Brent Vaccaro of Black Widow Knifeworks & Tactical Gear attended high school in New Jersey where he was born and raised. He excelled in woodworking, banging out projects that those two years ahead of him struggled through. His teacher helped him, Brent said, but perhaps most by giving him the freedom to do his own thing. Brent grew up building houses. His family lived in the middle of an open subdivision field and every day after school Brent would work on the other eight houses that needed to be constructed. In his junior year, bullying got too much. He left school and became a carpenter. Over the course of 15 years he worked in construction, running his own business and working for others. He also started a tactical gear company, and he dabbled in beard accessories during the height of facial hair resurgence. He never could quite establish an identity for himself in any of his three businesses, he admitted, but when he started making knives, everything came together. Now, no matter how different Brent’s knives are from each other, when you see a Black Widow knife, you recognize it immediately. The dropout knifemaker is a master of marketing.
Around the time that Brent was struggling with being in school, when he was 16, his father gave him a pocketknife. It was a now-discontinued Kershaw model. “I still have it. I loved that knife,” Brent said. But he never had the money to collect knives, and some days he gets a mock scolding from his wife, Megan for forgetting to carry a blade on him. He was getting disillusioned with the diminishing level of artistry within carpentry, the lack of appreciation from the customers and the sense that the industry was solely focused on money. Although the skill sets are similar in woodworking and metalworking, it took some time to transition. Now Brent loves metalworking. It’s not months or years to finish a project with barely a handshake and never a thank you. It’s the instant gratification of seeing a knife come to completion over a course of days, sending it out and having the customer write him that they have no words for how impressed they are with his knife.
And therein lies his mastery. Brent is fulfilled by that appreciation for his craft, and he knows exactly how to represent his knives to the world in the best possible light—literally—without ever crossing into exaggeration. It means a lot to him that he has created an identity for himself that is true to him, celebratory of his knifemaking and honoring to the client. “It’s an extension of self,” Brent said, adding that he wants his knives to be passed on as a part of his and his client’s heritage. You only have to look at a photo of a Black Widow knife to get the “feel” for the candied richness of the colors, the smoothness of the handle and the badassery of the blade itself.
“I don’t keep them,” Brent said. So each night he takes the time to shoot exceptional photos of each piece, a running catalog of his work, for him to remember by and for the client to share. He takes 10 to 15 photos of every knife and picks the best ones. And that’s because he’s found a system that works for him. At first, you’ll need to shoot far more to find the right lighting and angles. “You have to take the time to do it. It’s part of marketing,” he said.
Building A Lightbox That Works
Brent invested $50 in his lightbox. At The Home Depot he bought 1-inch PVC and eight 90-degree T connections. With those he made his two squares for the box ends. He also got alligator clips. At Walmart he bought a king-sized white sheet and clipped it taught to the PVC frame. The whole thing is collapsible so that he can move it out of the way when he’s working. And, of course, the white sheet is no longer white.
Normally, light boxes are made with white construction paper on the floor that bends up the back. Not Brent’s. He does a lot of Kydex. He was heating up a 2-by-4-foot sheet of carbon fiber one day and as it bent, it occurred to him to use it in the lightbox. He had to buy more Kydex, but he likes the look of it. That was probably anther $50, but wouldn’t be necessary for everyone since every knifemaker’s style is different. Brent strives to build tough knives that military and law enforcement can respect, while still appealing to the civilian population with his Candy-Crush-like handles. He mostly uses Matt Peterson’s Voodoo Resins scales, but he’s also using some of J Hue Customs’.
Lights! Camera! Action—No Really, Move Around!
For lights he purchased round Utilitech LEDs that he can hold while he shoots. “The light is never stationary,” he explained. He waits until complete darkness because he has two windows in his shop and he wants total control of the lighting. Because the LEDs are very white lights, bluish even, he adds a 60-watt lightbulb to add a yellow hue to balance out the lighting. He moves around with his iPhone 7 Plus (“There is a difference with the Plus,” he notes.) and his light and gets exactly the angle and lighting he wants. Not only are the knives well lit, especially for mood-inducing vignettes, for which the majority of a knifemaker’s photos will be used, especially online, but they are in crystal clear focus. Brent does not use the focus feature on the phone. That will only cause the camera to focus on one point on the knife, when the objective is to show the entire knife in full focus, even if you have the point or butt stylistically in the background. He also does not use the flash, which only washes out colors and overexposes the image.
Props Never Steal The Scene
Brent uses all kinds of props in his still-lifes. Because he also produces tactical gear, like custom Kydex sheaths, you will often see pistols, ammunition and other gear as accessories in his pictures. Chain, motorcycle gloves, even Halloween webbing have been used in Black Widow images. His artistic eye is always at work, not only in the making of the knives, but in his ability to let the knives do the talking. They are always center stage. They are the first things you see in the picture and the props are there only to compliment the knives, never upstage them.
Brent uses two apps to edit his images: PicLab and Aviary. He bumps up the saturation until the image represents what you see in person. It’s important not to overdue saturation because then your customers will be disappointed that your knife doesn’t live up to how it was displayed online, all back-lit by the computer screen. It’s equally important, though, that the knife not appear duller than it is in real life.
Creating An Image
Brent is one of those men who is smart, learns quickly and follows directions. He is also a good man, turning away from an industry that couldn’t fulfill his creativity and abraded his integrity. He has been rewarded with great success. “I’m outgrowing my shop,” he said. Brent knows he’ll have to return to carpentry to build himself more space. He can’t believe it sometimes when he thinks how far he’s come in his year of knifemaking. Metal work comes easier to him. “I don’t get nearly as angry as I used to get doing carpentry,” he said. He’d be thinking artistically and make a little strip of wood for something and it would break. Sometimes he’ll find a scratch in a knife handle and he’ll have to go back and grind it out and re-sand—normally, he goes all the way from 150 to 2000 grit—but it’s not nearly as frustrating as woodworking had been.
Brent takes great pride when someone in the industry tells him they recognize his work right off. He has been an apt student of life. The years of entrepreneurship that didn’t work, prepared him for the one that would work. But no matter how much marketing you apply to your knifemaking, the knife must still cut. It must still hold up to wear and perform as expected upon arrival and for generations to come. Time will tell, but sometimes dues get paid behind the scenes and a meteoric rise is well-earned.
Meanwhile, Brent will have to break away for the birth of his first child, a son, Blake—due any day—and at some point, he’ll need to expand his shop, but he never closes his books for long. He doesn’t think it reflects well to just drop a knife. He refuses to do it. He respects reliability in the people he does business with, so he holds himself to that standard for his customers. Just get in touch, but be aware if you do, you’ll get caught up in the Black Widow web.
Contact: Brent E. Vaccaro by email at email@example.com or Message him on Facebook at Black Widow Knifeworks & Tactical Gear. He also has a website at www.blackwidowtac.com. If you need to call, Message first, otherwise he might not hear you over the machines, 908-328-2049.
It’s All In The Grind
Author R.J. Martin instructs on flat and double hollow grinds. He discusses chisel grinds, tip shaping, the two-hand pass and lots more in “Knife Grinding Secrets.” Most importantly the finesse of grinding will be covered so that you can master the skill. Downloadable version availabe for $4.99.