Man of Steel

Neil Kamimura has forged his own path to mastery
Story by Meghan Miner Murray. Photos by Ronit Fahl.

It’s a hot, dusty day in the Kona Old Industrial Area, but it’s even hotter behind the metal door to the garage that serves as a workshop for Neil Kamimura. A tiny forge radiates an electric orange akin to the lava lake inside Kīlauea on the other side of the island, and it’s about as hot, too.

“It’s more than two thousand degrees in there,” says Neil, carefully removing a glowing rod from the furnace. He lays the rod on a huge anvil and whales away with a forging hammer, splintering off dark flakes and flattening the cylinder into a bar. Then it goes back into the forge and comes out again for more hammering. Precise blows produce rounded edges that start to look like a blade. Neil pauses to wipe the sweat from his brow, a smile on his face. “When you get a knife from me, you get a part of me. Each knife is a problem I’m pounding out. I pour so much into it—it’s an emotional thing for me.”

By that measure, Neil has worked out more than two hundred problems in the eighteen months since he forged his first knife out of an old leaf spring from his 1949 Cadillac. “I still have it in the shop,” he says. “I found when I was swinging a hammer, it was a good distraction. … The repetitive motion is hard work, but it’s also a kind of meditation.” Covered in sentimental tattoos, sleek hair pulled into a bun, Neil says making knives is as much about the process as the result: “It’s so much more than putting something in a machine that spits out a finished product,” he says.

In just eight months, metalworker Neil Kamimura went from hammering his first knife to appearing on the History Channel’s competitive reality show Forged in Fire—and winning.

Eight months after hammering out his first piece, Neil was a contestant on the popular History Channel show Forged in Fire, which pits blacksmiths against one another to create knives and historical weapons from limited or unusual materials. Against all odds, Neil won, and it changed his life completely, he says. “If only you’d have seen me a year and a half ago, I was a different person.” After making that first knife, Neil became obsessed, he says. “It was exciting, it was challenging, it was difficult, but every day that you conquer it, it’s a win. I was going through a lot of things at that time, and it helped me to have a high level of focus.”

Neil watched the first two seasons of Forged in Fire with his ten-year-old son Maddix, becoming an armchair metal-smith, critiquing contestants and—after making his first knife during the show’s third season—boasting that he could do better. Tired of his bragging, his then-girlfriend contacted the show’s producers. She got an e-mail response the next day. By the show’s fourth season, Neil was flying to “the Forge” in Brooklyn, New York, to compete, and the novice beat out three experienced knife-makers to become the episode’s champion with his version of an Italian cinquedea, a heavy dagger.

Now, in addition to pursuing his passion for doing custom metalwork on vintage cars, Kamimura has devoted himself to bladesmithing full-time. His knives are in high demand both in Hawai‘i and around the world.

“The first time I was on the show, I had never even met another bladesmith because I was so new at it and there’s no one really around here who does it,” says Neil. “I felt a lot of pressure not to screw up, also, because I was representing Hawai‘i. Everybody’s rooting for you, and I didn’t want to be a letdown.” In a follow-up episode a few months later, he battled against four other champions from previous episodes and forged three knives, including his first tai chi sword. Neil went up against blade-smiths with decades of experience. “I had just made one year of bladesmithing at the time, so I had no expectations,” he says. Luckily, Neil works well under pressure and ended up placing second.

Now—thanks largely to the popularity he gained from the show (and a carefully curated Instagram feed of stylish knives, cars, Hawai‘i scenery and beautiful women)—there’s enough demand to support his career as a full-time bladesmith, with a long waiting list for his custom pieces.

Most bladesmiths spend years learning the methods and techniques needed to turn metal into durable, functional and attractive knives. Neil learned them in far less time through dogged practice and following his instincts. It probably helps that he has a family pedigree for blacksmithing.

“When you get a knife from me, you get a part of me,” says Kamimura, seen above heating a blade. “Each knife is a problem I’m pounding out. I pour so much into it—it’s an emotional thing for me.”

Neil’s great-grandfather was Teiji Kamimura, a Japanese immigrant and one of the state’s first Japanese business owners. For sixty years beginning in the 1930s, the elder Kamimura pounded out tools for plantation workers and blue-collar customers in his shop on Kamehameha Avenue in Hilo. He was well known for his cane knives. Neil never worked with him or inherited any of his blacksmithing tools, but he was named for him—Neil’s middle name is Teiji. Neither Neil’s grandfather nor father made knives, but his great-grandfather’s legacy did inspire Neil to craft that first knife. “I’m the third generation born here; everything about me is Hawai‘i. My grandfather was a barber in Waimea, cutting hair for the paniolo [cowboys]. And my dad was a contractor who built houses. When you’re born and raised here, there’s a pride that goes with it,” says Neil.

Not only does knife-making ground Neil in family tradition, it helped him grieve the loss of his mother, who died shortly after he made his first knife. “My friend bought me a forge that same week, and I just started making lots of knives.” For weeks he channeled his pain through his hammer. When producers offered him a spot on Forged in Fire, it was his son Maddix who motivated him to go. “I wouldn’t be as focused or driven without him,” Neil says. “I wanted to be a ‘do-something’ dad. I have a seventh-grade education. I don’t know a lot of things, but I do know how to make things with my hands. … Maddix will never forget that I took a chance. It made both of us proud. I went out there and showed the world what we’re capable of.”

