By Kayla Sosa
A student in the Michigan Veteran Entrepreneur Lab program is building up his side business in custom knife making.
Shawn Moulenbelt, 52, might be part of the weekly entrepreneurship program at Grand Valley State University, but he’s no stranger to owning his own business.
Moulenbelt served two years on active duty and another five as a platoon leader in the Michigan Army National Guard, and was a “51 Bravo” – carpentry and masonry specialist. He got his degree in construction management from Western Michigan University, going on to be a project manager for several construction companies and then working in construction material sales before starting his own business 10 years ago – Moulenbelt Construction.
As time went on, he started to think about work that was less physically exhausting for him. For the past four years or so he’s made a hobby of making knives after watching his brother do it.
“I really enjoyed the process and, like just about anything I do, I try to figure out how I
can make money doing things I love to do,” Moulenbelt said. “Eventually I made a knife or two that someone would actually pay money for. So I decided to start up a side business called 51 Bravo Custom Knives.”
That was four years ago. Now, Moulenbelt is in the MVE-Lab to figure out how to transition into make knives full time.
“A friend and coworker of mine referred me to MVE,” he said. “After checking it out and learning about the pitch competition at the end I figured there was no way to lose in attending.”
As an entrepreneur, Moulenbelt said the biggest lesson he’s learned is to trust your instincts as a business owner.
“Trust your instincts when dealing with a potential customer,” he said. “If you have a bad feeling about a customer trust your gut and don’t work with them.”
At MVE, Moulenbelt said he’s taking advantage of the mentors available to him.
“Although I have a lot of my ducks in a row for the knife business, my biggest question is marketing strategies and target audiences,” he said. “I have gained a lot of insight from the mentors as well as a recent visit with the SBDC on Grand Valley’s campus.”
The Small Business Development Center – West Michigan Region is located inside the Seidman College of Business, 50 Front Ave. SW, on the downtown Pew Campus.
Right now, Moulenbelt said he makes 25 percent of his annual income from his custom knife sales, but he hopes to see that transition to full-time work. His customers are typically outdoorsy people – outdoorsman hunters, fishermen and the bush-crafting – or wilderness survival skills – community.
“I think one of the big draws to a custom knife is the tradition aspect,” Moulenbelt said. “People like to give their son or daughter or father or grandfather a knife for them to use while pursuing their outdoor hobbies. When one takes that blade with them it’s like they are taking the giver of that gift along with them on their excursions. Like firearms, knives tend to be passed on for generations.”
To move his business further, Moulenbelt said he needs additional equipment, such as a forge press, to help him make more “premium products.”
“This is a large hydraulic press that uses 16 to 20 tons of pressure to press multiple layers of steel together, or forge weld them, to create a multi-layer steel called ‘Damascus steel.’ Knives made from Damascus are easily worth two to three times more than high carbon steel knives due to the labor involved to make the layered steel.”
Moulentbelt said this press could cost around $5,000 so he’s hoping he can win some money in the pitch competition at the end of the MVE-Lab.
“My favorite thing about custom knives is talking to customers hearing their vision and creating a product that meets and hopefully exceeds their expectations,” Moulenbelt said.
He also gained more attention this month as Moulenbelt, and his business, were featured on the History Channel’s show, Forged in Fire. In this show, bladesmiths compete to recreate history’s “most iconic edged weapons,” according to History.com. Moulenbelt made it to the second round, but didn’t make it to the final round of the competition.
“It was an honor and privilege to be able to compete on the show,” he said. “I was happy to make it through the first elimination…But for using a steel I’ve never used, making a blade I’ve never made in three hours – I’m proud of that.”