Cut to the Quick: A Love for Knife Making

Hank’s passion for knife making was stoked at a young age, and he continues to hone his skill today.

| January/February 2014

  • Damascus blade blanks with Osage orange handles, right from the farm of Grit's Editor-in-Chief.
    Photo by Karen Will
  • Assorted homemade knives and sheaths from Editor-in-Chief Hank Will.
    Photo by Karen Will

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.

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