Origin handcrafted goods

Marc Liss
Words: Riel Lynch / Photos: Joseph Visser

We met Marc Liss of Origin Handcrafted Goods on a windy Saturday in late March, at his Century Street studio. His space is situated in the corner of his brother Joel’s metal fabrication shop. Resembling a large indoor tree house, it is positioned at the top of a set of wooden stairs, floating above the rest of the space. For Marc, wood and antler were gateway materials to the magic of metal works.

Before the interview began, he took us into his neat and humble studio and walked us through the process of making a ring from deer antler. Dozens of antler pieces were separated into bins - moose, deer, and caribou. Marc used one machine to drill a hole in the chosen piece, and another - a lathe - to shape it. As he worked through the process, a smell reminiscent of buttered movie theatre popcorn began to fill the small space; we breathed it in through the paper masks he’d provided. When complete, the piece of antler had been transformed into a ring that looked like, and felt as smooth as marble. It was still warm from being worked on the lathe.

We settled into chairs circling a handmade wooden coffee table, and then, in a tone of good-natured conviction, Marc began to tell us of his several years of experience as a maker. Although he is a refined ring-maker, he has recently ventured into the world of making knives.

Muddy Water: Tell us about how you came to making?

ML: I started making rings five summers ago and it was pretty random. I’ve always enjoyed whittling, but I’d spent the summer in the Yukon and while I was there, I started carving a log. I [carved] a face, and spent a couple months doing it. When we came back [from the trip] I had about a month before I started another job, so I thought I would make Kayla - my wife - a wood ring. I looked it up online and the basics were there. So, I went into my dad’s garage and used what tools he had. Over the next three days I hand-sanded and polished this really terrible and ugly ring. It ended up not fitting Kayla - it fit me, coincidentally. And there were a lot of things wrong with it, but I loved it.

I spent the next month finding new woods and working in my backyard. I showed my friend Malcolm how and what I was doing. He fell in love with it and the whole summer was spent making rings. We got to the point that we would carry a satchel of rings everywhere we went. When we would hang out with our friends and family, we would put our rings on the table, and people would [buy] them. And then a few months later I was due to leave on a trip, and, I had been making rings the whole time. So right before I went to leave, I calculated how much money we were making on these random wood rings, which was like two or three grand in just the last few months.  I was gone for 6 months and Malcolm started an Etsy shop. This was about four and a half years ago. Etsy is really good; the first few months were hard, but after about six months, the more social media shares and recognition you get, it sort of starts to sustain itself. 

Malcolm left the business a few years ago, as he just wasn't in love with it anymore, which allowed me to start doing it full time because it became 100% my profit. In the last six months, I moved in here, with my brother - who has [run] his own business for almost a decade now working on cars and stuff. It was a nice set up. I have always had an interest in knives, sort of collecting them. It dawned on me that I could make them, so the timing on moving in here was perfect. First of all this is a metal shop, Joel has a bunch of tools handy. If I had started out making knives on my own, it would've been a lot harder. 

MW: What sort of materials - what types of woods and metals are you working with? 

ML: “Hard woods” is a term that is commonly tossed around - pine is a hardwood that is really quite soft. The first ring that I made in my garage was pine [and] broke pretty quickly, so we realized that we had to use dense woods. Unfortunately, Canada doesn’t really have a tonne of natural woods that are dense and dark and strong. Most of the wood I buy is from the Southern U.S., or South America. Or Africa. Fortunately I do not have to buy a tonne of it. I use woods like cocobolo, which is not only beautiful, with orange and brown tones, sometimes almost purple or black, [but also] dense. The density of these exotic woods helps with longevity, as they are quite oily and help repel water and stand up to the elements.

Pretty early on, my parents came to me, and were like “We have this caribou antler, maybe you can use it to make rings.” It turns out it is the perfect material [for that]; it just works naturally, and there is so much just laying around in Manitoba because deer drop their antlers every year. My grandpa is a farmer with lots of connections to other farmers who often find these antlers.

MW: It is interesting how malleable it is. I was so surprised with that.

ML: In terms of tools, it dulls them a lot faster than the woods I use, but it’s a happy medium between wood and metal. You don’t need any specialty tools, just sand paper.

MW: I don’t think I know anything about metals or their [working] process. I’m not even sure, is this steel?

ML: I didn’t know anything about metal until about three months ago. That is another reason [why it was] great coming here. My brother has such a knowledge of metallurgy. Metal is weird; it’s like magic. The things you have to do to it do not make any intuitive sense. There are thousands of types of metals. This one here is steel - it is called O1 Tool steel. It is one of many, many steels used to make knives, but I started using it because when I buy this metal it is relatively soft. I can put it on my machine and work with it pretty easily.

But this is where it becomes magic… Once I have shaped the blade, I put it into the kiln at 1500 degrees, until [the steel] is glowing orange. And then, you take it out and dunk it in vegetable oil, really quickly while it is still hot. If you do it properly it becomes super hard, like glass - so hard that if you dropped it, it would shatter. Then you put it in the oven for 2-4 hours at 400 degrees, which brings it to a nice, happy medium between this [finished blade], and glass. It is still really hard, but at that point you don’t have to do much, except put an edge and a handle on it.

How people figured that out? I have no idea. And every metal is different. Some metals you drench in pickle juice. Some of them - like Japanese swords and knives, are done in clays - a much slower process. It is really neat. 

MW: Where did you do most of the research for the metal works?

