A typical trip to Richmond usually includes traffic-clogged highways, not a workshop garage adjacent to deep woods and railroad tracks. Similarly, most things being produced and sold in American markets don’t include mastodon tusks and hippopotamus teeth in their list of materials. As such, we didn’t know what to expect when our car rolled into the gravel parking lot of the Join or Die Knives production facility, but were quickly welcomed into a story of toughness, tradition, and togetherness that began with a simple greeting: “Does anyone want a cup of coffee?”
“Join or die.” A time-tested commandment that now finds its champion in the calloused hands and sawdust-covered jeans of Brent Stubblefield, owner of a one-man workshop that is bringing the Richmond maker community together one handmade knife at a time. With products ranging from custom military-grade bowie knives to blades bearing oyster shells in their handles, this Chicagoan turned Richmond native is restoring the personal touch he believes is missing from modern knife production. “I’m still selling my personality through the knives,” Stubblefield said, “which forces me to put in the right time and work and materials to make it the best it can be.”
One look at the Join or Die workspace yields a deeper insight into what makes Stubblefield and his craft so authentic. Tools and supplies cover benches and tables in an unorganized, yet understandably practical fashion, ready to be picked back up and used again when needed. State flags and abstract paintings line the walls without a unified meaning behind them, utilized for the free creative spirit they invoke.
Stubblefield’s office is separated from his main production area by a glass door with his business’s logo prominently displayed. At a design table placed meaningfully in front of the timeless “Don’t Tread On Me” flag, Stubblefield walked us through his entire design and production process. He enjoys being “part of someone’s story” through the blades he creates. Every request he receives is taken both as a mission to deliver the product the customer wants, as well as an opportunity to leave his mark on the community.
Though he has clearly perfected his own knife making process, he made it a point to show his drawer of knives that he isn’t proud of, even taking out one of his “favorites” and explaining how the steel handle split in half when it was heated to an extreme temperature before the wood mold was added around it. That humbleness—a respect for true craftsmanship—is part of his core values. “I fill my social media with people better than me,” Stubblefield said. “I find it really easy to compare myself and my work to others.” He doesn’t chase perfection as the world around him defines it; he simply takes pride in knowing that each handle and blade is distinctly him, complete with imperfections and flaws he’s hammering out along the way. “I identify myself with this craft and I don’t really plan on leaving.”
“It takes vulnerability to be a community.” A large part of why Stubblefield initially created Join or Die has to do with his desire to give back, promoting inclusion and the idea of building up instead of tearing down. “You don’t have to be fighting something to come together, we have enough destruction already,” Stubblefield said, taking measures to be sure we could all hear him amongst the sounds of sanders and miter saws in the background. To him, community is about working together, standing up for each other, and leaving an impact on the world. “We’re all connected, and if a branch of the tree is cut off, it dies.”
As part of his community outreach, Stubblefield offers knifemaking classes in his workshop where he shows his students how to “do it the real way, not the YouTube way.” He takes his products with him to various festivals and fairs, meeting new customers and friends while telling his story to all who will stop and listen.
He said that he loves Richmond because it is a creative town. “I took in all of the interesting restaurants and music and thought, ‘I really like this.’”
An artist, a teacher, and a community leader, Stubblefield is selling himself just as much as he is selling his product. He doesn’t want normal, he wants real, and he operates Join or Die Knives to make real products and deliver them to a real community. “My goal is to make knives that people want to ask about—knives that have stories that need to be told.”
Join Or Die Knives is located at 1600 Valley Road in Richmond. To learn more about their products and courses, visit joinordieknives.com.
Photography by Justin Reiff