“They’re not all pretty, and their makers aren’t always
proud, but the “fi rstborns” remain special”
Everybody has to start somewhere. The greatest knifemakers the world has ever known, the up and coming, the dabblers in knife kits and the absolute novices all share a common experience— the fi rst knife they ever made. Looking back on that fi rst knife, there are more smiles than regrets, there is pride in progress, and there is real history. Beginning with the basics and using everything from saw blades to old springs, that fi rst knife has launched many a storied career in the custom knife industry. “I guess everybody has made a knife in school, out of a piece of iron or something,” reasoned Bob Dozier, who at age 73 has passed the half-century mark in his knifemaking journey. “My grandfather, Milton Bihm, made knives out of 14-inch files, and we called them saddle knives. The deer hunters would carry them on their saddles. They were big old choppers.” Dozier made his fi rst knife at age 12 with his grandfather at his side. “I went to Grandpa and asked, ‘Can you teach me how to do this?’ We built a forge out of the bottom of a barrel and took my mother’s canister vacuum cleaner and reversed the hose on it, put a damper in the pipe and controlled the fi re. And I forged. I was the only grandson who showed interest in knifemaking,” he continued, “and Grandpa showed me how to take a crosscut saw blade, break it up and make knives.” That knife had lead alloy bolsters and an old hickory handle taken from a hammer. Bob says he made seven or eight pieces with his grandfather and admits that they were “terrible looking.” For several years, Dozier’s knifemaking went dormant. He had read an article in True magazine about Randall knives selling for the princely sum of $18, and that notion stayed in the back of his mind. At the age of 23, he was out on an oilrig, rough-necking in the Gulf of Mexico. With time on his hands, he found a small fi le lying unattended on a bench. A nearby grinder drew him close like a magnet. “In a few hours, I had a knife blade,” Bob grinned. “I had that knife for years, and my wife and I used it to open cans in the kitchen. Then it got lost for a while. I found it again six or seven years ago mixed in with a bunch of other knife stuff. I made that knife after I was a grown man, and my interest was rekindled, so I really call that one my fi rst knife.”
Functional, Usable Artwork
Michael Ruth Jr. learned custom knifemaking from a couple of the best teachers around. It all started when Jerry Fisk wanted some business cards and came into the Ruth family’s print shop. Jerry happened to have a few of his handmade knives and laid them out for everyone to look at. “That was in the late 1980s, and we were all fascinated by his work,” said Michael. “These were clearly something more than just tools—they were artwork—fully functional, usable artwork. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at knives the same way after that day.”
Michael and his father, Michael Ruth Sr., made countless trips to Fisk’s shop, and B.R. Hughes, who brought Jerry into the Ruth’s print shop that day, was a guiding presence as well. “Jerry taught us the process of creating each piece from raw materials to the fi nished product. B.R. was always there to help us understand the concepts of design and the standards of performance that the ABS [American Bladesmith Society] teaches its students,” Michael Jr. noted.
“Being a young guy with a hot bar of steel and a hammer, I usually had the nagging urge to make the world’s fi nest ‘Flying Klingon-Ninja Deathblade,’ but B.R. was there to remind me that form follows function,” he reflected. “If you’re going to make something, make sure it serves its purpose fi rst and foremost.” Michael’s fi rst knife was a hunter with a 5160 steel blade and ironwood handle. He keeps it in a drawer and takes it out from time to time, just to get focused again on the task at hand. “From a design standpoint, it reminds me what not to do,” he laughed. “The pins are off-centered, the handle is boxy and almost completely square. It’s uncomfortable to hold, let alone use for any amount of time. The choil is a mess, and the differentially hardened area of the blade doesn’t extend all the way back to the ricasso. The bottom of the guard is too thin. I could go on about its fl aws for days. “The knife really isn’t as bad as it could be, I suppose,” he allows. “The blade is in the center of the handle, and the transition between the guard and the handle is smooth. It’s good to have something to look back on and remember where I was when I started.” Michael found success early, and his second knife, a hunter with a 5160 blade and spalted maple handle, was his fi rst sale. He took it along to a show, just on a whim. After a collector bought a bowie from his father, he turned and asked young Michael what he wanted for the hunter. “The collector looked it over and inspected it for what felt like a lifetime,” said Michael. “Then, he fi nally looked up and asked, ‘How does $250 sound?’ I was fl oored!”
From First Knife to Silver Screen
No other knifemaker’s work has graced the silver screen like that of Gil Hibben. The Kentuckian has made knives that have appeared in more than 50 motion pictures, including the famed Sylvester Stallone Rambo knife, knives for Steven Seagal in films such as Under Siege and many others. His fantasy knives have been prized for years, and he recently completed several years of service as president of the Knifemakers’ Guild. “I made my fi rst knife in high school, but I didn’t finish it. So, I don’t count that one,” he said. “I got out of the Navy in 1956, and I was 21 years old. I saw the movie The Iron Mistress with Alan Ladd and had to have a bowie.” Gil made his fi rst knife while he worked in Washington for the Boeing aircraft company. It was a bowie finished with his fatherin- law’s grinder, a ¼-inch drill and sandpaper. “I made that knife with a piece of O1 tool steel I requisitioned from Boeing,” Hibben grinned.
