My husband found Travis Weige’s knives purely by happenstance. We had been planning for weeks to celebrate my birthday at Otoko (see story below) but had been super busy with work and unable to plan much else. As always, my man pulled a rabbit out of the hat with the most amazing gift ever.
In confirming our reservation with Otoko, he came across a reference to Weige Knives online and reached out to Travis to see if he had any knives available. Travis wasn’t even in his shop that day, but agreed to meet Casey a few hours later to show him a knife he had that wasn’t yet spoken for. Mind you, Travis has a waiting list for his handmade knives…were you to place an order, it might be months before you would receive the knife because they are all custom and one of a kind. The chef’s knife Travis had couldn’t have been more perfect for me. The handle, crafted with half mesquite wood from Texas and the other half with stained maple from Oregon, symbolically represents the states from which we each hail. Needless to say, I was blown away!
That knife actually stayed in it’s case for almost two years. I think I may have been a little intimidated by the Bandaid “repair kit” that Travis had included in the case. This knife was so beautiful (and so sharp), I was just too nervous to use it. It really wasn’t until we completed construction on our new home and I started cooking in the new kitchen, did I actually begin to use it…and now I don’t reach for any other knife. Using that Weige knife completely elevates my experience of working in the kitchen to a whole other level.
A couple months ago, I reached out to Travis to get another knife to give to my husband for his birthday and also to talk about shooting him in his shop. As the company founder, he receives many of these requests, but he wanted to acknowledge and shine a light on his life long friend Dirk Michener, who has been making knives with Travis, somewhat behind the scenes, for close to five years now. Dirk and Travis have a long history…they’ve been buddies since high school, went to the same college, and have been hanging out, playing in bands, writing music and running a collective record label together on and off again over the years. And now they make knives.
After sharpening my knives and taking some pictures in his shop, I asked Dirk to tell me all about how he got into making knives with Travis, the actual process, and how he feels about his involvement in the venture as a whole.
“This is the story of how I got involved in making knives with Travis…
I was living in San Antonio. Travis had moved to Sunset Valley in 2012…he had this giant, two-story garage…basically like a 4 car garage and he wanted to find something to do with all that space. I was in San Antonio and I would come up every few weeks to hang out. And this one time I had come to visit, he says, “I’ve been watching YouTube videos, and I’m going to start making these knives.” And at that time I was like, “whatever, that sounds strange…I don’t know anything about this.”
And then he started doing it…the next time I saw him, he told me, “Hey, I’m getting pretty good at this. I’m getting good enough at this to maybe sell some! This is fun! I’m having a really good time doing this.” He showed me some of his work at his shop and I was like, “Dude, this is dangerous! You’re breathing in dust! Yada yada…I don’t want any part of this.”
At this point he wasn’t actively trying to bring me into his business. He was just showing off what he’s been doing. He made a knife at one point…like a whole, real knife…and I’m like, “Wow, that’s incredible that you like actually made that! That’s beautiful!!” And he told me this long process of how he did it that sounded all kinds of crazy and I just thought he was nuts. And I wasn’t really paying too much attention to all this. I was in still living in San Antonio…but it got to a point, I was having trouble finding work in San Antonio. I didn’t know anybody there…we moved there because my wife got a job there, that’s why we moved away from Austin. But all my friends are here…and I was just driving back and forth all the time.
Well, Travis calls me up one day in early 2014, and he was like, “Hey, I sold a knife to this lady who works for the Austin Chronicle and she was so impressed with it that she wants to write an article. She knows that I’ve sold some knives and she wants to write a story about me. I think after this article comes out, I’m going to get a lot more business and I’m going to need some help.” And I was like, “well, ok…I don’t have a job so I may as well try this out.” So I started commuting to Austin more often and he started teaching me. Not even a month later, the article came out in the paper…and they had decided to put him on the front cover and have Travis as the feature article. Suddenly, we just got a ton of orders. And so at that point, he said to me, “I’m going to pay you to learn how to do this!”….And I was like, “Deal! You’ve got a deal!”
I realized very quickly that it’s a pretty dirty job, it’s a pretty hot job, dusty, ruins your clothes, ruins your shoes, ruins your lungs. We were both learning together…although he had pretty much mastered the fundamentals in the two years he had been doing this before that article. And after the article came out, business blew up real quick. I think I started in March of 2014. So with all the orders that were coming in, I started driving up from San Antonio, staying for a few days, and just working non-stop, all day long.
