Man’s need for tools is as old as the species itself. Early man found usefulness in sharp stones and discovered the ability to knap flint for arrowheads, axes, and knives. Over time man has used copper, iron, and eventually steel to produce blades of all shapes, sizes, and purposes. Today a knife is as much a tool as it is an expression of the user. We take pride in the knives we carry, from actual day to day use to simply showing our friends for bragging rights. Many of them are even passed down through generations.
We recently had the opportunity to visit Idaho Falls, Idaho and take a tour of the Rowen Manufacturing facility, home of ESEE Knives.
Rowen Manufacturing didn't start out in the knife business — this facility has been making various types of machined parts for over 17 years. During the first five years, it produced auto parts such as superchargers. The last 12 years have been dedicated to crafting some of the best outdoor/survival knives on the market. Rowen is a family affair made up of Shawn Rowen, his wife, three sons, a daughter-in-law, and Gus the shop dog. In total, Rowen operates with around 20 employees.
Quality and attention to detail are clear priorities at Rowen Manufacturing. Every step of production is meticulously performed and hand-inspected. All ESEE knives are made from 1095 carbon steel, a material that has several benefits for hard-use tools. It has a long history of use in blademaking thanks to its durability and ease of taking an edge.
As anyone who has studied blademaking knows, the heat treat is a pivotal step — it can elevate a good steel to greatness or quickly degrade it to worthless scrap. Properly heat-treating 1095 can be tricky, and it's something Rowen/ESEE has invested a lot of time into. We were allowed to witness the heat treat process, but photos were prohibited and some questions were dodged, much to our dismay. It's understandable that the company is secretive about this procedure — it's a big part of ESEE's reputation for exceptional toughness. Most knives made by ESEE come in around 55-57 HRC.
Some argue against 1095 carbon steel because of its propensity to corrode and rust. This is a founded concern, but one that's mostly alleviated by finishes like powder coat or black oxide. With a durable coating and proper knife care, users shouldn't have to worry about a tarnished piece.
Rowen cuts blade blanks from sheets of rolled steel, which are fed into a large laser cutting machine. The laser causes the metal to heat up during the cutting process, so each blade is hand-checked and inspected for warping. Those that don’t make the cut are corrected by hand with an arbor press when possible, and the worst offenders are scrapped.
Once the basic knife shape is cut, Rowen has grinding machines that are hand-fed. Depending on the model, knives take roughly 25 seconds of grinding to shape the cutting edge. After grinding, each blade is dumped into a tumbler to smooth the edges and prepare for the secret heat treatment.
After heat treat, knives are sent to coating. ESEE knives are offered in powder coat or black oxide finish, depending on the model. Both finishes are applied off-site — the only part of the process not performed by Rowen. Once the coated knives return to the factory, they are laser-engraved and sent to sharpening. Again, each is inspected for quality.
As previously mentioned, 1095 carbon steel knives generally take an edge relatively easily. Each ESEE knife is sharpened by hand to a 40-degree-inclusive flat grind. Employees rotate stations regularly, so each feels responsible for the entire process. This keeps eyes fresh and quality high. The flat grind is utilized because it keeps the blade strong while offering an excellent cutting edge that can be maintained by even a novice user.
Blades are set up in small batches for sharpening and then transferred to the buffing station for an Instagram-worthy smooth surface. The buffed knives are all given a rust preventative coating and inspected one more time. Some are finished and ready for packaging at this point, while others are fitted with Micarta composite handle scales. The Micarta scales are machined in-house using custom-produced jigs, and hand shaved to the correct tolerances. Spacers are also created and used to ensure proper fit within sheaths.
At the end of the tour, we were all given a choice of blades to assemble. The author chose the JG5, from ESEE’s camp-lore line. The JG5 is a “Nessmuk” style blade designed by James Gibson. The design is heavily influenced by George Washington Sears, who wrote under the pen name Nessmuk. He was an early pioneer of outdoorsmen and adventurers alike, and designed a blade that he deemed best for outdoor use.
Gibson is a prominent survival and primitive skills instructor located in Tennessee, and also produces his own line of knives at his home shop. Gibson collaborates with ESEE/Rowen on a few designs for mass production. The newest addition is the Gibson Axe, a purpose-built bushcraft axe made to be taken along on any adventure due to its compact size and versatility.
Every ESEE design stemmed from a need for a specific type of tool. Many of the staff at ESEE and Rowen are adventurers at heart, so the designs have stemmed from their own personal needs and experiences. Patrick Rollins, lead instructor for Randall’s Adventure Training, designed the PR4 based on his time in the jungles of South America and all over the United States backcountry.
Rowen’s facility is an example of fine American craftsmanship. Each member of the team is proud of their work, and stands behind every knife that leaves their stations. ESEE has developed a loyal following in the survivalist community, and after our tour of the company's manufacturing line, it's easy to see why.