“I don’t make knives that are disposable…these knives will look the same in 100 years. I’m gonna make you pay enough so you take care of your shit,” said Corey Milligan, 45, founder and owner of New West KnifeWorks, a boutique chef knife company based in Jackson, Wyoming. Milligan is 20 years into the knife business, but he still talks with the boldness of someone who’s just getting started, accompanying everything with an eager joke or a casual laugh and smile.
In 1995, Milligan was working with knives as a cook (“We were cooks, not chefs”) in Jackson Hole. He was looking to get into business, but there were very few opportunities; tourism and real estate were the only thriving industries in the valley. Knives were something that immediately made sense to Milligan, and he started making the type worthy of Wyoming, where “there’s no bullshitting, it either works or it doesn’t.”
By reading books on knife-making, Milligan began making handmade knives with boldly colorful wooden handles, and from the start — and for the last 20 years — he’s been selling knives as quickly as he can produce them. This is thanks in part to his focus on aesthetics. Milligan wasn’t classically trained as a designer, but he’s always been a maker — “in fifth grade I won second place at the state fair for my pastel of a frog” — and his knives reflect that in appearance, allowing him a back door into the finest art shows in the country. No one else was creating artful chef’s knives, so his niche designs were accepted in the sculpture category.
In 1997, at 27, Milligan founded New West KnifeWorks, a play on the “Old West” of black-and-white westerns, and showcased modern designs with rustic materials. He cultivated his craft by studying techniques from different manufacturers and by traveling throughout America and over to Japan. In Seki, Japan, the traditional center for samurai sword-making, Milligan worked with master knife-makers through their entire knife-manufacturing process. His charisma and pursuit of learning allowed him to continue to grow in knowledge. After a longwinded answer, he frequently asks, “How’d I do?” like a chef scooping you some of the new chili recipe.
After 20 years of tinkering with and perfecting his production chain, each partner in Milligan’s process is now, in his mind, as sharp as the blades they produce, from bulk steel purchasers to custom steel-rollers, to laser cutters, to blade-grinders, to the precision heat-treatment shop. After passing through many skilled hands, New West knives then come to Milligan to be assembled and hand finished. The current crop of knives uses Crucible CPM S35VN High Carbon Stainless Powder steel, purchased from the premier tool-steel manufacturer in the US. It solves the problem of ceramic knives, which are hard and sharp but also easily breakable, and pure stainless steel, which is durable but soft, making it hard to sharpen without the edge bending over on itself. The Crucible steel is the “holy grail” of blade material, with a mix of hardness, for better edge holding, combined with very high toughness, so it won’t chip, and the price reflects that. “If the cost of steel is a metric of quality, the steel is five times the price of a German knife, and three times the price of a good Japanese knife,” he said.
The best blades needed a handle to match. Milligan didn’t invent the G10 handle, but he’s one of the first to bring it to the kitchen. The new handles came about after Rutland Plywood, the Vermont-based wood supplier who gave New West Knifeworks their iconic, multicolored wooden handles, burned to the ground last fall. Seeing opportunity in tragedy, Milligan worked with manufacturers to bring his color patterns to a new handle material: G10, a glass-woven fabric impregnated with an epoxy resin that’s highly mechanically stable (so it won’t bend or morph), heat and shrink resistant and usually comes in black or camouflage on the palm end of high-end tactical knives. He calls it bombproof. Most importantly, though, it has a great feel.
When we spoke, Milligan was already gearing up for his next project. He had 25 prototypes for pocketknives right in front of him. He finished them just four days before and they were slated for the Christmas holiday. But at that moment, he was tired. “It’s hard, I’m not in that mindset yet. I just spent a year developing this G10 thing,” Milligan sighed slightly, wanting to recharge before he turned his mind to the next project.
The pocketknife he was playing with, which will sell for 500 to 675 bucks (“and it’s a bargain at that price”), will be available at the Mountain Man Toy Shop, another pet project, this one built onto his existing retail space. The Toy Shop is a man cave, complete with axes, shave kits and, of course, tomahawks — “you wouldn’t believe it, we sell an ungodly amount” — but has a “sexy, Brooklyn thing” that makes it come off as refined, curated, small-scale REI.
Between custom chef knives, his new retail line of G-Fusion knives and filling the Toy Shop, Milligan doesn’t have much time to rest before he has to turn his attention forward. “I’m hoping by the time my son has graduated from Stanford Engineering,” Milligan laughed, “he’ll be making me the first lightsaber kitchen knife.” His son is only 10.