“It has a leather washer handle, and after my brother, Fred, and I decided to go out and throw it a few times we chipped the point. With the broken tip, the blade is about 9 3/4 inches, and the knife stretches 16 inches overall.” In the span of time since his business started booming, nearly 50 years ago, Gil nearly forgot the significance of that first bowie. “It is a heavy knife,” he reflected. “I threw it away once, and my ex-wife got it out of the trash. After that, I decided I had better keep it. Now, it keeps me humble. I think about my passion for making knives and remember having so much fun working on it. I was so proud when I got it done, as humble as it is, but it was my baby and the thing that encouraged me to get better. I’m still trying to get better.”
When Lucas Burnley delved into knifemaking in 2001, he had already learned quite a bit about steel, having been through trade school in welding and working in a machine shop as a teenager. His interest in knives, so his father says, actually goes back to his boyhood, walking, talking and chattering about making a knife.
“I’m not sure how I got that in my head,” laughed Lucas, “but I guess the drive to make knives has been there for a while. The machine shop that employed me specialized in body-piercing jewelry. They had grinders, drill presses, buffers and stuff in a back room, and I decided to stay after work one day and make a knife out of a little file. That one didn’t work out so well.”
Lugging the Grinder Around
Lucas saved money and bought a Bader grinder that went with him from apartment to apartment until he rented a place with a one-car garage and set up shop. In the meantime, he met respected knifemaker Joe Cordova, who welcomed the young maker into his established shop. “Joe helped me a lot in the beginning and would never begrudge me a visit,” said Burnley.
“I would approach him with a problem, and he would help me work it out. Joe has always impressed me because it seems like he can do anything, forging, stock removal, classic and contemporary. He has amazing range.” Burnley’s fi rst knife was an integral drop-point hunter of ¼-inch O1 tool steel. He cut the blade out with a hacksaw, shaped it with his grinder, and then did the heat-treating with a welding torch. “I beat on it for a few years and then it ended up in a box in a closet,” he said.
“I couldn’t bring myself to toss it out, and eventually gave it to Ben Krein, Tom Krein’s 11-year-old son. I fi gured since his dad is a knifemaker he would be able to get some use out of it. The biggest challenge with it was grinding. I knew what I wanted it to look like, but I couldn’t make it happen. It just takes time. Sharpening was another one. I got this knife done, and I realized that I had no idea how to sharpen it on the grinder. It scared the heck out of me.” Lucas sold his fi rst knife to custom knifemaker Bob Terzuola and his wife, Susan, at a show in Scottsdale, Ariz. Susan still keeps the little scalpel with white Micarta® handle scales and silver pins on her workbench. If the words “mosaic damascus” are mentioned in the knife industry, ABS master smith Steve Schwarzer comes to mind. Acknowledged by many to be one of the world’s foremost forgers of mosaic damascus, Steve sold his fi rst knife in 1976. “I made two or three knives in the 1960s,” Steve recalled, “but the fi rst forged knife was a few years later. I got a book on blacksmithing and there was a little chapter on forging blades. So I got an anvil, some coal and crosscut saw blades. I cut the blades out with a coal chisel on top of the anvil, red hot. I didn’t know anything about tempering. I cut them out, ground them and put them in oil, and the things would outcut anything anybody had for filleting fish.”
Ugly and Crude Knives
Schwarzer said the knives were “ugly and crude.” “Buddy, these were homemade,” he stressed. Still, there was a market for them. They sold and kept selling at $15 to $20 each. Then, he met a knifemaker named Bobby Tison.
“I had been making these knives, and my buddies thought I was wonderful,” Steve smiled. “I thought I was too. I had three or four of these knives wrapped up in my hip pocket one day, and I said to Bobby, ‘I hear you make knives.’ He leaned against a sulfuric acid tank and pulled out a beautiful folding knife that walked and talked, made of D2 steel. I had never seen such a thing, and he made the mistake of letting me come to his shop and work with him.”
Schwarzer has since become one of the world’s most renowned custom knifemakers of his generation, and the vast majority of the mosaic-damascus blade patterning in vogue today was born in his shop. “I’ve still got that fi rst knife,” he commented. “I made it for my dad. It was a fillet knife, and I used a coin for the bolster. The blades on those ran anywhere from seven to nine inches, and the knives were 11-13 inches overall. There was a guy named Eddie Delaney who used to sell my knives at a local hardware store, and when I upped the price to $30, you have never heard such crying and caterwauling. I have a knife with the same materials on the truck seat with me now, and it sells for $300.”
Steve notes that, with the nostalgia surrounding all those old fi llet knives, he plans to make a few new ones, crosscut saw blades and all. “It makes me feel good, and I like making them,” he said. “It is the same joy of creation at one level or another.”
One bit of advice that Schwarzer offers new knifemakers is to get to any seminar on knifemaking or bladesmithing they can attend. Forty years ago, there were few of them. “People can save themselves 10 years of digging through a mess on their own,” he said. “That is why guys are so successful in a short time now. They have stood on the shoulders of giants.”
Legendary or learning, gifted or practiced, for every knifemaker who hopes to succeed there is a price to pay in sweat and preparation. That first knife, though, in many ways, will always remain priceless.
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