ORLEANS — You’re 16 years old, into metalwork, and a fan of “Rambo.” Choosing your first project at welding school is easy.
“You make a knife,” says Lucas Burnley of his initial foray into the hobby that would become his trade. Growing up outside Albuquerque, N.M., in a “super outdoorsy” family and at a time when action flicks made heroes out of blade-slinging renegades — think Steven Seagal in Under Siege — he was primed for the craft, he says. “And it stuck.”
Twenty years later, Burnley is in a league of his own, a versatile metalsmith whose designs are sought after by knife collectors around the world. At his workshop off Finlay Road in Orleans, he makes custom hunting knives and pocket knives and does knife design for larger companies like Boker and CRKT. He’s tried his hand at tomahawks, swords, and a sleek chef’s knife with a faceted handle that looks like it should be wielded by a Ninja.
Among his most popular creations is the “Cypop,” an object that defies easy categorization. Picture a bottle opener crossed with a challenge coin, cut from various metals and bearing a range of stamps and finishes. Burnley likens it to the “netsuke,” a miniature carved ornament used as a fastener on a Japanese kimono. He named it Cypop, he says, because “it looks like a Cyclops and it pops bottles open.”
It’s a talisman where quirkiness, aesthetics, and utility meet.
Burnley started selling his Cypops for $85 at a trade show in 2013 as a way to connect with customers who weren’t able to buy into his limited supply of custom knives. “I’d have 10 knives on the table, and 25 Cypops,” he says. “And after a few years, a lot more people had Cypops than knives. People started to build collections. And then that just started to ripple outward, and now the collector base for Cypops is huge.”
The cult of Cypop followers is so wild that Burnley and his wife, Maddie, chief marketer at Burnley Knives and “BRNLY” gear, are able to raise tens of thousands of dollars every year through an online Cypop raffle and lottery to benefit Toys for Tots, the U.S. Marine-led program that collects gifts for needy families during the holidays.
The raffle, conducted on social media, lasts about 24 hours and nets enough to fund days of shopping for the Burnleys. This was the seventh year the two ran the program, and they raised over $118,000. Because Marine Toys for Tots has a spending cap of $29.99 the Burnleys do their own shopping for high-quality toys. This year they partnered with Mattel to buy pallets of toys for kids in Los Angeles and on the Cape. They also shopped locally at the Pump House Surf Shop, Orleans Cycle, Charlie’s Music, T.J. Maxx, and other stores after the raffle wrapped up a few weeks ago.
The mountain of toys they purchased with Cypop proceeds will be given to Cape Cod’s “Stuff a Bus” project, the local incarnation of Toys for Tots run by Cape Cod police and fire departments. Older kids are often overlooked in Toys for Tots donations because of the price cap. The Burnleys make sure to purchase plenty of skateboards, surfboards, bicycles, makeup palettes, and even tablets. Hundreds of “American Girl” dolls cram the back of Lucas’s metal studio in Orleans.
The holiday toy project seems a perfect undertaking for Burnley, who uses the word “play” a lot when he talks about his work. There’s a picture of him at four years old brandishing “every toy I owned” — toy rifle, knife, bow and arrow. He was the kid who pretended to be a commando, running around campgrounds with “a rat tail, a karate headband, and a Bowie knife,” he told American Handgunner magazine in 2016.
“All of this goes back to toys,” he says. Knives are “something that’s kept my interest since I was a child.” After the knives stopped being a game and became a job, “I think part of what kept it interesting for me is, there is no cap. Everything I do opens up something new that I can learn.”
The Cypop, for instance, is a simple enough concept — a roughly octagonal piece of metal with a hole punched out of the middle — but its possibilities in terms of design are limitless. He molds them from brass, steel, zirconium, titanium; stamps them with various designs; applies heat to color the surface. “They’re great for me because they’re a way to mess with different materials and textures and finishes, and again, just kind of play.”
The chef’s knife was inspired by the everyday kitchen knife used by Maddie’s grandmother — a typical early-American industrial cutting implement. Burnley “just did a more designer-y take on it,” he says, giving angles to the handle and heightening the prow of the blade. In the finished piece, style and utility meet; the design accents add flair but they also engineer the knife to withstand wear and give it a longer life.
“We did that as kind of a family project,” he says, transforming what could be seen as a “superpedestrian family object” into something that told a story as well as served a purpose.
And then there’s the Burnley “SlingPop,” a bottle-opener that doubles as a slingshot and fits in your back pocket. It’s a modern take on a classic childhood staple with a grown-up twist: Dennis the Menace meets Don Draper.
For Burnley, story is important; objects are more than objects when they take on power through the attachments people develop to them. He scrolls down a Facebook page where Cypop collectors post photos of themselves posing with their Cypops, or of the bottle openers themselves, propped against the backdrop of a beach or sunset.
“This is part of people’s lives,” he says. “It is more than the sum of its parts.”
He imagines the Indiana Jones moment when someone far in the future digs through a pile of old stuff, pulls out a Cypop, and is intrigued.
“One day a kid’s going to go to his grandparents’ drawer, and they’re going to find this thing,” he says. “It’s patina’d, it’s strange, and they’re not going to know what it is. But they’re going to put it in their pocket.”