There are a lot of ways for people to earn a living. Most probably wouldn't ever think that making knives would be one of them. Especially in the manner of Tim Zowada, who lives/works in a remote part of northern Michigan. He's not on any kind of payroll. Nor is he paid by a large company to crank out mass quantities of their product. He's self employed, and creates beautiful one of a kind pieces. From scratch. Tim is much more of an artist or craftsman, than he is blade maker. You could make an argument that Tim is also one of kind, which is the reason why his products come out the way they do. A few months ago, I had the honor of shooting with Tim. And was amazed not only at his knowledge, but also his dedication. There is an incredible amount of time and detail that goes into making each one of his pieces. Rather than write out a lot unqualified bullshit about his process, thought I would let Tim explain things for himself. His answers are great for anyone, regardless of profession, is trying to do their own thing.
Side note: These images were all made with a mix of ambient light, shop light, and Broncolor strobes. My goal was to mimic what was already there, but boost it up with strobes a bit without having the strobe light call attention itself.
1) Explain briefly (or at length) how you got started at your craft.Simply put, it was a hobby than ran amok. I have always had a "knack" for building things. Before I made my first knife I had made such things as a banjo, fly fishing rod and a rifle. I made my first knife in high school shop class. (Yes, we could do that then.) During college, I tinkered with knife making as a hobby. My junior year of college, I became disillusioned with my chosen career path. During that time, my father asked, "Do you think you could make a living with the knife making thing?". That question led to a complete change in the direction of my life. Thirty three years later, I'm still avoiding a "real job".2) How did you develop your personal style?A personal style seems to develop with experience. Over the years, certain work would catch my attention. I would take what I thought was the best elements from those knives, guns, jewelery, sculpture, etc. and try to incorporate it in to my own work. As I learn new techniques, my perspective and style continue to evolve.3) What are some things you do that others in your business don't ?Currently, I specialize in straight razors. It is not that I don't make knives, but the razors have really caught my attention. That being said, as far as I know, I am the only craftsman making razors from steel that I smelt directly from iron ore. It's not that others are not able to do it, I'm just the only one that is doing it.
4) What would you say is the one thing that separates you from everyone else?
This is really a difficult question, as there are a lot of good knife makers out there. I think it would boil down to the style of my work, coupled with my perspective on materials, techniques, and attention to detail.5) Where does most of your business come from? (location,demographic. etc.)
I have customers from all over the world, in nearly every demographic. It is very difficult to specify what would I would call my standard customer. I have sold knives, and razors, to customers who have had to save for a very long time, and probably couldn't justify the expense. I have also sold my products to "billionaires". Since I sell to such a wide variety of people, It makes marketing quite difficult.6) You live in an isolated part of northern Michigan, and run your business from the same location. Can you talk about the effect it has on your business?With the advent of the Internet, it doesn't really have much effect. The internet has pretty much taken the place of the knife shows of the past. It is still important to get out and be seen once and a while. Since customers quite often become friends, it is good to get together.7) From what I observed, the way you doing things can be classified as the definition of "old school". Explain your desire to keep things simple and authentic.You saw a lot of the "old school" stuff because that's what makes the best photographs! You didn't see the things like: my metallurgical microscopes, micro-hardness tester, digitally controlled salt bath hear treatment kilns, liquid Nitrogen process, etc. The way I think of it is; I like to combine traditional and ancient techniques with new technology, to produce products that are truly unique.
A good example would be my home smelted "Timahagane" steel. The smelting of iron ore to make steel ore goes back many centuries. Not much has changed in the materials or techniques. Yet when it comes time to heat treat my Timahagane, I rely on electric salt bath kilns. They give me the best control available over the temperature and atmosphere of the process.
7a) How has the digital age had an effect on your business?
The internet has revolutionized marketing and communication. Earlier this week, my son was doing a live feed on Facebook. He had a crowd of people watching him, as he ground a razor. It was amazing to watch him communicate with his clients as he worked.
As you know, digital photography has made everything much faster. I can finish a knife, and have a high quality photo up on the internet in less than 20 minutes. Even though I am a luddite, I have to admit, it is very important to keep up with technology in the area of marketing.8) You've been doing this a long time, and are considered one of the top knife makers in the world. How did that come to be?
Well, I don't know about that. I guess it would have to be persistence, and enjoying what I do... :)
9) Are there any areas of your craft that you would like to improve on?
Pretty much everything. The more I learn, the more I realize how much there is to learn. If someone is continually trying to improve, they will never "arrive". The biggest new thing in my bag of tricks is, I am learning basic engraving from David Riccardo.10) The way you run your business can be a great lesson for anyone who is self employed. Do you have any advice for someone who wants to live "off the grid" but still become the best at what they do (and make a living at it)?
Don't quit your "real job" until it is getting in the way of making money at your craft. Too many people dive in to self employment before they are ready. Lots of skilled craftsmen have had to give it up because their business wasn't to the point of supporting their bills. It is very important to remember the business side of the "business". If you look around, it is easy to find excellent craftsmen who are starving, and conversely, people who produce junk who are making a lot of money. Finding a balance between production and running the business is very important.
*Last collage image of knives were made by Tim Zowada, Jim Weyer, and Sharp by Coop.