TOP VETERAN-OWNED, VETERAN-FRIENDLY KNIFE MAKERS WHO CONSTANTLY PUSH FOR PERFECTION
Heroes. For years, mine were the professional athletes who ran faster, threw harder, and jumped higher. They scored more touchdowns, hit more home runs, and scored more baskets than anyone else. And they did this inning after inning, game after game, season after season. Pretending to be them, I played sports outside until it was so dark I could not see my hands in front of my face. I absolutely idolized them.
But that was then. My new heroes also wear uniforms. They are also athletic, driven, mentally tough, and consistent. Regardless of the “game,” they also bring it every time. But their rules are different.
In their “games,” there are no standings and no real personal statistics. Instead, they play a game of life-and-death … for you and me. Who are these new heroes? The brave men and women of the U.S. military. I have always admired them, as I grew up wanting to be a U.S.
“I WANT PEOPLE TO GRAB ONE OF MY KNIVES AND KNOW THAT THEY CAN RELY ON IT WHEN IT IS NEEDED MOST.” — Joe Wheelis of Wheelis Knives
Marine. But it was in the aftermath of 9/11 when my classification of heroes officially changed.
In the following story, you’re going to meet some of them who now make knives for a living, as well as one who has a good relationship with them. The first is Joe Wheelis, who spent four years with the U.S.M.C. The second, Anthony Paul Fewkes, works closely with the military. Bill Rapier, the third, spent 20 years in the Navy, including several years as a member of SEAL Team 3.
Like you, their world revolves around blades. You’ll find out what started this love affair and much more. These up-and-coming knife makers are doing their absolute best to bring you the best product they can make. They are dedicated. They are focused. They are heroes. Forever.
ONE: Joe Wheelis/ Wheelis Knives
Marine, Paramedic, Knife Maker
Joe Wheelis is a hero in more ways than one. After his tour (2002- 2006) in the Marines, his service to his Americans continued, as he worked as a paramedic.
In the following story, the 38-year-old Pennsylvania resident explains how knives became his life.
MOTIVATED BY 9/11
I was struggling to pay my way through college when the events of 9/11 happened. I had talked to a Marine recruiter in high school two years before but decided not to go then. After the terrorist attacks, I was motivated to go back and sign up.
After boot camp and infantry school on the East Coast, I was stationed at Camp Pendleton [CA], where I was an infantry assaultman. I am a little biased, but it was the greatest job in the Marine Corps. Rocket launchers, explosives, and breaching made it a super fun job … most of the time.
I think camaraderie is what I remember most about the service. The members of my unit went through some really tough times together, and we became family. We fought amongst ourselves all the time, but we always had each other’s backs.
TWO IS COOL
What was the most gratifying aspect of my service? The sense of accomplishment and the honor of doing so. I guess that’s two things, huh?
I have always loved knives ever since I got my first Swiss Army knife for Christmas when I was 7 or 8. The Marine Corps gave me a greater appreciation for tough knives. We can break anything!
After getting out of the Marines, I was quite bored and couldn’t find anything that had the excitement of being an assaultman. I had been introduced to the medical side of things by our awesome Navy Corpsmen and developed an interest. I initially planned on joining the fire department.
However, after graduating from paramedic school, I faced the long prospect of going through the fire department hiring process or starting to work almost immediately with the county EMS service with which I had trained. I chose the second option.
In my career, I worked with two services across four counties in northwest Georgia. I received my EMT certification in 2007 and my paramedic in 2010. After getting my paramedic, I worked full-time in the field until 2017.
The most gratifying aspect of this position (paramedic) was making a difference. Everyone thinks that EMS and firefighters are rushing all over the places saving lives. It is just not like that. Most calls are mundane and not a life-or-death situation.
So, on that rare occasion that your skills and knowledge combine to save a life, it really makes you feel great.
YOU’D NEVER GUESS
In general, public service (fire, EMS, law enforcement) is just overly abused nowadays. The things people called 911 for never failed to surprise me.
I had a habit of getting grumpy when woken up at 2 a.m. for a toe pain call. The 24-hour shifts really bothered me, as well.
THE ROLE OF KNIVES
Multitools really shine in EMS. Oxygen bottles always had to be turned on and off and required a special wrench or the pliers of a multitool. And there was always packaging you needed to cut open or seat belt you needed to cut during extrications.
My transition to the knife world occurred when my wife and I moved to her family farm in Pennsylvania. We were in search of a slower and less stressful area than the quickly growing area of Georgia where we lived.
Although I had a national license, it can still be tricky to get certified as a paramedic when moving to a different state.
There were a bunch of hoops to jump through, and I realized that I didn’t really want to go back to that job. I had been making knives part-time for several years, so I decided to dive in head first and give it a shot.
When I first made this move, I knew it was going to be tough. I had almost no following at the time, and I knew how many knives I had to make and sell each week to come close to my paramedic salary. Let’s just say I learned how to live more frugally (LOL).
As it turns out, knife making is everything and more of what I expected. The knife making side is a blast! The real work is in the marketing and financial side of things.
The problem in knife making right now is that the field is saturated with knife makers. Some TV shows have seemed to really inspire people to try to make knives themselves. That’s great for buyers, but it makes for a lot of competition for the makers.
