WINTERSVILLE L.T. Wright ignored the people who said he wouldn't be able to make a living in the knife industry. In 2006, he started L.T. Wright Handcrafted Knives, and since then their products have won loyal customers in every state and in countries around the world.
"I had this idea, and people were telling me 'There is no way you can do this,'" Wright said. "Years later, not only are we doing it, but we're growing and having a great time together as a company."
Wright's interest was sparked more than a decade ago when he went to a gun show and met R.W. Wilson, a Weirton native famous for creating the tomahawks featured in the 1972 film "Jeremiah Johnson." Wilson quickly became Wright's mentor.
PRECISION CUT — Master sharpener Scott Wickham, left, demonstrated the “paper test,” slicing tiny slivers of paper with the knife he had just sharpened as Nicholas Seliga, knife builder, watches. “We know the very first thing they do when they open the knife is shave their arm hair and cut a piece of paper, so we make sure when these products leave that they do that,” Wickham explained. — Shae Dalrymple
MAKING SHARPNESS — Scott Wickham, blade-sharpening expert at L.T. Wright Handcrafted Knives, is responsible for ensuring knives like this one are “as sharp as they possibly can be” before being sold. “Apparently it’s common for larger companies, not like us, to only bring the knife up to a certain level of sharp, and then they ship it. And then customer either has to touch it up themselves or send it somewhere. We don’t want them to have to do that,” Wickham said. — Shae Dalrymple
SHEATH MAKING — Dave Corona, known as the “Kydex Kid” at L.T. Wright Handcrafted Knives, shaved the edges off a folded piece of Kydex on its way to becoming a sheath. “It makes a good work environment,” he said. “Everyone here in their own right is a chief. You know people always say there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians. But we have to step into each others’ zones, so it gives everyone an opportunity to learn every job. We learn from each other, and there’s a lot of respect here for what we do.” — Shae Dalrymple
"He's a great guy. R.W. pretty much taught me the whole business," Wright said.
The business started out slowly in Wright's basement, where he crafted and packaged some of the first blades he sold. His wife Elaine would accompany him to shows on the weekends in an effort to meet customers, and their daughter, Erin, also got involved.
"As the Internet was coming on more and more, my daughter designed our first website, and we kind of went that direction," Wright said.
The Worldwide Web has opened the door for L.T. Wright Handcrafted Knives to reach its niche market, and much of their sales happen online. LTWrightKnives.com has become an active virtual hub for general outdoors enthusiasts as well as die-hard knife collectors.
The site features a private forum called "The Pout House," named fondly after a hand-built shack in the woods that Wright's great-uncle used as an escape from the routine of everyday life. The forum has more than 200 members who pay $20 per year for membership.
"Before the general public sees them, all the knives go through our Pout House forum," Wright explained. "The very first knife we came out with, the Genesis, we built 100 of them. We expected to sell them on Facebook and through the pub
lic. Our Pout House members bought every single one, and we were not able to release our first knife to the general public. That was a fantastic blessing, and it shows that our fan base really stands behind our products."
L.T. Wright Handcrafted Knives are also sold through a "Cyber Vault" where four times a year they host a knife show on Facebook.
"We have a series that we call 'Hot Off the Grinder' where we'll go in and film the guys building one knife start to finish, and we put it up on our Pout House forum. Within minutes that knife is sold," Wright said. "So instead of just clicking on a 'buy-it-now' button on a generic website somewhere, we're giving you opportunities to interact with the guys in the shop and all the people in here. With our YouTube videos, our customers kind of get to know us personally. We try to find different ways to buy a knife that make it fun."
The knife artisans in Wright's workshop each have their own private section of the forum to communicate with customers and the online community.
"They personally can go on, post pictures of what they're working on during the day and interact with our customer base almost in real time," Wright said.
Accessibility and the personal touch aren't the only reason customers have been loyal. Wright offers a lifetime guarantee that stands up to the tests of even the most rugged survivalists.
