I love knives. I think they are beautiful, and the more useful they are, the more lovely I find them to be. That juxtaposition of function and beauty was almost more than I could bear as a youngster watching my dad whittle, or cut me a wedge of his apple, using his small two-bladed jackknife with mother-of-pearl handle scales. I so wished to hold that knife in my hand, run my 3-year-old fingers over the cool combination of shiny steel, nickel silver and shell — but it was not to be.
A passion for knife making
By the time I made it to second grade, I was so fascinated with pocketknives that I entered into an unholy trade with a fellow at school. He could see that I coveted his prize — just as I could see that he coveted the Dinky Toy cast dump truck I had received for Christmas. Oh, I felt plenty guilty when I snuck the toy to school that day, and even guiltier when I returned home with the knife. Oh, but the joy of having a knife!
It was only a few days later that I was brave enough to take out the knife and open it up. The steel and handle were cool and smooth, almost exactly as I had imagined they would be. My plan was to whittle myself a wooden whistle using a piece of staghorn sumac branch — as I had seen diagrammed in an old and dog-eared “Boy’s Project” book.
With my chores finished, I stole out to the swamp near home. I opened and closed that knife. I whittled a willow sapling into a hot-dog-roasting stick — there was neither hot dog nor fire. Then, I cut a piece of sumac, and while squaring up the ends, something slipped and I sliced three fingers on my right hand to the knuckle. We laugh about it now, but neither the hide tanning I received nor the peroxide treatment and taping of the wounds cooled my cutting-tool ardor.
Fast forward more than half a lifetime to my last birthday — when Karen asked what I might want, I was at a temporary loss — that is, until my favorite knife catalog came in the mail. I have no need for another knife; I have many. Some I made, and some I purchased. Most live near my old leather chair in the living room — I enjoy hefting them, studying the combination of metalwork and woodwork.
Thanks to that catalog, I discovered beautiful hand-forged Damascus steel knife blanks — created in a small shop in Oklahoma. I asked for one for my birthday. I decided it would look nice with handle scales made from Osage orange wood cut on the farm.
After a couple of long afternoons in my workshop sawing, fitting, fussing, filing, rasping, grinding, sanding and finishing, I had myself a beautiful Damascus knife, and it’s among my favorites to heft now — and I’ve given it a razor-sharp edge. I love using it.
I liked that knife so well that I’ve since finished quite a few other knife blanks with Osage orange handle material. I plan to do the same with a set of traditional Finnish blades I recently obtained.
Whether you’ve been cut to the quick, or you just can’t kick a crafting or collecting habit, we’d love to know what you’re up to this season. And if you have any projects to share, please send me a note and a photo or two (at least 300 dpi, jpeg) if available, to firstname.lastname@example.org, and the whole works may just wind up in a future issue.
See you in March,
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.