My great-grandfather, Joseph Jakubisin, was a blacksmith in Chicago. He primarily worked for the railroad, but he also had a large workshop the size of a barn in his backyard for other projects. Because he died long before I was born, I never had the chance to talk with him about the craft that was such an important part of his life. My curiosity about my great-grandfather led me to take a single-day knife-making class at Crooked Path Forge, a local blacksmith workshop.
Jordan Borstelmann owns Crooked Path Forge, which is located on his private property in Brooker, Florida. He regularly teaches a single-day knife class, a two-day knife class and a single-day hatchet class. All of Borstelmann’s students work toward making useful tools.
“I like to make things with a purpose,” he said.
Although Borstelmann has been “seriously smithing” for about six years and making blades for three, he hasn’t forgotten how it feels to be a novice. Throughout my knife class, he used models of what our projects should look like in the different stages of forging. His motto for the class? “It’s going to get uglier before it gets better.”
Borstelmann’s teaching style is more than simply explaining how to make the tool; he also describes the science behind the reasons specific actions and techniques are required. When we heat-treated our blades, a process that brings knives to a hardened state, Borstelmann drew a diagram of a carbon atom so we could understand why heat-treating was crucial for a strong blade.
However, Borstelmann wasn’t always interested in blacksmithing. With plans to become the next Tom Petty, he moved to Gainesville from the Sarasota and Bradenton area in 2000 to become a rock star.
“This is where all the great musicians came out of Florida,” Borstelmann said.
After meeting his wife, he made a career move to blacksmithing. He began with a two-week summer course at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. After completing his course, Borstelmann apprenticed under Yaw Owusu Shangofemi, a local Gainesville blacksmith. A few years ago, he partnered with Leslie Tharp, a local female blacksmith, to teach classes.
Borstelmann looked to blacksmithing because he had “a pretty solid fascination with all things sharp.” Growing up, he was always interested in tales like Conan the Barbarian, a sword-wielding hero from the world of fantasy.
His love for hero tales of old shines through in his appearance. In addition to sporting a long, red beard, he wears a kilt cinched with a custom belt buckle he made himself.
“I like to wear a kilt because it’s cooler — literally and figuratively,” he said.
If you can’t stand the heat, stay clear of the workshop because blacksmithing can be a hot hobby. Like many workshops, Crooked Path Forge is outside, which means working in the Florida heat for most of the year. I was lucky enough to attend a class when it was cool outside, so I was comfortable in my mandatory outfit of jeans, closed-toe shoes and cotton shirt.
Keeping the workshop outside is a fire safety precaution, Borstelmann said. Another reason is because he prefers sand flooring, which provides a safe place for students to put their extremely hot steel. Unlike most other materials, sand will not catch fire when it comes into contact with hot steel.
The heat given off by the forge is another factor. In order to manipulate the high-carbon steel, it needs to be extremely hot, which means the forge needs to reach temperatures as high as 1,500 to 2,500 degrees F. Borstelmann said that each trip from the forge only allows about three strikes before the metal becomes too cool to work with. Hammering on cool steel can cause the metal to crack, hence the idiom, “Strike while the iron is hot.” For this reason, the anvils — tabletop workspaces where blacksmiths pound the steel into shape — are never far from the forge. In my class, two people shared an anvil. To ensure his students’ safety, Borstelmann has a rule against walking between the forge and anvil.
Unlike my great-grandfather, who was a man of intimidating size and muscle, I do not have strong upper-body strength. My primary concerns attending the class were that I would not have the strength needed to manipulate metal and that I would be extremely sore the next day from hammering on steel for several hours. I was surprised when it wasn’t painful or overly difficult to shape the metal.
“When metal gets hot, it’s like Play-Doh,” Borstelmann said. And he wasn’t exaggerating.
He offers three knife options for his students: crookshank, herb choppah, and a full tang knife. I chose to make a crookshank knife, which Borstelmann named after the all-metal handle that curves and twists.
The knife I made is not only the sharpest knife I own, but it’s also something I would be proud to show my great-grandfather.
Photography by Erica Brough