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I had the opportunity to visit Knoxville, TN for Thanksgiving this year. And I just so happened to be staying in a cabin at an RV park a stones throw away from Smoky Mountain Knife Works, the world’s largest knife retail store. I usually spend part of Black Friday writing about the various knife deals found around the internet. This year I got to live it.
I arrived to the store on Thanksgiving day. It was closed, but I decided to ride my bicycle over there anyways to get a lay of the land. It’s a massive 3 story building. Actually, it appears to be a couple buildings stuck together. As usual, I didn’t do any research before my trip, so I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect, but this certainly exceeded any expectations. I snapped a cell phone picture for posterity and proceeded back to my cabin for the evening.
Also, let me apologize in advance for all the crappy pictures I took. Looking back they are poorly composed. Sorry.
Usually Black Friday is not something I want to participate in. I generally believe that if there is a crowd forming to see something, it’s a good sign to go somewhere else. But in order to get the full Black Friday SMKW experience to share with you I selflessly decided get there before the store opened at 7AM. We arrived around 6:45. There was a good crowd forming at both entrances and a line of a couple hundred people or so. We waited in the car for a while and stepped out onto the tarmac once the doors opened and the line started to move.
As we entered the building we were greeted by a gal who handed us a goody bag of stuff, including an inexpensive kitchen knife and some other schwag. Free stuff is always cool, but I was here to experience the largest cutlery retail store in the world, so I didn’t spend much time on this and proceeded into the store.
The store was impressive. This is a multi-level building with a number of different rooms. The main floor is almost 100% dedicated to knives. The store was set up with display cases. Each case had one or a couple brands, and then there was plenty of shelf space and stuff for accessories and blister packs. Pretty much every brand you can imagine is there. Certainly all the big brands are there: Benchmade, Spyderco, Kershaw, SOG, Cold Steel, Case, Boker, etc. There were also a lot of cheap knives there including Rough Ryder, Frost, and Colt.
All the employees I interacted with at the store were friendly, knowledgeable, and willing to show you stuff. I asked the guy at the Cold Steel section if he had the 4-Max, and he proceeded to pull one out from behind the counter without missing a beat. We ogled this $400 folding knife for a few minutes along with the Colossus. I chatted with the lady at the Boker counter and she was nice and helpful as well.
I got to handle some other knives I have been meaning to check out, like the Boker FR (excellent – expect a review of it at some point), and some of the WE Knives (very impressive).
The store itself is also cool, with lots of things on the walls to look at. The store is also a museum of sorts with a couple areas dedicated to discussing knife collecting history. It was crowded and chaotic, but it was fun and I took my time slowly trawling the aisles.
The only thing the store was missing was much in the way of modern custom knives. I know this is probably a tough thing for a big retailer to put their finger on, but it would have been interesting to see.
Downstairs was more of a gift shop type area. They had a knifemaking section, a sharpening section, and a big area dedicated to kitchen knives, but they also had stuffed animals, camping gear, kitchen gadgets and areas with odds and ends like sharks teeth, primitive tools, semi-precious stones, confederate war memorabilia, fossils, foreign currency, and basically any kind of odd ball thing you could imagine.
Here is a shot of their kitchen knife counter:
And some sweet Cold Steel kitchen knives:
I visited SMKW one other time during my trip. It’s a lot of store to absorb and I couldn’t fully appreciate it within one trip. I came back and checked out some of the novelty knives, swords, and the gun section. That was later on Friday and the store was even more crowded. I rode my bicycle this time, and the security guard commented that I was the only “smart person” who rode their bike to SMKW that day.
It’s worth noting that a Bass Pro-Shops, Gun Store (and indoor shooting range), Lodge Cast Iron factory store, Harley Davidson dealership, and budget tool store are all within a mile radius of Smoky Mountain Knife Works. This is redneck heaven, and an impressive display of retail might.
I was also impressed with the amount of billboards and things SMKW has used to advertise. It seems like the bulk of their business comes from the retail store and their mail order catalog. That is interesting as most of my experience in this industry is on the online retail side. It shows a different side to the industry.
