By his late 20s, Jason Kraus had repaired computers, managed a coffee shop, flipped burgers, cooked in a fancy restaurant and painted houses. But he still hadn’t found his dream job.
One day his wife, Allison, asked him what work he would do if he had a choice. “I’d like to make swords,” Kraus said.
She laughed: “No, I mean really.” He wasn’t joking.
Now Kraus, a 37-year-old Mound resident, produces decorative but functional swords and knives as a full-time professional bladesmith. He sells his creations and custom-designed products through his company, NorthStar Forge, based in Carver.
Bladesmithing has become a popular spectator sport, and Kraus himself has competed on two cable TV shows on the History and Discovery channels that pit several bladesmiths in a competition to win $10,000 for producing the sharpest, strongest or easiest to handle knives, among other aspects. He didn’t win the $10,000, but he formed lasting friendships with other contestants.
“I’m super happy with the way it turned out,” he said.
On an episode of “Master of Arms” that aired last month on the Discovery Channel, Kraus’ sword was so good the judges had to pick out small technicalities to choose between him and the other finalist. He placed second out of three contenders.
One particularly skilled 20-year-old Englishman who demonstrates the craft on his own YouTube channel has 1.5 million subscribers.
Kraus said he long has been fascinated with blades. Growing up in Jordan, he and his friends made swords out of discarded metal, fashioning shields and armor out of old hubcaps and stove pipes.
“We looked like dorks, but we had a blast,” he said.
‘A game changer’
Bladesmithing, the process of shaping red-hot metal into blades, was common in cultures around the world for thousands of years. But after the Industrial Revolution led to mass production of knives by machines, the profession all but vanished.
The few who stuck with it helped revive bladesmithing in the 1970s as an artisanal craft. Its popularity grew, and now hundreds of bladesmiths across the country — including a handful in Minnesota — practice the ancient art, though many of them see it as a hobby rather than a profession.
When Kraus decided to go professional, he wasn’t sure how to get started. Google led him to the American Bladesmith Society, a nonprofit organization that promotes the art and science of forging metal into tools and weapons. He enrolled in a class in Arkansas, where he learned the basics of knife-making.
“If I’d tried making steel knives on my own, I probably would have quit by now,” he said. But the Arkansas class “was a game changer. It blew the doors wide open.”
Since then, Kraus has honed his skills in preparation to be designated by the American Bladesmith Society as a journeyman smith. The test involves making a knife that can hack through two 2-by-4s, slash off a piece of inch-thick dangling rope with a single stroke, shave hair, and bend to a 90-degree angle without breaking.
The society’s website lists about 200 journeyman smiths, including two in Minnesota, and about half as many master smiths, the highest level — none yet in the state.
A functional work of art
In his Carver workshop, Kraus heats steel until it’s glowing red, at least 2,000 degrees. He pounds the metal into the desired shape and grinds the edge sharp. He then adds a handle made of hand-carved wood, metal, bone or other materials and, in some cases, an accompanying leather sheath.
The result is a work of art that’s highly functional, surpassing the quality of even high-end manufactured knives, he said. He takes custom orders, often for clients who have gift ideas in mind: a handle carved out of a deer antler from a hunter’s first kill, a knife made of a railroad spike for a retiring railroad worker.
The knives sell for anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to a couple thousand, though the expensive styles are so time-consuming that he estimates he makes somewhere around $15 an hour.
“I’m making a living, but just barely,” he said.
Still, he has never regretted the way he answered his wife’s question years ago. “I could do this for three lifetimes and never be bored,” he said.