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Area knife makers excel



TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN M. VINCENT - 176 -- Each Zero Tolerance knife at Kai USAs Tualatin factory is assembled by one worker. The Kershaw brand of knives are built by teams of assemblers.When you list businesses where the Portland area dominates an industry, you might think microchips, microbrews or sports apparel.

Add to that list the knife, cutlery and bladed-tool business. Local manufacturing facilities produce products ranging from sporting knives to multipurpose tools and kitchen cutlery.

From large suburban factories to tiny workshops and a craft forge in Southeast Portland, the industry employed about 2,200 in Clackamas, Columbia, Multnomah, Washington and Yamhill counties at the end of 2014’s third quarter, according to the Oregon Employment Department.

The state classifies the industry as the “Cutlery and Handtool Manufacturing” segment.

“It’s a cyclical industry, but employment numbers hovered between 2,200 and 2,600 for the last 10 years,” says Amy Vander Vliet, a regional economist with the employment department. The segment lost jobs during the recession, but nearly bounced back by 2013. “Overall, employment trends are steady, with short term cycles,” she says.

Wages for the knife and bladed tool industry outpace the metro area’s average by a wide margin. The overall average for the region was $52,654 through the third quarter of 2014, while the knife segment’s average annual wages reached $60,211, according to the employment department.

Products manufactured by the industry range from simple $25 pocket knives to finely-crafted chef knives and tactical knives built from exotic materials that can easily exceed $1,000. Industry representatives stress that they are making cutting tools, not weapons.

The local industry traces its roots back to 1939, when advertising executive Joseph Gerber commissioned some cutlery sets as gifts for associates. Now a unit of the Finnish company Fiskars, Gerber Legendary Blades is the largest supplier of knives and multi-tools for the U.S. military.

Gerber operates a manufacturing facility in Tigard that employs between 200 and 300 employees, depending on the season. All of the production of military products is done in the United States, and about 30-35 percent of their overall production is U.S.-based, according to Gerber public relations representative Mike May.TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN M. VINCENT - 354 -- Every Leatherman tool is manufactured at the companys Portland factory. Leatherman created the innovative mulii-tool with pliers, starting the company in 1983. The product lineup grows each year with specialized tools for different users.

Kai time

In 1974, Pete Kershaw left Gerber to start his own company, Kershaw Knives. In 1977, Kershaw Knives became part of Japan’s Kai Group. Kai USA now produces Kershaw and high-end Zero Tolerance knives from a 55,000 square foot manufacturing facility in Tualatin.

The factory opened in 1997 in an effort to move all sporting knife production to the United States from Japan. At the time, due to currency imbalances and capacity constraints the company was insolvent. In 1997, Kai USA employed 25 people, now it employs 290, according to chief operating officer Hiroshi (Jack) Igarashi.

Kai USA’s sales are expected to exceed $100 million in 2015, after passing $90 million for 2014. Igarashi counts the company’s success on three pillars: quality, technology and innovation.

Benchmade Knives came to Oregon from California and now employs 190 workers.

“We make premium edged sport cutlery,” says Public Relations manager Derrick Lau “Everything is done in Oregon City. Nothing in the Benchmade family is imported.”

Other large knife and bladed tool companies include Tualatin’s Al Mar Knives and Columbia River Knife and Tool Inc.

For Portland’s Leatherman Tool, knife blades are just a part of their innovative multi-tool lineup. Manufacturers of the original folding multi-tool, Leatherman now employs 500 workers at their 90,000 square foot manufacturing and 50,000 square foot packaging and distribution facilities near the Portland International Airport.

“In our by-laws, it says we are always going to be an Oregon company,” says marketing communications specialist Kitri McGuire. Founder and Oregon State University mechanical engineering graduate Tim Leatherman was convinced that the world needed a multipurpose device with pliers and other tools. He joined forces with college friend Steve Berliner to start the Leatherman Tool Company in 1983.

The company now produces a wide variety of multi-tools ranging from models similar to the original to those designed for military and first responder roles. There’s even a brightly colored Leatherman Tool for kids, with a knife blade that parents can attach when the user is ready for the responsibility. 2014 sales were $100 million according to McGuire.

Chef knives

At the opposite end of the production scale is the small Southeast Portland workshop where Adam Sigal crafts Station Knives. Sigal and one other employee craft one high-end kitchen knife at a time.

“I put in a lot more detail than you would be able to get from a large factory,” he says. “I steer away from the rustic look, trying to come up with a little more clean finish that is favored by a lot of chefs and bartenders.” He worked with the bartenders and chefs that use his products to create a lineup specially designed for their demanding conditions.

Sigal only produces about five knives per week, with prices ranging from $250 to $400. Each knife style is named after a family member. He moved to Portland from Brooklyn, New York because “the food community was amazing, and the rent was cheap,” he says.

The sound of hammers striking metal is unmistakable coming from a storefront on Southeast 17th Avenue in Sellwood. There Oaks Bottom Forge creates knives the way that they were made centuries ago, by heating and hammering into the proper shape.

Owner Pat Wojciechowski and his staff of 15 make knives by day, and teach the craft at night. The company launched after Wojciechowski took a class on blacksmithing, and started to craft knives that were as artistic as they were functional.

After receiving orders from Timberline Lodge and a few other sellers, he started Oaks Bottom Forge three years ago. Each day they start the forge’s fire with paper notes of their intentions, understanding that each piece of metal is eventually going to be someone’s knife.

“This is going to go to someone’s home to prepare food,” he says. “It’s going to go hunting, or on a camping trip. We hammer one heirloom at a time.” One a good day, the company completes eight to 10 knives.

Charcoal fire, a handheld hammer and an anvil are the essence of old-world blacksmithing.

“It’s pretty fun hanging around the fire,” he says. “There’s nothing that replaces the crackle of the fire to me. That’s part of our daily lives.”

For customers wanting the learn the centuries-old art, Oaks Bottom Forge hosts 11 classes on various old world crafts, including blacksmithing and knife making. Currently the classes are booked through June.

Reach third-generation Oregon

journalist John M. Vincent at

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@OregonsCarGuy on Twitter.

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