Top: A trailing point skinning knife by Joe Kious. The natural convolutions of the impala horn handle form finger grooves; the spacer is buffalo horn. The butt cap and guard are nickel-silver alloy. The five-inch blade is 440-C steel, with full file work on the spine.
Right: "This piece of Sanbar stag antler from India lay in my drawer for years waiting for the right idea," says Lloyd Hale about the handle of this hunting knife. The blade is hollow ground and mirror polished 440-C steel; the guard is brass with Micarta spacers.
Left: A fine drop point guardless hunter by Jim Ence. The handle is water buffalo horn with nickel-silver bolsters and snow owl scrimshaw by Terry Anderson.
The renaissance began in 1937, when W.D. "Bo'' Randall, Jr. became intrigued by a Scagle knife and decided to make his own. Randall's knives became famous during World War Two; then blades by Bob Loveless and Henry Frank began to appear, and by the early 1970s a virtual explosion of interest and appreciation brought the Knifemakers' Guild into being.
Today is the golden age of American cutlery-and collectors have taken notice. Each custom knife is unique; like snowflakes, no two are the same. Values have soared as improved designs and fine techniques have been added to dedicated workmanship; the best knifemakers now have waiting lists years long.
Because, first and foremost, a custom-made knife has intrinsic value. It is sharper than a surgeon's tool, weighs less than a factory-made knife, takes more abuse in the field, holds an edge longer, and is more convenient to hold and to use. A custom-made knife will always do what it was built to do-whether that is skinning a deer, or defending your life.
A custom knifemaker produces less in one year than a large cutlery manufacturer produces in a day. Some men make only a knife or three a year; others are demons at the workbench, driven men exploring the limits of art and edge, breathing life into bone and steel.
The typical knifemaker is a man who has discovered a latent creativity that blooms in the workshop, in the forge and at the grinding wheel, in the hammer and temper of steel, the joining of silver and solder and the fitting of bone and wood.
He is in the forefront of the individual revolt against mass production. There is the satisfaction of handmade perfection in his work, and his knives are sculptures: essays in symmetry and function, sharp statements at the boundaries of human conduct, the expressions of perhaps otherwise-inarticulate men who have something to say.
A custom blade isn't superior just because it was made by hand, of course; but the very best steels are too hard to be cut into shape by stamping machines, so most factories start out with something inferior.
And quality takes time. "It's the last 15% of the work that takes 50% of the time," says one maker. "If you skimp on that final effort, you'll never make an outstanding knife."
Knifemakers tend to live away from the cities, away from the great masses of people, many in remote towns in the South and West. They may have regular jobs, but many are self-compelled to spend long hours at their trade, not satisfied until their uncompromising standards are met.
"You must condition yourself to be critical of your own work," says another master. "Otherwise, you tend to accept the bad and never improve."
It takes a knifemaker years to learn his trade. He must spend three or four years as an apprentice, or by learning the hard way on his own. And he must spend another couple of years refining his skills before he is able to advance the art, able to make a creative contribution, and able to meet the exacting standards of the Knifemakers' Guild.
An extraordinary awareness of life and time permeated America's early days, and the better makers today are fine craftsmen with a sense of kinship with the old masters and a deep respect for the history of knifemaking. Although there are new materials and new tools, the ancient ways are still necessary.