When I was a boy we lived in a rural setting, and there was a gravel road that ran up the hill behind our place. I say it was gravel, but most of the gravel had disappeared into the North Carolina soil, and so the road was a little gravel, a lot of dirt, and all wash board. The neighbor boy and I used to ride our bikes up the hill of that road, and down the steep other side.
At the bottom of the steep hill the dirt road formed a “T” intersection with a paved road, and on the left side of that intersection stood a building that housed a welding shop which was operated by a crusty old man. Welding is not the cleanest of occupations, but I can clearly remember that his coveralls always looked as though they hadn’t been washed in weeks.
The building was of masonry construction and may have been painted when it was new, and that was probably the last time the windows were washed also. It had big, swinging, wooden barn doors, and a dirt floor. The exterior was surrounded by all sorts of rusty metal things, plows, automobile parts, bars of steel in racks, pipe, pieces of steel plate, and much, much more. There was so much of this rusty metal collection that the swinging barn doors of the building would only open about halfway before being stopped by the piled up scrap metal.The interior was just about as cluttered and had a partially clear, central path running the length of the building.
It seemed that the old man was busy most of the time. Since it was a rural area there was plenty of farm equipment needing repair, or a piece made. And not just farm equipment either, in those days people repaired things instead of going to the big box store for a new one. Both the neighbor boy and I had overheard adults quietly talking about the old man making moonshine stills. This of course made him a much more interesting character to us, and elevated him way above mere welder status.
I had been inside the shop building several times on various errands for my father, leaving something to be repaired or picking something up. I remember to this day that it was a dark environment, with most of the things covered with years of grinder dust and soot. I didn’t find it particularly interesting in there, except for how the bright arc from the welding machine lit the building interior and removed the gloom temporarily. At the very back of the cluttered room, there was an area that that did interest me though. In that area, under a window was a long workbench with a couple of bare lights hanging over it. On the wall at the rear of the bench and under the window, was a wooden rack that held files of varying shapes and sizes and a small tool box held other hand tools. There was a vise mounted on the bench, and at the other end of the bench was a shaft mounted in pillow blocks. The shaft had buffing wheels mounted on it. It was powered by a belt that ran to an electric motor under the bench. This was the area where the old man made knives.
Nearby the bench was a drill press and further away was a big electric grinder. Of course these tools were used for many things other than the old man’s knife making efforts. The grinder was an important tool when it came to knife making, it was used to shape every knife he made I imagine. With it he profiled the blade and ground the bevels.
Under the work bench were boxes overflowing with worn out files, pieces of saw blades, and other odd pieces of steel that the old man thought might make a good knife. Looking back I believe that most of the knives were made from pieces of saw blades. I can remember seeing large circular saw blades with knife shaped pieces cut from them with an oxy acetylene torch. Smaller saw blades provided the steel for paring knives and moderately sized kitchen knives. He had some pieces of new, high carbon flat stock that he had gotten somewhere, and was very proud of that steel using it only now and then. I assume that it went into knives for those buyers that were willing to pay a premium.
I can remember him using aluminum, antler, plastic, bone, and wood for handle material. When he made a hunting type knife he would make a leather sheath for it. I imagine his leather supply was scraps from the local harness shop and the same is probably true of the rivets that he used in making the sheaths.
Sometimes when we rode our bicycles by the welding shop and could see through the big open doors that the man was working at his knife making bench my friend and I would go in and he would let us watch provided we stayed out his way and were quiet. I was fascinated by the parts of the knife making process that I witnessed. I remember him spending a lot of time at the grinder, dipping the blade in water every few passes to keep it cool. The grinding wheels were two different grits, one coarse, and the other fine. Often he would take out some of the grinder marks using a slurry of emery powder applied to hard wheels on his buffer. Usually some remnants of the grinding marks remained. These were not highly finished knives but they looked great to me.
After the grinding and polishing was done he would attach the handle. Usually the knives were full tang and had slab handles held on by pins that he made from scraps of brass brazing rod. The pins went through the slabs and the tang of the blade and then were gently hammered to form a head on each end assuring the handle slabs stayed in place. Sometimes the knife would have a stick tang that ran all the way through the handle material coming out the end. Then the protruding end of the tang was peined over a washer on the butt of the knife thus securing the handle and blade together.
The last thing he did to the knife was sharpen it on a big oil stone that was sway backed from many, many sharpenings.
Across the road from our house was an area of fields and then woods that went up one side of the mountain and down the other side. It was the perfect area for the “camping trips” that my friends and I went on. One of the most prized and envied pieces of equipment that any of could have on these trips was a knife made by the old man that ran the welding shop.
The neighbor boy and I earned our knives by sweeping out the welding shop once a week for four weeks. Our new “hunting knives” were actually more like paring knives with sheaths for carrying on our belts. Paring knives or not, we loved them and put them to good use at vital outdoor tasks like cutting sticks for roasting hot dogs and marshmallows.
Recently I had occasion to drive through that area. The house where we lived then has been replaced with apartment buildings and the woods and fields where my friends and I camped have been removed and paved streets packed with houses that all look alike have taken their place. That gravel road is paved now, and where the old man’s shop stood is a vacant, overgrown lot with no indication that anything was ever there.
copyright Bill North 2014