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


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.

“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.” 

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)

  • peter

    No coments?
    If i could give a place i would. Artisans are very few around this area.

  • KR Hannon

    This story illustrates everything that is wrong with current zoning practices – and city government. Apparently Auburn is a city that caters to whiny NIMBYs and its own too-rigid, outdated, unsustainable development patterns; instead, it should foster economic development and old-fashioned entrepreneurial zeal.

  • Mitchell Lubline

    This is why people are losing their homes. Cities over regulate a harmless business ventures and next thing you know they can’t afford to stay. He has a great talent that should be allowed to flourish but instead his whiney neighbors couldn’t be adults to ask him to move his shop or to switch the type of forge he used from coal to propane. Hopefully he gets another forge going soon.

  • Ilovebowieknives

    So, the neighbors went directly to city officials instead of trying to deal face to face with their neighbor about a very minor issue? Just one more indication of how soft-headed our society has become.
    At some point, we will have only the freedom to pace in our cages.
    I’ve made knives since I was in gradeschool. This kid is making a go of it how small businesses are supposed to start- at home. With hard work, he could have moved to a larger space, maybe employed a few people. Not now. And I’m SURE that NONE of those neighbors who complained have ever done anything to annoy their neighbors. Well, except complain behind their backs like children, instead of just going over for a visit like and adult. The “city officials” should have shown leadership, and told them to handle it between neighbors first, before coming to them.
    I guess we are lucky nobody complained about Steve Jobs making computers in HIS garage!

  • WildOmar999

    I suspect this talented young man will find a way. Crushing regulations notwithstanding, craftsmanship and the entrepreneurial spirit will prevail.

  • Yohn
  • Levi Gouette

    So neighbors went right to the city instead of talking to the poor guy first over a simple issue?
    Almost pathetic, honestly. I wish him luck in finding space!

  • Jude Castagno

    He probably has liberal neighbors!!!!

    • Stephanie

      Hardly… sounds more like a neighbor that likes to complain and isn’t very neighborly at all. Which doesn’t really indicate liberal or conservative views since there are lots of complainers on all sides of the political spectrum.

      • Jude Castagno

        Yeah, I suppose you’re right.

  • Jumpinjackfash

    I hope this kid finds a place and is successful. People suck.

  • J R Joseph Ferguson

    My neighbor complained that we sometimes camp on our farm in rural Virginia during hunting season, and next thing we know we were told it is illegal to ever camp out on your own property. We went to court to fight it and lost! They want us to get a “commercial campground permit” from the county, for $1,350.00 !

  • Bob_Robert

    It is the full time job of every petty government bureaucrat to seek out and crush innovation where ever it is found. I sincerely wish Eric Cousens long and painful unemployment.