Jump to content
Christopher Price

Knifemaker Interview Series, a biography workshop

Recommended Posts

This is all good stuff guys .I must say that I am looking forward to meeting both the Jakes at the forge in (not a long away now) .

Jake what are your feelings towards the Uk's demonisation of knives ?It is such a strange and unfathomable thing to me as a tool user and from the point of view of an artist and craftsman (and I must say Romantic as a lot of my drive towards making blades is certainly based on a romantisism.)

I do understand where it is coming from though so it doesnt make me mad .

How do you feel about the juxtoposition of your craft against the general anti knife feelings we have within the UK .

 

well, it pretty much makes me sad rather than mad. don't get me wrong, knife crime is a big problem, particularly in the south west of scotland, but i think you can draw a direct correlation between public attitudes towards knives and the escalation of knife crime. fifty years ago, knives were carried by just about everyone, and so everyone knew that they were tools. as knives are treated like weapons, and legislated as such, they come to be seen as weapons, and nothing else.

this, coupled with the prevalance of crap covered in spikes designed to appeal to the mindset of a particular type of 15 yr old ned, has led to a real problem - particularly in our cities, but it's spreading. personally we have a far greater problem with a growing ignorance culture than we do with a knife culture. i couldn't have a more serious attitude to this problem; many of my friends have fallen victim to this casual blade culture, two fatally. personally i believe that responsible knife use should be taught to every child, both at school and in the home, and there should be a hell of a lot more information given, particularly to boys/young men about the damage that can be done by stabbing: i believe that many of these deaths are caused by genuine ignorance about this. i have in the past refused to take comissions which buy into this culture of ignorance; i would not want to be assosciated with it, or, god forbid, encourage it.

 

having said that, i feel that the dissemination of information knives, particularly through the growth of bladesmithing as a craft, is starting to have an effect, and recently even some political debate has allowed for the distinction between knife as weapon and as artifact of art, or craft, or culture (i'm thinking of proposed 'samurai sword' legislation which excludes nihonto, and of Alex Salmond accepting that any knife legislation in scotland will have to hold exceptions for dirks and sgian dubhs)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

This is all fascinating and wonderful stuff guys ! I find it truly inspiring that so many of us have an abiding interest in preserving history, cultures, music, art, philosophy, and being real. Y'all make me proud to be a smith.

 

Fire and steel is indeed the way, at least for us. :)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
This is all fascinating and wonderful stuff guys ! I find it truly inspiring that so many of us have an abiding interest in preserving history, cultures, music, art, philosophy, and being real. Y'all make me proud to be a smith.

 

Fire and steel is indeed the way, at least for us. :)

 

 

*high five to that!

 

I am with you Howard, beaming with pride to belong to an awesome group of craftsmen/artists/cool dudes.

Edited by Sam Salvati

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
This is all fascinating and wonderful stuff guys ! I find it truly inspiring that so many of us have an abiding interest in preserving history, cultures, music, art, philosophy, and being real. Y'all make me proud to be a smith.

 

Fire and steel is indeed the way, at least for us. :)

 

This is the common link to most who actively participate on this site, regardless of the knife tradition being pursued.

~

Wonderful thoughts, Jake, especially on the subject of maintaining *living* tradition. The music is a direct correlation... the best Trad pushes ground *within* the traditional framework... sometimes on a razor's edge; but always within. I always say if my eyes go, I'll have time to play all the music in my head! (Bouzouki / banjo man, myself.) ;)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

That was great. What kind of house are you planning on building, wood or stone? that should be a really rewarding project.

Well, I'll turn it over to you now. I'll see you in London, It's gonna be really interesting to have a smiths moot on the Isle of the mighty. I'm looking forward to getting away from the SNOW! so far this winter we have had ten feet of snow fall! and we just had another big snow storm yesterday and the day before, I'm thinking some damp mossy weather will be a welcome change :D

thanks for taking the time to do this Alan and Jake, It's turning into the kind of conversation that's unusual on the sometimes flippant internet. This was a great Idea Chris.

Ok I'm off to the La Tene period ;)

1brighd1.jpg

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I'm definitely enjoying the thread as well.

Neat to learn more about each other.

 

Liking the look of that hilt there, can't wait to see more.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Really really good stuff, Jake C.! And Jake P., nice hilt. ;) DANG I wish I could go to London with you guys... :(

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Allright, Jake, it's time for you to interview someone. We've been waiting all week for this!

