By Ben Wiese | Jun 27, 2022
The manufacturing story of Weige Knives begins with a step down a well-trodden path: an employee experiences burnout due to sitting behind a desk all day and decides to seek out a hobby. The hobby turns into a side gig, and the side gig turns into a thriving business. Eventually, the employee quits his desk job to work at his passion full-time.
Prior to becoming the knife-making maestro of Austin, Weige simply wasn't a knife guy.
"I didn't have an interest in knives," says Weige. "I wasn't a knife enthusiast, and I didn't carry or own knives."
Weige needed to decompress from work and life. A new hobby involving building or creating by hand felt paramount to the better work-life balance he sought. But the activity itself remained a mystery.
"I've always been able to build things, fix things, and I was raised in a mechanic's shop, so I've had some mechanical ability," he says. "I was going to do woodworking. Then I was going to do leather-working -- I knew I'd do something. But I didn't know what I was going to do."
Surprisingly, a video of a New York City knife maker explaining how he made his knives struck Weige's fancy unlike anything else.
"It was about thirteen or fourteen years ago -- and this was when knife making and makers movements in general weren't quite as popular as they are now," Weige says. "At that time, there wasn't really a knife maker in Austin with a really great social media presence that I could find. So, while the knife maker was talking, I kept thinking, 'Well, if this guy can do it, I can do it.'"
Admittedly, it a was moment of hubris in hindsight. "It turned out to be much more difficult than I had imagined," Weige adds. But he could easily identify at least part of what was necessary to get where he needed to go: upgrading his equipment.
"[My issues] were partly due to the poor equipment I had," Weige explains. "Luckily, I had some money and invested that into better equipment. It was a game changer. I started producing a better product instantly."
Once the hobby was up and running with improved equipment, Weige retained modest goals: produce quality knives and continue to decompress.
"I had cheap kitchen knives and figured I could make a better knife than what I had in the house," he says. "If nothing else, I could produce something for my own home and maybe some friends and family. I didn't even really think about having a business from it; I just thought of it as something to do."
But between the need for a job that provided the flexibility to spend more time with his family and seeing his knife waitlist stretch as far as two years into the future, Weige made the plunge: he would go to blacksmithing school and become a full-time knife maker.
Today, Weige Knives is known for quality, precision, and the ability to customize almost anything on a knife. In fact, the customization immediately became a prominent selling point.
"The customization is really what separated us from the other knife makers in Texas in the beginning," says Weige. "Most knife makers in Texas were producing a knife, and you had an opportunity to buy it or not. They were making something they enjoyed. There were a lot of choices that went into each knife, and I thought, 'What if I just let the customer choose all this stuff?'"
Weige Knives has slightly narrowed its inventory over the years, but the customized system remains the same. Customers decide the look, shape, feel, and type of knife, and Weige Knives never makes the same custom knife twice.
For production work and larger orders -- which actually account for the majority of Weige's business -- the system is a little different. Weige will design the knife and then send 50 to 100 at a time to a CNC shop to be cut and to have the holes drilled.
"Probably 60 to 70 percent of our overall income is production work," says Weige. "We build knives for other companies, or in conjunction with other companies, and that's really the backbone of our business. And we may make the same knife over and over for them, but that's the only time we'll do that outside of a set of kitchen knives or a corporate gift where they want 10 of the same thing. The custom work is really where we shine."
In the early days, Weige's home garage in Austin was his workspace. Eventually, he concluded that he needed a space outside of the city proper to handle his manufacturing needs. Today, his 1,200-square-foot workshop sits on his personal property in Belton -- roughly an hour north of Austin. His equipment now includes a steel-cutting bandsaw, kilns, woodcutting bandsaws, grinders, flatteners, sanders, buffers, polishers, and a Knife Grinding Machine (KMG) from Beaumont Metal Works.
Upon receiving an order, Weige creates a thorough work schedule, with each task and detail carefully split between himself and his two other full-time employees.
"We work our knives in batches," he explains. "I make a build schedule, and every employee knows exactly what they're working on for the week, if not for the next couple weeks. I put a work order together. All the ingredients for that knife are in there; all the instructions for the knife are in there."
Challenges: Because knife making is such an arduous process, Weige has yet to adequately find a system for hiring new knife makers to fulfill orders faster. "It’s always difficult meeting the demand," says Weige. "We can never make knives fast enough. For the last 10 years, even though I've hired more people, it doesn't seem to make a difference."
To bring a new employee into the fold is a large investment -- both in terms of time and the gamble of whether someone will stick around long enough for the hire to pay dividends.
"Most of the people I hire work on the production side," Weige continues. "It takes a really long time [to learn] how to make a custom knife. Usually, you need to be making knives for about three years before entering the realm of making a custom knife for me. It takes about six months of daily knife making to get the hang of making a knife in general. You can’t just go out and find someone who already knows how to do it. You really have to take a chance. There's going to be a lot of mistake knives for new employees that they will have to give to their family and friends. It's what we call the 'bucket of shame.' Every knife maker has to go through their 'bucket of shame,' and typically it's around 50 knives that are ruined or aren't quite right."
Opportunities: Though he has made meaningful work partnerships with well-known names such as Franklin Barbecue and Nolan Ryan Beef, Weige Knives is currently missing a very particular audience subset: knife collectors. Weige himself is hopeful that after a decade in the business, they're poised to change that.
"Really, the opportunity lies with our partnerships and freeing up some of my time to produce higher-end knives to attract collectors," he says. "That's high on my priority list. We really don't sell to collectors. But I'd like to."
Needs: Weige is in need of marketing assistance -- but not to improve his advertising. He needs help polishing his brand's message and a social media presence to match.
"I need someone else to run social media for us," he says. "I don't want to grow my business -- the size of it is fine. I don't do advertising, and I never have. Our advertising has always been word of mouth. I'm trying to improve the look and feel of our business. I'd like for the company to be more professional and clean and for us to be more concise in the message we're trying to promote."