Artist in Studio: Horn & Heel

Chefs’ knives become works of art in this Raleigh studio

by Iza Wojciechowska

photographs by Travis Long

Duncan Stephenson knows his way around a knife. He talks bevels, tangs, and angles like it’s his second nature, and he rattles off facts about the molecular alignment in steel like a scientist (though he’s quick to mention that he only has an art degree). He has strong opinions about wood. And though Stephenson, 28, makes knives for a living – forging the steel, hammering blades out on an anvil, carefully designing beautiful handles – he asserts that he’s not “a knife dude”; he doesn’t carry knives on him or revere them as weapons.

Rather, his love for knives stems in part from his love for food – and from a sense of community. He runs in a circle of Raleigh chefs, line cooks, and bartenders and realized that he could put his metalworking talents to good use by making useful, high-quality, and custom knives for them, in turn making their jobs easier. “I would like to contribute to that community as much as I can, so if I can get them something that will put food in my belly faster, that’s awesome,” Stephenson says. “If I can do something that I enjoy doing, and I can help them with their lives, then it’s meaningful in another way.”

Born and raised in Garner, Stephenson started working with metal at East Carolina University, where he earned a bachelor of fine arts in metal design, or what he describes as “the art side of jewelry making.” In college, when a friend of his came back from a gun and knife show with a World War II-style knife made from an old file, Stephenson really liked it and thought he’d go buy one of his own – but the vendor had closed down. “I was super bummed about it, and I came back, and my friend was like, ‘You know you have a degree in metalworking, right?’”

That was the push Stephenson needed to experiment with knives on his own. He took a crash course in blacksmithing his senior year of college and completed an independent study in knife making. He turned in three poorly made knives, “and from there, it was a graveyard of terrible knives,” he says. But something resonated with him nonetheless. He set up a forge pit in his backyard with an old anvil, a forging tool meant for hammering and shaping metal, “and just kind of started beating on steel until I figured it out,” he says. “It was a lot of trial and error. A lot of error. Mainly error.”

But perseverance, a lot of reading, and hours of YouTube videos allowed him to improve until he was creating the kinds of knives he had envisioned: strong, perfectly proportioned, and useful. After he graduated, he moved back to Raleigh and in 2014 started his company, Horn & Heel, with the help of his college friend Luke Rayson, who runs the marketing and PR side of things.

The Horn & Heel studio isn’t much to look at: a dark garage with an anvil and a few stations set up around the perimeter littered with dusty tools. A cutting board, one knife, and a sack of potatoes lie on a table in the middle for occasional quality control. Stephenson works alone with his dog, Jeb, a faithful companion. But it’s fair to say that his trial and error paid off, and from this dark studio now emerge handsome, gleaming products.

When it comes to making the blade, creativity is inevitably limited and the design is regimented, so Stephenson focuses his creative energy on the handles. “My canvas is an inch by five inches, so I tend to lean a little bit more on the exotic side of things because you get more of an impact in a smaller area,” he says. The knives are finished with sophisticated handles made of exotic woods: spalted tamarind in shades of red and gold and veined with black; cocobolo, sleek and streaky; maple and buckeye burls, swirled in complex, otherworldly patterns. Accent elements like onyx, gold, and turquoise provide the final touches.

Apart from a few knives on display at Quercus Studio in downtown Raleigh, Horn & Heel’s knives – ranging from chef’s knives to field knives to shuckers – are sold online only. In keeping with his mission of supplying local chefs, Stephenson also makes his knives to custom order, tailoring his work to an individual chef’s hands, habits, and processes, so the knife feels like an extension of the body. “The most satisfying part is giving someone a knife that they understand quickly,” Stephenson says. “The time between when your muscle memory kicks in and when I handed you that knife – I would like that to be as short as possible.”

Andrew Ullom, chef and owner at the brand-new Union Special restaurant group and former executive pastry chef for the Ashley Christensen group, for years used a particular Japanese knife. When that knife ran its course, Ullom asked Stephenson to custom-make him a new knife – and he hasn’t looked back. Stephenson made him an unconventionally heavy blade (which Ullom finds more comfortable) and tailored the shape to his cutting-board habits. Now, Ullom uses the knife on a daily basis. “That knife stands up to anything I have, and I have a pretty big toolbox of knives,” he says. “It’s also comfortable to use for extended periods of time. During apple season, that thing gets a workout.”

Jake Wood, chef de cuisine at 18 Seaboard, has five custom-made Horn & Heel knives, which he uses for everything from whole-animal butchery to working with octopus to pulling pin bones from fish. “[Stephenson] spent some time in the kitchen with me and watched how I used my knives, even how I gripped my knives. From that, he was able to nail my knives down perfectly,” Wood says. “There is absolutely no job that can’t be done with his knives.”

Stephenson is constantly striving to improve his wares. He incorporates feedback from chefs and other users and likes to experiment with new materials. He hopes to grow, maybe hire a staff, and expand his offerings into smaller, everyday products like pocket knives.

But for now he’s still perfectly satisfied with the process itself. As he talks, he pulls dark, dirty blades out of a neon-orange glowing oven heated to 1,920˚F and grips them between two metal plates. A minute later, they’re cool to the touch. In a week or two, these blades will be unrecognizable as shiny, sharp steak knives ensconced in stunning wooden handles. And Stephenson will be moving on, forging the next round.