The Demo knife loses weight and a Christmas present from Earl

 

“Gosh it’s cold in here,” I said entering Earl’s workshop.

“I just built a fire, it will warm up soon,” Earl said as he hunched down by the woodstove trying to get some warmth. “what’s going on?” he asked.

“About the same as always, Earl, I just stopped by to say hello.”

Eventually the shop warmed up and Earl started to work finish grinding some knives that had been forged, rough ground, and heat treated sometime in the past.

“Earl, I have that Wiggins demo knife that I like so much in the truck.”

“So?”

“So, it’s a tad thick behind the edge for my taste, how about thinning it a little for me while you’re in the mood to grind.”

“Why don’t you get Wiggins to do it?” Earl asked.

“Well, I got him to give me the knife and I sort of hate to ask him to do some more work on it…it might make me look cheap. You know, like I want something else for nothing.”

“So you want me to do it for nothing?”

“I was hoping you would.”

Earl grumbled and went back to grinding, and I went out and got the knife in question out of the truck. Going back into the shop, I sat in the old office chair that was repaired in several places with duct tape. Bullitt the Bulldog came over, got patted a little and then returned to his place beside the stove. He gave me a look that said, “If you want to pat me, you’ll have to sit over here where it’s warm!”, and then he went back to dreaming bulldog dreams. Since he got fixed I suppose those dreams are about cheeseburgers or whipping some poor coyote’s ass. Whipping coyotes is pretty high on Bullitt’s preferred night time activities list according to Earl.

Earl turned the grinder off and held his hand out for the Bill Wiggins knife. “Well, I could thin it down some, but if Wiggins found out he might not think it’s cool for me to be grinding on a knife that he made…”

“He knows it’s thick, Earl,” I said trying to be reassuring and get my way, “It was a demonstration knife, so he had to make it in a short time. Besides, he’ll never know. He probably doesn’t remember how thick it is, I mean that was a year ago!”

“And you won’t give me up?” Earl asked.

“Of course not,” I lied.

Grumbling some more Earl put a different grit belt on the grinder and went to work. In no time he had the knife blade thinned down and finished with a fine grit belt. “How about rubbing it out?” I asked hoping to get Earl to hand finish the blade.

“No,” Earl said firmly, “I’ll Scotch Brite it, but that’s it.”

“If Mike was here he’d rub it out,” I said hopefully, referring to another local knife maker.

“Yes he would, but I’m not going to. So do you want it Scotch Brited or not?” Earl asked.

“Please,” I answered seeing that was all the free work that I was going to get.

When Earl was done, I’ll admit I was pretty happy with the knife. Earl even sharpened it before he gave it back. I was pretty happy with myself too, feeling that in some small way I had gotten the best of Earl, which is a rare thing for me.

After some small talk I thanked Earl and started to leave, “Wait a minute,” Earl said, “here’s your Christmas present.” He handed me a box that was covered in a light coat of grinder dust.

“Can I open it now?”

“Sure, he answered.

Inside was a really beautiful paring knife blade that Earl had made, and a killer set of figured wood scales. The handle scales were not shaped or attached to the tang of the blade.

“Thank you, Earl, it’s not quite finished though,” I said.

“It’s a kit and I can explain why,” Earl said and then he told me a story that was right up there with the well-known, ‘the dog ate my homework’ excuse. After he was through with his explanation, or excuse depending on how you look at it, he said, “You can put it together, or you can come back in January and we’ll put it together, it won’t take long.”

Bear in mind it’s now the first of December, and if it “won’t take long”, why do I have to wait until January. Well Earl is going deer hunting in some other state until Christmas Eve to hear him tell it, so I guess I have to wait until sometime in January to go back, and get my Christmas present put together. And of course it goes without saying that I’ll need to be bearing some sort of decent gift, if I expect Earl to put my paring knife together… game over, Earl wins.

It is going to be a nice paring knife though, and the Wiggins Demo knife got thinned down.

earl paring 800

 

 

©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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

R P hollow handle survival knife

Recently I was talking about knives to a friend of mine who is a knife collector and the subject of R P (Robert Parrish) hollow handle survival knives came up. To the best of my knowledge these knives were made in the 1980s at Mr. Parrish’s shop in Hendersonville, NC.  I remarked that I was sorry that I had not purchased one when they were available especially since I knew Mr. Parrish and had visited his shop in the 80s. Over the years I have lost touch with him and I don’t think that he has made knives and offered them for sale in quite a few years.

RP survival3 copy blogR P hollow handle survival knife and sheath

Several days later I stopped by to see the same friend and he said that he had something he wanted to give me. Opening a bag he took out a R P hollow handle knife and handed it to me! He said that he had two and saw no reason that I shouldn’t have one of them. It was a very generous and unexpected gift from an old friend that took me completely unaware. It is something that I will remember.

