Fjerkenstad uses spare time to learn unique skill

Jessica Stölen-Jacobson
Montevideo American-News

When Elijah Fjerkenstad was faced with having a lot of extra time on his hands during the COVID-19 shut-down he decided that perhaps it was a good time to delve into a project that had long been on his mind. A few years ago, he purchased an iron forge. “I was watching History Channel one day and the show Forged In Fire was on and I thought that was so cool,” says Fjerkenstad. “So I started wondering how I could do this and watched YouTube videos to figure it out.” Though he dabbled in attempting to learn the art of blacksmithing over the next couple of years, he found himself discouraged and didn’t spend a lot of time on the hobby until the shut-down provided a lot of spare time.

During the last year, Fjerkenstad spent many hours in the shop on his family farm working on learning through trial and error. “I needed something to do and decided to try this out,” he said. “I spent pretty much every day the whole summer in the shop making knives and eventually I was able to save up enough money to get more tools and then produce knives more efficiently and more cost-effective.” Additionally, he spent more time on YouTube watching master blacksmiths teach the various techniques for knife making. “It was cool because the way they teach it online is in a way that they want to still make it practical even though they have these giant machines that are thousands of dollars,” Fjerkenstad explained. “Master smiths still try to relate to younger smiths just starting out in a way that allows anyone to do it and if you get good at it you can buy more expensive tools but you can also just do it with what you have.” 

To start, his process involved a lot of trial. “I made a bunch of knives and just rough forged them and would grind and shape them,” Fjerkenstad said. “That was the hard part - the grinding and shaping because you can either take away way too much or not take away enough and you have to kind of find the happy medium. I kept just going back and back and making knife after knife and I was finally able to find a good rhythm where I could make the style of knife I wanted to and was comfortable with it.” The first knife he made was a gift for father’s day, starting the project with just an angle grinder and a couple of pieces of sandpaper. “I had previously made a crude forge where I could heat treat it which is making it so the metal is actually hard,” he said. “If you just went somewhere and bought steel it would be soft. When it’s soft you could hit something and it would shatter or it could bend and when you heat treat there are crystal structures in the blade that when you heat it to around 2,000 degrees and then you quench it in either oil or water it takes the crystals and bunches them together so that it’s a lot harder than soft steel.”

Two different processes can be done to make knives, and Fjerkenstad explains that one version is called standard stock removal in which shave off pieces of steel with a grinder, or what he says is his preferred method, rough forging. “The more fun way and the more challenging way is rough forging. You just take any style of steel and then you heat it continuously, then forge it into whatever way you want it to look with a hammer,” he says. “Once you are done forging a blade, you bring it to the grinder and then again take off the stock you don’t need so you get a better profile of the knife. After that, you heat it up again and then quench it in oil or water, preferably oil because that is a nicer thing to put it in because it doesn’t stress it so much because it cools down a lot slower in oil than water. After that, you put an edge on it, and then you could put a design into the knife - such as a thumb grip or engraving. Then you would put a handle on after that.”

Fjerkenstad also makes his own handles and wood boxes to present the knives in. “For my wood, I like to collect it on my own - it’s a little more fun that way and it’s a lot more cost-effective too. Or I can find some more exotic woods from Granite Woodworking and that is really cool too. I get most of my steel from what I can find locally mainly Flynn’s Salvage and Steel and a lot of people have given me steel,” he says. Over the last year, he estimates he’s made around twenty knives, spending around 72 hours on each knife. So far he’s created a variety of knives such as a Japanese sous chef knife, a fighting style knife designed to replicate a Russian World War II knife, and his own invention that he calls a Pike Knife. “I like to go towards the EDC [everyday carry] style mainly because it’s a better selling knife,” he says. 

Of all of the knives he’s made, he says the most challenging part of the process is in the initial work to make the knife. “It’s a lot easier to draw it on paper and get an idea than actually make it with your hands but that’s also one of my favorite parts to be able to make something out of nothing and turn it into a piece of art. To take a rusty piece of steel and make a nice showpiece out of it,” Fjerkenstad says. He has also put his equipment to use making dinner bells, his own tools for forging including tongs, hammerheads, and ax heads. “One of my favorite things to use is railroad spikes,” he said. “You can make ax heads out of them and you can make knives out of them.” He and a friend also split the cost and worked together to create a unique piece of steel to make knives out of called Damascus. “Damascus steel is patterned. The pattern is in the metal itself after a process of taking two different types of steel and making a sandwich out of it, then heating it to critical temperature, which is almost melting point, and then doing a process called forge welding which forces the molecules in the steel together so it joins into one piece,” Fjerkenstad explains. “So say you have ten layers of steel at first, then you flip it over on itself and you have twenty and then you keep flipping it over so from 20 to 40, 40 to 80 and you can get all the way up to a million layers of steel. It was first found in the Middle East they excavated a long sword that looked like it had cracks in it but it was actually patterned steel and it was said to be so sharp that you could drop a hair on it and the hair would split apart from the weight of itself touching the blade. It’s a difficult process but it’s so satisfying once you complete it.” 

So far, Fjerkenstad says he has sold knives to quite a few friends, and for Christmas, a family friend asked him to make a chef’s knife that was sent as a gift to the West Coast. He plans to continue his knife making after he graduates high school this year and as he begins college for Nursing. “I’d like to have a small business to be able to sell them. I’m trying to sell them online currently but I’d like to go to a knife show where blacksmiths get together. This is just a nice way to relax and escape the busyness of everything.”