“I believe life shows you what you’re supposed to do pretty early on if you’re paying attention,” says Charly Mann, maker of some of the world’s most beautiful knives. Fascination with knives and combat and a calling in bladesmithing may seem unlikely for a kid who grew up in what he describes as a “hippie commune full of artists” and who admits to never having been in a fistfight. Mann began creating his first knives at the age of 11. They were crude tools; he said they looked like prison shanks. It wasn’t until many years later that the knife maker and future soldier merged with the artist to become the master craftsman.
Like many teenagers, Mann felt the need to rebel and to separate from his family. Unlike many teenagers, his rebellion was to join the military. “I did the whole warrior thing and served for nine-years in the Special Forces,” said Mann.
It was during his time in Special Forces that Mann realized he could pursue a career in doing what he loved – creating beautiful knives. As Mann recalled, in the military “everything is chosen for you” and it is hard to “really define yourself as an individual.” That was true in Special Forces as well, except that every man in Special Forces “could pick which knife [they] were going to carry. Your knife made you special and made you unique.”
At the time, many of Mann’s fellow soldiers were buying knives from major knife retailers, but that didn’t sit right with him. “I said, ‘I bet I can do better. If I’m going to carry around a pound of steel it better be exactly right for what I want it to do,” said Mann. And, perhaps even more important, the knife would be the embodiment of his unique persona. The knife Mann created drew immediate attention. Other soldiers and friends saw the craftsmanship and artistry in Mann’s blade and asked him where he’d purchased it. When he told them he made it himself, they began requesting that he make them custom knives as well. “So I started making them for friends,” said Mann. At first it was just a hobby but it led to an apprenticeship with some major bladesmiths. It was only when “they told me I was surpassing their talent that I felt I could start doing it for a living.”
It comes as no surprise that a knife-making specialist would also have a background in Jiujitsu with an emphasis in edged weapon training. Mann has earned a fourth degree black belt from Walt Bayles, a man who is widely considered one of the greatest martial artists to ever live. In fact, Mann is one of the few students to have received a black belt from Bayles. Mann concedes, “It’s the highest rank he’s ever given, and I’m actually the smallest guy to receive a black belt from him.” Mann’s training in Jiujitsu finds expression in his blade design: “The truth is, I nerd out on the steel just as much as other knife makers, but what makes my knives special is my connection to combat and my recognition that knives are both necessity as well as a work of art.”
Mann’s knives gained purpose and necessity through his rigorous combat training but the art in the blades is rooted in his upbringing, “My father was an artist and a craftsman and so was his father; so I guess I came by it honestly,” Mann said. Still, it took some uncovering. A rebellious turn in the military and countless other jobs such as herding sheep and milking cows came first, but eventually Mann found his way back to the artistic talents he had gained from his childhood. “I remember when I was younger my dad had me straighten nails with a little pair of pliers and a hammer and I always lamented the fact that he wouldn’t teach me how to play piano. Then one day, I bent a nail in my workshop and I had to straighten it and something clicked. My dad had been training me all along.”
Mann’s craftsmanship goes far beyond making knives. It’s bound up in the way he lives. He has personally crafted his Monroe, Utah home, his shop, and most of the items he uses every day. “The logs I built my house with I collected from the mountains in my backyard. I cut down the trees, hauled them on my back to the road and then did all the joinery to build my home,” said Mann. “I think there’s something ancient about creating and working with your hands and making things that are meant to last much longer than I ever will. There’s something about creating the things that I come in contact with that is grounding and life affirming.”
In the tradition of great craftsmen, Mann creatively merges utility and art to produce something both useful and beautiful. “Creating a knife is a start-to-finish process” said Mann, “and let’s just say there isn’t a ‘Blacksmithing Depot’.” Mann creates a large variety of tools to accompany each custom knife he makes. Whether it’s special hammers to make specific marks on the handle or tongs for holding certain parts of the blade, he’s always making new jigs and fixtures to build something unique into every knife. “I always have to innovate because there are very few tools on the market suitable for what I’m creating. “Everything is custom; everything is new.”
Making a Mann Made Knife with meticulous detail down to the smallest hammer mark is no small endeavor. “I love what I do,” Mann said. “I get up with a smile on my face and work for 18 hours thinking, ‘I get to make knives today.”