Knife making is also extremely time consuming. I often spend more than eight hours each day in the shop. Then I come home, clean up, and sit in front of the computer for two more hours for marketing, managing my website, and fulfilling orders. It can be a lot of work.
Wheelis Knives uses research, skill, thoughtful design, and the latest techniques to bring extremely high-quality knives to the serious user who can’t afford failures and expects the very best from their tools.
As for my specialty, I am starting to do a lot more big knives. Combat survival type stuff. I really enjoy making super tough tools that will take a beating.
On the flip side of that, I also do a lot of culinary knives. With culinary knives, it’s all about pushing the geometry, hardness, and edge thickness so it is a different challenge. I really enjoy working on both, as it gives me a break from each style and keeps things from becoming monotonous.
THE UNIQUE FACTOR
The details are what make my knives different. I think what really sets any custom knife apart from machineproduced knives are the little quality details that are sometimes easy to miss.
For example, taking the extra time to smooth the sharp lines, round over the corners, and add those extra little touches that make a knife more comfortable to use and pleasant to look at.
Most importantly, I want my knives to be reliable. I want people to grab one of my knives and know that they can rely on it when it is needed most.
With that in mind, I tend toward thicker steels than the norm. I have big hands and had issues before with some knives, so I always try to make sure there is plenty of room to grab hold. In general, I build my stuff to just be a bit sturdier.
I mostly use high-carbon steels and tool steels. I do use AEB-L and Nitro-V stainless, but they are mostly for culinary knives. The ones I use the most are 1095, 80CRV2 and A2 for outdoor knives, and 52100, 26C3 and AEB-L for kitchen knives.
I found that I can make just about any style knife with those. I have been messing around with some S7 tool steel lately as an ultra-tough alternative to CPM 3v.
Right now, I am taking limited full custom orders, so wait times are about five to six months.
I use a variety of materials, but I use the following options for my semicustom knives.
- Micarta is extremely durable. It provides a good grip even when wet, and it is a great all-around material. However, some say that looks a little boring.
- G10 is a layered polymer that is durable but slick unless textured. It is waterproof and chemical-resistant, but it does not have grain, so it does not have a lot of character.
- An acrylic-molded material, kirinite offers multiple colors and design options and is chemical-resistant and waterproof. It is most attractive, as many colors are metal flake. When wet, it does not offer a lot of grip.
- Wood offers endless patterns and colors, and it adds a beautiful and unique touch to each knife. I use tough woods, but there is still the slight possibility they may split over time.
I do all the knife making and heat treating. My wife used to help with sheath stitching. But she has started her own handmade jewelry business, and I have been left to do it all myself (LOL).
I am currently in school, so it has screwed up my schedule, but I will describe my normal day from before and what I plan after school.
On a typical day, I wake up with the sun and do not have to hear an alarm. I make coffee and eat breakfast before heading to the shop. I tend to make knives in batches of five to 10, so that I only have to fire up the heat treat oven and get dry ice occasionally.
So, Monday mornings I set the designs I am going to work on for the next week or two. It usually consists of a couple custom-order designs, a couple smaller outdoor knives, some big ones, and a couple kitchen- style. I like having a variety of knives to work on.
I spend the morning laying them out on the steel, cutting a rough profile on the bandsaw, and then shaping the profile on the grinder. After that, I mark the holes for the handle scales and drill and countersink all of those. After lunch, I roughly bevel the knives and get them ready for heat treat.
The next day is almost entirely spent on getting the knives through heat treat, sub-zero treatment, and tempering. During times while I am waiting on the oven to heat up, I work on other knives or clean up the shop.
On Wednesdays, I clean off all of the forge scale, finish the bevels, and prep the scales for attaching. Then I epoxy and bolt the scales before letting them rest overnight.
Thursdays are for shaping and finishing the scales. The final day is spent on making the sheaths for the knives and sharpening.
“WHEELIS KNIVES USES RESEARCH, SKILL, THOUGHTFUL DESIGN, AND THE LATEST TECHNIQUES TO BRING EXTREMELY HIGH-QUALITY KNIVES TO THE SERIOUS USER …” — Joe Wheelis of Wheelis Knives
This past fall I made the stupid mistake of rushing when working with sharp objects. I was behind on a machete and scheduled to leave the next day to go to a show and then vacation. The machete was a little tight in the Kydex sheath, so I thought I would just pop the butt of it with my palm. Unfortunately, I smacked it too hard, and my hand slid down the handle and right down the edge. I got lucky though. After a half dozen stitches, I was back home in time to finish the machete and get on the road.
The most gratifying aspect of making knives is seeing something start out as just a bar of steel and some other materials that are then turned into a beautiful functional tool that will last for decades.
I have never exhibited at any big knife shows like [the] Blade [Show], although I have gone several times since I grew up in the area.
I have exhibited at a bunch of gun shows, and they are definitely a unique experience. While there, I have been fortunate enough to meet quite a few great customers. In general, however, they are a tough crowd for custom knife sales.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE
For active duty military, reserves, law enforcement, fire, and EMS, Wheelis Knives offers a 5% discount on all nonsale products.
Name: Joe Wheelis
Age: 38 Residence & Business
Location: Newburg, PA
Family: Wife (Alaina)
Previous Occupations : Marine, Paramedic