This month we put the oh-so talented Blacksmith and Knifemaker Moriah Cowles, of Orchard Steel in the hot seat (we really do love our puns).
Her adventures Woofing thru Mexico, hand forging on a charcoal stove, and finding inspiration in the daily life at her family orchard in Vermont; fills us with a desire to cultivate the simple life… Read on!
…and check out the tune that keeps her forge burning: below this interview
Nativen: First off, where are you from?
Moriah: I’m from Vermont, originally…. From just south of Burlington in a little town called Shelburne.
Nativen: How did growing up in Vermont influence your choice, do you think, to start doing knife making?
Moriah: That’s a good question… I grew up around a lot of artists and woodworkers. I think growing up on a farm… doing wood-working and metal working, just helping my dad out in the shop and stuff.
I don’t know if it came naturally to me, but it was just something that I learned while growing up on an apple orchard.
…I’ve always had an interest in making things. I’ve also always just loved to do art, and make stuff with my hands. I can’t really help myself.
Nativen: When did you realize that you wanted to be a knife-maker?
Moriah: I went to school in Colorado. I was an Art Studio minor, and I went out there one summer and took a blacksmithing class. It was the perfect marriage of art and function. I was making stuff that I could use and that felt really good.
When I was in this class, it was called “Blacksmithing and the Art of Utility,” I was able to make beautiful things that had really beautiful feminine shapes to them, and curves …in this really hands‑on organic way of beating on steel, and using fire.
It was very elemental. I got to make stuff that I could bring home and use… It was [a] really satisfying feeling.
Then, I hauled my college boyfriend back with me to Vermont and we worked on the family farm for three years, on the orchard, and also grew food.
On the side, I was teaching myself how to blacksmith… and eventually bought a forge, and borrowed our farrier’s anvil. The guy who does our horseshoes lent me one of his anvils, which is still the one I use.
I was making all these projects, and every time… I was like, “I feel like I’m reinventing the wheel.” I kinda want to specialize in something… And then… I took [a] blacksmithing class, in North Carolina, we made knives out of railroad spikes, which isn’t the best steel, but… they’re pretty and fun to mess around with. That was really exciting!…
I went to make another one, and I was Googling it, and found out that you need a certain type of steel… You need to use this process called heat-treating, which I didn’t know anything about… and all of a sudden the light went off.
It was like, “This is my specialization”
Then, that winter I took a bicycle trip through Mexico with that boyfriend, starting in New Mexico and went down through to Michoacán.
The whole way I had this dream… I was going to, somewhere along our trip, meet this old man who made knives that I was going to learn from.
So, I kept asking people along the way if they knew knife makers, and nobody did.
We got to this place where we decided we were going to stay awhile… we were working on farms in exchange for a place to stay, and food to eat.
We were… on this farm, and I asked the guy that we were working with, just cause I was asking everyone…and he was like, “Actually, yeah, there’s this really well‑known, amazing knife-maker, who lives right down the street, and he sells his wife’s sourdough bread on Tuesday’s at the farmer’s market. You should go meet him.”
That Tuesday I went down, all nervous, and went up to him, and said, “Oh my god, I hear you make knives. I really want to learn how to make knives.” My boyfriend at the time was with me, and he was like, “Yeah, she made this knife for me!..” I was like, ” Guuulgh shut up!”… [laughs]
He was like, “Ohhh, you think you know how to make knives?… All right, fine. Come by tomorrow at one, we’ll talk. You can come and see my shop.”
I went that next day, and he was like, “…Make a knife and show me what you know.”
I was trying to make a knife, but I didn’t know his setup… it was all outdoor, no electricity, charcoal forge and he was leaning over my shoulder, telling me what I was doing wrong.
“You’re holding the hammer wrong, and you’re doing this wrong, and why would you think to do that, and what about this?”
I was there from one in the afternoon until nine at night, and I finally finished and had heat-treated the knife, and I had almost cried in the middle of it. It was a hot day. I was outside all day, just scorched, and by a forge!
…[but] I stuck through it, and he looked at me and was like, “OK, you proved you’re interested. Come back tomorrow.”
I went back the next day, and he was a total sweetheart, and [I] had lunch with his family every day and I went back for six weeks. I apprenticed with him.
Moriah: …Then, when I came back… I started looking into it and… there’s a society called the American Bladesmith Society, that I’m now a part of. I took a class with them, up in Maine and then I just started making knives… I wanted to do something totally different. I wanted to learn about film and knives.
