MATT MARTIN BRINGS HIS CREATIVE VISIONS TO LIFE WITH BLADES MADE FOR HARD USE
STORY BY JIM COBB, PHOTOS BY JENNA MARTIN
A knife that you really treasure is a very personal thing. That’s especially so when you’re on a personal basis with the person who made your knife. When you buy a custom knife, you’ve corresponded with the maker, and if you’re lucky, you’ve even gotten a chance to shake hands with that person. Because custom knives are made one at a time, no two are exactly alike. You are getting a one-of-a-kind product that has received the utmost in personal attention.
Often you can order exactly what you want without wishing and waiting that some commercial manufacturer will someday produce it for mass appeal. In this special section, we profile a small cross-section of makers—young and, well, not so young—who are producing interesting products that make us yearn for more.
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, colloquially known as the U.P., is rife with knifemakers large and small. Bark River Knives, Rapid River Knifeworks, D. Tope Knives, the list goes on and on. Squirreled away on the outskirts of the city of Gladstone, population about 5,000, is the world headquarters for Vehement Knives.
It is here that you’ll find Matt Martin grinding steel into pieces of functional art, with edges sharp enough to shave electrons from an atom. His wife, Jenna Martin, heads up Skin Bender Leather Works, making sheaths, wallets, and all manner of other goods.
He started his knifemaking career hammering coat hangers into blades for his G.I. Joe figures when he was about 10 years old. Knives and other blades have been a mainstay in his life since then. Safe to say that his skill has progressed just a bit between then and now.
Matt sold his first knife in 2008 and continued to make them on the side while he worked a full-time gig as an unexploded ordnance (UXO) technician. In 2013, he hung up that particular toolbelt for good and went all in with grinder and lathe. He was living in Colorado at the time, Longmont to be exact, and knives produced from that shop are sometimes referred to as LOCOs.
Seeking a lower cost of living so as to increase their toehold in the knife market, in 2016 they moved their operation to Michigan. They were familiar with the area already, what with its rich knife history, and Matt was able to partner with Mike Stewart at Bark River Knives for a time. Mike provided him with a corner of his facility where Matt could work on knives while his own shop was being built.
Once construction was complete in 2017, Vehement Knives opened for business in the new facility. At that point, they were off to the races and haven’t looked back. Each year since has brought new designs, revamped old favorites, and even more fans and followers of the brand.
“In addition to nods to notable knifemakers, many of Matt’s designs incorporate his study in various martial arts as well as just being a knife user.”
I asked Matt for a short list of knifemakers who have influenced him and his work. While the list could have been substantially longer, the first ones who came to mind were:
- Bob Loveless, for his impeccable design and execution
- Randall Made Knives, for their long and prolific history, as well as their high quality
- Walter Brend, for his eye-catching grinds and sexy lines
- Tom Krein, for his stalwart work ethic and no-nonsense, performance-based designs
- Mike Stewart, for his design teachings and history lessons
In addition to nods to notable knifemakers, many of Matt’s designs incorporate his study in various martial arts as well as just being a knife user. He is an avid outdoorsman and knows from practical experience what a knife needs to be able to do in that environment.
Each new knife model starts with a purpose. What is it that the knife should be able to do, and do well? What features does the knife need to accomplish it? Once that is determined, at least on a surface level, a rough sketch is drawn, details are added, then erased and changed. When the drawing is complete, it sits for a time while Matt lets things gel further in his mind.
“Once I hate it as little as I’m ever going to, I print that sketch and glue it to the bar of steel,” he said.
He grinds out the template, taking care to keep all markings intact. He will use the window near his grinder as an ersatz lightbox, checking everything as he goes along and making small adjustments if something doesn’t seem to ring true to his aesthetic sensibilities. From there, it is just a matter of drilling holes and there’s a new knife profile ready for field testing.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Some makers seem to struggle with naming their various knives. Others choose to do variations on a theme. Spartan Blades, for example, often uses names pulled from Greek mythology. Matt Martin is as much a wordsmith as he is a bladesmith, and many models in the Vehement lineup have a bit of a story behind the name.
The Proteus prototype was donated and auctioned off at the Navy SEAL Foundation benefit in September 2013. With that in mind, it was named after the Greek sea god, who was said to be the protector of Poseidon’s seals.
The Tunnel Rat was named after the soldiers in Vietnam whose job it was to infiltrate the underground tunnel networks of the enemy forces. Like their namesake, the knife is small in size but exceptional in capability. Plus, the stacked leather handle and similar design cues harken back to that time frame.
It is the Kuto Misa that really exemplifies this thought process when it comes to naming a new knife. In May 1999, Shamba Akasa Benoit, captain of the ship Kuto Misa, was piloting passengers from Lusambo to Bene Dibele in the Congo.
