Helms Custom Knives

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stories and photos by Lindsay Pace

On any given weeknight, you’ll find Spence Helms asleep in a leather-torn ivory recliner. After a long day as a lineman for 4 County Electric in Starkville, the knifemaker needs a nap.

Once Helms rises,  it’s time for his second shift. He’ll spend the next four-and-a-half hours crafting custom knives for his clients. His workshop, a reclaimed horse stable in Ackerman, quickly gets hot, the only reprieve coming from a black pedestal fan, drowned out by the sound of Def Leppard, and the occasional sip of Milo’s sweet tea.

Like many noble artists, his story began with an apprenticeship. In 1996, he caught wind of a cutler in Starkville whose work enamored him. He had “an itch” to build knives, too, so in his spare time, he visited the artist.

“[I liked] his style, his quality. It was so clean,” said Helms. “Everything was so precise about it. It really wasn’t a knife. It was a work of art.”

One of the most necessary skills Helms learned from him was precision and attention to detail. Knives must be practical and built to last. They must fit the hand they’re in and cut swiftly. Fortunately, Helms is a self-proclaimed perfectionist — someone who can execute the vision bladesmithing requires.

“I will not send out anything that has a blemish or a scratch,” said Helms. “I just like it all clean and perfect. That’s gonna be your separator between this person’s work and your work.”

Helms’s earliest designs, however, were “crudely” made. While he refined his technique, he circumvented selling knives by donating them. Certain wildlife conventions, like those held by the National Wild Turkey Federation, require a donation in lieu of an attendance fee. It was in this way that he built a clientele.

To make a knife, Helms thinks first of the customer’s desires: do they want a chef’s knife? A utility knife? Then, he puts ink to paper, sketching the size and shape of the blade and tang, where the handle will attach. He transfers the drawing to cardboard, which serves as a more resistant template for the blade.

Using an old belt grinder, Helms cuts a sheet of CPM154, a high-carbon stainless steel. It resists corrosion, but is not impervious to it. This happy medium between quality and cost makes it a common choice for bladesmiths.

Helms grinds the knife, the heat steadily rising to 1,850 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the critical moment, because when the knife is tempered there is no going back. Any imperfection will be sealed into the blade forever.

Helms sands it again, and in some instances, uses a dremel to engrave designs onto the blade’s spine. He attaches a handle to the scale of the knife, typically made with resin or stain-soaked wood. If it’s the latter,  the handle has already been baked in a toaster oven to seal tint. Rivets — the shiny silver pins on a knife’s handle — keep everything in place.

Finally, he sews a custom leather sheath, a skill he learned from his mother, and slides the knife into it. He uncaps a black Sharpie, solvent scenting the room, and signs his name onto a single Band-Aid. Most won’t need it.

“But some of them will,” Helms said with a nod.

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