Monolith Studio

Interview by Sarah Lawson
Issue 34 • December 2015 • Ivy

A longtime arts evangelist is striking out on his own venture: transforming scrap metal into soulfully-crafted blades.

Like a hot knife through butter. Bringing a knife to a gunfight. Twist of the knife. Going under the knife. A sharpened knife doesn’t exactly conjure the feelings of joyful reflection that we associate with the end of another year. And in the season of holiday craft fairs, steel blades probably don’t come to mind when considering locally-made, artisanal gifts for friends and family. Monolith Studio Knives is changing that one hand-crafted knife at a time.

Zack Worrell launched Monolith Studio in 2012, building out a home workshop in Ivy to accommodate a small team of craftspeople. Interestingly, though, the original concept behind the business wasn’t metalcraft, it was carpentry. Worrell recalls, “When Monolith Studio was started, the focus was furniture and accessories, mainly for the home.” In the early days of the studio, intricately assembled wooden cutting boards were as close as Monolith came to the blade of a knife. Worrell’s work also included larger items such as tables and dressers, but business wasn’t as brisk as they had hoped. “The work sold slowly and it became clear to me that without a more sophisticated infrastructure, my great ideas were really just, well, ideas. Strangely, in that time Alan [Bates] and I discussed our interest in custom knives and tried building a few on the side. They sold quickly and we tried again. The interest took off.”

Alan Bates and Zack Worrell

As Monolith Studio charted a new course into knife-making, Worrell and his right-hand man, fabricator Alan Bates, continued to hone their skills. The two now form the creative heart of Monolith, working side-by-side to craft knives that are truly one-of-a-kind, balancing custom orders with knives for more general use. Worrell says, “The most common materials we use are steel alloys for the blade and wood for the handle. Many of those woods come from my farm, it keeps things as local as possible. As far as the metal goes, I usually just ask people if they are into stainless steel or carbon steel. That usually does it.”

Despite the seeming simplicity, there aren’t any hard and fast rules about what goes into a Monolith knife. Each is an expression of a client’s specific desires or the vision of Worrell and Bates as artists. Worrell explains, “The most unique thing we have made a knife from is probably a wrench or a rasp. Then again, we recently used a coil spring from a ’67 Ford Mustang for a knife, and I did manage to make a knife handle out of cactus from the hills of New Mexico this summer.”

Their hard work and creativity has paid off as Monolith Studio recently won Virginia Living magazine’s “Made in Virginia 2015 Award,” recognizing innovation, entrepreneurship, and craft. Like any artist, Worrell considers his work to be a form of self-expression, and each knife is a way to manifest his perspective on the world. “Each time a knife leaves my shop, there is a letting go that is hard to describe. You have a connection. To have someone take that into their hands to continue that narrative is really powerful.” Worrell continues, “The very first knife that I made was recently brought in to have our maker’s mark added. It was like seeing a long-lost child! I was so happy to see that knife and touch it and work on it once again.”

Despite a clearly artistic approach to his work, Worrell was resistant to calling himself an artist for many years, though he’s a self-confessed tinkerer and maker. He reflects, “As I got older, I found myself supporting others’ creative ideas and figuring how to make them work. I realized that my real skill was design thinking, seeing the bigger picture. [Monolith Studio] is the first time I have found something and made it my thing and about my personality and philosophy. The team is there and so is the idea of sharing in the process, but gone is the fear to take on that role as artist.”

As co-founder of The Bridge PAI, an arts nonprofit in Charlottesville, Worrell spent years supporting the creative development of Central Virginian artists. Now it’s his turn, and he’s ready to test his mettle. As Worrell says, “I make knives because I want to make something people can use and possibly hand down to another generation.”

Monolith knives are available online, by special order, and at select stores around the state. To learn more, visit monstu.com.

Photography by Carrie Worrell

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