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June 9, 2014

Knife making hones man’s life 

VALDOSTA — Ed Braun got into knife making almost by accident.

A friend’s father passed away. Knowing Braun had been interested in gunsmith work, the friend gave Braun a box of odds and ends from his father’s garage.

The box included a couple of pieces of flat bar stock steel, a couple of books on knife making and some handle material. Braun had been approached about making knives, but it never appealed to him.

For eight months the box sat in his garage. Until one day, the box toppled over while a friend visited Braun.

Out spilled the bars of steel, the books, the handle material.

Nonchalantly, Braun’s friend asked him if he could build a knife for him. Braun said, sure, and that’s the moment when his life pivoted.

Somewhere in the planning, the design and the seemingly endless pounding and polishing, Braun found something that spoke to him.

“I honestly could not tell you more than I found something,” Braun says. “I found my true self in it. Something very deep seated and natural just took over.”

Braun, a self-admitted overthinker, lost himself in the process, looking up to find hours had passed while he worked.

“For an egghead like me, it’s an incredible thing.”

Researchers call the mental state “Flow” where you get so focused and lost in what you’re doing that time flies by without you realizing it, but there’s also a Japanese term for it: Mushin, which roughly translates as “without mind.”

For Braun, it offered a change from his over-thinking tendencies.

He kept at it, building knife after knife, but he didn’t just want to repeat himself. He wanted to grow, to learn.

“I knew what was in the books I had wasn’t the complete story. It was just scratching the surface of everything involved in the process.”

A lifelong academic — Braun is an English lecturer at Valdosta State University, he delved into the science behind forging blades.

He found a wealth of information and an active, welcoming online

community of knife-makers.

The community is so supportive that when Braun’s grinder started falling apart last year, grinder parts arrived in his mailbox, sent by fellow bladesmiths who wanted him to keep working.

For the first year, he gave blades away, not feeling comfortable charging until he honed his skills to match his desired level of quality.

He became more involved by degrees. He built a forge “just for heat treating” to forging damascus blades with distinctive patterns.

In 2011, he opened Alef Forge and started taking custom knife orders.

He developed a signature for his pieces. His name and the name of the forge form an oval, with the Hebrew letter Alef in the middle.

He chose Alef for two reasons, to honor his Jewish heritage and to allude to Middle Age alchemists who used the letter to symbolize fire.

Whether it’s kitchen, utility or all-purpose, whether it’s three inches or 20 inches, he signs each blade. It builds his reputation, gets his name out there, but it also reflects Braun’s attitude towards forging and knifemaking.

He keeps a handwritten note above his bench, something he jotted down one night: “I am a reflection of my work and my work is a reflection of me.”

It serves as a constant reminder, a starting point for each new piece, a core philosophy.

“That’s my signature and I have to look at, is that a knife I’m going to be proud of two or three years down the line?”

As proud as he is of the look, the feel and the aesthetics of each blade, he’s equally proud of their performance. Take kitchen knives, for example.

“A kitchen knife is really a sports car in the end. It has to have not only those lines, but the right heat treating, the right edge geometry. If I’m going to charge somebody to buy one of my pieces, they better be getting a Ferrari. I don’t want my work hanging on a wall. It’s meant to be used and I want them out there being used.”

Bladesmithing is a time-intensive job, with each individual piece taking anywhere from 20 to hundreds of hours. Juggling that with teaching, being a parent and being a husband can be difficult, but Braun sees his work in the forge as contributing to all areas of his life.

“This work enables me to be a better dad, a better husband, a better teacher. This has helped me find a set of bearings to become a more conscionable, more ethical, more altruistic person.”

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