February 26, 2024

Bespoke Blades

The custom creations of Charlevoix knife maker Todd Olson
By Al Parker | Nov. 25, 2023

What do you do with a battered ice skate, an old rubber puck, a cracked hockey stick, and a gob of tape? Pitch ’em, right? 

Not if you’re Todd Olson, Charlevoix knife maker extraordinaire.  

He collected those shabby items from a hockey-loving client who played for many years and, with about 20 hours of work and a ton of creativity, turned them into a one-of-a-kind knife that the client and his family will cherish for generations.

“It was a neat challenge,” recalls Olson.“He liked it so much that he had me do another project. I worked on an ax for him, reshaping the head and re-handling the ax with a beech wood handle.”

The Knife Guy

Olson, who graduated from Michigan Tech, does gauging, wiring, and welding at Michigan Scientific, a Charlevoix firm that has about 100 employees and specializes in the design and manufacturing of testing equipment. The company allows him to work on his creations during his 30 minutes of break time during his shift.

“I’m known as ‘The Knife Guy,’ at work,” he says with a smile. “People come by to see what I’m working on now. I’ll often ask their opinions of my work. Everybody knows Todd is working on something.”

The 56-year-old Navy veteran is part of a three-generation family tradition that results in stunningly beautiful collectible cutlery. We’re talking one-of-a-kind, bespoke blades that are very hard for serious knife collectors to resist.

“My grandpa made knives, my dad made knives, and now, I make knives,” says Olson, who was born and raised in Ishpeming, then moved to Charlevoix 29 years ago.  

The first knife Olson made was for a Navy buddy back in 1991. “I made the blade out of an old file and put a red handle on it,” he recalls. “I didn’t follow a template or anything, just made it up in my head. I sketched it out and took pictures. It took about a month.”

Then Olson sort of hit a creative wall and says he didn’t make any knives for about 12 to 15 years before returning to his hobby with renewed enthusiasm. Now, he estimates he’s created about 80 of the custom blades, almost all at the specific request from knife collectors. 

While the materials aren’t always as eclectic as old hockey gear, Olson does get creative. One knife he shows us has a blade crafted from a buzz saw blade, while others are formed from stainless steel. Many of them started life as a hand file. 

“With files, I know they have good steel,” explains Olson. “I have a place that does the stainless steel for me.”

The other key component of a custom knife is the handle. Shaping the custom handle to fit the client takes a lot of patience and elbow grease, and Olson does a lot of filing and sanding with sandpaper to get the feel just right. The handle is also where a client’s personal taste can come into play.

“Some like an antler handle, others like a nice-looking wood or something more exotic,” explains Olson. “I did one with a beautiful Arizona ironwood, one with curly maple, and another with a really nice stacked birch bark handle.”

His finished products range in price from $200 to $500 and include an impressive variety of sharp instruments, everything from hunting knives to culinary cutlery.

The Cutting Edge

Olson and a legion of other bladesmiths are on the cutting edge of a national trend in the knife making industry, which is not just surviving, but thriving. 

TV shows like Forged in Fire, (which Olson enjoys when he has time) have given bladesmiths a higher profile than ever before. According to 2022 data, it’s a $12 billion industry that’s growing by the month.

Red Label Abrasives, an industrial firm closely aligned with blade making, did a 2023 poll of more than 100 different knife makers and consumers and found 73 percent expect their industry to grow in 2024. 40 percent indicate hunting knives are the most popular knives to produce, followed by Every Day Carry (EDC) knives at 21 percent and culinary at 15 percent.

Despite creating dozens of one-of-a-kind blades, Olson’s current inventory is only six handcrafted beauties. All the others have been sold or given as gifts.

So what’s he working on now? Olson is in the process of making a very important project for a very important person: his 13-year-old son. “He’s really good in the kitchen and he wanted a nice knife, so we’re working on that for him,” says the proud dad. 

See more of Olson’s artistic creations on Instagram at @olsonknifeworks.

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