RP survival2 copy blogR P knife with 8″ blade

At my age it is extremely unlikely that I will ever have any practical use for a hollow handled survival knife but this R P knife now holds a special place in my collection. As far as I know these knives were made in 5”, 6”, and 8” blade lengths. This knife is the 8”X1½”X ¼” blade version and is made from 440C I believe. The metal handle is knurled under the neoprene sleeve and the knurled, threaded butt cap is fitted with an O-ring and lanyard hole. The knife has a bead-blasted finish and the serial number and maker’s mark are on the front of the guard. The serial number indicates that the knife was made in August of 1986 and it was the 628th 8 inch knife made. In addition to the maker’s mark on the front of the guard the ricasso is also marked “RP”. The nylon sheath has a liner of hard plastic that protects the sheath from being torn by the very sharp saw teeth on the spine of the knife. The knife is 13 3/16” overall in length and weighs 20.4 oz.

RP survival copy blogSaw teeth on back of R P survival knife

This is a very well-made knife by an excellent craftsman made during the 1980s “Rambo” hollow handle survival knife era.

Postscript: Amazingly after all these years, I was able to track down Robert Parrish while he was on a road trip, and he told me how to decipher the date and serial number. He also mentioned that he was glad that I was not dead. I’m glad that he’s not dead either. Text and photos copyright Bill North 2013

A little Wade Coulter friction folder knife

DSC_6223-2 copyWade Coulter friction folder

This melding of knifemaking skills and folk art by Wade Coulter is only 5 ¾” overall when open. The antler handle is slotted for the blade which opens and closes smoothly. The pretty little Damascus blade is file worked on the spine and the spine is stamped “W C “.

DSC_6225-2 copy

I’m not sure that this knife would be classified as a “goblin” folder but the butt of the handle is carved with a grotesque face.

DSC_6233 copyCarving on the butt of the Wade Coulter knife

The full time, custom knife maker’s balancing act.

DSC_6100 800 wide

 Ivory handled knife by Tai Goo

In order to be successful, a full time custom knifemaker the maker must maintain a balance between art, craftsmanship, and business acumen. Those three things are like the three legs of a milking stool, if one leg is far out of proportion to the other legs the foundation becomes unsteady. In my experience those makers that seem to me to be accomplished in all three areas are far fewer in number than those that are not.

A knifemaker that naturally has an inclination or understanding of the art, craftsmanship, and business sides of the craft has a tremendous advantage over much of his competition. Many makers seem to be strong in one or two areas and weak in the others. I have known many skilled craftsmen that that were adroit at the craftsmanship aspect and/or the art aspect but sadly lacked at the business side of the endeavor. As a result they were unable to make a go of it, and having to seek some other source of income either left the craft entirely or nearly so.

My experience has been that the business side of knifemaking as a commercial undertaking is where most makers are weak. Makers that have someone to help them with that aspect are fortunate. Without good business practices, no matter how nice the knives, the venture probably does not have a bright future, at least as a full time occupation.

Once again the above is just my opinion based on my observances and experiences.

To see more knives by Tai Goo visit his website at http://www.taigoo.com

copyright Bill North 2013

The knifemaker that came to dinner with no knife.

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a cookout with several knifemakers. Excellent deer back strap was served; the host did provide forks but no knives. That shouldn’t have been a problem; one would think that since we were all knife makers and/or knife enthusiasts we each probably would have had a knife with us. Yes, that is probably what one would think, but as it turns out one would be wrong.

There were four of us at the table, three knife makers of varying experience and capabilities, and myself. I used my relatively inexpensive Solingen folder to cut the food on my plate. The maker across from me also used his factory made pocket knife, and the maker on his right used a beautiful little fixed blade of his making which he carried in a pocket sheath. The third maker apparently was not carrying any knife at all or chose not to use it if he did have one. He borrowed the knife the cook had been using to prepare the food.

I grew up in a rural area where just about every man and boy that I knew carried some sort of pocket knife. I have carried and used knives nearly every day of my life for more years I care to recall. I am always surprised at men that don’t carry a pocket knife in a rural environment or in an urban environment for that matter. I am even more surprised to see someone who says they are a knife maker or knife enthusiast at a cook out at a cabin in the country without a knife of some sort. To me it is a puzzle.

I suppose that it is possible that some makers view themselves as makers of knives and not users of knives, but what better way is there to learn about knives and what is desired in a using knife than by actually carrying and using one?

I am not sure what I should deduce about the knife borrowing maker/enthusiast from this event. Maybe his knife was in his other pants, maybe for some reason he didn’t want the others of us to see whatever knife he was carrying, or maybe he doesn’t normally carry a knife. I am ignorant as to the answer. The conundrum remains.

copyright Bill North 2013