Stories of fine knivesKnives have been made by hand for centuries, but it wasn’t until guys like Bill Scagel of Michigan and North Dakotan R. H. “Rudy” Ruana started making knives available to discerning customers in the early years of the 20th Century that the knife-making art began as a commercial enterprise. Scagel’s knives today, if you can find one, sell for $20,000 or more. Scagel, who died in 1963, generally is recognized as the pioneer of modern knife-making.
By: Bernie Kuntz, The Jamestown Sun
(First of two parts)
Knives have been made by hand for centuries, but it wasn’t until guys like Bill Scagel of Michigan and North Dakotan R. H. “Rudy” Ruana started making knives available to discerning customers in the early years of the 20th Century that the knife-making art began as a commercial enterprise.
Scagel’s knives today, if you can find one, sell for $20,000 or more. Scagel, who died in 1963, generally is recognized as the pioneer of modern knife-making.
Rudy Ruana (1903-1986) fled a North Dakota farm in 1938 and settled in western Montana in the small town of Bonner, just east of Missoula. He had begun making knives in the 1920s from the leaves of Model-T springs when he was a furrier in the U.S. Cavalry, and made his first knives for Indians who needed a better knife for skinning.
Ruana’s reputation as a knife-maker grew, and he began making knives full-time in 1952. I learned about Ruana knives in the early 1970s, sent Ruana a letter and asked for a price list. He replied with the price list, writing in the corner that he had worked in the North Dakota fields as a young man. (I wish I still had his note as it would be valuable to some knife collectors.)
By today’s standards, Ruana’s knives were dirt cheap, and I ordered four of them — the “midget,” a small knife designed for three-fingered use (my daughter Katrina owns it at this time), a couple “stickers” and a semi-skinner — the latter, a substantial knife that I have used to skin big game carcasses, and also to split Hutterite chickens! I spent less than $75 for all four knives! Ruana knives still are made with aluminum cast directly onto the tang with elk antler inserts that are beveled and riveted.
On my first Stone sheep hunt in British Columbia in 1980, while riding a dreadful horse that walked too slowly, then trotted to keep up with the rest of the string, the snap came loose on the sheath and I lost my largest “sticker.” Sixteen bucks, I paid for it, so I wasn’t devastated.
Like a fool I did not immediately order a Ruana knife for a replacement; instead, I dallied about 15 years. Rudy died, his relatives took over the business and have produced more finely-finished knives but at considerably higher prices. When I replaced the $16 sticker in the mid-1900s it cost $80. Last year I gave it to my good friend Dave, who never had owned a handmade knife. Current price of that Ruana model knife, by the way, is $335!
The Ruana knife purchases led to more knife-buying on my part, which almost became an obsession. I bought a trout-and-bird knife from “Bo” Randall in the mid-1970s for $60. Today the price on such a knife is more than $300! (Randall made fighting knives for U.S. Marines during World War II.)
At one time I had at least two dozen handmade knives. I have found great pleasure in giving some to worthy people: A Carolyn Tinker knife was a gift to Dave’s son Lincoln as a high school graduation gift. (Tinker, at the time I bought the knife, lived in California and was the only female member of the Knifemakers’ Guild.) The knife is a small, skinner type with rosewood handles and 440-C steel. Lincoln lived up to my expectations — he is a medical doctor today.
I gave a John Smith knife almost 20 years ago to another promising young man. Today he is a major in the U.S. Marine Corps and used the Smith knife to help field dress a Shiras moose I shot in Montana in 2007.
Many years ago I gave a Yukon sheep guide a knife made by Louis Leineman of Billings, Mont., and a Jimmy Lile knife to a white hunter in Africa.
A dozen years ago I had three fillet knives made by Lorne Stadnyk a Saskatchewan miner who makes knives as a sideline. I kept one knife for myself, handed the other two to owners of the fishing camp where I have visited since 1967. Bruce, current camp owner, has almost worn out his knife; Dean, former camp owner, says the knife is “too pretty” to use, and has never filleted a single fish with his!
Daughter Katrina owns a little Dalton Holder trout-and-bird knife I gave her, and the Ruana “midget.” Laurie has a Wright-made camp knife and a Herron “Bergan bird knife” with real ivory slabs — gifts from me that are far more lasting than flowers.
Next week: More discussion about handmade knives, the options, the costs and the materials. And do you need one?
Bernie Kuntz, a Jamestown native, has been an Outdoors columnist for the Sun since 1974