They were on an aid mission, providing medical supplies to treat onchocerciasis, or river blindness. It is a horrific ailment involving tiny worms that burrow under the skin and cause blindness if they reach the eyes.
Unfortunately, this was a war-torn area, and the ship, crew, and passengers were captured by the FAC (Forces Armees Congolaises). For the next three months, they were forced to travel up and down the Sankuru River to transport men and supplies.
When they finally escaped, Captain Benoit snuck back and sank the Kuto Misa, so it could no longer be used in the war. To commemorate the effort to reduce disease in the Congo, the Kuto Misa knife was born, designed to embody the same sense of selfless adventure.
SKIN BENDER LEATHER WORKS
In a loft area within the Vehement shop is the space for Jenna Martin and Skin Bender Leather Works. Since 2017, she’s been making sheaths and other leather gear on a professional level. She’s done work with several knifemakers, as well as for Vehement.
She does custom work to the clients’ specifications and offers a wide range of leather as well as stitch colors and other options. When she’s not busy with orders, she’ll whip up a few wallets or other accessories and offer them for sale in the Vehement Syndicate Facebook group.
MORE TO COME
With the release of the Mongrel, Vehement Knives has officially entered the folding knife arena. This was a partnership between VK and Medford Knives, with Matt providing the design and Medford doing the production. It was released through VK’s primary distributor, DLT Trading in Marinette, Wisconsin, and sold out rapidly.
“…every single blade that leaves the Vehement shop is not just fit for duty but intended to be carried and used.”
Outside of clearing the custom work queue, next up is likely the Grunt 2.0, a slightly revamped design that has been prototyped and field tested. The original Grunt was designed to be an ideal EDC blade, capable of handling all the basic knife chores one could be expected to encounter on a regular basis. The Grunt 2.0 refines the design, taking into account feedback from users of the original.
SETTING THE BAR HIGH
“Better knives faster” is the embodiment of Vehement Knives, the goal from sunup to sundown and beyond. At every step of the process, from initial design sketch to the last touchup to the handle, the focus is on providing the customer or client a truly functional knife.
While many collectors choose to keep their knives in pristine condition behind glass or on shelves—and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that—every single blade that leaves the Vehement shop is not just fit for duty but intended to be carried and used.
Alex Harrison from Night Watch Knives says it like this: “Every VK that exists is a user, whether it’s been used yet or not. It’s like Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar—the wear it accumulates over time is a sign of love and care.”
BARTERTOWN: WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO TRADE?
Every professional knifemaker occasionally has a knife that he or she isn’t sure what to do with after it is completed. Maybe the customer changed their mind, or it is a new model and the maker hasn’t decided yet whether to add it to the regular stable.
A couple of years ago, Matt decided to use these knives, when they crop up, as prizes in a new sort of giveaway called Bartertown. In their Facebook group, The Vehement Syndicate, he will post a short video showcasing the knife and discussing some of the design elements and such. Then, for a couple of days, members can offer something in trade for the knife, the more obscure the better. Some of the more notable offerings have included:
- Antique hand tools
- World War II relics
- Tony the Tiger tea set
- Fossilized lobster
- Baboon skull
- Hannah Montana plate
Matt is quick to credit the Syndicate’s members for making this idea a success, something they’ve run several times now. Once the winner has been announced, members often discuss side trades with one another. What started as just a fun way to give away a knife turned into something truly spectacular to witness.
MAD ART STUDIOS AND DEAD KING LOUIS BEADS
The logo for Vehement Knives is a skull wearing a crown, called Dead King Louis. A sketch of it was made years ago and it has since found its way onto patches, flags, stickers and more. Then, in 2018 an artist named Robert Peterson, owner of Mad Art Studios, sent Matt something that he’d created, a bronze Dead King Louis bead. It was as if the sketch had come to life, extremely detailed and with a solidity that had to be seen to be believed.
This was the start of a partnership between Mad Art Studios and Vehement Knives that continues to this day. The oversized lanyard beads came to be called DKLs and adorn the pockets of VK fans around the world. Many of them will snap photos of their DKL in various places when they travel for business or pleasure.
THE VIVO VEHEMENTER REALE
While anyone can pick up a Dead King Louis bead, if they have the scratch and match up with a seller, only a select few own a Vivo Vehementer Reale. Crafted by Mad Art Studios, it is modeled after an ancient coin, but carries far more than monetary value. It is a literal token of appreciation given to members of the Vehement Syndicate who Matt and Jenna Martin feel exemplify the Vehement spirit.
Each one is numbered and is accompanied by a handwritten letter explaining why the recipient has been chosen to receive it. They are never traded, bought, or sold. At least one recipient has instructed his wife to make sure it is in his coffin upon his burial.
6 Robert Hupy Dr, Gladstone, MI 49837
The Vehement Syndicate