The knife works is a subsidiary of Culpepper and Co., a renowned knife handle maker, whose production facility overtakes the majority of the Macon County building.
“The way you make a knife hasn’t really changed much from the ways of the past,” she said. “Yes, there have been modern technological advances, but it’s still the basic principle of a person forging a tool for use. It’s a skill and a tool that will always be useful.”
A Franklin native, Culpepper found herself immersed in the cutlery industry when she met her future husband Joe in high school. Joe’s father, David Culpepper, had moved his family from Florida to Macon County in 1973. At the time, David was an acclaimed knife maker who traveled from show to show selling his wares and honing his craft. He soon found a need for quality, handmade knife handles, and thus Culpepper and Co. was created in 1976.
“David started to cut different materials, like shells, to put on his knives,” Kristi said. “He became very prolific in that aspect and soon began to revive the older techniques of dying and designing bone from the turn of the 20th century.”
In 1995, Kristi and Joe bought the company outright from David. They continue the unique styles and lost art of knife handle making that has largely disappeared from the mainstream cutlery industry.
“People are still drawn to the natural materials. Plastic may be cheaper, but our customers want quality, they want the exact pieces their grandfather had and used,” Kristi said. “We offer a lot of components between the websites and the store, and can help out any specific needs. People will bring in their projects and we’ll measure out what they need.”
It’s about quality, not quantity, though sales numbers have steadily increased over their tenure with the business. On a good year, the company will top over a million components manufactured in Franklin – sent across the country and around the globe. Some production order contracts will be 50,000 components, while in-store purchases can be as small as one item.
“We’ll sell materials for knives that are worth $3 up to $20,000,” Kristi said. “Our handles make it a lot easier to sell these knives because we have the first-hand knowledge about the pieces, which comes natural to us due to all of the experience and interaction we’ve had with customers and those in the industry. Feedback is the number one thing in doing this.”
The couple travels the world in search of the ideal materials, from black mother of pearl in Thailand or Indonesia, to cattle bones from Argentina or rare pieces only found in Mongolia and China. It’s about finding the perfect item and bringing it back to Macon County, where the handles will then be sold to renowned knife companies like Case, Bear & Son, Queen, and Kershaw, among others.
“There’s only one other facility that does this type of large-scale production, and that’s Case in Pennsylvania,” Kristi said. “But, they only do in-house production, whereas we’re the only company of our kind that offers this particular method of dye and design, which can make for dozens of different combinations and patterns.”
In 2009, when a company contracted Culpepper and Co. for more material than they could pay for, the couple decided to trade for finished knives. Now with a stockroom full of merchandise, they decided to open the facility to the public with the establishment of Old School Knife Works. Since that time, business in the retail store has tripled, with folks from every direction wandering into the building in hopes of tracking down that final piece to their cutlery puzzle.
“There are people who have built whole cottage industry businesses on repairing and restoring old knives,” Kristi said. “People will find an old knife at a flea market, come in here and find the part they need to make it back into an operational tool. It’s repurposing something, bringing it back to life, which is something we value in the South.”
Looking toward the future, the Culpeppers want to keep their consistency in the market, expand Old School Knife Works, and hopefully start offering workshops and classes in knife making.
“It’s like blacksmithing, gun making or being a brick layer, people just aren’t familiar with those skills anymore,” Kristi said. “We want to keep these things alive, where it’s about knowing how to use your hands to make something.”
It’s all in an effort to keep the tradition alive, exposing more and more of society to the history and endless possibilities in their industry.
“It can be a daily struggle doing this, but we do it because we believe in it,” Kristi said. “This business could be anywhere in the world, but we chose to be here, in Macon County. I was raised here, and maybe people can take this area for granted, but the people here are like nowhere else — they’re generally concerned for each other, and we all look out for one another.”
Want to know more?
Culpepper & Co. and Old School Knife Works are located at 8285 Georgia Road in Otto (south of Franklin on U.S. 441). They’re open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.