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Justin Thompson – Heritage Maker
by Jamin Brackett
My first contact with Justin Thompson came at the 2019 Blade Show. One thing that initially struck me about his work was his designs. The examples were simple, clean and extremely well ground with smooth finishes. His grinds were better than many who had been in the craft for years. The quality of his work spoke for itself.
We talked several times at the show and I began following him on Instagram. In time, I would hear respectable makers in the knife world boast about his work. But perhaps the greatest compliment to his skill is the fact that elite and experienced military personnel value his blades – more about that later.
Justin was born in 1981 in historic Pinehurst, North Carolina. The oldest of three, his parents Jimmy and Lynne Thompson are very supportive of him and his craft. Growing up, Justin believed he would end up working in the equine community as he showed quarter horses at the national level from age ten into his twenties. At twelve years of age, he placed as a finalist in the Youth World Championship at Fort Worth, Texas. He went on to win multiple championships including the Dixie Nationals and the Houston Livestock Show.
As a young man Justin felt led to enter the trade of his father, a certified tool and die maker. He draws on an extraordinary family history in that trade, going back three generations. Justin’s great-grandfather Tom Thompson was a master tool maker for the railroad. His grandfather Jim Thompson was an entrepreneur, and his father Jimmy Thompson is the founder of Southeastern Tool and Die Manufacturing.
After high school Justin, like his father, attended the Central Carolina Tool and Die program. The first task he was asked to complete was the making of a knife in the bowie style, with a guard. Students had to craft the blade without the use of a grinder. The only power tools permitted were a cut off saw and a drill press – students had to literally file the blade bevels by hand using a progression of files.
After making his first knife in 2001, Justin worked as a machinist for nearly eight years. During this time in his life, Justin found himself questioning his career path. In time, he met Curtis Iovito of Spartan Blades and was impressed with Spartan’s designs. Curtis showed Justin his first knife grinder, made by Wilmont Grinders. With the knowledge he had gained as a machinist and with encouragement from Curtis, Justin started drawing and designing knives. This continued for a couple of years until Wilmont Grinders took on a new meaning and role in Justin’s life.
One day in 2011, ten years after making his first knife, Justin was introduced to Chris Williams, maker of Wilmont Grinders and Wilmont Knives. After meeting Justin, Chris saw the potential in him and brought Justin on as an apprentice. Testifying to his love for and commitment to the trade, Justin did not get paid for his work but spent every day learning from Chris. During his apprenticeship, Chris so admired Justin’s work that he traded two new grinders for two knife designs. Justin worked at Wilmont Knives for fourteen months before putting the question of career paths to rest and making the decision to set out on his own as a professional knifemaker.
After settling in, Justin took me to his shop. I found the shop to be one of the most well equipped I’ve ever visited. Justin possesses the equipment to complete every task from cryogenic quenching and heat treatment to the processing and stabilization of various handle materials. Justin is very interested in testing and researching various steels. He is constantly trying new steels and experimenting with treatment processes. When I asked Justin why he seemed to gravitate towards Carpenter’s XHP steel, he said it was a very forgiving steel to work with but offered extremely good wear resistance in use.
I asked Justin about the biggest influences on his life and he instantly said his father Jimmy and grandfather Jim. Among his knifemaking influences he named Dellana, Kirby Lambert, Grant and Gavin Hawk, Scott McGhee, Javan Dempsey, Michael Walker, Chris Williams, Darrin Sirois, Jack Stottlemire, and Curtis Iovito. At the time of this writing, Justin’s professional reading included Knife Engineering by Dr. Larrin Thomas.
I asked Mr. Thompson if he would meet with me for a few minutes. I told him I had observed how supportive his family was of Justin. I asked him to tell me what stood out to him about Justin, in particular how he viewed his son through the eyes of an experienced tool and die maker. Mr. Thompson said, “Justin is more of an artist… he is meticulous, possesses patience to take the time, to get things correct.” After talking to his father, I began to see Justin in a different light. Justin had confided that he really struggled with second guessing his career path, as many of us do. What stood out to me was the fact that even though Justin is a trained tool and die maker with a true passion for the trade, knifemaking is also an artistic outlet for his creative talents.