[So] I went out to New Mexico to work for a friend [on] his first feature‑length narrative. …Working with him and just a small seven‑person crew…All of the crew was from Brooklyn.
While I was working with him, I got an email from a friend of mine…who said… “Hey, I just wanted to reach out to you…I’m living in Brooklyn right now.. and there’s this guy who used to work in my shop who makes knives. I hear you’re making knives. It’s really weird that I know two people that do this. I figured I’d connect you. It was sort of my job to connect you guys… I doubt you’d ever want to live in New York City, but if you did, he’s looking for help. Here’s his information.”
And I read it, and I was around all these Brooklyn guys and they’re like, “Move to Brooklyn!” Two of them were like, “One of our roommates is moving out in September. You could totally move in with us.”
Nativen: So fortuitous.
Moriah: ..So, I emailed Joel [Bukiewicz], who was her friend, of Cut Brooklyn, and on my way back from working on the film, swung through New York and met him…We talked for two hours and nerded out on knives.
He was like, “All right, if you want to, you can start in two weeks.”
I went back to Vermont, tied up loose ends, threw some clothes in apple boxes, and put them in the back of my pickup truck and moved to Brooklyn.
That was three and a half years ago. That’s how I got here, through him. It was very serendipitous.
…[The] building that I moved into with those guys, two months after I moved in… burned down.. I got the settlement two years later, right when I was thinking of starting my own business…
The settlement check started my business.
Nativen: Amazing. That’s super fortuitous!
Moriah: Yeah. Maybe I’m just one of those people that’s like, “This is totally a sign!” [laughs]
Nativen: No, but the world works in mysterious ways, and when you have good energy flowing, that energy finds you. It’s awesome… The knife gods are smiling on you. I feel like it’s a good story.
Nativen: My next question is: What do you love most about Brooklyn? You talked about this a little bit, but how is it integral to your work?
Moriah: I really love what’s going on in Brooklyn right now… I’ve sort of come here at this amazing time where there’s tons of people that are going back to making things by hand and kind of getting into that artisanal anything. … Brooklyn has a name for itself now.
Nativen: Being a craft city?
Moriah: Yeah. It’s so inspiring. I’ll even look across here and think, “Who are these people? What are they making?” People right over there… I’ve thought about writing a sign like, “Who are you? Can I come over for a beer?”
Moriah: That’s great. I love that about Brooklyn. It’s also sort of this epicenter for press. So, It’s a great place to start a business …It’s cool to be a part of this community in that way. It’s good for business in that sense, but it’s also good for your heart to be a part of a community.
In Brooklyn, what’s your favorite restaurant?
Moriah: I don’t know. My favorite is cooking food with my roommates. [laughs]
Nativen: That’s great. That can be your restaurant [at] home.
Do you have a favorite home goods store?
Moriah: Brooklyn Kitchen is a cool home goods store.
Nativen: Do you have a favorite clothing store?
Moriah: What’s the thrift store that has the creepy baby face?
Nativen: Beacon’s Closet.
Moriah: [laughter]…I like that place.
Nativen: Do you have a favorite park or outdoor space?
Moriah: Prospect Park.
Nativen: Do you have a hidden gem in Brooklyn that you…?
Moriah: I’m not going to tell you that…. no I’m kidding. [laughs] …One sweet place to go and have a beer after work… is the little dock space behind Ikea… They’ve created a cool little park spot down there that can be really nice.
Nativen: That’s a good hidden gem.
What do you think, in Brooklyn, is the greatest resource to your work?
Moriah: Joel. [Cut Brooklyn]
Nativen: That’s awesome…. What do you think is your favorite piece that you’ve made so far, if you have a favorite piece that you’ve made so far?
Moriah: Well knife-wise… I’m really loving the steak knives that I’m making. I think that they’re really sexy, the shape of them and everything.
I don’t know why sexy comes up every time I think of the most beautiful knives, but they have this sex appeal to them… The really big 11inch chef knives I love. There’s something about the weight of them… They’re heavy, they mean business, but they still have a grace and lightness about them
Nativen: What part of the process brings you the most joy?
Moriah: I love forging them… That’s what got me into it in the first place, but I also really love when I’m doing the final buffing of the knife and the grain of the wood comes out… you see the character… It’s like the soul of the knife.
