Where the Metal Takes You: Get to Know Kaila Cumings
Inspiration can be found in many places. The town dump isn’t usually one of them. Yet that’s exactly where Kaila Cumings, as a child tagging along with her father, first discovered her passion for knifemaking. The waste transfer facility had a “free table” where residents could discard items that were no longer needed but weren’t quite ready to be tossed onto the garbage heap. On one visit, a small metal object caught her eye.
“Someone had left an old pocket knife,” Kaila says. “I was fascinated by it.” She brought it home and learned how to take it apart, an experience that grew into a hobby for dismantling and reassembling knives.
Those dump trips weren’t the only adventures Kaila went on with her father. He also took her camping, hunting, and fishing, often on the family’s 800 acres of woodland in rural New Hampshire that had been passed down through generations. There, she developed a deep love for the outdoors and survivalism, which would lead her to find success in competitive shooting and, eventually, knifemaking.
“I wanted to make something people would be proud to carry, that would also be super useful. Not too big, not too small.”
An active member of several survivalist groups on social media, Kaila was noticed by Discovery in 2016. The cable channel reached out to her and offered her a spot on the reality show “Naked and Afraid,” which sees a pair of disrobed contestants work together to survive 21 days and nights in a remote location.
“I had never seen the show before. I thought they were joking,” Kaila recalls. “The next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Colombia.”
Contestants are permitted one item to bring with them on the challenge. For hers, Kaila forged a custom knife specifically for the show. She would return to “Naked and Afraid” for three more seasons, making a new knife for each appearance. She endured being covered in tick bites in Colombia, narrowly escaped a run-in with a fer-de-lance snake (known as the most dangerous snake in the Americas) in Mexico, spent three months in a South African hospital after contracting dengue fever, and was “eaten alive by everything under the sun” in the jungles of Peru.
And she’d happily do it all again. Why? “I just love doing wild and crazy things,” she says. “I’ve never fit the norm.”
From reviewer to maker
Before she began making knives, Kaila got her start in the industry as an independent reviewer, evaluating knives on her YouTube channel. This is also where she discovered CRKT when she reviewed the fixed-blade S.P.E.W.™, which caught the attention of the knife’s designer, Alan Folts.
“Her reviews were straightforward and honest, which, as a maker, I appreciate a lot,” Alan says. He would later become one of Kaila’s biggest influences, along with fellow knifemaker Ken Onion, and continues to mentor her today.
Kaila is not shy about how much she appreciated the help of a 30-year industry veteran. “When I first started out, I would be calling Alan at three in the morning, asking something like, ‘How do I heat treat this without messing it up?’”
And Alan was also there to help Kaila plan her own CRKT knife, the Bugsy™, working with her to turn her custom design into something ready for production. Available in two versions, the Bugsy™ is a compact fixed-blade for camping and other outdoor uses. It’s quite a bit smaller than the handbuilt customs that appeared on “Naked and Afraid,” but the American-made knife is still ready for hard use. As Kaila describes it, “I wanted to make something people would be proud to carry, that would also be super useful. Not too big, not too small.”
The Bugsy™ is Kaila’s first CRKT knife, but she’s been forging customs for nearly a decade. She initially made the jump to making knives from reviewing them after she realized she couldn’t fairly critique a knife without understanding what went into its production. Now, having gone from reviewing a CRKT knife to making one of her own, she feels like she has come full circle.
But despite her love of survivalism and early start taking apart knives collected from the free table, Kaila’s path into the industry wasn’t paved in stone. In fact, she almost missed it entirely.
“I went to school to be a cosmetologist,” she explains. “I had no intentions of being a knifemaker.” After school, she opened her own hair salon, and then another. “When I tell people that now, they say, ‘You were a hairdresser? That doesn’t add up!’”
But Kaila does see a connection between hair and knives—and, no, it’s not in the blades of scissors and trimmers. “Hairdressing is pretty creative and you can do all these cool things. So it has an artistic side. I transferred that over to metal.”
As a female in a very male-dominated field, Kaila already stands out. That she also came from such a traditionally female field makes it even more intriguing. And the knife industry has embraced her just as much as she’s embraced it.
“Everyone is so willing to help you and give advice and support each other,” Kaila says of other knifemakers. “I love this community.”
“There’s no such thing as a broken knife, only a smaller blade.”
No Broken Knives
Unlike many modern knifemakers, Kaila is decidedly old school in her approach. She designs in real time at the forge and anvil. There’s no computer aided design (CAD) nor highly-detailed sketches; just an idea, a hammer, and red-hot steel.
“I’m terrible at drawing,” she says. Her finished products are nonetheless artistic and striking to look at. Her custom knives feature large, powerful blades and are often adorned with exquisite patterns. Clearly inspired by her love of survivalism, they are built for function but would not be out of place in a display case. Some of this style remains intact in the Bugsy™, despite it not being made by hand and hammer.
“I’ll have the idea in my head and I just go straight to the forge and shape it out,” Kaila says. “I see where the metal takes me. Sometimes it turns out exactly how I wanted, other times it’s completely different but will end up being 10 times better. When I try to force something, that’s when it doesn’t work.”
“But,” she adds, “there’s no such thing as a broken knife, only a smaller blade.”
Kaila credits her success to patience and a willingness to step into the unknown, something that has helped her in both knifemaking and survivalism. “It’s all about mindset,” she says. “That’s your biggest tool in the jungle. I feel like if there’s a problem in front of me, I’m going to figure out a way around it. You have to overcome and adapt.”
It’s a philosophy she now imparts on her 15-year-old daughter, who has followed in Kaila’s footsteps and finds her own inspiration in familiar places. She shares her mother’s love for the outdoors, archery, and shooting, and has even helped Kaila in the shop since the beginning. (She also made at least one appearance on Kaila’s YouTube channel, comically upstaging her mother from the background of the 2014 review of Lucas Burnley’s Obake™ knife.)
It’s clear the bond Kaila and her daughter share is a strong one. “A lot of the same stuff I did with my dad, now I’m doing with her,” Kaila says. And, yes, that includes trips to the free table at the dump. “She loves it.”
Oh, and her daughter’s nickname? Bugsy.