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As iron sharpens iron


WORLD Radio - As iron sharpens iron

A family of blacksmiths forges more than just metal tools

Photo by Grace Snell

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Tuesday, June 27th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: back to the family business.

For much of human history, families lived and worked together. Parents, grandparents, kids, cousins. Passing on tricks of the trade and wisdom for life from one generation to the next.

REICHARD: We see less of that these days. But one family in North Carolina is doing more: returning to their roots and building a life the good, old-fashioned way.

WORLD features reporter Grace Snell has the story.


GRACE SNELL, REPORTER: There’s a small workshop at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Marion, North Carolina. Just off the highway, it stands under spreading oak trees. Wood-paneled walls shelter crowded worktables and heavy machinery.


Jason Lonon is already hard at work inside. He’s a blacksmith and woodworker.


Today, Lonon’s making an adze—something like a curved axe for shaping wood. He beats the glowing metal into shape on an old-fashioned anvil.


A small forge heats the metal up to two-thousand degrees.


Then, Lonon carries it over to a machine with a foot-operated hammer arm.


Lonon makes his living this way, fashioning handmade woodworking tools. Things like axes, chisels, hammers, and gouges.

JASON LONON: We have identified a variety of specialty wood carving tools that aren’t being produced in great quantity. And that’s kind of given us a bit of an edge that we do a lot of tools that are difficult to make that are hard to find.

But it’s not just about making tools. It’s about making a life the good old-fashioned way: founded on faith, family, and hard work.

LONON: One of the things that I keep coming back to is that we’re not just building a business, we’re building a life. And a lot of people get mixed up that their career and their business is the goal. It’s not. Life is the goal. Family is the goal.

Lonon built his business “in the spirit of the old cottage industry.” His team of family and friends work independently from their own homes, with their own tools, on their own time.

Lonon’s family has lived on this land since the 1840s. He bought their current home from his great-uncle in 2016. His brother-in-law and fellow craftsman Paul Clark moved his family back here just a few months ago.

PAUL CLARK: And I grew up out out west out in Idaho, and I think I had best childhood ever doing a lot of gardening and playing in the woods, whatever. So that’s, that’s the life I want to give my kids is run through the woods with their cousins and play and creeks and get dirty and play with sticks. And, you know, none of these video game things and you know, that’s, that’s not part of our life.

It’s not just video games. They like to keep their work low-tech, too.

LONON: So this is the machine shop: Lathe, milling machine, shaper, drill press, these all date from between 19, Well, probably late 1800s.

Most people don’t want these old contraptions anymore. Lonon buys them cheap and fixes them up. He reads old books to learn how to use them.


LONON: This has a four tooth rotary cutter that spins and I use these handles to move the work side to side, in and out. Think of it like an Etch-A-Sketch. And we’re able to make very precise shapes.

It’s kind of a trial-and-error process. Lonon and Clark learn as they go.

CLARK: And you do break a tool now and again. That’s a good learning experience, too.

LONON: That’s right. That’s right.

That’s pretty typical for their trade. They spend months—sometimes years—designing prototypes. All in the pursuit of excellence.


LONON: It’d be really easy to go just half way and get a pretty good chisel or a pretty good end shave and then start making lots of them. But the last details is what takes so much time.

But, it can be tough to tell when they’ve reached that ideal. Take one of Clark’s knife designs for example.

LONON: The third one I made is actually very, very close to the finished product that we actually sell now and has become one of our most popular tools. But we didn’t know that. We went on to make probably a dozen more prototypes, spent another I don't know nine months, year, whatever of prototyping this, sending it out to different people, having them try it, send it back, give feedback.

Another time, early in his work, Lonon lost an entire batch of hammers in the final round of heat treating.

LONON: That was $900 of material and several thousands of dollars worth of time. Gone. Just like that. Gone. Never get it back.

But Clark and Lonon don’t let those mishaps hold them back.

CLARK: I have a bucket full of knife blades that are no good. And I keep it just so I can look back and say, “Yeah, that’s where I was. How can I make the next one better?”

It’s a hard-won kind of wisdom they’re passing on to their sons.


LONON: Hi guys!


The boys have started a woodworking gig of their own—making polished butter knives out of firewood. They troop into the woodshop armed with a box of their products.


ISAAC: We split it down and cut it to length. We draw it out on a piece of wood, shave the blade down, And then we would sand it with a power sander.

By now, other family members have gathered around.

LONON: Let me introduce you to a few other family members that showed up. This is Paul’s dad, Steve Clark.

Steve Clark lives just down the road. He helps with the shop’s leatherwork. And spends a lot of time with his grandkids, raising chickens and cows, and working in the garden.

STEVE CLARK: I just read in Ecclesiastes today. And I told the children as they were helping me with the garden, I told them that even a prince or a king gets it their food from the earth. I mean, that’s obvious. But you know, we don’t think of it like that.

Moments like that are the reason Clark and Lonon do what they do.

LONON: We’re laying a foundation for this generations that are privileged to work side by side with the previous generation, and the generation beyond that. So how many children get to grow up in a three generation neighborhood like, every day, working in the garden, working the shop together?


Reporting for WORLD, I’m Grace Snell in Marion, North Carolina.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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