shop here in Boise, and you will likely find Justin triple-checking edge geometry on a chef knife, slowly grinding away at a blade until it moves effortlessly through whatever it’s asked to cut. If he’s not in front of the grinder with a chef knife, then he is at the forge, heating the shaped steel to over 1400 degrees Fahrenheit, “critical temperature” as fellow blacksmiths know it, only to plunge the red hot steel into heated oil, thus quenching the knife and giving it its hardness. Precision work requires not only knowledge on a vast array of metallurgical processes but also hours of attention, so the shop light is often on well after dark.
The long hours are worth it, and selecting materials is one aspect of their knives that brings special satisfaction. “As the world gets faster and everything is made as cheaply as possible, I think one reason our knives resonate with people so well is that they are a splash of thoughtfulness in your life,” says Kelsey. “It’s comforting. You’re not holding something where the costs have been driven down for a higher profit. Nature made your knife handle.” Those wooden handles go through a careful process, starting with the selection of woods that show the best grain structure possible for the species of tree, moving through careful drying conditions until they are shaped and petrified for both protection and waterproofing.
“Everything is obsessed over,” says Justin. “Making knives is demanding, so we have to evaluate every detail of the blades, the shape, and the handles. Certain traditional Japanese knives are ground thinner than their western counterparts, for example. Honoring that history is important. It’s what those extra hours are for. At the end of the day, our knives are only finished when they are both a pleasure to cut with and sturdy enough to stand up to a lifetime of use.”
Thus, it’s no surprise that Snake River Forge knives come with a lifetime guarantee.
You can find out more at snakeriverforge.com, and make sure to follow the couple on Instagram: @snakeriverforge.