A study by creative software company Adobe polled more than 5,000 working adults in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, and Japan and revealed that more than 75 percent of those employees felt as if they weren’t living up to their creative potential.

Even workplaces as diverse and innovative as Google can struggle with this conundrum — which is why the company allows its engineers to spend 20 percent of their work week on projects that ignite their creative passions.

It’s little wonder, then, why so many experienced workers are leaving more lucrative jobs to establish their own creative endeavors or take up a creative side hustle. This month, South Sound Business talked to four such individuals who enjoy working creatively so much that they augmented, changed, or steered their careers in a direction to do so.

On the Cutting Edge

Sparks fly as a Puyallup-based knife-maker creates innovative designs with sharp attention to detail

In an unassuming warehouse behind a Fred Meyer, Mike Vellekamp sits hunched over a belt sander, holding the edge of a knife against the rough, rotating band while white hot-sparks gently emanate from the blade. Next to him is a rolling cart on which rest hundreds of identical blades lined up in neat rows.

“We have a system of how to achieve the best, most accurate angle, and it’s all done by hand,” Vellekamp shouted over the sound of the machine, noting that many knife-makers sharpen blades with little regard for perfecting the angle. 

As founder and owner of Puyallup-based knife manufacturer V Nives, quality control is of the utmost importance to Vellekamp, who has been working in the knife industry for a quarter century — first for a few other manufacturers before ultimately founding his own operation in 2018. 

This attention to detail — along with an angle-measuring device called a goniometer — comes in handy for Vellekamp: He often is asked to do work that requires extreme precision. These jobs are often for original equipment manufacturers — OEM work — or companies that make a part or improve upon another company’s end product before it is sold to consumers. 

Currently, Vellekamp is doing OEM work on what he calls a “big project” for his small business, sharpening an order of 32,000 knives for another manufacturer. 

“A lot of knife companies, when they sharpen their blades, they have a guy (who maybe earns) minimum wage, and he maybe doesn’t really care too much what the angle is,” Vellekamp explained as he shut off the machine, placing the sharpened blade on a clean towel and then adjusting the brim of his faded blue cowboy hat. 

“He’s just putting an edge on it, and then they’ll check them and see if (the blade) is sharp, which (it is), but the edge doesn’t last that long … that’s usually why knives don’t hold their edges, because they’re set at the wrong angle,” Vellekamp continued. 

Honing sharpening skills is just one part of a knife-maker’s craft. Though the mass production of the knives themselves is done in overseas factories — with the exception of two domestically made products — much of Vellekamp’s craft is performed in the U.S. and ultimately contributes to the more than $5.7 billion in annual industry revenue. 

When designing a new product, Vellekamp said, it all starts with a sketch. 

“I basically draw out a knife on a piece of paper, and then, if it looks cool and looks functional, I cut it out with a piece of cardboard and I put it in my hand and I see how it feels,” he said. “Then we’ll stack up pieces of cardboard, glue them together, shape them, and see how that feels.”

From there, Vellekamp and his team of five will build a full rendered model. This allows the craftsmen to choose materials, handle colors, textures, and more. Then comes the research. 

Vellekamp brings in experienced hunters, fishermen, law enforcement personnel, first responders, and even culinary experts to weigh in on the product. How would it feel in the hand? Is it practical? What can be improved?  

Solid modeling and 3D printing come next, followed by production of an actual working prototype. If that passes muster, five to 10 production samples will be produced and sent out to knife experts and dealers before full-scale production of 500 to 1,000 pieces can begin. 

Vellekamp vividly remembers the inspiration behind his first knife design. The avid hunter, kayaker, and outdoorsman was working for a Colorado-based knife maker when he and his then-girlfriend embarked on a weekend kayaking and camping trip. After a day of paddling, Vellenkamp was experiencing wrist fatigue and was having trouble slicing a lemon at the pair’s campsite. 

“So, I designed a knife that basically was like a folding butcher knife that puts the knuckles up far enough from the cutting edge that you can just really easily chop with it,” he explained, making chopping motions with the tool. “Then I took it a step further: I decided I could slide the blade … instead of having a hole on the pivot where it opens, I elongated the entire hole so that you can actually slide it in and use it like an Alaskan ulu.”

Since then, Vellekamp has designed countless products that have done well for his company. These include folding knives, utility tools, and culinary blades. One of V Nives’ most popular designs is a utility tool known as the C.R.A.B., or the cut, rescue, assist, and break. 

The innovative tool includes a carbide glass breaker, a miniature scissor, bottle opener, screwdriver bits, O2 wrench, and a 2-inch ruler. A sheath meant to be worn on the belt provides easy transport and, included in the purchase, V Nives throws in one of its Hermit Crab foldable pocketknives. 

There’s no telling what this craftsman will create next, but Vellekamp said he does have plans to work with several Washington state legislators and others in the knife industry to repeal the full ban on switchblades. The entrepreneur also has aspirations to open another retail location in Montana that will mirror the design of his company’s Eatonville flagship store. This means not only bringing V Nives products to a new market, but also using the store to tell the story of the business.

“When people think about a knife manufacturer, they think about an old man in a shed using a hand drill; they don’t think about what’s really involved in it,” Vellekamp said. “We are so much more. We have computer-aided design engineering all the way down to the cutting-edge retail.”