City axes 19-year-old Auburn man's knife business

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Isaiah Washington’s original blacksmith business was made from an old shipping container. The city has closed his business down. (Sun Journal file photo)

AUBURN — Nineteen-year-old Isaiah Washington opened The Zay Knife Co. a year ago in his mom’s garage and immediately began selling handcrafted knives all over the country.

Largely self-taught, he built a coal-fired forge in the backyard out of a shipping container and was starting to build up a clientele.

But Washington didn’t know neighbors had been complaining about him to city officials. He said he didn’t realize there was any issue at all until a feature story about his business ran in the Sun Journal and the city shut him down that same day.

Now, he’s on the hunt for a new space and hoping someone will give him a chance.

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“They shut me down when I had $200 in my bank account,” Washington said. “I can pay a little bit, but I can’t pay a lot.”

City officials say it’s a matter of zoning and commerce.

Eric Cousens, Auburn’s deputy director of economic and community development, said officials understood it was a hobby, not a business.

“People are able to pursue hobbies at their home with more flexibility than businesses that impact neighbors,” Cousens said. “Blacksmithing is a noisy, smoky industrial process that is not an allowed use in residential districts in Auburn. Isaiah was making some very nice knives and is a talented young man. We would like to promote creative businesses like Isaiah’s and we have been looking to see if any industrial property owners might be open to hosting his blacksmithing shed on industrial zoned land, but have not found a location yet.”

Washington said he’s been interning at the New England School of Metalwork, doing tasks like cleaning up, in exchange for hours at their forge to finish projects in-process as a temporary fix.

He’s looking for space the size of a bedroom, ideally both industrially zoned and with the ability to vent his forge outside.

After graduating from Edward Little High School in 2016, Washington had taken a retail job to save $1,400 to buy a belt grinder to open his shop and hadn’t looked back, until now.

“I hate having a regular job — I like doing this much, much better,” Washington said. “I can put away eight hours in the garage without realizing it, the days just fly by when I’m in there working.

“(I’m) a little discouraged right now, but I know it’s just a setback,” he added. “At the end of the day, it’s going to end up being a good thing, it’s going to force me to get out of the garage and, hopefully, somewhere more legitimate, I guess.”

kskelton@sunjournal.com 

Isaiah Washington polishes the blade of a chef’s knife in his Auburn workshop in September. Washington made the assortment of hunting knives, kitchen knives, swords and hatchets at left. (Sun Journal file photo)

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