Most of Kamimura’s knives are forged from recycled materials—often leaf springs from old cars and other pieces of scrap metal lying around his shop.

For a local celebrity, Neil’s work-shop is modest. An ancient boombox with cassette player sits atop toolboxes. Soot-covered tools are strewn on countertops. It’s not unlike an auto mechanic’s garage —fitting, as Neil’s other passion is cars. He’s been welding metal to customize vintage cars and make lowriders since he was 16. “The fact that I already knew how to do metal fabrication is part of the reason I was able to pick up knife-making so quickly,” he says. And, there’s no shortage of car parts in his studio. Old tire well leaf springs are stacked like firewood beneath his workbench.

Neil isn’t an aficionado of knives only; he’s just as fervent about the equipment he uses to make them. His twelve-foot hydraulic forging press is painted sea-foam green and inscribed with the words “Main Squeeze.” “I had a local tattoo artist paint it. It’s like a lost art from the ’50s. If you had something nice, you had to decorate it. Nothing stays basic in my hands.” The anvil came from an elderly man on the Mainland who had kept it in the family for generations—he said it had helped to shoe horses that built America’s railroads. All of Neil’s hammers were handcrafted by Nitzan Lilie, a Portland, Oregon-based blacksmith. Even his two prized leather aprons, which shield him from sparks, are hand-tooled—one has a detailed logo from The Punisher, and the other a samurai warrior. “Everything leather that I own was handcrafted by an American craftsman,” Neil says.

Sometimes the materials are sourced by the customer, like a family who commissioned seven knives made from parts of their old family tractor. “I love making those kinds of pieces,” says Kamimura, “because you know it’s something people will cherish and hand down through the generations.”

Of his own pieces, his favorites are custom orders made from repurposed metals.“Either their grandfather was a woodworker and he had a bunch of old tools lying around, or they bring me a piece of grandpa’s old rusty car that he loved so much,” Neil says. “One family on the Mainland asked me for seven custom knives. I made them all from parts of the old family tractor and used antlers from a deer they hunted for the handles. I love making those kinds of pieces because you know it’s something people will cherish and hand down through generations. You become part of the story.”

He pulls open a drawer alongside his bench and peels back a cloth to reveal a gleaming, slender, midsize knife with a rugged wooden handle. Toward the heel of the blade, there’s an indentation that looks like a gun trigger—a detail that helps with stability when cutting. But the knife’s most striking feature is the pattern along the spine—like fish scales—that fade into the shining, impossibly sharp blade. Those “scales” weren’t etched or engraved; they were embedded in the source metal. The knife was fashioned from an old rasp sent to him by Kelly Vermeer-Vella, the only female champion of Forged in Fire, who had used it in her work as a farrier.

Rather than polish the entire blade, Kamimura often leaves portions of his knives pitted, stained or nicked, a technique called brute de forge, or “unpolished forging.”

Neil rarely polishes the whole blade, and leaves decorative black pits, nicks and lines, a technique called brute de forge— meaning “unpolished forging.” The imperfections evoke the source metal, show hammer strikes or are tooled in stylistically to make the knife appear rugged. “A lot of knife-makers just cut the knife and then grind it out,” says Neil. “I do very minimal grinding. My knives are about eighty percent hammer-shaped. I rarely measure, and people can see what I make is real and raw. It’s not factory made or perfect.” Along the way he tests the knives for strength and durability to ensure they’re also functional—he cuts through piles of magazines and uses them to chop wood. He also crafts the knife handles with the help of a neighbor—dyeing and pressurizing local and exotic woods into plasticized plates—and makes most of the plastic sheaths that wrap his blades.

Neil doesn’t have a web page or an official company name. He doesn’t even own a computer. His online presence is limited to Facebook and Instagram. Yet people find him anyway, many of them first-time knife-buyers interested in functional pieces of art. He also sells knives to local craftsmen who are looking for something specific.

In some cases one can still make out features left over from the source metal, such as the scale-like pattern in this knife, which Kamimura created from an old farrier’s rasp. Each handle is also fashioned from reclaimed or recycled wood such as mango, pauduk and milo.

“They’re really beautiful pieces of art,” says Frank Kramm, former chef and co-owner of Kona Butcher Shop. “You could hang them on a wall and they’d fit right in.” Last March, less than a mile from Neil’s workshop, Kramm opened Kona Butcher Shop to fill a gap in the local market: hard-
to-find cuts of meat and specialty food items. Their approach fits well with Neil’s high-quality, handmade ethos. So far, Neil has made two custom knives for the shop, and Frank wants more. “I use knives every day,” he says. “And, Neil, well, his knives are awesome. They’re quite strong and especially good for butchering down bones.” Frank has about fifty knives but says he uses only about four on a daily basis. Neil’s are among his go-tos. “To talk with a blacksmith and have him know what I’m looking for—that’s invaluable,” Frank says. “It’s rare to find good knives, especially in Kona.”

And knives could be just a beginning; Neil hopes to branch into forging industrial art pieces—gates, tables and custom furniture—and plans to collaborate with Forged in Fire competitor Demetrios Papatriantafyllou on a new Hawai‘i-based business creating custom metal furniture and industrial art pieces. “I pour everything into what I do. I probably only have a limited amount of years physically doing it,” he says. “Look how much bigger my right arm is than my left arm. I like to think it will be like a gecko tail: one day it will fall off and then I’m done.” HH