WINTERSVILLE - The way L.T. Wright sees it, he's been blessed.
Eleven years ago he uprooted his family, trading the traffic and high cost-of-living in northern Virginia to come back to the Ohio Valley to be shop foreman for a company in the area that made custom stairs. Six years ago he quit that job to strike out on his own, making knives. And last month he moved his business, Blind Horse Knives, from the basement of his Steubenville home into a commercial space on Warren Lane in Wintersville.
"You have no idea how many people told me I was absolutely crazy, there was no way I could make a living selling knives when there were so many coming in from China and they were right," Wright said. "You can buy something from China that looks a lot like this for $20 or $30, and it works, but it's not the same quality. Those are people I probably wouldn't sell to anyway."
SPECIAL — The “Bush Tiger,” the July special at Blind Horse Knives. -- Linda Harris
Wright said he'd always liked knives, but it wasn't until he went to a gun show at Mountaineer's The Harv back in 2000 that he discovered someone here, in the Tri-State Area, who could teach him how to make them: R.W. Wilson, the Weirton resident who made the knives for the movie, "Jeremiah Johnson."
Wilson took Wright under his wing, not only teaching him how to make knives but also how to sell them.
"I worked all day at the stair company and every night I was in his shop, cutting metal," said Wright, who grew up in Colliers and graduated from Brooke High School in 1982.
Even then, he didn't think about making knives his life's work - at least, not until his dad took a kit knife he'd made him for Christmas to work to show his friends.
"I think I ended up selling about 10 of them at $110 apiece, which allowed me to buy a grinder and some of my first tools," he said. "In a short while I was so busy at night I needed to do something. Things weren't working out at the stair shop, and I said, 'You know what? We can do this.' My wife is a saint, she let me do it."
Wright and another knife enthusiast, Dan Coppins, decided to strike out on their own, co-founding Blind Horse Knives. Wright works out of the Wintersville shop, while Coppins operates an identical operation in Cambridge, where he does the same kind of knife work, as well as the leather work. The two designed their logo over coffee, literally sketching it out on a napkin.
From there it was a question of finding their market niche, which wasn't all that hard: The Blind Horse Knives clientele is looking for hand-crafted, high quality, made-in-America pieces.
"For our first show, we took 40 knives and slept in a tent on the campground where the show was held," he said. "At the end of the week I called my wife and told her, 'This is working, we made some money this week' and I've never looked back. I'm telling you, we've been very, very blessed."
Wright said he's been fortunate to find individuals who love knives as much as he does to work with him, several of them commuting from Pittsburgh every day. He said they ship product "all over the country, all over the world." Their knives also have been featured on the Discovery Channel's "Dual Survivor" show.
"I used to keep a pin chart showing where we were going, it surprised even me," he said. "We've been in every state, and I can't tell you how many countries."
He said there's no hard-and-fast rule about how long it takes to make a knife, though the bigger the knife the longer it takes.
"We could probably make (one) in two hours, start to finish," he said. "Even now, people will send us a picture (to work from) and that can be a challenge." He said on average, they produce about 100 finished knives a week at the Wintersville location and about the same at Coppins' shop in Cambridge.
Wright said their clientele tends to be loyal: he's got one customer who's purchased 60 knives in the six years he's been in business.
"My rule is, if they don't like it we'll replace, repair or refund," he said. "That, to me, is how you build customer loyalty that will keep us in business for my children's children."
And he said moving the business out of his basement and into a stand-alone storefront is just step 1 in what he sees as their long-term goal: to find a property with a barn where they could work and visitors could come see them at work.
"To this day, I've never borrowed a dollar from anybody else," he adds. "We could shut our doors tomorrow and everything would be mine, free and clear."
Find out about Blind Horse Knives by visiting the website, www.blindhorseknives.com, and check out the YouTube videos and the monthly special and limited edition products.
He and Dan also host a show an ESPN radio show on 1270 WILE every Saturday at 8 a.m. The weekly show is turned into a podcast the following Monday and is available on the website as well.
"Podcasts are a fantastic way to sell product," he said. "They're available 24/7 to the world. It's amazing how well they work."
Enthusiasts also can join the Blind Horse Knives "Underground," which gives members first dibs on limited edition pieces.
"Most of the time they're sold out within 24 hours," he said. "I don't want this to sound like I'm bragging, but most of the time we can take it from an idea to a product that's ready to sell, extremely fast."