 

Thank you for your story, and everyone else so far too. Let's keep it rolling!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Nope, I talked to Jake and there's another in line... just taking a little time to set up is all. Some of us have to do real work all day (not me, thank goodness) and have little time to post.

 

Stay tuned.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

ok. sorry for the delay - been trying to sort out some business matters, and get some orders finished, and then i cracked and started making a big f#$%-off kopis styled integral camp knife out of 3/8ths stock... but anyway, i'm back, for now -

 

and the next victim is Howard Clark (presuming you're still up for it?)

 

So, Howard, these interviews seem to have established a pattern which i won't stray too far from; to start with can you tell us a bit about yourself, and in particular what lead you towards taking up bladesmithing? were there any people, places or events in your 'formative years' which influenced your path? or any ambitions or plans which fell by the wayside as you went along? you've said you work for yourself because you're basically unemployable, but what would you have done, or liked to do, if you hadn't become a bladesmith?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Well I live in rural Iowa, and am still on the farm, in the house I grew up in. I am not a farmer, though I do have romantic fantasies about the lifestyle from when I was a kid. My Dad and I hunted and fished a lot, and knives were always just part of the scenery and tool kit here. I have a couple of knives that my Grandfather made from saw blades way before I was born. My Mom's maternal line are all named Smith, and came from somewhere on your Island, Jake, though I do not know where.

 

I started fooling around making knives when I was in grade seven, the age my older son Ben is right now. I was a junior member of the NRA (National Rifle Association), and drooled over the advertisements for Morseth and Randall made knives in the back of every issue of American Rifleman. My Dad would not let me buy either, as they were what he considered a great deal of money at the time. Looking back, they seem really inexpensive to me now. Eventually I found some stuff about blacksmithing in the library (Alex Bealer's "Art of Blacksmithing") and a few other things to read, and started by annealing old files and using other sharp files to shape them, and whitetail deer antler for handles. I found a company called Indian Ridge Traders that also sold kit blades and supplies, and bought stuff from them for a while.

 

When I turned 16 and got a driver's license and a car, things sort of took a turn. I went off chasing girls and beer, and other "fun stuff" and knives fell out of the equation because of those factors mostly. After high school, I started right to work in the shop at Thermo-King Des Moines Co. as a refrigeration mechanic apprentice, and worked there for about a year. I then bounced around all the trucking companies in the Des Moines area, and worked for a couple of independent repair shops and dealerships of trailers. Usually working on refrigeration units, but also big trucks and trailers. In a decade, I had been from one bumper to the other, and worked on almost everything in between. It was a very good education. I learned to fix things for a living, and did it well.

 

My comment about being unemployable stems from my work history though that period, mostly. I worked for 11 different places in slightly less than 10 years. By the end of that time, I was near universally known in the trucking industry around here as "a great mechanic, he can fix near anything, but he has a real attitude problem". Which is of course all true. :D I walked away from my last "real job" in January of 1988, and haven't really ever wanted one since.

 

I was sick to death of trucks, truck drivers, truck owners, and carrying a pager alla time. I started hobbying around making knives again, and enjoyed it immensly. Got a table at the local gun show, sold enough knives to be encouraged by it, and did that some more. Gun shows were the gig for the first couple of years. I found the knife magazines, and the DBI books "knife annual", and started looking through the pages of those. Pattern welded steel or "damascus" as we all called it then, really enamored me. I wanted to DO that, and figured if I had damascus knives I would out do everything and everyone at the local shows. I called a man named J. P. Miller on the telephone, and we talked, and he taught me how to make damascus over the phone in about 10 days elapsed time. I will ever be grateful for the time he spent doing that, and we have become great friends over the years since. Jim introduced me to R.B. Johnson, from Clearwater, Minnesota, and he inspired me as well. The three of us put on a knifemaking seminar (hammer-in) here at my shop for seven years, back when there weren't so many such events, and had a great time teaching people to make knives, and showing them how we do things. Meeting Don Fogg for the first time was a real eye opening experience. I met him and Wayne Valachovic at the Blade Show, and introduced myself. They were both quite open and friendly, and treated me decent, and we became friends. It was a wonderful day. Nearly everyone in this craft is a good person. It makes you into one, in some ways, I think, even if you weren't so nice before.

 

Since then life has been changing and evolving to find a way to make a living. From '88 to about '93 I made mostly hunters and bowies. I watched as several of my friends who made folders walked out of the shows with pockets full of money, and I was leaving with most of my knives. So then I learned to make folders, and then autos, and from '94 to the stock market "correction" in '98 I made mostly autos. At that time in '98 when the market correction occurred, I was selling everything I could make to a list of around 20 guys who bought everything I could make, and they all stopped buying at the same time. Things got pretty lean around here for several months, and I did actually consider getting a job.