"If you're unhappy with our product at all, it gets replaced, repaired or refunded, period, end of discussion. That's the way I wanted to do it, and we've done that since the beginning," he said.
Wright spent about a year working in conjunction with another local knife enthusiast, Dan Coppins, under the brand name of Blind Horse Knives. They decided to go their separate ways last fall.
Now five knife artisans, including L.T., populate the workshop floor and work on about 300 knives in a week, finishing about 100 per week to be ready for sale. A crew of six handles orders, shipping and other responsibilities in another section of the building. Several employees have been there since the inception of the business.
"The people that we have here really like what they do I think. We have a bunch of guys and gals that are very excited to see the business grow," Wright said.
From the location on Warren Drive in Wintersville, Wright and two of his business partners also publish a bi-monthly magazine with more than 2,000 print subscribers called "Self Reliance Illustrated." Single issues are available on iTunes and Amazon, and the magazine has been going strong for three years.
Although they get many custom orders, LTWK currently produces two standard models: the Genesis and the Skeleton Key. The latter sports a sleek silver look and has a no-nonsense steel handle.
"The Genesis is my personal favorite right now, because I've taken everything I've learned up to this point and put it into Genesis. I wanted the best possible knife I could put out with all of my experience behind it, and I went into the design with that in mind," Wright said.
The base range price of an L.T. Wright knife is between $80 and $250, but custom pieces can sometimes cost more than $1,000 depending on what is being requested.
Wright tries to keep the heart of his business local by purchasing materials from regional suppliers as much as he can.
"One of the biggest things that we as a company are really proud of is that we're right here in the Ohio Valley," he said. "We definitely try to buy only American as much as possible."
Reporter gets sharp
Wright and his team were kind enough to offer me the chance to get my hands dirty in the workshop and learn about the knife crafting process firsthand.
When we stepped into the shop, I was immediately swept up in a chorus of harsh noises and a delightful burning steel smell. On the left was a dry erase board outlining man hours, grinds, builds, finishes and Kydex for the week, and next to that was a wall of hanging metal waiting to be processed into knives that had already been ordered.
Justin DiVittorio was operating the grinder opposite from where we entered, where blanked out chunks of metal like those on the wall are shaped carefully into blades.
"Justin takes care of all of our grinding for the most part," Wright explained. "He'll take a product from blanked out to actually putting the grinds on the knife and stamping them with our logo and then getting them ready to go to the next process, which is the heat treatment."
The heat treatment oven looks like a large microwave. It reaches temperatures as high as 1,850 degrees Fahrenheit to treat the metal.
Nicholas Seliga, knife builder, was working on fitting a guard on a knife handle at the build table with Mike Henniger, who normally works in marketing but was recruited to help build for the day.
Handles can be made from a wide variety of materials, including reinforced pine cones and animal bones.
"We dye our own bone, and we'll apply it to the knives. We have a color matching process where we dye it to match," Seliga said.
Scott Wickham's job is to sharpen the blade to a razor's edge after it has been treated, which was the first thing I got to take a stab at - not literally of course.
"Our goal is for them to say 'There has never been a sharper knife,'" Wickham said.
I donned safety glasses and a heavy apron caked with miniscule metal shavings before holding the knife up to the fine grit belt. I kept one finger along the bottom of the knife, close enough to the belt to feel it occasionally and hold it at just the right angle, as Wickham instructed. Knife crafters definitely have rough skin, and I imagined that my tender journalist hands were probably much more sensitive to the sandpaper feeling than any of the artisans there. It didn't hurt, but I was jumpy at first. Moving not-so-smoothly from left to right, I sharpened the grade at the edge of the knife and clumsily switched hands to repeat on the other side as Wickham kept a close eye. It was obvious as soon as I attempted the hand switch that knife artisans like those on Wright's team must be ambidextrous to some extent in order to keep both sides of each knife even, not just in sharpening but throughout the entire process. I was told that it's something that comes with constant practice.
