Designing the journey: Get to know T.J. Schwarz
Whether in his shop or behind the wheel of his Jeep, there’s a quiet precision to how T.J. Schwarz approaches life. He speaks softly but purposefully, choosing his words like an architect selects materials. At first, this seems at odds with his love for overlanding — the vehicle-based equivalent of backpacking, where built-up 4x4s leave the comfort of the road for open-world adventure on rough, potentially hazardous terrain — but it is exactly this environment where attention to detail matters most.
“It’s a low-speed way to have fun in a vehicle,” Schwarz explains while steering his yellow Wrangler down a twisty dirt road. From customizing his Jeep to picking out the most efficient line up a rocky hillside, the fun of overlanding is in designing the journey. It’s methodical, requiring both expert planning and execution.
“It sounds very automated, but the amount of processes involved to get, say, the bevel the way I want it — it’s a huge amount of work. So it’s not that it’s not a lot of work, it’s a different kind of work.”
He applies the same approach to knife making, as was evident in his very first design: a dovetail interlocking knife that could be disassembled entirely by hand without tools, for which he was awarded Most Innovative Design at Blade Show in 2015.
Today, in a one-car garage shop on the western edge of Idaho, Schwarz has honed his design and manufacturing processes to perfection. As in overlanding, nothing here is rushed. A successful outcome depends on a detailed plan, one that covers both the functionality and the appearance of the product. Out of both necessity and a love of technology, he’s developed many of his own production processes, work that pays dividends in the form of efficient, repeatable, accurate results.
“It sounds very automated, but the amount of processes involved to get, say, the bevel the way I want it — it’s a huge amount of work,” he says. “So it’s not that it’s not a lot of work, it’s a different kind of work.”
High-tech and handmade
The son of a master craftsman, Schwarz grew up spending much of his time in his father’s leatherworking shop. It was here that he was first exposed to product design and the magic of using one’s hands to turn raw materials into functional art. His father made saddles for horseback riding, but the young Schwarz’s obsession was with a different form of transportation: cars.
“Cars were my origin story,” he says. He would spend hours dreaming up cars in his head and drawing them on paper, a passion he carried with him to college.
It was there, while studying engineering, that he got his first taste of knife design. Friend and knifemaker Bill Koenig, aware of Schwarz’s talent for drawing cars, asked him to sketch a knife. But Schwarz, who was in a computer-aided design (CAD) class at the time, decided he could do one better: provide Koenig a full three-dimensional CAD model.
“For me, doing CAD is the design process. I think I was one of the earliest to take that approach. It’s how I built my brand, taking what I could from the high-tech world and putting it in the hands of people who like high-end, custom knives.”
This experience led to a realization that got Schwarz hooked on knives. Unlike automotive design, in which designers spend years working up to a position of influence and even then control a small area of an overall project, a knife designer has much more agency over product development — up to owning the entire production pipeline. In this, Schwarz saw freedom.
But, just as the sense of freedom provided by overlanding was built on a foundation of preparation and skill, he knew his approach to knife design would need to be meticulously thought out. He realized he could combine the lessons he learned from his father about functional design with his technical know-how and CAD experience to develop knives in his own unique way.
Typically, a traditional designer would make a knife by hand first, only later creating a CAD model — or hiring someone to — before sending it to manufacturing. By starting with CAD, Schwarz learned he could be more efficient.
“For me, doing CAD is the design process,” he says. “I think I was one of the earliest to take that approach. It’s how I built my brand, taking what I could from the high-tech world and putting it in the hands of people who like high-end, custom knives.”
Designing a lifestyle
In the years since that pivotal request from Keonig, Schwarz has fashioned his entire workflow around manufacturing processes, ensuring his designs are production-ready from the get-go, with minimal, if any, changes needed after prototyping. He calls this “process-oriented design.”
It’s clear he also applies this mindset to his workspace itself. While small, the garage shop is expertly organized to maximize the available area. It contains everything he needs, including a tumbler, belt sander, laser engraver, and Tormach CNC mill. It’s also remarkably clean; one can almost imagine it being used to fabricate semiconductors. “I have a one-man production shop because I was thinking about the processes first,” he says.
It is here where Schwarz currently makes the custom fixed-blade Overland knife, a folding version of which is available from CRKT. He calls it a hybrid bushcraft/kitchen knife, suitable for camping, backpacking, and — of course — overlanding, with an ergonomic grip that allows the user to comfortably chop food on a flat surface. It’s built for purpose, but it’s also beautiful, with an undeniable elegance in its simplicity.
“Obviously, the function is number one,” Schwarz says, “but form is 49% of the deal. So I try to make sure that both are absolutely at the highest levels I can do.”[KS1]
His next step is to upgrade and refine his workspace to increase output and incorporate new processes that will allow for more flexibility in future designs. Eventually, he’ll need to move to a larger shop. But for now, he’s enjoying the life he’s built right where he is.
“I’m proud of the family life I have,” he says. “That’s a big one. A lot of people who are self-employed have a hard time with that.”
In talking about his professional accomplishments and contributions he’s made to the knife industry, he’s also proud — but not boastful. For Schwarz, success isn’t found in wealth or fame, but freedom. Freedom to be who he wants to be, where he wants to be, with the people he loves. Working from home, he gets to spend quality time with his family every day, and his two young children will grow up with the same inspirational experience he had: watching a father in his shop, practicing his passion.