We're bringing back our Maker Spotlight series with a good friend of Empire Abrasives -- Airin Lee aka AleeKnives. Airin has one of our favorite knifemaking channels on YouTube. He does a great job teaching basic to advanced techniques and has the most positive attitude.
If you’re looking for some great knifemaking content where you’ll be entertained and learn something, make sure to check out Airin’s YouTube and Instagram…
Tell us a little bit about yourself…
I am Airin Lee, 41 years old and I live in Kansas City on the outskirts of town. I own and operate a small telecommunications company here in town but my passion is working with steel making all sorts of fun sharp things!
How did you get started with your YouTube channel, and what is your goal for it?
I really started the YouTube channel as a way to connect with other aspiring knifemakers. There really aren't that many of us out there so if you want to make new friends with similar hobbies you have to go and find them! The channel really started to take off about six months ago and I plan to continue to upgrade my filming equipment and editing skills to produce better and better content for everyone.
How long have you been making knives?
I have been making knives for just over 9 years and plan to continue with no end in sight!
What got you interested in this?
I have always had a passion for knives and guns and have been a collector much of my life. When my wife and I had our first child I remember there was a knife that I really wanted to add to my collection but it was entirely too expensive for me to justify the expense, especially right after having a baby! So I told my wife I was going to make it. She proceeded by laughing at me, which irritated me to no end! I think that might have actually been the push that created the obsession of knife making within me.
I stepped out into my shop that cold winter day and with basic hand tools and very little knowledge on the subject I made my first knife, it took me a week to make it. I was proud of it, it was a long bowie knife with homemade burlap micarta scales. I was so proud I took it to my job sites and showed it off to other guys and before you know it a guy offered to buy it! That got me excited and the rest is history!
How did you start learning how to make knives?
I started learning to make knives solely on YouTube! I learn by watching, I did have a lot of prior experience fabricating things and working with tools so I was no stranger to getting dirty and how tools work. However, I absorbed as much information that was available and always felt there could be a lot more. That is one of the reasons I decided to give back to the community and teach what I had learned in a slightly easier to digest format.
How long would you say it took you to hone your craft?
I have been "honing" since I started and honestly don't think I will ever stop! There is no one right way to go at making knives. It is an ever evolving hobby, you evolve, your taste evolves, your designs evolve and your processes evolve. I will never stop learning and I will never assume that I know more than the guy standing next to me. I think everyone has the potential to teach you something if you're open minded.
What other hobbies do you have outside of knifemaking?
My family and I are heavily engaged in dirt biking, hiking, rock climbing and skateboarding. When I say family I mean all of us! My wife, son and daughter are the coolest, most adventurous people in my life! We are gone most if not every weekend somewhere deep in the woods with our camper or in a tent exploring the great outdoors. My wife and I are strong believers in limiting electronics in our daily lives so we leave them at home when we go play. As you can imagine all this makes uploading regular content pretty difficult!
What is the 1 tool you couldn’t live without for making knives?
Honestly the 2X72 grinders are the tool of choice for me! I am building a new revolution Gen4 right now to add to the shop! All of the other tools you can work without but the 2X72 is the king!
Do you have a dream tool for your workshop?
I would absolutely love to own a hydraulic forging press. I have been researching them for a while now and have decided it will be the next big purchase. People ask me why I don't just build one and I tell them that your time is worth money as well. If I spend my time doing what I love (making knives) rather than learning how to make a press, then the money from the knives will buy the new machine and I will also gain more skill while making the knives!
**This is where that forging magic happens until Airin gets that press
What is your favorite Empire Abrasives product? Shameless plug :)
My all time favorite product that I buy from Empire is the 2X72 36 grit zirconia belts! These belts absolutely shred steel like no other! I do use all the other belts moving up the grits but I get a ton of satisfaction watching that 36 grit belt just vaporize the steel!
Are there other knifemakers you look up to?
There are literally thousands of makers that I look up to! Literally thousands!
What is your favorite knife you’ve created and why?
This is a funny question for me! I don't own a single knife that I have made. I always feel like the next one will be better so I sell the one I just finished. So in effect almost every single knife is my new favorite knife! I look at knife making as an artistic expression so each and every knife is a one of a kind piece with what I believe to be the best combination of materials that I could dream up. I just finished the Bowie knife for the YouTube creator challenge so I will show you pictures of that knife because it is my newest and most favorite to date.
What are you working on now?
I am currently building the Gen4 Revolution 2X72 grinder from HouseMade.us. I am very excited about this project because the machine will potentially replace 2 other machines in my shop freeing up space.
How do you come up with your ideas for each project?
I am visually inspired by the natural elements in nature, sometimes a piece of wood might speak to me or some other exotic material might spark an idea. I rarely draw out my ideas because I like to keep them fluid while I am working through the project. In fact the last bowie that I made I did draw it out and before I even started on the knife I was making changes to the design and continued to manipulate it all throughout the build video!
Do you have any big plans for your knifemaking and/or your YouTube channel?
Yes! I am shooting for the gold! I am leveling up my content every single day. I am constantly exploring new and interesting ideas on the channel. This year I focused all my attention to upgrading all of the equipment in the shop for filming. Bought a new Canon 90D, several pro series lenses, new wireless lavalier microphone and a new computer that can handle rendering in 4K!!!! All in all, better 4K footage and better crispy audio!
Do you plan to go full time with this, or do you prefer to keep it a fun hobby?
This will always be a hobby and a passion wherever it goes. I do not take custom orders for that very reason. I only want to make what I am inspired to make. Sometimes a project might sit on my bench for six months until a spark ignites in my mind and then it's GAME ON!
How much time do you think you spend each month on knifemaking?
At an absolute minimum I spend 40 hours a month on making knives and videos. This includes the time I spend sitting on the couch editing videos and chatting with my wife.
Do you have any advice or resources (YouTube channels, websites, etc.) for other knifemakers?
Buy extra 2X72 belts so you have them when you need them the most.
Don't get discouraged! My first knives sucked also!
**They can't all be winners. Though this knife didn't work out, Airin called this try a learning experience.
Youtube channels to follow…
- AleeKnives is a great resource for beginner knife makers (My shameless plug)
- The Rivers Experience is good for intermediate makers
- Tyrell Knifeworks is good for advanced makers
There are many other super channels to follow on YouTube
Best advice you’ve received from another knifemaker?
"Knife makers don't make mistakes, they just make smaller knives!" I have made A LOT of smaller knives, but I just keep on making them.
Thank you so much Airin for for taking the time to do this interview with us! We're all big fans here at Empire and are always so proud to see our banner hanging in the back of your videos!