ALBANY, Ga. -- Seven years ago, Steve Gatlin and his then-15-year-old son, Russell, visited a gun and knife show in Tifton. Gatlin didn't know it at the time, but that trip would change his life forever.
"My son and I both love knives, and I was looking for something we could do together," Gatlin recalled. "I didn't want to buy a bass boat and let it gather dust. But we saw some beautiful knives at the show, and I found a whole new world."
The next year Gatlin bought three blade blanks and some cocobolo wood for the handles and the result was his first knife: the "Big Ugly," Gatlin creation No. 001. He still has it.
"It has all sorts of flaws in it," Gatlin mused.
Gatlin, who designs his creations in the classic Bob Loveless fixed-blade style, kept making knives for collectors in his spare time.
However, that changed in April of this year when he walked into his kitchen and told his wife, Cere, that he was quitting his job as a pecan shelling plant manager to devote all his time to making and selling his knives.
"My reaction?" Cere Gatlin replied when asked about her husband's decision. "I said, 'Oh. My. Goodness.' I didn't think he was crazy, and he's always been a good provider. He told me 'It's gonna work. I can do this.'
"The stress at work was getting to him, and he was either going to quit his job or knife-making. I wanted him to come home."
"The food industry is changing very, very fast," Gatlin said. "I kept getting more and more orders for knives. I was so far behind it was stressing me out."
When Gatlin quit the shelling business and returned home, he found a four-year backlog of orders waiting for him. When he was working at the plant, he could produce just one knife per month. Now that he's in his shop full-time he can turn out two per week.
He's only a year behind now, but he says that's progress.
"This is great, but sometimes I remember that I just cut my salary in half," he said, as a smile ran across his face. "But this is a passion for me, and it's a whole heck of a lot better than shelling pecans.
"Pecans are pecans. All my knives are different."
Gatlin said he uses only the finest materials for his knives. His preferred stock is ATS-34 or 154 CM steel. His handles range from stag antler to mammoth tusks to giraffe bone.
"I want my knives to be perfect, from designing the blades, the handle material to the mirror polish," Gatlin said. "I think a knife should be of collectible quality but still provide a lifetime of use."
In 2007 Gatlin attended his first trade show as a vendor.
"I didn't sell a single knife, but it was still a hobby then, so I decided to work harder," Gatlin recalls.
Things made a turn for the better months later when Gatlin asked Loveless if he could send him some knives to be critiqued. Loveless agreed.
Later, Gatlin got a call from a Loveless representative in California.
"The man said Mr. Loveless had looked at my work and was impressed," Gatlin said. "He said if I was going to make his knives that he wanted them done correctly, so he was going to send me eight patterns.
"That was a turning point for me."
Late in 2007 Gatlin took six knives to the Spirit of Steel Knife Show in Dallas and sold all six in just one day.
"I was very surprised," Gatlin said. "I knew then this thing might work.
Last year we was named a probationary member of the Knife Maker's Guild and has added two retail outlets to his portfolio. He has sold knives to India, Puerto Rico, Italy, Switzerland and all over the United States.
Gatlin's knives cost between $350 and $900 ... but there is still at least a year's wait to get one. He's working on the wait part.
"My goal is to now become more efficient," Gatlin said. "I'm still going to make one knife at a time, just make them more quickly."