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Neil Southern carves business out of a hobby

Neil Southern’s reputation for high-quality, hand-crafted knives keeps him busy outside of his job as a FireLake Casino night-shift security officer. He began working for the Nation in March of 2012, and a few years later, he started making knives.

“My love of knives combined with watching my grandfather shape steel with a hammer and grinder when I was young was probably the biggest driving force behind me deciding to try my hand at making knives,” Southern said.

After his first successful attempt, he opened Pork Chop Knives.

“I first started out with lawnmower blades,” he said. “If you pick the right lawnmower blade, you can actually get it to harden right. When the steel turns a certain shade of red, I know I’m about where I need to be.”

Neil Southern’s wife, Stephanie Southern, proudly shows off a Pork Chop Knives’ creation featuring a pinecone handle.

Once he has the metal at the right temperature, he places it in oil.

“Blacksmiths take a horseshoe out and dip in water. If you do that with a high carbon steel, it’ll break, and that is a catastrophic failure,” he said. “You can’t go back. You’ve ruined that piece of steel.”

Southern does have a forge that he occasionally uses, but he said he prefers to utilize the stock removal method. He picks the piece of metal — usually 1095 high carbon steel or 5160 steel — and draws his knife design before cutting it out. A grinder or sander then helps shape and shine the blade.

While the traditional forging method may be faster, Southern said stock removal is better for the metal.

“When you stress the steel too much, you can cause fractures,” he said.

Once the knife’s profile is complete, he attaches a handle.

“I feel like the art is in the handle,” Southern said. “Anybody can make a blade, but can you make a handle that’s really pretty? That’s where my creative mind goes to – what can I put in this handle to make it beautiful?”

He can make handles out of antlers, metals, woods and more.

“I use all kinds of different materials. I love exotic woods,” he said. “I’ve got one I’m working on now that’s called a hybrid. It’s a pinecone encased in resin. Oh, it’s beautiful.”

Each Pork Chop Knives creation is one-of-a-kind.

“I never duplicate,” he said. “Every piece is different. The blades may look just alike, but the handle is always going to be different. Every knife is its own.”

He said he begins each project with an idea of the end result.

“I know what the blade’s going to look like when I talk to someone. Each knife is custom ordered. When they order the knife, I make the knife. I keep no stock. There’s no inventory,” he said. “You tell me what you want, and we’ll work out what kind of blade shape you want and what kind of handle.”

His oldest son recently expressed interest in the art form, so Southern walked him through the process.

“He did a decent job, but he did everything,” Southern said. “I made him do everything, and it turned out nice.”

He said he enjoyed working on the project and spending time with his son. Southern’s hobbies, like knife-making, also help him avoid a sedentary lifestyle.

“When I’m not at (FireLake Casino), I work. I just find relaxation in it. I enjoy mowing the lawn, or I’ll get in the knife shop, which I have to share with the cat,” he said, then laughed. “In the wintertime, that’s her spot.”

Southern assists the community by donating knives for fundraising efforts. He also donated several pieces to the CPN Cultural Heritage Center, including the neck knife featured in the Defenders of the Northwest: Ndobani (Warfare) display case..

After hearing about Southern’s skills, CHC Curator Blake Norton approached him about helping with the project.

“They had a sheath with quillwork — it’s a beautiful sheath, and (Blake Norton) gave me specifications and said they’d like to have something that would fit in it.” he said.

Ferlin Johnson, CHC security officer, learned about the project and offered his grandfather’s knife. Southern used a wire wheel to shine and clean its blade then created a false edge.

“I did it so that it still looked antique,” Southern said. “I fixed it into a piece of antler I had laying around (for the handle).”

He said he appreciates the chance to give back to others through doing what he loves.

“You got to do right where you can,” he said. “You can’t change the world, but you can change a little piece of it.”

Find more information and view some of Southern’s latest creations on his company’s Facebook page @PorkChopKnives.