Bill Wiggins demo knife


This is about the knife that I seem to use for everything except what it was designed for.

The knife that I am writing about today would probably be referred to by most people as a “hunter”, or “hunting knife”. I have not used it for any “hunting” related chores but I have used it for a myriad of other things.

The 4 7/8” blade is forged from 1084 carbon steel and the tiger maple handle is separated from the blade by a stainless steel guard. It was made by American Bladesmith Society board member Bill Wiggins as a demonstration piece. Since it was a demo knife, and time was limited, Bill didn’t rub the blade out and it was left with some grinding marks, perhaps what makers might call a belt finish. “Belt finish”, “working finish”, and “forge finish” are terms that some makers use when describing blade finishes. Often, although not always, knives with these terms attached to them appear to my eye to simply be “unfinished”. Not that any makers care how I interpret the wording they use in describing their knives.


 But, to get back on topic…..The lack of a rubbed blade out blade finish doesn’t bother me in this instance; I use the knife on a regular basis and fruits and vegetables don’t take long to patina carbon steel. Although this knife would be much more at home as a hunting or general use belt knife around camp, I use it to prepare food, open or cut down shipping boxes, and many other daily cutting chores in my house.

Before you say it, I know that it is not the ideal box cutter or kitchen knife, and I do possess those types of knives, so why do I select it over its better suited relatives for those mundane tasks? It’s simple really; the knife holds its edge and is very, very comfortable in my hand. But I suppose the best thing about it is that I like Bill and it’s a pleasure to use something that he made.


copyright Bill North 2014








The Go Kart

What follows is a true story from my youth in rural Western North Carolina:

The Go Kart

I don’t remember the exact year that my father came home with the go kart frame, but I believe that I must have been around fourteen or maybe fifteen years old. The frame was new and complete with steering, brakes, wheels, tires and seat. It did not however have a motor.

My father assured me that the lack of a motor was no problem because he owned an old, two cylinder chain saw that was designed for two men to use. He said that big, old motor would do just fine and so we set about putting the chain saw engine on the go kart. After accomplishing that task, we guessed at the gear ratio and got a sprocket that fit the motor, and then were able to run a chain around that sprocket and the one on the axle.

One shortcoming was that it was direct drive, there was no clutch mechanism and so if the motor was running the kart was moving, providing of course that the rear wheels were on the ground. It had to be started by either pushing, or by manually spinning a back tire while the rear of the kart was lifted off the ground. Another slight issue was that the brake was nothing more than flat steel pads that pressed against the surface of the rear tires when the brake pedal was depressed. Certainly not the most sophisticated or efficient of braking systems, but I was far more interested in going that stopping anyway.

The engine didn’t perform very well at lower revolutions, but really seemed to enjoy running wide open. And oh yeah, it was very, very loud. Both of those things suited me and made the whole enterprise more exciting.

Finally one night my dad and I had the thing assembled and the engine running the best we could. He suggested that I take it for a test run and that he would follow me in his car, and I would be able to see to drive by his headlights. I know what you’re thinking, but it made sense to us at the time. It was a week night and there was no traffic to speak of on the rural road where we lived, so the danger from motor vehicles was pretty slim.

We propped the kart up on a cinder block, I sat down and fastened the seat belt that we had installed, and my dad spun a rear tire starting the engine. Then he rushed to his car which was already running with the lights turned on. I shifted my body weight back and forth until the kart slipped of the concrete block and I was off! Down the gravel driveway I went, and then turned right on the paved road with dad right behind me. After going about a hundred yards from our house I was feeling pretty confident and in control. I pressed the gas pedal all the way down.

I can remember to this day that the kart really accelerated, and that I left dad, and unfortunately his headlights as well behind. My eyes started to water as the go kart and I quite rapidly arrived at the place where I was supposed to turn around. I let up on the gas pedal but that act had no effect on anything, the throttle was stuck wide open. I pushed the brake but that also had very little consequence on the kart’s speed. Unable to turn around, I turned left onto another paved road that I was familiar with. Dad’s lights were too far back to be of any use to me, and I knew that soon the pavement ended, and that the road became a twisting, steep, mountain dirt road.

Just before the pavement ended, there was a house on the left that had a long, sweeping semi-circular driveway, and I thought that was my best chance to get turned around. Straining to see in the dark and pushing the brake hoping it might have some effect, I tried turning into the driveway but missed it by just enough to send me across their front yard and through the lower branches of a huge Holly tree. I was however now headed in the right direction and just as I navigated back into the paved road I passed dad coming the other way.

