Mike “Taproot” Tapley believes knives are a lot like people— each one is unique.
“The good Lord gives us all different talents and blesses us in different ways,” Tapley said. “To make something with my hands that could be passed down from generation to generation is something special, especially in a world where most things are made on an assembly line.”
After retiring from a career in public relations, Tapley opened Taproot Knives where he makes custom knives on his farm in Elmore County.
An early client in his PR days, the Alabama TREASURE Forest Association had a deep impact on Tapley. The group inspired him to create a TREASURE forest —220 acres in Tallapoosa County and 143 in Elmore County.
Standing outside his shop, Tapley explained how his love of the land and his craftsmanship dovetail.
“What I really enjoy—and this house and my wife, Vickie, are a part of it—is that I can wake up, look out and see God at work, and see the gift of life and creation being called forth every day,” Tapley said. “It rejuvenates me.”
Tapley said knives, bows and arrows were always close by growing up, but it wasn’t until a family friend introduced him to knife making in his mid-20s that the craft took hold.
“I got serious about it when I started going to knife shows and accumulating some of the equipment professional knife makers use,” he said. “It’s always been a hobby. I have yet to make the perfect knife. It’s a handmade process.”
Tapley’s creation begins with a conversation with his customer.
“I’ve cleaned about every critter that walks, flies or crawls in Alabama,” he said. “You tell me whether you want a filet knife, a hunting knife, kitchen knife or whatever it is you have in mind, and we can do that. I buy steel by the foot and my price depends on the design and material the client wants.”
After a consultation, Tapley sketches an outline of the knife on a large block of steel. Next, he cuts it out with a jigsaw-like machine and smooths it. Holes are added, and Tapley treats and tempers the steel in an oven at 1,800 F. After the knife is ground to a sharp finish, it’s shipped to the customer.
Recalling his favorite commissions, Tapley shared the story of a 30-year hunting club in Louisiana.
“The duck lease was ending, and every year for 30 years they’d get together and duck hunt,” he said. “The guy I talked to asked if I could make knives for the members with an old mock orange fence post from the property. He mailed me a 24-inch piece, so I cut it up into slabs and made him four knives just alike.”
Another of his favorite stories was a custom Bowie knife for the Birmingham Quarterback Club around the time Gene Stallings won a national championship with the University of Alabama.
John Moore of Wetumpka, a long-time knife collector, has several of Tapley’s knives which Moore said demonstrates some of the finest craftsmanship he’s seen.
“Mike and I went elk hunting, and Mike made a special knife just for that trip,” Moore said. “The outfitter was doing all the dressing, and Mike got him to use his knife. The outfitter was so amazed he got through the whole elk without ever sharpening the blade. His knives aren’t cheap, but you get what you pay for.”
Although he’s made more knives in the last three years than ever before, Tapley insists knife-making is still his hobby, not a job. Each morning he rides a golf cart from his house to a shop near a green field to begin work.
“It’s a labor of love,” he said. “You put a little bit of yourself into every knife you make. It’s nice to sell a knife, but I love people. I’ve met some of the greatest people in the world through knife-making.”
While Tapley will make just about anything, his sizes range from a 16-inch Bowie knife to a 4-inch “Belt Buddy.” His knives are ready for field use, but can be used commemoratively, too. Tapley’s prices depend on materials, but typically start at $185.