Bryan Gonzalez almost never stops at Clyde’s Market on the corner of Highways 144 and 17 for gas, but the morning of May 16 was different.
“I usually don’t go there, but I was making a delivery and needed gas, so I guess I was just at the right place at the right time,” he said.
May 16 was the day work crews began cutting down the centuries-old “Crossroads oaks” in front of Clyde’s. Gonzalez, who makes custom knives in a workshop behind his Richmond Hill home, knew immediately what he had to do.
“I asked the foreman if I could have some wood, and he was nice enough to cut some for me.”
Gonzalez got a piece about 30 inches long and about 10 inches in circumference. While the trunks of the oak trees revealed a large amount of rot when they were finally taken down, Gonzalez got a piece from an upper limb that was still in good shape. While he was there, he took some video and a few pictures that he has posted online, lest anyone doubt where the wood actually came from.
His plan is to make about 40 knives using the wood for handle grips, and sell them to people who want a memento of the oaks. You can find more information on his website, www.gonzalezknifeco.com, and Facebook page, www.facebook.com/gonzalezknife
“It’s hard not seeing them there,” he said of the trees. “I just wanted a small amount to make something for people who really want a piece of history.”
At this point, Gonzales has 44 sets of “scales” cut, with each set able to form the handle of one knife. He said it will take about two weeks to get the wood ready through a lengthy process of drying before he knows exactly how much is usable, but at this point, he believes 40 is a reasonable number of knives to produce.
“Oak is hard to dry,” he said. “It usually takes about a year per inch for it to dry normally. It’s not something you’d traditionally pick for making knives.”
Gonzalez is able to speed up the drying process using a kiln and by soaking the pieces in a resin mixture that stabilizes the wood and allows a vacuum pump to suck the air out. He also has a few cut pieces with the bark still on from which he will be able to make handles with a raised grip. The rest will have a finished surface.
Once the wood is ready, Gonzalez said he will offer two types of knives — a drop point, more commonly known as a hunting knife; and a slip joint folder, more commonly known as a pocketknife. Both will have stainless steel blades, which he said are easy to clean and sharpen. The drop-point knives will sell for $350 and come with a leather sheath, while the folding knives will sell for $400.
Amanda Galbreath was among the first to place an order and is buying a drop-point knife for her husband, Steven.
“He’s from Richmond Hill, and this is something he’ll really appreciate,” she said. “It’s a unique gift.”
Amanda said she expects Steven, whose family owns Galbreath aand Sons Heating and Air, to use the knife rather than stow it away.
“There will be a lot of uses for it around the shop or out on jobs opening boxes and things,” she said.
Gonzalez said he hopes the people who buy the knives will use them, but he understands if they are purchased strictly as a keepsake.
“I hope people use them,” he said. “It’s a tool, so people shouldn’t be afraid to use them. Knife handles take on a little character when they get dirty.”
As for people who want to buy a knife just for show, Gonzalez said he can also make custom shadowboxes for display.
“I think something with a picture of the trees in the backgrounds would look cool.”
Another reason Gonzalez is waiting to decide how many knives can be produced is so he can inlay a small piece of silver (made from old silver dollars) in each handle with the recipient’s initials and the number of the knife in the series.
“I like to repurpose things as much as possible,” Gonzalez said of the silver dollars.
His workshop at home is made of wood that came from a massive crate used to ship jet parts to Gulfstream, where he once worked, and he even has made knife handles from corn husks that go through the same drying and stabilizing process the oak will go through.
“Corn on the cob, right from our kitchen table,” he laughed. “People send me things all the time that they want incorporated into handles for custom pieces.”
A football cut at the seams rests on his work bench, slated to become part of the handle for a gift a wife has ordered for her football-coach husband.
Gonzalez made his first knife at age 10 and has always been interested in mechanical endeavors, including a 1973 Volkswagen Beetle he restored in high school. The San Antonio native came to Georgia in the Army and stayed after being discharged. His metal fabricating company that focused on the housing market suffered like so many small businesses in the 2008 economic crash, and after a brief stint in the aviation world, he decided to pursue knife-making full time.
Gonzalez said he started by making oyster and crab knives, of which he still sells several hundred a year, then branched out into making custom knives. He spends up to 14 hours a day in his workshop and gets plenty of help from wife, Carrie, and their children.
“I started doing some shows, and it really took off from there,” he said. “A lot of it has been word of mouth among collectors. I’m fortunate to be able to do something that’s my passion.”