AUBURN — Inspired by YouTube videos during his junior year of high school, Isaiah Washington built a rough forge in his backyard – a hole in the ground insulated with cement blocks – and started making knives.
He laughs to think that his mother might not have known exactly what he was up to at first. Then he started taking up space in the garage.
“Every single time, I was trying to make a better one – (the first one) was hardly a knife at all,” said Washington, now 19.
With a year of trial and error, self-taught but for one three-day metalsmithing class, he opened The Zay Knife Co. last fall.
Washington has turned it into full-time work, making more than 100 custom knives in the past year, and he’s moved aboveground, if still in his mom’s backyard. Home base is a converted shipping container that houses a small, coal-fired forge and his anvil. The “fragile” stickers are still on the outside.
The goal, he said, is still trying to make each knife better than the last.
Hunting knives and chef’s knives are his most popular sellers. About half are whatever springs from his imagination and carbon steel that day and the other half are custom orders. It takes a day to make a chef’s knife, which retails for $50 to $150, and half a day to make a hunting knife, which retails for $75 to $125.
His first request came, after just a few weeks in business, from a man in Texas.
“This cowboy guy says, ‘If I send you a drawing, do you think you could make it?'” Washington said.
He could and did, and the happy customer posted videos online of himself modeling the Bowie knife on his belt.
His second custom order came through a family friend, for the movie “The Damned One,” shot around Lewiston-Auburn this summer. Director Colby Michaud needed two knives, one for his villain, Arthur, and one for good guy John.
“I said, ‘John’s a very simple man, he needs a very practical, useful knife. Arthur is the opposite, so he needs something that’s more materialistic or more fancy looking,'” said Michaud. “That’s all I gave him — I wanted him to have creative freedom with it.”
Washington forged a large, stylized knife in Damascus steel and a shorter, working man’s Bowie.
“When I finally saw them, I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that is John’s knife,'” said Michaud. “It was like, here it is. Like he had found it.”
Washington, who graduated from Edward Little High School in 2016, said he grew up always making things, first with Legos, then with Erector Sets.
After high school, he took a job in retail but quickly decided that wasn’t for him.
“I saved up $1,400 from working at CVS to buy a belt grinder (for knife-making),” he said. “The goal was to save my money, quit my job at CVS and try to make knives full time.”
He took one class at the New England School of Metalwork taught by Nick Rossi and said Rossi’s been helpful as an occasional resource.
“I’m still experiencing the learning curve,” Washington said. “Like, when you harden steel, you heat it up and then you put it in oil. I was using just motor oil. I told Nick Rossi that and he almost had a heart attack. ‘You need to stop doing that immediately, that’s not how you do it, you need to use this type of oil,’ I had no idea. (Motor oil) doesn’t cool the metal down fast enough as different types of oil would.”
He’s learned where to source metal for blades and wood for the handcrafted handles, discovering Rare Woods USA in Mexico, Maine for woods like walnut, tulip, kossipo, red Austrian Jarral and Cedrorana.
As he crafts them, Washington said he likes to add texture to the tops of his blades, often appearing as black smudges.
“What I’m going for, especially in my chef’s knives, I want it to look really rough at the top, to have this antique flare, and then it moves down to a smooth, polished surface,” he said. “Make it look from the old into the new, that’s my idea.”
Washington said he loves the freedom of the work. He’d like to grow large enough to hire an employee to handle marketing, shipping and social media so he can focus just on the knives. He’s also saving for a large workshop with everything under one roof.
His mom, who inspired the company name — Zay was her childhood nickname for him — did eventually come around, he said.
“About five or six months in is when I got her on my side about it,” he said. “That’s when she realized I was really serious about going for it while I have the opportunity.”
Isaiah Washington’s blacksmith shop is made from an old shipping container.
Isaiah Washington made this kitchen knife out of carbon steel and walnut wood.
Isaiah Washington polishes the blade of a chef’s knife in his Auburn workshop. Washington made the assortment of hunting knives, kitchen knives, swords and hatchets at left.
Washington’s 12-year-old sister, Olivia, made a sign for her brother’s business, The Zay Knife Co.