I did not grow up in a craft environment. My father, now retired, was a physicist at the University of Chicago. My stepmother is an accomplished writer. While these two fields are unrelated to knife making, I learned a great deal about the nature of integrity thru observing the actions of my folks. In retrospect, this was more valuable than any direct craft experience I might have received.
Between the ages of 12 and 18 I built and raced slot cars. This was the first thing I was any good at and I knew from when I started that I wanted to make things, mostly in metal, with my hands.
Despite this, in high school I received a failing grade in metal shop. I wanted to take drafting the following year but the shop teacher taught that as well and he told my counselor that he would not have me in his class as he felt I had no aptitude and it would be a waste of everyone’s time.
I also failed English and history so it took me five years to graduate with a 1.42 average. What I figured out years later was that I didn’t function well in a structured environment: I was better off learning things on my own.
I enrolled at a local community college the next year. While my grades were better I couldn’t see anything that I wanted to spend the next four years studying so I enrolled at a school to learn to fix computers. This was before the era of PCs and MACs. I was difficult to place for employment because I didn’t have a car (I still have never owned one). I wound up working for Norelco fixing dictation equipment for the next 2 ¼ years. This is the only conventional job I have ever held. After eight months there wasn’t much left to learn and I felt Norelco was a dead end for me. I started to make belt buckles and some other jewelry items at this time but they didn’t generate much income.
I first heard of custom knives in THE LAST WHOLE EARTH CATALOG when I was twenty. I was blown away and bought everything I could find on the subject including the first issues of THE AMERICAN BLADE. I used some of my vacation days from Norelco to go to Overland Park, Kansas and attend my first knife show. In retrospect, my infatuation didn’t make sense: I didn’t use knives at the time and didn’t even know how to sharpen them. But I loved tools and knives were some of the coolest tools I had ever looked at. I can only describe this event as a case of falling in love with something without knowing why. The ‘why’ would reveal itself over time.
Two years after I first heard of custom knives I had purchased a used belt grinder and a drill press and using those tools along with a hacksaw, some files, sandpaper and a lot of elbow grease I made my first knife in July of 1975. Three days later I got on a rickety bicycle and rode the 500 miles from Chicago to Kansas City in five days to attend the Knifemaker’s Guild Show. I slept at camp grounds and on the side of the road without a tent and dealt with rain and mosquitoes. You have to be young to do something this dumb.
Five months after that first knife I was offered a job at a cutlery sharpening shop. They knew I made knives and figured I would be easier to train. I worked there part time for 3 ½ years and then quit because I found it difficult to work there and concentrate on knives. That was the last time I worked for anyone else.
My early years in knife making were difficult: I had trouble selling my work and didn’t have a good show for the first seven years. I started to do better when I began to make interframe folders. I still make all kinds of knives, all working patterns, but folders are what I am mostly known for.
My early failures, while not pleasant, were actually a gift. They taught me not to take anything for granted and encouraged me to think conceptually.
Along the way I met several people whose friendship, support, feedback and encouragement have been priceless to me. I met Brian and Alice Katz after I had been making knives for about a year. Alice taught medical illustration and Brian taught photography. Both of them understood the true nature of craft and it has been a great joy of mine to bounce ideas off them and listen to their responses. Sadly, Brian passed away last year, but I still keep in contact with Alice. Jerry Glaser, now retired, was an engineer with Air Research and also a wood working tool enthusiast. He wrote me a letter after purchasing one of my folding knives thru a dealer. I remember being embarrassed to write back because his handwriting was so much better than mine. When approaching a design problem, Jerry has the ability to cut right to the core and come up with an elegant solution. He once produced the best wood turning tools made as well as a grinding fixture that solved some long standing sharpening problems. I can’t even count the number of times I have called Jerry to get his opinion on a problem I couldn’t see the daylight out of.
Over the years I have developed some specific ideas about how to approach a craft. In my opinion, the most important quality to have as a craftsman is a well grounded philosophy to launch one’s work. This is more important than any technical skill, for lacking this, one’s work won’t have a point of view: it will be aimless.
I also believe that when making functional objects the function should always serve as the foundation. To ignore this will deprive the object of life and the less priority the function is given the deader the object will be. To illustrate this I would like to tell you about some of my craft heroes; Sam Maloof, Richard F. Moore and Hermann Schmidt.
Sam Maloof made superb furniture for sixty years. His work is beautiful and timeless but to only look at his work never does it justice; to appreciate it you have to use it over an extended period and only then will the true quality become apparent. One of my goals as a craftsman is to someday approach in knives what Sam did with furniture, especially chairs. I am sitting in one of Sam’s chairs as I write this.
Richard F Moore was a metalworking genius and the greatest tool maker of the 20th century. His life work had a profound effect on metal working as we know it today. Anybody who has ever used a machine made by The Moore Special Tool Company understands when I say that they are industrial works of art.
Hermann Schmidt founded a small company that set a new standard for precision work holding devices, a standard that they have steadily improved upon for almost fifty years. Their tools are distinctive for their precision and superb finishes, but beyond that there is a level of thought and intelligence built in that sets them apart from the rest. This is apparent even in simple tools such as vises and angle plates. I am proud to call Hermann, and his son Peter, friends of mine.
All three of these men achieved beauty in their work but the beauty was created by focusing profoundly on function. I do not consider myself an artist: rather I am a toolmaker with an artistic sensibility.
I have three goals as a craftsman:
- 1. To steadily improve my craft until I am no longer able to do it. I have no plans to retire.
- 2. To educate people on what I feel is important about this craft. I would like knife making to be better because I was involved in it and also leave this earth just a smidgen better than it was when I arrived.
- 3. I would like to find a student that I can pass my knowledge, and perhaps my tools, on to so they can avoid most of the dumb mistakes I have made and take this craft to the next level after I have become plant food.