Handmade knife addictionMy father used a pair of Buck folding “Hunters” for all types of big game and birds, and a Buck fillet knife for fish. He was amused by my affinity for handmade knives and never owned one. Commercially-made knives are far better today than they were 50 years ago, and the majority of outdoorsmen, like my late father, operate very happily without a handmade knife.
By: Bernie Kuntz, The Jamestown Sun
(Last of two parts)
My father used a pair of Buck folding “Hunters” for all types of big game and birds, and a Buck fillet knife for fish. He was amused by my affinity for handmade knives and never owned one. Commercially-made knives are far better today than they were 50 years ago, and the majority of outdoorsmen, like my late father, operate very happily without a handmade knife.
So what are the advantages of a handmade knife? Quality of steel, and the knowledge that an American craftsman made the knife with his/her own two hands. If that notion doesn’t appeal to you, then you probably aren’t a candidate for a handmade knife.
In the 1960s, Bob Loveless, Riverside, Calif., knifemaker, began using 154-CM — a steel used on the noses of high-speed aircraft. It still is highly-regarded for knife blades. Loveless was somewhat of a genius in designing blades. He pioneered the drop point hunter, the clip point, the semi-skinner and his own fighting-knife — blade designs copied to a degree by most bladesmiths. Interestingly, a Loveless knife that sold for the “exorbitant” price of $300 in the early 1970s now fetches $3,000 or more … if you can find one!
In the 1970s three knifemakers experimented with D-2 steel for knifeblades — ”Chubby” Hueske from Texas, Jimmy Lile from Arkansas, and Dalton Holder, who now lives in Arizona. (Hueske and Lile are deceased.) I own knives from all three makers, and can attest to D-2 steel being very tough and taking a wonderful edge. It is not quite as “stainless” as 154-CM but makes a top notch blade, as those three knifemakers proved.
When I began collecting handmade knives in the 1970s, one could buy a belt knife for about $100. Today, expect to spend at least $300 or more for a good knife. (I have four knives made by the late George Herron of South Carolina, and never spent more than $100 on any of them. Recently, I saw a few Herron knives for sale at $1,100 to $1,200 apiece!).
Which reminds me of a story: In the 1970s a young fellow named Scott Barry walked into my office and told me he liked an article that I had written on handmade knives. Living in Cheyenne, Wyo., at the time, I visited Barry’s Laramie shop and ordered two of his knives — a small D-2 steel blade with Indian stag handle; the other, a slightly upswept blade of 440C (a highly stainless and decent steel) with maroon micarta handles. I still use one or the other on every bird hunting trip I take.
I interviewed Barry, sold an article on his operation to Gun World magazine for $130. In turn he offered to make a knife for me free of charge. Helen, the graphic artist at Wyoming Wildlife magazine, where we worked, helped me design a clip-point blade. Barry used 154-CM steel and lignum vitae — an exotic wood from South America — for the handles. He took it to a knife show in Colorado, had the brass bolsters engraved and gave it to me. The knife is worth far more than the pittance I received for the magazine article!
Handle materials for knives are legion. Forty years ago someone discovered micarta — a nearly indestructible material used in packing electronic instruments. It makes an exemplary handle material. I have had several knives made with micarta handles, including a lovely semi-skinner from the late Corbett Sigman of West Virginia and a boot knife by Jeff Bridwell.
However, my favorite materials for knife handles are exotic woods — rosewood, cocobolo, maple, desert ironwood, padouk … one knife in my collection is a stunning semi-skinner by Dwight Towell of Midvale, Idaho with curly maple slabs. I think I paid $180 for it. Today, a Towell knife sells for several times that amount!
Indian stag (also known as sambar stag) is another wonderful handle material, more dense than elk or deer antler, and attractive to boot. Laurie surprised me one time with a knife made by Dave Kauffman of Helena, Mont., and adorned with an exceptional piece of stag, German silver bolsters, and ATS-34 steel. Kauffman also made a skinner for me with a Damascus blade — a process where the maker hammers out dozens of layers of steel to make the blade. He used a chain saw blade for the Damascus and volcanic California pumice for the handle material.
Many years ago a game warden in Wyoming who knew that I was a “knife nut,” gave me a piece of bighorn sheep horn. I sent the horn to W.W. Wood of Grand Prairie, Texas and had him make a San Francisco dirk with “coffin” handle. It was my boat knife in Alaska while I lived there. I still carry it every year while fishing in Saskatchewan. (Wood, by the way, had a master’s degree in metallurgy from M.I.T.)
And so it goes with handmade knives. I have reached the point where I cannot use the knives I own, but still struggle to keep myself from buying more. As I say, collecting handmade knives can become addictive!
Check out this website address: www.knifemakersguild.com.
Bernie Kuntz, a Jamestown native, has been an Outdoors columnist for the Sun since 1974