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Finding Her Edge - Chelsea Miller of Chelsea Miller Knives
The notion of leading a double life has long captivated the attention of many. From the accountant that’s an expert Argentinian tango dancer come sundown, to the elementary schoolteacher that leads fly fishing classes over the weekend, the parts of our lives that straddle both sides of the fence, both technical and creative, are imminently intriguing. Perhaps the fascination lies in the notion of extremes. The attorney who tries criminals by day and returns home to a small-scale dairy creamery at night. The stay-at-home mom of two who’s a black belt in Karate. Our ability to engage our left and right brains in tandem inspires beyond measure.
Chelsea Miller knows this dual reality all too well. The Peacham, Vermont native has been living in New York City for the past decade, forging a career as an actress of both stage and screen. Although she grew up with a father skilled in blacksmithing and carpentry, those vocations never called to her in the same way that acting did. During an auspicious visit home last winter, her brother showed her how to make knives. He’d taught himself from a do-it-yourself book on the topic. Wanting to make holiday gifts for friends, Miller asked him to teach her. “By the third step, I’d taken over.” Clearly, she’d found her edge.
Although she enjoyed her work as an actress, Miller had found herself searching for some other more tactile work for some time. “I had some unknown, unnamed frustration in wanting to do something with my hands. “ Her father had become ill a few years prior. Time spent with him during that period had fostered a desire to similarly create. A good deal of downtime exists as a performer. That drive to delve into handmade goods, fueled by a family history of handcrafting resulted in the creation of Chelsea Miller Knives. “Dad is very proud of me; we can talk about tools now!”
A self-professed storyteller, Miller finds crafting knives to be about so much more than cutting metal. “I really enjoy the time I spend with the material; it takes so much concentration, it’s very intimate.” As she began fashioning knives, the sense that “something was evolving” began to emerge. With each cut, a tool was being formed while a story was developing, existing physically for the artist and her materials, and latently for the future owners of her creations. While chefs are her largest clients (Saveur magazine named her knives one of their Top 100 selections of 2013), collectors and people looking for handmade, one-of-a-kind items and those who “appreciate heirloom quality” are all fans.
After that fateful knife-making session with her brother, Miller quite literally honed her chops. She practiced her skills, initially gifting friends with her wares. When acquaintances of those luckily bestowed friends began asking for her knives, ready to pay for them, she knew it was time to make things official. Beginning her business July 2012 at the Brooklyn Flea offered a valuable learning curve. “I did alright there, but quickly learned that I needed more publicity, and that I needed to be online.”
These days, when she’s not addressing a movie camera or a stage audience, Miller comes into her studio, organizes a bit, then puts on her mask and headphones and gets busy cutting (a multi-tasker to her core, she likes to learn languages while she’s making knives-Hebrew is her current tongue to tackle). She’ll look at the materials on hand, think about what sort of knife she’d like to create, cut out a rough shape, and then let the creative process unfold. Designs are first cut with a torch then ground down for hours on a grinding wheel. After that, they’re finished off with a belt sander. Lastly, Miller looks for a “funky, beautiful” piece of wood for the handle. The entire process can take about two days to complete per knife.
Not only is Miller carrying on in the family tradition of handcrafted wares, she’s borrowing from their physical reserves, too. The wood used in her knife’s handles is sourced from the scrap piles of her family’s Northern Kingdom farm. The high carbon steel used in the blades comes from repurposed horseshoe rasps, used by farrier friends in Vermont for filing horse hooves. The grater-like etchings in those files have resulted in knives that are truly unique. “While I’m not the first person to make a knife out of this type of material, I am the first person the leave the teeth on it intact.”
From her early days breaking knives (you have to learn just how thin you can go when grinding) to the everyday nicks and cuts today, the most enduring lesson Miller has learned in her journey is the true value of handcrafted items. “As I’ve progressed with this work, I’ve begun noticing more and more how different things are made, and gained a huge appreciation for things that are handmade.” From her early years in her father’s shop, watching and learning as he cut and burned and formed objects both useful and beautiful to her own work now, Miller has gained a first-hand admiration and respect for all of the attention that goes into creating.
Additionally, the fact that knives are some of the earliest tools created by humankind continues to enchant her. “They’re so very basic, and yet, there are so many types of knives, and processes for creating knives. I find that fascinating; we need knives. With them, there’s this connection to something that’s a necessity that we’re also drawn to aesthetically.” Function and form convene in Chelsea Miller’s knives, resulting in an item both powerful to employ and pleasing to behold. It makes sense that the double lives of knives would appeal to a woman straddling two realities herself.
Visit Chelsea Miller's website here.
Words by Ashley English.