Zack Worrell and his team at Monolith Knives are carving out a name for themselves in the handmade knives market. From a studio on Worrell’s Ivy family farm, once owned by Meriwether Lewis, Worrell, Alan Bates and Nick Watson create culinary and field knives. Recently, they have been “breathing life” into folding knives, as Bates describes the process.
“We have trained artists, we have trained mechanics, and we have people that are coming from all these different backgrounds in this little shop,” Worrell says. “It really is a Jeffersonian story, because we’re doing things the way he probably would have liked to have seen them done.”
The lifelong desire to work with their hands led Bates, a woodworker with a background in custom high-end carpentry, and Watson, a sculptor and metalworker who recently finished an Aunspaugh Fellowship at UVA, to join Monolith Studio.
“When I first told my parents I was making knives, they were like, ‘Oh, knives are scary,’” Bates says. “So I bring a knife over and they’re wincing. A knife is a weapon to them, but I make kitchen knives. So they’re coming around to it.”
The artistry makes it easy to come around to knives as an “object of beauty,” as Monolith’s business manager and Worrell’s wife, Carrie, says. Each piece has “soul,” according to Worrell and Bates. Knives and cutting boards are currently available for purchase on Monolith’s website and at Timbercreek Market, and Zack hopes to add more retail locations.
“There aren’t many handmade kitchen knives out there,” Watson says. “Ours are special and so far different from something that you pick up at Bed Bath & Beyond. They create your dinner—what your family gathers around every day.”
In addition to providing lifetime sharpening and repairs for every tool they create, Worrell, Bates and Watson carefully curate each knife’s materials. One blade incorporates reclaimed steel from an old Mustang. Another custom handle features walnut from a client’s farm in Kentucky, and several future knives will include wood from crotches, the part of the tree where branches meet and wood compresses. A gentleman who goes by “Wild Man” recently provided the trio with the crotches in exchange for a Monolith knife.
“The idea of taking metal and putting it in the fire, smashing it and doing this and that to it is super cool to me,” says Worrell. “[Knife- making] feels like you’re going on this exploration of material. You’re bringing design along the way for functionality and aesthetic, but at the end of the day, it has to work.”
Dave Matthews recently came by the studio to work with the guys on a custom mushroom harvesting knife for his wife—featuring hair from his family’s hogs. Worrell says Matthews was involved in the process from the start.
“[Matthews] wasn’t like, ‘Hey, call me when it’s done or send it to my secretary,’” Worrell says. “He went out and cut the hair off the hog.”
Though Monolith has already garnered awards and national attention while working with clients ranging from celebrities to professional chefs, the guys continue to operate as a close-knit team—embracing the constructive feedback and “show-and-tell” moments fostered in a studio environment.
“Almost every knife has been worked on in some way or another by all of us,” Worrell says. “There isn’t one guy that makes all the knives, one guy that’s on the computer and one guy sweeping the floor. We’re working in a capacity.”
It’s this vision of a business that builds partnerships and celebrates creativity and resourcefulness that Worrell calls his “childhood dream.”
“What I feel like we’re trying to build here is a little bit of our own community and culture,” he says.
On Saturday at The Bridge PAI, visitors can watch these knife-makers and other local artisans at work—“smashing steel and making a scene,” as Worrell says—at an event titled “Sharp & Shiny Things: A Metal Crafters Open House.”
Worrell says his experience as co-founder of The Bridge is what drove him to knife-making. “My experience working with artists and learning about working with artists is what gave me the confidence to say, ‘I want to go be an artist.’ I feel very lucky to have found [Bates] and [Watson].”
Carrie Worrell, chair of The Bridge’s board of directors, sees the event as serving the nonprofit’s mission to bridge diverse communities through the arts.
“[Knife-making] is an art form happening right here in Charlottesville,” she says. “People need to know about it and people cruising around town should feel free to walk up and find out what a UVA graduate and two Charlottesville guys learned to do. They created a company to make [knives]. It’s pretty cool.”