The Artisan Knifemaker

The art of making knives and becoming a master of the craft is like learning to play and master the Great Highland Bagpipes. Both require lots of practice, extreme patience, attention to detail, talent, and sometimes it can take hundreds of hours of work just to make one knife or to learn one piobaireachd bagpipe tune. To become a master knife maker or bagpipe player it could take someone years.
I really didn’t pay much attention to knife making or know anything about it until my nephew Porter started making handmade knives three years ago when he was 14-years old. Check out his website and his Facebook page. Pretty impressive for a high school student. Currently, he has a waiting list of seven knives out for his custom knives. We were lucky enough to purchase one of his Santoku kitchen knives last year and use it almost daily. We feel spoiled since his own mother doesn’t even own one of his knives!
Porter McMichael santoku knife.
Porter McMichael custom knives (photo from Porter McMichael’s blog)
Every two years, 25 of the world’s most collectable knife makers are invited to showcase three to eight of their knives. The Art Knife Invitational is open to only 175 collectors and those spots are by invitation only. The knives sold at the show usually sell in the thousands of dollars. Dwight Towell is one of those knife makers invited to show this coming October in San Diego. He’s been making knives since 1966 and has been invited to every Art Knife Invitational since 1983. He also just happens to live a few miles from us on a ranch outside the tiny town of Midvale, Idaho.
Dwight Towell knife. Art Knife Invitational 2009 photo
Dwight Towell knives. Art Knife Invitational 2011 photo.
During a recent visit to Idaho by our nephew and his parents, we arranged for Porter to meet Dwight Towell and see his workshop. After a 10-minute drive from our house on a snow-covered gravel road we arrived to Dwight’s house. His unassuming workshop is located next door to his home where his family has farmed and ranched for over 120 years. Taking a break from working on a knife for the up-coming Art Knife Invitational, he greeted us outside of his workshop as we pulled up into his driveway. Dwight lives a quiet and simple life. Not much has changed in this part of Idaho over the past few years. Dwight doesn’t have a website or Facebook page, and a lot of locals around town have never even heard of him. He’s okay with that. He doesn’t need to market himself; in the collectible knife making industry he’s a legend.
Inside Dwight's workshop. Something interesting to look at in every corner.
Inside Dwight’s workshop. Something interesting to look at in every corner.
Knife blanks.
Dwight shows Porter one of knives he’s working on.
Porter McMichael holding one of Dwight Towell’s knives.
Dwight Towell’s work bench.
Knife engraving station.
Self-taught, his creativity is natural. He said he’s constantly dreaming and thinking about his next knife to make.
Dwight studied engraving from the artist, Winston Churchill.
Pattern for etching.
Porter looks through the etching microscope.
Dwight graciously answering all of Porter’s questions.
Custom leather knife sheaths.
Custom leather knife sheaths also made by Dwight.

Dwight showed us all of his different types of machinery and equipment involved in the knife making process. After the tour of his workshop, he graciously invited us into his home to meet his wife Celia and to see one of the knives he’s been working on for the upcoming Art Knife Invitational. Both Dwight and Celia were born and raised in Midvale. Celia showed us an old black and white photograph of them sitting next to each other when they were five years old. Dwight went to school in a one room school house just down the road from his workshop, which we’d noticed on the way to his ranch. Married right out of high school, they have been together for about 60 years. I asked Celia if she ever gets lonely while Dwight spends hours and hours out in his shop. She said that she will sometimes take her knitting out there to sit and spend time with him while he’s working. In the past 50 years he’s made over 1,200 knives.

Dwight shows April (Porter’s mom) his current project for the October 2015 show.
An unfinished knife for the Art Knife Invitational show.
Pheasant engraving detail.

I asked Dwight if he does commissions. He said, “No.” He said he stopped doing that a few years ago but has a list of people that want his knifes. When he is finished with one he’ll call the person on the top of his list, describe the knife, and see if they want it. I would think that most would jump at the opportunity to own one of his knives no matter what, and I think most do. An investment piece from a legend for sure. I asked Dwight if any of his children are following in his footsteps, and he said “No.” But one of his grandsons who lives out-of-state is learning knifemaking. It’s nice to see young people like Porter or Dwight’s grandson keeping the craft alive.

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