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I first met Hayden Kessel at Colorado Pastured Pork in Hotchkiss. I was there to check out owner-rancher Toby McPartland’s pastured heritage pig operation, and ranch hand Kessel was there to co-lead the tour.
When not wrangling hogs and putting his background in sustainable farming to good use, Kessel pursues another passion: forging custom kitchen knives. The high-quality blades are so stunning, it’s hard to believe the Texas-born designer is just 26 years old.
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The avid outdoorsman, home cook, and woodworker made his first knife in 2014. While studying art at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, he was drawn to the idea of “designing something functional—in art school, I painted all of these portraits and still-lifes, which just sit in a closet. I originally wanted to make heavy-duty camping knives that would hold up better than the ones I’d wrecked in the backcountry over the years, but I transitioned to kitchen knives because people use them more frequently, and their designs have a richer history and tradition.”
Kessel undertook an informal apprenticeship with master craftsman Don Carlos Andrade of California Custom Knives, launching his own company, Hayden Knife, in 2015. He specializes in Japanese “gyuto,” or chef’s knives, and “santoku,” which have a rounded, “sheep’s foot” curve on the tip. Kessel also makes French-style knives, but as a custom forger, he can produce anything from cleavers to boning knives.
Using 1084 high-carbon steel from smelter Aldo Bruno of New Jersey Steel Baron, Kessel hand forges the blades, heating the metal to a malleable state and influencing the steel with the repeated strikes from a hammer. Properly done, it results in a “denser, more stable finished piece than anything manufactured,” Kessel says. He then quenches, or heat treats, them, which hardens the metal.
After that, they’re tempered three times for flexibility and engraved with Kessel’s maker’s mark and initials (you can request custom monograms, as well). With use, the blades will naturally oxidize and develop a patina, which is a good thing—it helps prevent rust.
Kessel scavenges wood for his knife handles from carpenter friends, as well as scouring the forest and fruit orchards. I’d never seen a knife handle made from pine cone before: In Kessel’s hands, the stunning end result has a distinctive texture and gradated, mossy hue (due to the addition of pigment). All of the balanced wood handles are stabilized via a laborious process that renders them strong and waterproof.
Kessel’s hope is that customers think of his creations as heirloom pieces. “If they’re properly taken care of, they’ll last forever. When I leave this earth, I think it would be pretty cool if my knives were still around.”
Get one: Kessel knives take between eight to 24 hours to make, with a turnaround time of one month (so get those holiday orders in now). Call 760-445-3466 or visit @haykessel on Instagram to order; free lifetime guarantee and sharpening included. Knives run from $250 to $500.