GONZALES, La. (WAFB) - The Louisiana sun beats down on a metal building. Inside the temperatures can reach 107 degrees.
Ethan Lee stands, drenched in sweat, grinding. “The surface has to be perfectly clean,” he said. “Any little piece of dust or anything will make it not precise.”
Precision is the holy grail of a bladesmith. On the grinder, two steel blanks Lee is preparing for a folding knife he is working on. “You can get it flat within a couple tenths,” he said.
That is bladesmith jargon for one-ten thousandth of an inch, half the width of a human hair. Lee grinds it out of every blade he makes.
Lee dislodges a super-charged electromagnet, removes the blade, and sets his micrometer. “Still got a few more thousandths to take off.” It’s got to be perfect to hold an edge.
The 31-year-old Navy veteran has been honing his skills since he was just 11. “I saved my money from summer. I bought myself a small coal forge,” he said. “I had a hammer, and I had a homemade anvil made out of a piece of railroad rail, and I just started hammering away.”
Back in those days, Lee said he would rather pound the steel by hand than let a machine do it. Today, he’s learned to let technology help him.
But he still likes to take the occasional swing. It takes him back to his early years. “I saw a blacksmithing demonstration, and it just amazed me how, when the steel got hot, it changed colors,” Lee said. “You could move it. You could hammer it. And it would turn cold again, and it would change colors again.”
“There’s something about seeing something in your head before you’ve ever made it,” he said, “and then going to the anvil, going to the grinder, and making that come to life.”
Lee’s more recent work caught the attention of the producers of the History Channel’s Forged in Fire. Back in 2017, Ethan competed against three other blacksmiths for a $10,000 prize. His winning barbarian sword earned him the Season 6 Championship.
This year, the History Channel invited him back to represent the Navy in the annual Armed Forces Competition. There, Ethan made it past four other knife makers into the final round.
As his blade was “tested” against a torpedo casing, the pommel broke off, sending Lee home one round shy of the championship.
The $10,000 he might have won this time would have been a big help in starting the custom knife production line Lee hopes to begin soon. But heel keeps grinding under the Louisiana sun until that dream is a reality.
You can see Lee’s work on his website: eleecustomknives.com, or in person at the Louisiana Knife Show, Sept. 11, at The Hall in Lafayette.