After sharpening and testing the knife by making confetti out of a piece of paper, Wright showed me back to the grinder. DiVittorio was working at a table he designed specifically to help with the right-to-left hand transitioning.
"This was Justin's idea, the split table to allow both sides to look exactly the same. With a straight table, for some reason we couldn't get it. So the split table allows you to compensate for being right-handed only or left-handed only," Wright said
"A lot of other places would rely on a robot for this. This is our way of doing it," DiVittorio added.
He placed a blanked out piece of metal in a "jig," a custom-made tool used to control the location and motion of another tool, and suggested that I put my hair up to avoid being scalped by any moving parts.
"It's loud and it's moving and you have to get your hands close to it. It's different, but it's not that scary," DiVittorio said.
The belts used on the grinder have different levels of friction, but they are much coarser than the belt on the sharpener. DiVittorio scribbled on the piece of steel with a permanent marker and advised me to move it against the belt in a slow, fluid motion until the marker on that side was gone, then switch. Unlike the sharpener, this was not a good belt to touch at all, which I managed to avoid. Holding the jig in one hand and a small instrument to push the blade with in another, I could feel the metal get hot with friction and see the tiny bits of hot steel shavings flying off, landing in a bucket of murky liquid below and sometimes on my apron. Safety glasses are no joke in that atmosphere.
The sound of the machine drowned out everything else in the workshop, and I realized that most of the scorched metal scent from when I entered was coming from this station. Thanks to my fear of getting too close to the belt, I invented my own one-handed method by the time we finished the grinding. DiVittorio commented that it "wasn't that bad, actually."
"L.T. taught me how to do everything by hand," he said as we wrapped up. My handiwork was improved on before being passed on to be heat treated.
Dave Corona is Wright's resident Kydex artist at a table toward the back of the shop. Kydex is a thermoplastic material used to make sheaths or holsters for firearms.
"Our sheath side of the business we're planning on expanding to doing pistols and all things Kydex," Wright said. "This is an area of the company with a lot of potential for growth. Number one, Dave is very creative with the Kydex, but we also have a very good reputation of building quality, innovative Kydex products."
LTWK came up the idea to put a sliding lock on Kydex sheaths, something that other companies now pay them royalties to use. When the lock is engaged, the knife will not draw from the sheath, which prevents accidents and keeps the knife in place no matter how active the wearer is.
Corona also designs and assembles leather and Kydex hybrids, something rare in the industry.
"No matter what knife or sheath we make, it's the best materials we can possibly find," he said. "The craftsmanship is what we pride ourselves on. We really don't use automated machines."
Corona demonstrated how a Kydex sheath is produced. It began with a simple toaster oven. The piece of plastic-like material was heated until it became flexible, and then he folded and pressed it around a knife in a vice like contraption. Quarter inch holes were then drilled for metal rivets, and excess material from around the edge of the sheath was sawed off to give it its shape. He then smoothed down the edges on a belt that looked similar to the machine Wickham used to sharpen. Once finished, the whole thing is smoothed out to prevent the Kydex from scratching the knife blades.
Kydex isn't the only part of the business that Wright intends to expand on, and I surely won't be the last person to receive an introduction to knife-making from him.
"My goal would be to put another 25 people to work within a few years," he said. "We have increased in growth every year. We've never had a backpedal year. We always have an increasing workload and an increasing amount of people coming to work over the years. My goal is to have a freestanding building to where we can actually have a gift shop, tours and knife-making classes. I get asked about that all the time. We just have to get set up to do that. I'd like to stay in the valley for sure."
Two survival TV shows are set to feature L.T. Wright handcrafted knives in the next year, and the business is experiencing constantly increasing demand from its dedicated fan base.
"We're just moving the company forward all the time," Wright said.
(To see photos of Shae Dalrymple's knife-making experience, visit the L.T. Wright Facebook page. Dalrymple can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)