Brian “Rocco” Nawrocki, the maker behind Rocco Handmade, has never cared much for status quo. Toeing the line of a typical trajectory for much of his life thus far, he’s held most dear to a personal sense of integrity that echoes a noble approach to living seldom seen anymore. He leads with kindness and generosity, compassion, and empathy. He’s loyal to those that have supported him in even the smallest of ways, and makes it a priority to return the favor. He works hard. He cultivates community; gives back. He’s the change he hopes to see, an anomaly of the best sort in a world intent on self and success at all costs.

And, though quietly unassuming—banal, even, in its seeming everyman-ness—Brian Nawrocki’s story is one worth telling. And telling again.

Brian Nawrocki was born in Detroit, Michigan, but his family moved to a small farming community—Armada, Michigan—when he was six and that shift to a rural lifestyle proved deeply formative. He hunted, fished, camped, and played baseball; his father was often the coach and always a support. He was active in Boy Scouts, eventually attaining the rank of Eagle Scout and an appointment to the Order of the Arrow honor society. He was an avid BMX rider during his teens—even traveling and competing around the Midwest for a time—and he toured with two regional bands, one with which he would travel the country for a couple of years. Nawrocki knew how to accept opportunity, to make the passing years mean something. And to experience a little of all of it.

While he ticked the necessary boxes to graduate high school, Nawrocki’s informal education was the most significant (save a third-grade field trip to see a blacksmith at work which was, arguably, the beginning of a passion that would eventually find a worthy outlet). Years spent watching his father and grandfather with a hammer, fixing and tinkering, solidified a course in the trades. He joined a carpentry crew, honed his skills, and learned enough to engage the profession lifelong if needed.

Nawrocki has always worked with his hands, drawn to tools and their utilitarian purposefulness, in particular. Whether his hammer, slung low on an ever-present toolbelt, or the knives with which he would whittle, butcher, and cook, tools gave outlet to a fidgeting restlessness that drives Nawrocki to this day.

It’s not so far a reach, perhaps no reach at all in fact, to see this resourceful fascination as a metaphor for all that Nawrocki has come to be in life and livelihood: purposeful.

When an old family friend, Jim Behring, needed help finishing some back-burnered construction projects, Nawrocki jumped at the opportunity to quit the daily commute that had begun to wear. The last project he completed, a small addition to house Jim’s business, Treeman Knives and Leather Shop, provided another opportunity that Nawrocki was quick to seize: a transition to leather work and, later still, a knife-making apprenticeship.

That was in 2014. Nawrocki spent several years assisting in the shop and then began learning the knifemaking trade—what to do and, equally important, what not to do—under Jim’s watchful eye. “I'm not good at taking in the bad,” Nawrocki laughs, “but I listened. I’ve been blessed with an opportunity I’ll never take for granted and, for everything I do in this business, I owe a debt of gratitude to Jim.”

In January of 2018, Nawrocki made his first knife, complete with his personal touchmark, and was hooked. He sold the knife on Instagram almost immediately. Every part of the process appealed, from designing to crafting to interacting with his customers. He reinvested his earnings judiciously in the years that followed, purchasing supplies and equipment to continue his personal and professional growth in Rocco Handmade.

“The process involves a commitment to endless learning,” says Nawrocki with a smile. “There are so many different aspects to creating a knife. It’s a task I can never truly master—not in the way I did in carpentry and building homes—and something about that just keeps me coming back for more, always trying to improve.”

Indeed, Nawrocki has spent the past several years honing both his skill and approach. He’s particularly careful to consider purpose in his construction, but insists on a good heat treat and intentional geometry in order to make each new knife an effective tool first and foremost. “A chef knife, a filet knife, a hunting knife, and a bushcraft knife all need very different geometry and very different heat treatment to perform well,” Nawrocki explains. ”I’m always testing these factors to find something I like for each new design. I build my knives with purpose, I don’t expect a chef knife to chop a tree in half, just as I don’t expect a hunter to filet a panfish.”

And, like many in his field, Nawrocki finds inspiration in those that have come before—some, his teachers, like Jim Behring, and others, the innovators and trailblazers of the craft itself, like the Michigan-based “grandfather of modern knifemaking,” William Scagel. “Makers like Jim Behring (and his son James Behring Jr.), Lora Schwarzer, Doug Noren, Joe Holbert, Nessmuk, Randall, Mareko Maumasi, Geoff Feder, Mudbone Jones, Nick Bachtel, Bob Rankin, Niko Nicolaides, Eric Hemker, and so many others influence, inform, and inspire pieces and parts of my work,” says Nawrocki, “as does the range of textures and colors found in nature and its materials. Making is an endless journey, inspiring endless creativity.”

Still, and through it all, he continues to show up each day for work with Jim Behring at Treeman, investing in his business only the time and energy he has remaining after a job well done there. He’s acutely aware of the gift he’s been given and, in his way, insistent in his loyalty. “Rocco Handmade is something I’m very proud of; I’m working hard to make the dream a reality,” says Nawrocki. “But, first and foremost, I’m committed to Treeman Knives and Leather Shop. Jim has given me so much, and I’ll remain with him until he decides otherwise.”

It’s that insistence on personal integrity, on giving, and then giving a bit more—on a cup that is always full for others to drink from—that sets Nawrocki apart in ways both intangible and incredible. His kindness and empathy for those around him, his intense awareness of the threads connecting the children in his Adopt a Youth program and the Scagels and Schwarzers in his field—and his resolute knowledge that they are all equally important—that equanimity with life and success is profound. And profoundly impactful to everyone that is graced by his energy and effort.

When asked what excites him about his life and work, Nawrocki responds simply, purposefully, and without pause, as is his wont with all of life: “The never-ending possibility that each day brings.”