It’s 6 a.m. on a Friday morning. Jason Gustafson, 37, rolls out of bed, brews a cup of coffee, and wakes up his two children, 10-year-old Shayni and 7-year-old Reese. The clock is ticking for Gustafson. He has to get his kids ready and on the bus before his workday can begin. He makes his way to the kitchen to start breakfast, deciding it’s a waffle kind of morning. Toaster waffles that is. Shayni, Reese, and Gustafson’s wife, Jen, join him in the kitchen of their Lakeside home. He doles out breakfast. Then Jen heads off to work at United Healthcare.
With his eye on the clock, Gustafson gets the kids dressed and packs their lunches. At 7:40, he walks them to the bus stop, across the road from their home on Peabody Street. As the bus pulls away and he waves goodbye to his kids, Gustafson shifts gears. For the next seven hours of the day, he’s no longer a stay-at-home dad. Instead, he’s running a home business.
Ever since he can remember, Gustafson has been interested in wilderness survival skills, referred to as bushcraft. With the knives and equipment he sells, Gustafson hopes to promote these skills and share them with others.
By mid-morning, Gustafson, who’s lived in Lakeside for 10 years, is in his shop gathering materials and getting equipment set up to start making knives for his business, Lester River Bushcraft.
He grabs a 3-foot-long piece of steel from his stock of supplies. After he cuts the piece down, he scribes the outline of a knife onto the surface of the steel.
Then he walks over to his grinder and fires it up. The hum of the machine fills the shop. As Gustafson touches the steel to the moving belt of the machine, the sound of grinding steel echoes in one’s ears.
When the knife has taken its shape, it’s time to drill holes into the steel so a handle can be attached later on. Gustafson places the knife on a small chunk of wood and starts drilling. After hearing the drill bit hit the wood, he moves on to the next hole.
Then it’s into the kiln to be heat-treated. For the first round of heat treatment, Gustafson revs the kiln up to 1755° F to get the knives into a hardened state. During the second time around, the knives get some of that hardness taken out of them when they are treated in the kiln at 400° F for two hours.
For three years, Gustafson has been working in front of his grinder and kiln to create custom bushcraft knives. He sells the knives, along with outdoor equipment, on his business’s website.
Lester River Bushcraft started when Gustafson decided to buy some carpentry tools to pursue a hobby he was interested in.
“I had a passion for custom knives, but they start in the hundreds of dollars,” Gustafson said. “I bought the equipment and started making them and selling them. I started making money, and I was like, whoa, what if I get better at this?”
Gustafson then decided that he would leave his job at Nuss Truck & Equipment in Duluth to pursue this passion. But there was another issue that factored into the decision as well. Jen said that with the long hours her husband worked, he didn’t get much time to see the kids.
“One of the things that we took into consideration was that our kids are little, and they need their dad around,” Jen said. “A lot of kids don’t have that.”
From there, everything fell into place. Gustafson turned the family’s garage into a shop and bought some steel from USA Knife Maker Supply in Mankato. In addition to his knives, he decided to do knife sharpening.
With the help of his friend Kevin Kinney, owner of Empire Wool and Canvas Co. in Lakeside, Gustafson designed a wool hoodie to sell on his website. He also started selling emergency fire kits and fire steels, and he’s woven parachute cords to be sold at Duluth Pack.
Yet, the heart of Gustafson’s business lies in the custom knives.
“With Jason, he’s putting his passions to work,” said Tim Murray, a friend of Gustafson’s who grew up in Superior, Wis., and now lives outside of Chicago. “He will take his knives, go out into the woods, and use them. He’s able to do what he loves with his business and still have the drive to go out and do it himself.”
Back in his shop, Gustafson carefully takes the knives out of the kiln and sets them aside to cool. Eventually, handles are put on them with a type of compressed denim. As a finishing touch, Gustafson takes the completed knives out into the woods to test their strength.
“He puts a lot of torture testing on his knives just to ensure that they won’t fail when you’re out in the woods,” Murray said. “He’s done the trial and error and experimented until he’s found the right knife.”
As Gustafson stands at his grinder, the bellowing of the engine and the screeching sound of steel being sharpened is all that can be heard. He quickly glances at the clock. It’s nearly 2:40; Shayni and Reese will be dropped off soon.
He heads across the street and greets his kids as they get off the bus. It’s time for an afterschool snack, a little television, and some homework. When Jen gets home from work, Gustafson’s day isn’t over. He heads back out to the shop to build some more bushcraft knives.
“I’m a father, adventurer, and craftsman,” Gustafson said. “I’ve spent my whole life getting into something and seeing it through. I’ve never relied on other people to do things for me. That’s just the way I was raised.”