There’s a saying that when you heat-treat and when you quench the steel, that’s when you give the knife its soul. It’s a really meditative and powerful part of the process, because you have to really be paying attention. It makes or breaks the knife, literally, actually.
Nativen: That’s awesome. That’s a cool thing to experience in your hands.
What part of the process do you think is the greatest struggle?
Moriah: Well… The heat-treating process is the greatest struggle… I don’t always know if I did it right… There’s a few ways that I can tell, by the color of the steel after it comes out… I would test the edge, and if it got dull quickly that meant that it didn’t work.
Nativen: What’s one thing you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t done yet?
Moriah: Go mountain biking.
Nativen: If you weren’t a knife maker, what would you be?
Moriah: That’s the million dollar question. I don’t know. Can I say I don’t know? That’s a great question.
Nativen: Yeah. You can say you don’t know. In fact, I think that’s a really good sign that you’re in the right place.
What destination do you want to travel to, and how do you think that might inspire or alter your work?
Moriah: I want to go to Normandy, and I want to go to Scotland to visit distilleries.
My father has a distillery in the apple orchard. We make apple brandy, so I’ve been tasting different bottles of calvados… I think it will be fun to meet different distillers in Normandy, which is the region where they make calvados… apple brandy.
I would love to take a bike trip through Scotland.
I’ve watched my father as a business owner do something that he totally loves but has taken a really long time to support more than itself… watching him try to figure out this work‑life balance. And I’ve watched my mom force him to take vacations and go do something that is totally unrelated to work.
Those are the times when he comes up with the most creative solutions to problems that he’s been dealing with… Sometimes it is just a matter of getting away, dropping work, and dropping back into yourself in a way that you can only do sometimes when you get away from work, and get inspired and excited about life outside of your work, and then you can go back with this new perspective.
Nativen: Absolutely, and France has beautiful knife makers, too. I bought a gorgeous knife from this man in Southern France. He hand‑forges them and shapes them, and everything, there.
Moriah: …We’re everywhere. [laughs]
Nativen: Yeah. It’s true. It’s awesome. I’m glad about it.
Do you listen to music when you work?
Moriah: I do. More recently, I usually listen to Pod casts.
Nativen: Do you have a song or an artist that you kind of have on regular rotation right now?
Moriah: I’ve been listening a lot to “Lake Street Dive.” Have you ever heard of them?… [laughs] There is a song called “The Neighbor’s Song” which is a song about living in Brooklyn, and it’s like, “I can hear my neighbors making love upstairs.”
Nativen: What are [a couple of] words that sum up your work? I feel like sexy has to be one.
Moriah: Sexy can be one!
Functional ‑‑ it’s kind of boring, but that’s true.
Nativen: No… Absolutely.
Nativen: What’s the most helpful advice that you’ve received, and/or what advice would you offer to creatives looking to develop their own work?
Moriah: I would say… It’s important to recognize when you need help from other people and not be shy about asking for it.
Nativen: Yeah, that’s great.
Who’s your hero or who is someone who’s helped [influence] your work?
Moriah: [laughs] This is going to sound cheesy, but I feel like my dad. I’ve mentioned him before… He doesn’t make knives obviously, but I talk to him frequently and… every time… no matter what he’s doing, he’s like, “God, I love my life.” [laughs]
He’ll be walking around the apple orchard and he’s sooo beside himself, feeling lucky for what he’s doing. It’s what’s been able to make his business work, because people want to support that, and it shows in the land, in the apples, in brandy, in everything.
…[A] piece of advice he gave me, which has been really helpful… Sometimes you just have bad days. At the end of a day if you’re exhausted, you’re trying to finish something, he has always said, “Never underestimate the power of a clean shop and a fresh start in the morning.”
Sometimes I’ll put what I’m doing down, and I’ll clean my shop, and go home. Sometimes if I don’t do that, that’s when I cut myself or break something. It’s a simple piece of advice.
Nativen: What are five objects you can’t live without?
Moriah: My fiddle.
I want to say a hammer and anvil as one. Can that be a one object?
Moriah: [laughs] My bicycle, coffee maker. [laughs]
Nativen: Oh, that’s a good one. Coffee maker ‑‑ I like that.
You can check out more of Moriah’s work here.
Interview and Photos By: Lily Hetzler
This interview has been condensed & edited
all images copywright of Nativen