Probably for the first six months of working with Travis I was very discouraged. It was really intense, hot, and I was fucking up a lot…there was a lot of fucking up. But Travis kept at me, encouraging me, “You can do it. You can do it.” He was right there with me during this point in my learning. I would get really angry…you get burned a lot when you don’t know what you’re doing. The metal gets really hot when you’re working with it so I was constantly getting burned, screaming…it’s a really painful process. You feel like you’re failing a lot…and if you don’t have someone there to help you push through, telling you you’re going to get it right…it would be so easy to just give up and quit. After I started getting the hang of things, we tried looking for more people to help us, and every one of those people would try it and quit. A couple guys were pretty good but because we couldn’t pay them much, they were like, “Yeah…this is definitely not worth it.” So right now, it’s just us.
There are two basic techniques of knife making…forging and stock-removal. We do stock removal. Travis decided pretty early on that he wanted to focus on chef’s knives and it’s much easier to work with stainless steel using the stock removal process, which is where you get a flat bar of stainless steel and basically shape the knife with the grinder. There are two main tools for making knives, a knife grinder…a special belt grinder and a drill press which he had got. That’s basically all you need to make a knife. Everything else you can send off to have done. You can send it to be heat treated. And so that was what he had been doing. I don’t think he knew much about heat treating up to this point. But he really learned how to make knives the hard way…like from YouTube videos and from just talking to random people. But after I started, really quickly, we bought all the tools we needed to do every part of the process in house. In addition to the belt grinders and drill presses, we have metal bandsaws, kilns, a Rockwell hardness tester, which measures the hardness of the steel, and lots of other hand tools.
Going through the process, we draw the pattern of the knife we’re making on the strip of steel. Every single knife we make is original; we don’t use templates so every knife is unique. Which is unusual…we know maybe one other maker who does this. Every one else we know uses templates. All of the steel we use is made in the USA. The materials used in the handles are locally sourced as much as possible as well. We draw the shape of the knife and then cut it out with the metal cutting band saw. And then the next stage is profiling. I put it on the belt grinder to make it come to shape. After it comes to shape, I drill the holes for the pins…which most of which are made by a lady Travis knows in Oregon. Then I grind all the coating that’s on the steel off…so it’ll cook right, because it won’t cook right if all that stuff is still on there. And I grind it thinner so it’ll be easier to work after it’s hard.
The cooking process makes the steel hard. Most people send their knives off for heat treating but it’s expensive. Once we started cranking them out, and decided to go all in on this knife making business, we got the kilns and started tempering them ourselves. We bought a piece of equipment called a Rockwell hardness tester…it’s a huge machine, weighs about a quarter ton. We went through this heat treating thing so many times…doing so many experiments.
If the steel gets too hard, it gets brittle and it will chip. When the steel comes out of the kiln, which bakes it to almost 2000 degrees, it’s super hard. I’ve taken a knife out of the kiln and dropped it and it just shattered like glass…and I was like, “whoa…ok. Now I know that happens!” By baking it in a second oven for a couple hours at a lower temperature, we’ve found how to get the steel to that sweet spot on the Rockwell scale, which allows our knives to keep their edge like they do.
A couple years ago, my wife and I moved back to Austin and now have a shop set up in my garage. Travis moved out of his Sunset Valley shop a while back and now works out of his shop in Belton. We’ll meet up, either at his shop or mine, and Travis will give me all my work for the next two weeks. I’ll stay focused on that, and Travis takes care of all the business side of things…taking orders, shipping, and working in his shop too. In the five years we’ve been making knives, business has just blown up. We sell our knives all over the world now.
I just recently hit my 1000th knife. One of my favorite aspects of making the knives is working with the woods. That’s one of the most creative parts of the process. Now, even though it’s still hard work, and hot, and dirty…I will probably continue to make knives for the rest of my life…like, I wouldn’t ever want to stop. At this point, to stop making knives would be like stopping playing the guitar. You just don’t do that. It’s a little more difficult than playing the guitar because you need the space…but as long as I have the space, I will continue to make knives.”
There are so many things about these guys I find impressive… Travis’s drive for perfection and his willingness to quit his career in the media business and go full tilt into a venture he knew nothing about before he got started. Dirk’s loyalty to his friend and perseverance in learning a trade that just a few years ago seemed completely foreign and out of reach for him. For any of us who might feel stuck in our lives and fear the unknown, their story should serve as an inspiration. Go to www.weigeknives.com to see more of their work and I highly encourage you to order your own!