Knife Skills: A Tour of Monolith Studio Knives

Photograph by Ashley Florence

With all of the high-tech gadgets now available for our kitchens, it’s easy to assume that creating something as seemingly uncomplicated as a knife is simple. Walking into the space where Monolith Studio Knives are produced is an instant education into the contrary.

While few people would look at one of Monolith’s artisanal creations and mistake it for a common kitchen tool, taking in the details and diversity of options involved in making one of their pieces is a bit dizzying. But this is exactly what Zack Worrell, Monolith’s founder, enjoys most about his craft.

Kitchen knife set (10″ bread knife, 9″ chef’s knife, 7.5″ santoku, 4.5″ pairing knife) handled in figured walnut and African wenge with a dyed maple spacer in green by Monolith Studio Knives.

Worrell is into details. This is a good thing, because his business is creating high-precision—and highly personalized—knives. To make one, Worrell and knifemakers Nick Watson and Alan Bates heat, hammer, stabilize, saw, sand, bevel, and buff blades and handles to perfection via a process that involves various machines, and which can take on a mind-boggling number of permutations.

At the studio, which is located just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, this is all on full display. Right outside the front door sits the hand-built forge Worrell fashioned out of an old mailbox. When it’s turned on, it sounds like an airplane engine firing up. Across from the forge is the table where blades are cut in the shape of the profile selected by customers using an angle grinder. When Worrell demonstrates, sparks from metal meeting metal fly, and you can smell the motor burning.

Zack Worrell dials in the heat on his homemade forge. 

Before a bespoke knife even makes it to this stage in the process, a number of decisions have been made—whether the order is custom, what size is desired, what kind of steel will be used, what the handle will be made of, if bolsters will be added. Worrell walks each customer through the key questions, taking note of the basic requirements as well as all the subtle details. “We’re trying to provide the customer with a relationship and invite them into the process,” he says.

“I love the infinite possibilities of steel.”

The knives, which are guaranteed for life, are made via forge or material extraction. Monolith uses four main steels: carbon, stainless, a carbon Damascus, and a stainless Damascus. “I love the infinite possibilities of steel,” says Worrell, who was a woodworker for 15 years before turning his attention to knives in 2013. Though he enjoyed his previous focus, he’s found his sweet spot in Monolith, which he describes as existing in the space between reality and pure art. “This is the first time I’ve felt like an artist and entrepreneur at the same time,” he says.

Clockwise from top: Alan Bates sands the handle of a knife in its final stages; a small section of hundreds of knife scales available for handles, some from Worrell’s property, some exotic woods from across the globe; wooden blade profiles.

Inspired by the efficiency and simplicity of Japanese culinary knives, Monolith’s creations are currently used by a growing number of lauded chefs around the country. Worrell is constantly looking at ways to improve the performance and durability of his product, and the pros are taking note.

The company’s founder is also always on the lookout for new design ideas. He has a soft spot for historic woods and storied steels, though he’s not wedded to a specific ethos or era. In the studio, the collection of materials used for handles includes Walnut sourced from a property adjacent to Monticello; osage orange wood from a historic Meriwether Lewis property, local Cherry burls, Cholla Cactus from New Mexico, exotic woods like Rosewood and Ebony, handmade micarta and woods floated in resin.

Slip joint folding blades in production.

A reverence for time-tested materials and methods mixed with a sense that the future holds almost endless opportunities seems to permeate the whole studio. Worrell is excited about a new line of folding knives and getting chefs’ knives into the hands of even more professionals, and, it was announced yesterday, the company was selected as a runner up in the “Home” category of Garden & Gun’s Made in the South Awards.

“There are so many different things you can do,” Worrell says more than once while showing us around the studio. We can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Monolith Studio Knives is featured in The Scout Guide Charlottesville.