I can’t imagine that everyone that comes into the store is a die hard knife fan who can rattle off specs and discuss the merits of steel in a casual conversation. I think a big part of the draw is just the novelty of the store. Apparently it is always packed. And that’s not a bad thing. I hope business is great and continues to be great. The knife industry can’t be supported by the fickle connoisseur alone. For every 4-Max that they sell, I’m sure they sell hundreds of Swiss Army Knives and $14.99 Schrade specials.
I enjoyed my time and Smoky Mountain Knife Works. It has almost every production piece imaginable under one roof, and you can check out any knife you want. That’s a knife guy’s dream right there. I am glad I made the pilgrimage, and will be back if I ever find myself in Eastern Tennessee again. It is well worth the trip if you are in the area.
Patrick L says
Other than obviously the danger to human life (and the animals in the Ripley’s aquarium), is it messed up that this building is the one I was most worried about when I was hearing about the fires in the area? I just really didn’t want read about all those knives going up in smoke.
I too have been wanting to visit this place, and I know that most knife knuts that live in the Southeast US have probably heard of it and want to visit. I’ve already established with my wife that we’re visiting the next time we vacation up that way.
Oddly enough I was in Gatlinburg on Saturday, and we went up the Ober Gatlinburg cable car to the park. Apparently it all burned down in the fire. There was some smoke in the horizon, but no one would have guessed that the fire would spread so quickly and aggressively. It is very sad.
I didn’t think to comment on the fire in the post, but I do hope everyone was able to evacuate OK. SMKW is probably 10-20 miles away from Gatlinburg. I really hope the fire does not spread that far as there were a lot of houses, roads, and commercial buildings in between Gatlinburg and SMKW. My thoughts are with those in TN who fell victim to this horrible fire.
I was wondering why I didn’t receive your Black Friday shopping guide. Now I know! I’m glad you had a good time. Thanks for the great write-up on SMKW.
Thanks, Brad! Next time I’ll have to learn how to multi-task. 😉
With regards to the writer of this article, I work at SMKW and it was pretty cool to read about the cold steel 4 max part, as I was the one who helped you. Just goes to show the need to treat everyone with the utmost respect as you never know the impact and importance it may have
That’s really cool! You did a great job along with everyone else at the store. I was impressed with the level of service, and I appreciated your knowledge of the product and willingness to show it to me. Thanks again for the hospitality.
Looooove Smoky Mountain Knife Works. I’m from Memphis, went there tons as a kid, and now, every time we have to drive down from New York, I take the longer router that goes through sevierville. You missed one of the best things about SMKW through: all the ridiculous mall ninja shit. Last time I was there I handled a Spyderco Rubicon, then played with some gas station ninja claws, and seriously considered buying a slip joint shaped like a train. This is integral to properly experiencing the store.
Lol! I did spent a fair amount of time in “the cave” – I just glossed over that section. I agree that the amount of novelty knives was impressive! They have something for everyone there… including mall ninjas. Next time I’ll be sure not to overlook that critical detail in my report! Take care.
Nathan Gambino says
I was in Gatlinburg this August and I also had to visit the store twice to take it all in. Probably 3 or 4 times wouldn’t have been enough. On the second trip I bought a Tops fixed blade for camp/bushcraft.
I only wish the knife making section was larger with kydex and other sheath and knife making materials.
Yeah there is no way to take the entire store in on a single trip, or even a couple. It’s pretty mind blowing how much they have going on over there.
I agree that the knife making section was a little sparse. It was a relatively small and empty corner on the bottom floor. It seems like there is an opportunity for growth in that department. Thanks for checking out the article.
I recently visited (April 2019). I enjoyed the variety of knives. Prices were reasonable and store layout good. Next visit will be longer and with view to see rarer pieces.
Dan Jackson says
Mike, Thanks for sharing your experience at SMKW. It’s a cool store. Looking forward to going back sometime.