NORTH RUPERT — The office, design laboratory, machine shop and manufacturing line of JHForge is in a former cabinetry works a few paces from the owner’s home, at 2438 Route 30. It is here that knives and specialized tools are built by the firm’s founder and sole employee.
“I tell people I go from a pile of lumber and a pile of steel, to this,” said Jim Hurlburt, standing behind a workbench on which different knives, cleavers and farrier tools sat in various stages of assembly. It was the middle of a recent Saturday afternoon, and the barking of Hurlburt’s three dogs had alerted him that a reporter was inside JHForge’s shop.
The farrier knife, which features a curved wooden handle and a curved piece of steel that ends with a short, L-shaped lip, is the implement on which the owner launched the company in 2004.
Hurlburt, 60, was living in Stowe and working as a farrier, a caretaker of equine hooves. He had developed a specialized tool to use when shoeing horses, and began fabricating and selling them as a sideline. He also began making knives for use in the kitchen or while hunting. As his side hustle began to occupy more and more of his workdays, Hurlburt wondered about the possibilities of a career change.
“After a couple of back surgeries, I decided that after 35 years of shoeing horses, it was time to just stick with this,” he said.
From 2017 to 2019, the business was located in Southern Pines, N.C. Hurlburt had moved south in search of more tolerable winters. But, the owner said he returned to Vermont to be closer to his family and because the locals seemed to have a better appreciation for his wares.
“In this area, people love craftsmanship,” Hurlburt explained. A Connecticut native, he said he chose North Rupert over Stowe, so his base of operations would be more convenient for trips between his birth state and his longtime home state.
Route 30 can be a busy road, and a sign indicates the white house and red garage barn at number 2438 is the place where passersby can buy custom knives and tender blades for sharpening. The sharpening work, done on the same machines used for finishing new knives, is a very small part of the business, according to the owner.
Hurlburt retails some new hardware out of his shop but said the majority of his business is made from direct sales online (JHForge.com) and through a network of more than a dozen JHForge dealers in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K. “I just shipped off a tool to somebody in Belgium,” Hurlburt said.
Prices range from $90, for a farrier knife, up to $400 for a pocketknife made with Damascus steel. Fully functional, the pocketknife has elaborate designs on the blade.
“The Damascus uses two steels — one high in nickel and carbon, and one high in carbon,” Hurlburt said. “I etch it with acid to get the definition. The acid will eat away the higher carbon steel and leave the nickel.”
Business, he said, is booming, because his patrons are willing to pay extra for the items he turns out here, at a slow but steady rate.
“They want a handmade knife,” Hurlburt said, “because they know the stuff that’s made on the assembly line is junk.”
The machine room, across from the assembly workbenches, contains various tools, including a lathe, forge, power hammer, hydraulic press and even an anvil. But the room is dominated by the big Southwestern Industries TRAK DPM2 computer numerical control, or CNC, milling machine.
“That’s paid for itself tenfold,” Hurlburt said of the tall machine, purchased new, on which he can work metals in numerous ways.
For standard knife sizes, JHForge sends steels blanks to a subcontractor, so they can be trimmed on a water jet cutter. Hurlburt uses the milling machine to develop prototypes and for small production runs.
“A guy came in, saw one of the hunting knives and said he liked the style and liked the handle, but he wanted the blade to be 8 inches long,” Hurlburt said, picking up a knife with a longer blade. “So, I made two on the CNC machine, and I kept one.”
The waterjet cutting is performed by a shop in Milton. The handles — made of woods like tiger maple and cherry — are sourced from a supplier in the northern part of the state.
“I’m making handmade knives in Vermont, using Vermont hardwood,” Hurlburt said.
Every place where Hurlburt has lived has shared a common feature: his manufacturing space is on the same property as where he lives.
“I love being here. This is my home,” Hurlburt said, again sitting behind a workbench loaded with his branded cutlery and tooling. He grinned and looked out a window, toward his house. “I only go over there to sleep and eat.”