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Meet the Woman Behind Some of the Coolest Knives Money Can Buy

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In the whimsical world of custom knifemaking, Kaila Cumings is a rising star.

a woman making a knifeCRKT

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The custom knifemaking industry isn’t like any other. It’s a balancing act of aesthetics, functionality and all-too-present danger. Alongside artistry, there’s an artistry to crafting boutique blades that demands passion and creativity. In many ways, Kaila Cumings embodies these diverse attributes. But she doesn’t fit the traditional mold, and her knives follow suit.

“I want my pieces to be practical, and they’re meant to be used, but unless I have something very specific in mind, I like to just see where the metal takes me when I start forging.”

Carving her own path from the beginning, Cumings built a following first through her YouTube channel, where she reviewed knives made by others before jumping into the arena herself. She also appeared on the Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid series, showcasing survival skills — learned from her father in the backwoods of New Hampshire — in Colombia and South Africa.

For the past decade, Cumings has crafted reliably rugged, fiercely beautiful designs from her Vermont workshop — and the industry has taken notice. Earlier this year, CRKT launched its first collaboration with Cumings. Bearing her daughter’s nickname, the 7.44-inch Bugsy ($170) is one stylish, formidable fixed blade; more are in the works. And as we learned in this wide-ranging interview, while her knives are cold and sharp, her demeanor away from the bench is anything but.

a knife on a mossy rock
Most of the knives Cumings painstakingly shapes, sharpens and sells are one-offs. Her 2023 collaboration with CRKT, the Bugsy, is the first blade she has made to be widely available.
CRKT

How did you start out making your own knives?

I started out in 2011, posting knife reviews and gear reviews on my YouTube channel. And then I realized, I really shouldn’t be reviewing someone else’s work if I don’t even know the whole process myself. That’s what made me want to start making knives. I watched a lot of YouTube tutorials, and pretty much all of it was self-taught.

What sort of workspace did you start in?

The beginning was a lot. My mom’s got dementia, so I was helping out my parents. I set up my shop at their house so that I could keep an eye on my mom and help out and then also work. My first “workshop” was in their little tool shed [laughs], and it was so small I had to bring my forge and my anvil and everything outside. There was no way I could actually forge in that little shed. I’ve definitely come a long way.

ulu knife with bone handle on the ground
Cumings fabricated this one-off ulu with a twisted Damascus pattern blade and bone handles. An ancient, versatile food prep tool, ulu is short for uuluuraq, an Inuit word for a woman’s knife.
Kaila Cumings

All of your knives, except for the Bugsy, are completely custom. How does your production process work?

Everything I make is a one-off. If there’s a knife that’s really popular and people want to buy more of them, then I’ll do a run of ’em. But everything is essentially a one-off because I’m not using a water jet. I’m still making them all from scratch. They’re going to look somewhat the same, but they’re gonna be slightly different.

What’s your mindset like going into making a knife? Do you consider where and how it will be used?

I usually go into the shop with a blank canvas. I want my pieces to be practical, and they’re meant to be used, but unless I have something very specific in mind, I like to just see where the metal takes me when I start forging.

What is your favorite material to work with?

a person making a knife blade on a machine with sparks flyingCRKT

I work with high-carbon steels, but I love making knives out of unique objects. Once, I forged a knife out of a pin that a man had removed from his leg — he had it in there from getting blown up in Afghanistan. I’ve also made customized knives for Boston Bruins hockey players out of their old ice skate blades. I’m currently making a knife for a customer from an old carpenter’s hammer that was his grandfather’s.

How long does it take to make a knife from start to finish?

Time always varies — it could take anywhere from a week to six months. It all depends on how much detail is going into it. I like to put as much time as possible into every piece I create.

When you drop a knife on your website, does it sell pretty quickly?

Yeah. I’m pretty fortunate. They sell in anywhere from a few minutes to one hour. I’m really lucky that I have a good following where people actually want to buy my stuff.

Does it feel surreal to have started out in a teeny shed, and now you’re selling custom knives within minutes of releasing?

Absolutely. I’ve worked so hard, too, to get where I’m at. I’ve been doing it for over 10 years, and I just feel like I’ve earned my place. Sometimes I forget how far I’ve come, and I have to stop and give myself credit sometimes because I feel like I don’t give myself enough credit. I’m always telling myself, “You can do better. You can do better.” I’m always pushing myself.

Do you talk to other knifemakers about the imposter syndrome you’ve experienced?

I have a few mentors, and they’re all amazing — I feel like they all have that a little bit, too, which is kind of reassuring. It doesn’t matter how well we’re doing; there’s always room for improvement. That’s what I love about this industry. We’re always pushing each other to be better and do better — and supporting the hell out of each other.

a hand holding a knife
In addition to a clip-point blade made of Damascus steel, this one-off features a stacked leather handle.
Kaila Cumings

What’s your history with CRKT?

When I was just starting out making knives, I already had a connection with CRKT. They were one of the first companies that reached out and said they liked what I was doing [on YouTube], and they would love it if I reviewed their stuff. And I was thinking, “Oh my God, that would be amazing” — I loved all the designers they worked with and I was a big fan of all of their work. When they reached out, I thought, “Man, someday I’m going to get a design in with them. That’s my dream.” That was number one on my bucket list and my goals. To finally achieve that was amazing.

How did the actual collaboration come to be?

I talked to their team a couple of times at the different shows and they said, “Once you get your style down, you let us know.” And I just never felt confident enough to say, “Alright, this is what I want to do.” A couple of years ago, I finally said, “Alright guys, this is it.” I finally built up the confidence to go in and have a meeting with them, and they were like, “We’ve been waiting for you!”

a person standing over a knife on an anvil
The Bugsy’s full-tang construction lends strength to the graceful yet gritty design.
CRKT

What’s next?

I have a couple of prototypes that I’m going to be giving to CRKT in the next couple of weeks. And then, hopefully, their team likes them, and we’ll be producing more of those. We’ll see.

Do you have a dream knife you would want to make yourself that you haven’t yet?

Oh geez. You know what? I actually don’t own any of my knives. I have a Bugsy, but other than that, I sell everything that I make, and I’m always like, “Man, I really need to make myself something.” And if I did, honestly, I think I would just make myself a nice kitchen set. Something simple.

group of magazines on the ground
A version of this story first appeared in Gear Patrol Magazine. Learn More.
Gear Patrol

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