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Studio Stories

Where it all began...

By Matt Conable May 6, 2019

As we begin our WH newsletter, I thought I’d share a little of the backstory of how I ended up here – what a long strange trip it’s been...

I’m another one of those college drop-outs that did alright – in 1989 I left Cornell, mid sophomore year, to take a grunt job in a little knife shop in Davenport, CA near Santa Cruz.  Why?  Because at that moment, making things of permanence and enduring value made more sense than studying bold face terms in textbooks.  I loved the way knives combined form and function, art and utility, performance and aesthetics, and I knew that almost every piece I worked on, day by day, would still be out there in the world long after I was gone.  Quite simply, that made sense to me – and I never imagined that it would start me on a 30 year odyssey of a career.

I learned quickly, became proficient and then more than that as a craftsman, and a few years later moved to the Arizona mountains and set up my own backyard knife shop in an old horse barn. For three years I made knives by hand, and quickly rose the ranks in American craft. At 25 years old my work was being juried into shows at the Smithsonian and Philadelphia Museum of Art among others – I had arrived at the top of the fine craft market in the US. But, as is all too often true, I was making peanuts – less per hour than waiting tables – my art could not sustain a life and a family.

So I left AZ, moved back to Santa Cruz area in CA, and tried to put on hard shoes and get a ‘real’ job.  Almost did it, too – almost.  But literally the day before I accepted a job offer in Silicon Valley, early in the dot com boom, there was a message on my phone from a collector of my custom knives – Michael (Henry) Honack, wanting to connect.  I delayed my decision to meet with him, and realized that I could build a company that reflected my values, my aesthetics, my craft, my integrity, and leverage the only skill set I had, knifemaker and small business owner, into something more than my two hands. 

So I declined the Silicon Valley job and started a partnership with Michael (he offered startup capital and business advice, and left the partnership in 2008).  A couple months later I decided to combine our middle names to create a brand, and William Henry was born (took another 10 months before I came up with our signature WH logo).  Frankly I had no idea if I could do this, if it would work, if anyone would want what I made or whether or not there was a real business here.  But I believed in making quality products that brought old world craft into a modern context, and I hoped that if I could learn how to produce (at some scale compared to my hands) work that resonated with me, it might resonate with others too.

In the beginning I had a 200 square foot room above a glass factory, and I put a garbage bag over my computer so the dust from my grinders and polishing machines, in the same room, didn’t ruin the hard drive.  22 years later William Henry, based in Oregon since 2004, operates in about 9000 square feet that includes a knife shop, pen shop, jewelry shop, and office space.  We design and create great stuff, and that great stuff, used and collected around the world, creates 41 jobs here in the USA and supports countless other artisans and subcontractors.   That feels pretty damn good.

At 19 I worked for $6/hr doing grunt work in a 3 person knife shop on the coast of CA – because it made sense at the time.  Today, what I do, and what we do, still makes sense to me.  I am still fascinated by the interplay between form and function, between state of the art and timeless tradition, between opulence and austerity, between creativity and practicality – in the design and craft of fine things.  For whatever it is that I’ve learned, I know I am still a novice and have so much yet to discover – to that end I challenge myself, and William Henry, to imagine what we could do tomorrow that is better than what we build today.

Thanks for reading all the way thru, and for your interest in my life’s work...

Matthew (William) Conable

But unless you’re my mom, just call me Matt