ML: There is a great community online for just about anything. I wouldn’t be doing anything like this if there weren’t people on the Internet that were kind enough to give out information for free. That basic process was all available for me. I was imagining myself trying to do what I’m doing in the 70s - like when my dad was my age - and I just wouldn’t be doing it. There are no knife makers in Winnipeg except this one guy who does it in his shed; he doesn’t sell them.

MW: Purely for his own purposes.

ML: Yes, just for fun. And I met him through the Internet. He has shown me tonnes of stuff. How would I have met him otherwise? Joel has been a great help in terms of equipment usage, but most of the specifics I’ve got online.

MW: Have your knives been selling on Etsy as well?

ML: I have sold a couple right now, but I am not sure Etsy is the space for knives. I think I’ll probably start a separate web page for them. Right now I am at the point that I am eager to move into knives, but am waiting on some equipment.

MW: Some equipment that would make a much easier process?

ML: Faster, and easier, and just better.

ML: Before making the rings about five years ago, did you have any other hobbies or interests in making things with your hands, aside from whittling?

ML: Nothing related to knives or jewelry. The closest thing [was] maybe carving sticks when I was camping as a kid. But I was always drawing. I wanted to do a comic book and draw for a living, but over the years I realized that just the act of being creative could be found in so many places. Like my brother - he makes trucks; [or with] people who are chefs. It is this [creative] feeling that is enriching. That I am sure, being someone who is writing [for Muddy Water] is aware of. I think that drawing really woke that idea up in me. Now I am starting to realize that the thing that most appeals to me is knife making. Maybe ten years from now I will find something else that is totally different.

MW: At this point of making, do you have a vision or a dream? As a writer, I have always envisioned writing a novel. In that way, do you have a type or style of knife that you want to create that is, perhaps, at this point just a vision?

ML: Right now I am so new to it that I am really just getting a feel for it. When my grinder arrives, I want to try making a kitchen knife. I didn't think I would be into it, but the more I read, the more appealing it sounds to me. What I find really cool about knives is - not to take away from making rings - knives are a tool with a given purpose. Like this first knife that I made, I have it with me at the shop all day. I use it. When I first cut a piece of paper with it, it was different because I had made it. It is the actual usefulness that really appeals to me. So now that I am thinking about kitchen knives, I like the idea that they can be used all the time. Apparently they are also a pain in the ass to make. So, we'll see. 

MW: When I first learned I would be writing this article, I thought, “What is the relationship to knives and rings?” These are such contrasting objects. I certainly see the draw to them both, now.

ML: I have learned so much from rings, especially with the knife handle. I feel I have got a bit of a head start in that regard to knife making, because I have worked with wood for so long. And I have an attention to detail for something so small that can easily apply to the handle. A lot of the same processes apply to the knife, like sanding and shaping it. Beyond that, there are maybe no connections. They are pretty different.

MW: [With] respect to the weights and shapes of the knife, is that something that you constantly are thinking of?

ML: The more I get into this, the more I realize there are so many factors that come into play in how you use a knife. In terms of weight, there are so many factors that affect it. Like the blade - different factors affect it going down to the spine. Something thick would not be very useful. The more slender, the better they are to cut. Whereas another [knife] is better because of the edge - you could use this one to swing and chop bone.

MW: There really is so much to consider. Can you also describe the process of cutting and shaping the knives?

ML: I first design on paper - silhouette to steel, and this is what Joel helps with, the cutting of steel. Joel has a plasma cutter, which is super heated air and cuts my design in a couple seconds. [They’re] all melted around the edges and then I touch them up and grind them. Epoxy resin holds the knife and the handle together. This [knife] is called the “Full-Tang” method. The metal handle part is the “tang”, and when the metal is hidden, it is called the “hidden-tang”.

MW: Considering pretty much everything you have done is self-taught, are there challenges in that, or is that just part of the process that you embrace figuring out?

ML: There are positives and negatives, although the positives much outweigh the negatives. Whether I am learning it on my own is a good question. So many people are giving me information from different sources, but in doing it on my own I make more mistakes, and learn immediately from those mistakes. So, the learning curve is longer when you are learning on your own. Whereas when you go to school for something, say, if I went and took a knife-making course, this guy would be walking me through all the steps, and not really telling me why I am doing something [or] letting me see the alternative. And [leaving] that course, [if] I go to make a knife on my own and I come to a dead end that wasn’t covered, I am left with nothing. There are advantages to both [ways of learning], I think. I just bought my first knife-making book. I started reading it and thought, “This guy knows everything!” and there were all these little things that answered big blaring questions.

MW: And creatively, do you think that this is the medium for you?

ML: Yeah. For a lack of a better word, it is really resonating with me.  In a way that is getting me really excited. Not to a degree that I am annoyed with the rings, but in a way that I want to get the work for my rings done and out of the way so I can spend an hour or two at the end of each day doing some work on knives. It’s all steps; when I was making rings and learned I could make money from them and do it as a business, I had these same feelings. I have had these feelings the whole time in different ways, but this is the first time that I have really felt this is something I could do my whole life. There were all these factors, like, “Is this responsible of me?” or, “Knife making is really fun”, or, “Can I profit or make a living from this?”  Now I know I should just do it; if it feels right, it’s right, and just go for it. Maybe it will take me three years to be able to do it full time. But I will make the effort in these three years to make it happen.

Marc also hand-sews handsome leather sheaths for the knives, usually while relaxing at home. If you would like to find out more, contact Marc @origin_hg on Instagram, or OriginHG on Etsy. His rings are also currently available at Normandy on Corydon, but keep an eye out for his knives in the future.