Though his works are not displayed at local art shows, Clay County native Charlie Edmondson is an extraordinary artist with a standard of excellence and an international following. Edmondson builds bowie knives in a shop at his Alexander City home. And while others might call it a sideline, building top grade knives is Edmondson’s true life’s work.
It’s a work he discovered at age 5, when the men in his family brought him their knives to sharpen. His grandfather used to bring pieces of aluminum home from work, and a young Edmondson fashioned them into swords.
“I would sit outside with a hand saw and make swords. Even in high school ag class, I always wanted to make knives,” he said. “I’ve been very lucky and very blessed to meet some mastersmiths around the country and learned from them.”
Edmondson joined the U.S. Army at age 16, and after working in water treatment at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia, he landed in Alexander City as a water treatment operator. He’s worked for the City for 14 years, with a five-year break when he worked elsewhere but returned three years ago. Through all those years, he never stopped learning, developing his craft and building his reputation.
“It was July 2, 2007, that I decided this was what I wanted to do. I’ll never forget it. I realized I loved doing it, and I wanted to go for it. And that’s what I did,” he said. “I read everything I could find. I practiced. I contacted mastersmiths around the country and asked if I could come sweep the floors for them, cut the grass, pick up hay, anything to get into their shops to watch them work, see how they did certain things. These were hard men. You might spend all day working for them just to get to ask one question. I’ve driven three hours to a shop to ask just 15 minutes of questions and leave. I’m so blessed to have been able to do that. I’ll never forget it.”
Edmondson’s resolve hardened when, later that same year, he attended a hammer-in, where smiths got together to hammer out knives and share talk of the trade.
“I have notes I have taken through the years of these experiences. How to heat treat; how to get the most out of a piece of steel. I will never know everything, of course. I learn something new every time I step into my shop,” he said.
Building a quality bowie knife is at least a 10-step process, Edmondson explained.
“You have to forge out the material you are using; grind the knife; heat treat it. I triple temper each of my knives for two hours each time. Then, you have to make a guard and the handle. A lot of that work is done directly by hand. You learn from experience, making something that feels good in your hand,” he said.
While a person could make a knife with only a file and a piece of high carbon steel, Edmondson said, serious forgers invest upwards of $60,000 in their equipment. Edmondson has a power hammer that was built in Wetumpka, a professional forge press and a custom grinder with some 20 belts, which he uses to put razor sharp edges on his blades.
“When you give a knife to someone to sharpen, if it doesn’t look like factory edge, they didn’t do it right. It should be very, very, very sharp. You should be able to cut off your fingerprints with it. Angle is the key,” he said.
“When I build a knife, I have a thought in my head that I want to build something someone would have been proud to carry 200 years ago. Sometimes, I leave characteristics. You can see the birth of my knives. You can see the forge texture, where the hammer hit the steel.”
On average, it takes about 20 hours to build one bowie knife – longer than that for a larger knife; less time for a shorter one. Each knife is one-of-a-kind, different from every other knife.
“I couldn’t make two the same if I tried. I hand forge everything,” he said. “But what’s really important to me is that everything I choose on every blade is American made. A lot of my materials come from Alabama. Most of the handles are top grade Alabama-grown walnut. I don’t use anything that’s not grade A. It’s not cheap; and then, you have to stabilize it, so it will never crack or check. It will look as good 100 years from now.”
Rarely does Edmondson have an inventory of his art. All of his knives have been spoken for months ago. And though he’s proud to see his knives used by their owners, most of his works are displayed behind glass.
“I love getting photos of people taking game with them. Hog hunting with them. Knocking down doors,” he said.
Edmondson Elites are worn by S.W.A.T. members, drug enforcement agents and vineyard vignerons, as well as hog hunters and Alaskan bushmen. When the U.S. military raided the hiding place of violent jihadist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019, the video footage showed an Edmondson Elite on one soldier’s belt.
His following are fans of the southern bowie style, which tapers along the length of the blade.
“We have our own style here. Up North, the blades they make are more pointed. Ours have a belly to them. They are more fundamentally big,” he said. “You can look back at styles years ago, and see that we have come a long way in knives nowadays. Today’s blades are far superior to 50 years ago. We have better materials now.”
Building knives is how Edmondson relaxes after a shift at the plant, and he’s grateful for the support of his family in the endeavor.
“My wife, Shannon, we were married in 2008, and she’s been all over the country with me to get anvils, attend workshops, go to shows, helping me buy materials. She has been right there beside me, and I am forever grateful for that. It’s humbling that I am known all over the world for my knives, and that’s something my kids will know about me. I have a son, Jake, who is 9, and my little girl, Rachel, is 7. They’re getting old enough to realize that I get calls every day from places like England, Switzerland, Australia, celebrities in California. It’s all the way around the board. My family has sacrificed a lot to allow me to have what I have and make what I make. They made my dream come true with letting me do this.”
Edmondson credits his father with teaching him to reach for the best he can be.
“My dad was a state champion coon hunter. He won the state championship. He didn’t have a lot of money, and when he went to the competition he was 16 years old. A lot of people there had nice campers and the best dog houses. He just had a little old tent. But when it was time, he turned to his dog and said, ‘Come on, Lady, let’s go show ‘em how it’s done.’ And he won it,” he said.
“Every time I walk into my shop, I think about that. I think about how much work my family put in to become what they are, so I can be what I am, and I’m just blessed to get to do this.”
For more information, contact Edmondson at email@example.com.