Kalamazoo bladesmith forges uncommon career in ancient discipline

Gabriel Paavola hammers on a piece of metal while performing a blacksmith demonstration during the 54th annual Maple Sugar Festival at the DeLano Homestead in Kalamazoo County on March 9.

KALAMAZOO — Gabriel Paavola believes a knife can give you a sense of pride.

Those feelings stem from his childhood, when Paavola would take trips into the woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with only a knife with which to take care of himself.

“There is something empowering about it,” he said. “Not because of the destruction you can rout, but because you can take care of yourself.”

Paavola, 44, a self-proclaimed existential bladesmith and humanist, works full time in the blacksmithing industry and has done so for almost 22 years, on and off.

Paavola got involved in Kalamazoo by volunteering to occasionally provide blacksmithing demonstrations at Kalamazoo Nature Center events. Next winter, Paavola plans to start teaching classes at Kalamazoo Institute of Arts.

He has a unique way of doing business, as well. He does not sell to people who do not align with his morals and overall message – including a decision not to do business with supporters of President Donald Trump.

“I have found my niche on being political,” Paavola said. “That’s a line in the sand for me.”

A rare occupation

Sixty years ago, blacksmithing was essentially dead in the United States, Paavola said. The country had become so industrialized that there was no need for a blacksmith in each village anymore.

Although now regarded – at least in the United States – primarily as an interesting hobby, blacksmithing is still more common in less-developed countries. Each village in less-developed countries could have a need for a blacksmithing professional, said John Sarge, a blacksmithing professor at Scotts-based nonprofit Tillers International.

Tillers International, which offers specialized classes for skills required in rural areas around the world, has seen a large increase in applicants for its “Intro to Blacksmithing” class after the television show “Forged in Fire” first aired on the History Channel in 2015.

Paavola is one of very few traditional blacksmiths in the country that makes a living off making knives. It is rare to see someone working as a traditional bladesmith as a full-time job, Sarge said.

Paavola grew up in the arts as a Finnish-American in the Upper Peninsula, which has one of the highest concentrations of Finnish populations in the United States, according to U.S. Census data. He learned morals like hard work, determination and persistence from his family, he said.

Paavola went to Northern Michigan University after high school. He studied the arts, but also found himself skipping classes so he could be in the forge.

Forging a bladesmith

Before graduating, Paavola left school to hone his blacksmithing and bladesmithing skills alongside other blacksmiths in Texas.

This excursion burned him out, he said. He no longer had the same creative drive. Paavola moved to Seattle and “drifted” around after an unsuccessful attempt to attend art school.

Paavola could not get away from making blades after he moved back to Michigan. He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in sculpture from Eastern Michigan University. One thing his classmates and professors always noticed, however, was that his best work was always something potentially harmful, like the edge of a blade.

“It really helped me to realize that I have something,” Paavola said. “I don’t think of myself as skilled – I like to attribute it to sheer determination.”

During Paavola’s childhood, he was taught the value of hard work. Some things are just too easy to buy, he said. Paavola’s ancestors were all peasants, he said, so he sees a connection between his determination and his family’s heritage.

“It’s that Finnish idea of ‘Sisu,’ which is extreme determination,” Paavola said. “A lot of us Finnish-Americans hang on to that idea of toughing it out – if you can’t do it yourself, is it really worth doing?”

Now, Paavola strives to invest his energy into each knife he crafts. Though creating the blade and working with the metal is only 10 percent of the overall task, Paavola takes time to polish, dress and handle each knife individually.

Paavola often donates his knives to indigenous and anti-domestic violence groups for them to sell and support their cause. He wanted to donate about one knife each year, but now he finds himself donating multiple each year.

How it works

Paavola specializes as a bladesmith, which is fairly common for hobbyists in the blacksmithing community, Sarge said. The difference between the two terms is essentially just the difference between the shapes they create from metal. It is “all heating up steel and smacking it,” he said.

Paavola buys his steel from New Jersey Steel Baron, or repurposes metal and wood from the Kalamazoo area, he said.

“A good rule of thumb is to produce 100 knives before selling one,” he said.

After finishing knives, Paavola sells them on his Instagram page. Most of his customers find him through social media, he said. His knives go for hundreds of dollars.

“I don’t see it as anything special,” he said. “I hear it all the time with people watching ‘Forged in Fire.’ We aren’t doing anything you can’t do.”

Emma Vasicek, the public events director at the Kalamazoo Nature Center, is appreciative of the interesting demonstration and learning experiences Paavola provides while volunteering there.

“He’s been really amazing and a big value at our events,” Vasicek said. “We appreciate him a lot.”

Despite not thinking his job is a special one, Paavola knows blacksmithing is not for everyone. At one point, Paavola had to go to the emergency room from an infected cut in his arm.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” he said “Unless you have a really good insurance program, I really, strongly advise thinking twice about it.”

Through his work, Paavola says he thinks about knives in a different way than is common in society as a whole. When most people see someone with a knife, they think that person has a weapon, he said. Paavola does not see it that way.

“A sword would be a weapon, a gun would be a weapon, but a knife is a tool,” he said. “You can use it to build.”

Paavola enjoys investing his time in something that can benefit other people’s lives. That’s why he does what he does. More importantly, however, he wants others to hear his message. Paavola lives by the notion that you must leave the world in a better place than it was when you got here.

“If you are not taking what your passionate about and using it to better the lives of other people, ‘What are you doing?’” Paavola asks.

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