I’m sure that the reader must be asking themselves about now, “Why didn’t he just switch the motor off?” That’s easy to explain, we really were more interested in keeping the cantankerous motor running than shutting it off. During all the testing in the garage the kart had been on blocks and we shut the motor off by using the original switch mounted on the chainsaw’s motor. Believe me, about the time I went through the branches of the Holly tree I was starting to see the value of a kill switch that I could reach while driving!

Eyes watering, I hurtled through the darkness back down the hill to our house and pushing the brake for all I was worth did manage to slow the kart down some and I turned into our driveway, but losing control right at that point I passed between the big wooden gate posts sliding sideways, and thankfully the motor stalled and went silent.

My friend Jim came to visit the next day and I told him about the experience and about passing his house with the throttle stuck wide open the night before. He said that he was in his bedroom and when he heard the noise of the kart going by he asked his mother what it was. She said, “I’m not sure, Jim, but I think they’re moving hell and just came by with the first load!”

A week or so later I took the Kart for a little drive around the neighborhood and somehow lost control in a turn where a preacher lived not far from us. I got the kart under control and back on the road only after running through the flower bed in the front yard of the parsonage. I drove a few more miles at full speed, for the greatest part, and then back home where I found two North Carolina Highway Patrol officers waiting for me. They claimed that they had tried to stop me but that I had outrun them on the crooked roads. I have no idea if that was true or not, but it is possible I suppose because the engine was so noisy that I wouldn’t have heard a siren.

I was cited for no driver’s license, no tag, speeding, failure to stop for the officers, and several other offenses. I had to go to the court of a blind judge who said that I sounded like a good boy, and fined me either eleven or twenty one dollars, I can’t remember which now.

According to my friend who attended a church near where we lived, the next Sunday the preacher said some derogatory things about speeding and go karts in his sermon. I am convinced to this day that it was him that called the Highway Patrol because of a few squashed flowers, and I have had a lingering mistrust of preachers ever since.


copyright Bill North 2014





Red, the Wild One

     Red was the first “outlaw” biker I ever met. He looked like what is sometimes described as “a pretty rough customer”, and I guess he might have been just that. It was in the early 1960s, when Red whose last name I either never knew, or which escapes me now, was hired at the Esso service station where I was working washing cars. He was straight out of that Marlin Brando movie, The Wild One, and he had a hat like the one Brando wore. He rode a rat of a Harley Davidson that sported black leather saddle bags that were adorned with nickel plated studs and small, facetted, red glass reflectors. In addition to the Brando hat, he wore one of those big, wide, leather kidney belts decorated across the back with his name in the same fore mentioned nickel plated studs.

     After work Red would kick start the Harley. That basic task seemed to require quite a few attempts to accomplish, and then with straight pipes roaring, cross the bridge leading to town trailing a wisp of blue oil smoke. It looked like great fun to me, something that I could foresee perhaps in my future.

     One Monday Red showed up at work in a car, and when questioned, explained where his Harley was. It seems that the day before he and some friends were taking a ride to nearby Lake Lure and stopped to smoke a cigarette at a place called Hickory Nut Gap. When he tried to start the motorcycle to leave, it refused all attempts at coaching it into roaring, smoking life. The story ended with Red saying, “So I got my pistol and whiskey out of the saddle bags, kicked the son-of-a-bitch over on its side, took the gas cap off, and lit it on fire. I guess it’s still there.”

     One day Red paid another boy and me to wash his car which he was very proud of. It was a black, late fifties Cadillac as I remember. Anyway, as I vacuumed the front floorboard I saw Red’s Smith and Wesson revolver and a pint of whiskey under the driver’s seat. Those that he had salvaged from the now burnt to a crisp Harley I supposed, or perhaps spares that he kept close at hand in case he needed them. A day or so later Red came around and said he’d been fired for some reason that I don’t remember now. He had only worked there for two or three weeks. Anyway, the last time I saw Red he was accelerating across the bridge leading to town in his black Cadillac, trailing a wisp of blue smoke, and wearing that Brando hat.

     I imagine that Red left us long ago, and now an upscale hotel stands where the Esso station was. The bridge that leads to town is still there.


copyright Bill North 2014






The Old Man That Made Knives


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