Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
With a slick new digital marketing plan, blacksmith Sean McWilliams is bringing an ancient art into the 21st century.
In 2011, McWilliams came back from the dead.
He had discovered a life-long passion for blacksmithing in 1970 while attending a craft show in Crested Butte, but he switched his focus from forging knives to crafting decorative railings, gates, and chandeliers in 2000. He believed his future lay in high-end ironwork until he heard a disturbing tale.
"Somebody had circulated a rumor of my death," McWilliams recalls with a hearty chuckle. "As a result, the prices for my old work were getting pretty high. Someone put a knife on eBay and it sold for $1,400. It was originally a $400 knife."
With the mountain-area iron business in decline and the realization that "contrary to what I had believed, people had not forgotten about me," he decided to return to his first love. "I went back to knife making and sort of picked up where I had left off," he says.
In 2017, he forged close to 75 stainless steel knives in his 600-square-foot Carbondale shop, surrounded by antique tools he has collected -- and others he has engineered for himself -- over the last 40 years.
"I'm either famous or infamous for forged stainless steel knives, depending on who you ask," McWilliams laughs. "Forging stainless steel is more difficult [than forging carbon steel] because it has a narrower temperature range and is very prone to cracking if not treated and forged the right way."
McWilliams explains that stainless steel moves slowly. "What I can do with a two-pound hammer in carbon steel to move the metal takes a big five-pound hammer to move the same amount the same distance in stainless steel," he says. It's about two and a half times the work or better."
The forging process for the blade alone on McWilliams' bestselling Panama Fighter model takes six hours. That's followed by an overnight cooling and a day or two rest in a pickling solution to remove the scale that forms as the stainless steel is repeatedly heated and hammered into shape.
"My knives are completely forged to shape and profile," McWilliams adds. "They are beveled on one edge and the point is also beveled, so there is very little grinding left to do on them."
Because stainless steel is so durable, McWilliams says the Panama Fighter -- and 20 other knife models available on his website and through dealers -- will essentially last forever.
"I'm not a high-maintenance person, and I don't care for anything high-maintenance," he explains. "My lifestyle is largely outdoors when I'm having fun and even a lot of times when I'm working, so stainless steel is really important. It creates a blade that is tough, won't break, will hold up to considerable abuse, and will still hold an edge."
He crafts the handles from Micarta, a rugged material that is a composite of linen or canvas in thermosetting plastic. He manufactures sheaths out of Cordura-wrapped Kydex rather than less enduring materials such as leather. And everything that goes into each knife -- from the crucible steel of the blades to the plastic fittings and nylon thread used to assemble the sheaths -- is made in the U.S.
"I will grill suppliers about where their product is coming from," McWilliams says. "If it isn't U.S. material, I say, 'So long.'"
He describes his typical customer as "people like me who are outdoor enthusiasts or survivalists. They can make a fire. They can make shelter. They know how to survive."
His market also contains active and retired members of the military. "Any knife shipping to an APO or FPO [Army post office or fleet post office] address gets free shipping," McWilliams adds. "They also get a 25 percent discount, the same price the dealers do. I support what our military is doing out there. Military pay is pitiful, but our armed forces need good blades that are quick to get at, stay sharp, and cut well when they pull them out."
Challenges: McWilliams cites two current challenges for his business: finding U.S.-made supplies and marketing to a younger generation. "The abrasive situation is continually rubbing me the wrong way," he says with a chuckle. "Abrasive manufacturers have virtually departed the U.S., and much of the stuff that I used to use isn't even available anymore. I've had to adapt."
He has done so in several ways, from modifying his forging methods to require fewer grinding belts per knife to even making some belts on his own. "I make a lot of the belts that I use to finish and shape the knife handles," McWilliams explains. "They load up really quickly and instead of spending $4, I can spend under $1 to make my own. But it has still gotten almost impossible to find belts that I can do that with in bulk."
Opportunities: While marketing is a challenge, McWilliams also sees it as an opportunity and has enthusiastically embraced the Internet and social media as a tool. He has taken courses on social media marketing at Colorado Mountain College and debuted his shiny new website on March 1.
"The next thing I have to do is get up to speed on Instagram," he says, "but I do have a Facebook page, a Twitter page, and a YouTube channel. I did some blacksmithing videos with a Russian student last fall. Some of those videos came out narrated in Russian. My Russian traffic is huge!"
New products are another opportunity. McWilliams says he's working on a tactical emergency knife that will fit the MOLLE vests worn by many military, police, and first responders. "I came up with a one-inch strap system that fits the vest in all different kinds of positions," he adds.
Needs: McWilliams says he's planning to rebuild some of his equipment this year, including his hard wheel grinder and belt grinder. "They are both from the 80s. I need to do a lot of refitting and refurbishing of worn-out stuff."
He could also use a "big container ship full of time," noting, "I'm a one-man deal. I have to keep the production end up, but if I don't do the marketing end, the production end will fall down. And if I do the marketing end, the production end needs time devoted to it to. I need to maintain that balance between promotion and production."