Forging the future: Mitchell looks to teach blade smithing to a new generation

One lucky young man, age 18-20, could have an opportunity to learn the trade.

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Danny Mitchell took up knife making as a retirement hobby, and has produced each of the examples on display above, including the sword in his hands. News photos/Jason Collum

As he was nearing retirement, Danny Mitchell knew he didn’t want to go home and sit around. That wasn’t his nature. So, he took up the art of knifemaking.

He built a shop building outside his home a few miles south of Red Bay, complete with everything he needs to forge his own steel blades and craft some beautiful handles.

Now, after making more than 65 knives and swords, he’s ready to share his knowledge and passion for the art with someone interested in becoming an apprentice.

Mitchell is looking for a man, around 18-20 years old, who wants to learn and take up the art of knife making – and he’s not looking for anything in return, other than sharing in a hobby that has brought him a great degree of satisfaction and taught him a few things along the way.

“I’d like to just give some young boy an opportunity to learn,” Mitchell said. “Somebody who finds this interesting, who might want to make a little money when they’re going to school or college or whatever. That would be my contribution to the art.”

Mitchell was already no stranger to working with metal. After a career at Mueller Brass in Fulton, he had learned a lot about working with many different types of metals. Still, knife making wasn’t the first thing he thought of when he was eyeing retirement. During a conversation one day, one of his sons suggested Mitchell make knives. He and his son had been going to an international knife show in Knoxville each year, so it was already something of an interest.

One of Mitchell’s knives, with a handle he crafted from amboyna burl.

“I said man, ‘I don’t want to build a knife,’” Mitchell said. “Well, I got to thinking about it and getting on closer retirement age. I told my wife I said, that’s what I’m going to do when I retire.”

Mitchell started building his own shop and began getting acquainted with blacksmiths in the Cherokee and Lawrenceburg to learn about making his own knives. He joined the Alabama Forge Council and his hobby was born. After retiring in 2015 he went into honing his bladesmithing abilities. Although it can take 

Mitchell’s knives range in length, but typically he crafts hunter or tanto knives. He has made some swords as well. Each steel blade is forged from various metals, including from old farm equipment, bearing slides and the like. He prefers to work with high carbon steel, and each highly polished blade is capped with a handcrafted handle and polished guard, usually made of nickel silver. The handles themselves are works of art. Mitchell uses a variety of woods, including desert ironwood, amboyna burl and buckeye burl. After shaping them, he polishes them with sandpaper and buffs them into a silky-smooth surface. He doesn’t like to work with bone for his handles, though.

Each of the 65 or so knives Mitchell has made bears his signature and the date the knife was finished.

“I’ve made some handles out of bone and I’ve got some bone,” he said. “I may have used buffalo horn or camel bone and I’ve used deer horn, stuff like that, but I don’t really like to use it. I don’t like the smell of it.”

That kind of thing can mess with the solitude of a man’s shop, and that’s something Mitchell doesn’t want to do, given the amount of time he’s there.

“My wife gets onto me for staying out there so much,” he said. “I spend a lot of time out there and I’m just kindly in my own world.”

Learning along the way

Mitchell has always been one to study to learn what he needed to accomplish a goal, and making knives has been no different. 

“I know maybe there are different ways of doing things and I mean a lot of times there’s no right or wrong way to do anything as long as you get the right results,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes you take the long way around till you learn a few shortcuts as you go. That’s what I do. I try to do things pretty consistent, but sometimes it just doesn’t turn out the way you want it to. I might spend 40 hours on a knife and it winds up being a piece of garbage and it’s like, ‘What happened; what did I do wrong?’ But you can always go back on that and use it as a learning experience.”

Danny Mitchell starts with raw material – slide bearings, old farm equipment – and forges the metal into the approximate shape of a blade, as shown above, before finally creating a work of art with a mirror finish.

That’s exactly what his first knife was – a learning experience. It turned out great, until it wasn’t.

“The very first knife I made was beautiful. It turned out just excellent,” Mitchell said. “Well, I had the blade but I didn’t have a handle on it. I got everything ready had it just perfect and I told my wife I said, I’m going to heat treat that now this morning and I said, I want to do it before I go to work.”

It was early in the morning and it was cold outside. Very cold. He heated the metal and then dipped it into a cooling fluid.

“When it hit that oil and I knew right then my mistake,” he said. “It was 26 degrees that morning and I forgot to heat my oil. When that approximately 1,500-degree piece of steel hit that 26-degree oil it cracked about every quarter of an inch all the way down that blade. That’s a mistake I haven’t made again. I could have cried.”

Since then he’s learned, developed and honed the processes he uses with heating and treating different kinds of metals as he forges his blades.

“You’re going to get the same result most of the time,” he said, “but I try to get my process down like on a certain type of metal. I know what to do at each point in the process and it usually works out good.”

Forging ahead

Now Mitchell wants to share his knowledge with someone else who will carry the skills into the future.

“There is a blade symposium in April of every year and I wouldn’t mind letting him go with me down there and go through some of those classes like I did and meet some of the older knife makers,” Mitchell said of whoever gets the chance to become his student. “I don’t have any rating or anything. I belong to the American Bladesmith Society. I’m a prime an apprentice, but I don’t have any rating like a master smith or anything like that. The only thing I can do is teach what I know and I mean, you know, that’s all I can do and that’s what I’m offering. I kind of made a promise when I joined the Alabama Forge Council that I would try to further the art, so to speak, and this is my way of doing that.”

If you are that one lucky young man or have a son or grandson ages 18-20 who is interested in learning the trade from Mitchell, call 256-356-4640.