 

Before I got that far, however, a new opportunity presented it's self. I had been making pattern welded steel for Bob Egnath for a couple of years, and he asked if I could do steel that looked Japanese enough to make a katana. I hadn't really ever tried to do that, so it sounded interesting. I started reading, and looking at swords, and had a go at it. It worked well enough to be encouraging (there were plenty of failures and scrap, I assure you all).

 

As many of you may already know, Bob died suddenly and unexpectedly. At that time James Williams (owner of Bugei Trading) asked me if I would be interested in making the sword blades for them, as Bob had done. I said "sure, but it might take a few before I get it all figured out" (boy was that an understatement, I am still trying to figure it all out). The story since then has pretty much been swords, and more swords.

 

I have found that the making of swords has given me a greater understanding of myself, as well as a greater understanding of swords. It is my feeling that to make a good sword, one must make a weapon first, and art second. But if it is really "right", it is both things at once, and in equal measure.

 

I strive for the work to speak for it's self. I hope that in a couple hundred years, someone still cares enough to take care of the stuff I have made. I leave an interesting trail of artifacts of our time behind me, and hope that I have contributed in some other ways to help the craft along, and keep it alive. For the day may come when we make more than toys, and society may yet again "need" smiths. I find great satisfaction in smithing, and cannot imagine being anything else at this point. It is what I am meant to do/be.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I find great satisfaction in smithing, and cannot imagine being anything else at this point. It is what I am meant to do/be.

 

good answer. now onto the next set of questions.

 

You got into making katanas through the late and sadly missed Bob Engnath (my own early experiments in clay hardening were in response to an article in - i think- knives 88), but what is it that 'speaks' to you about the Japanese form?

 

Your katana steel for Bob was an attempt to make a steel that looked like tamahagane, and you still make very high layer count blades (i'm sure most of us have seen your tanto in the masters of fire exhibition, and if you haven't, check it out. very, very beautiful) - but you are equally well known for your L6 bainite blades. do you feel there is a problem reconciling these two ends of the spectrum, the traditional and the modern?

 

You say you're primarily a sword smith now - do you find the label of sword smith constricting in terms of the kind of pieces you make - do you find yourself wishing you had more time to explore other avenues; making more knives say, or working in other cultural forms?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I really like the organic nature of the curves involved in katana and tachi, and enjoy immensely using them to cut mats, which I do not get to do often enough. When using carbon steels, whether high layer materials or single steel, the way the sori arrives is an almost magical moment, and the curves and the form really speak to me.

 

There is a tremendous difference between the carbon steel blades and L-6 blades. One of my friends says that the L-6 blades come from my dark side, and indeed that does sometimes seem to be the case. They are almost anti-nihonto in some ways. The shape is the thing to get right. Those swords were a response to my friend Mike Blue (who had been trying to get me to make swords for years before it ever happened) who asked for a sword that "I can never break, and won't bend easily". I can make a much more visually beautiful sword with carbon steel, because of the hada and hamon possibilities. I have not yet found a way to make a more durable sword that looks right, and has the right kind of shape to function as katana should. I sort of "gave up" on trying to make pattern welded steel from sheets look like tamahagane. It just is not the same in appearance. I can get the metallurgical characteristics from iron and steel mixed well, but not the appearance, without making much like the Japanese do with small bits and many of them, to start. And if I am going to go to the trouble of all that, I might as well be using tamahagane, which may yet happen someday. I am observing the steel making phenomenon that is going on around the world with great interest, and will likely give it a go at some point. Maybe when my sons are old enough to do most of the grunt work. :)

 

Initially there was a good bit of resistance to the L-6 blades in the traditional martial arts world. But they have slowly caught on. Mostly because they do not bend easily, and still look right.

 

There is a box around me now, of sword smith. But it is a box I chose, and I like it. I do from time to time make other things, but they are usually given as gifts or sold to friends and family. The L-6 blades are very much a case of "be careful what you wish for, you just might get it". But I do like making them, so it all works out. "Life is so short, and the craft so long to learn". I am sure I will make other things in years to come. I have always wanted to do an outdoor iron sculpture on the monumental scale, but it has yet to happen. Making a living gets in the way, as all of you well know who ply the craft as primary income.

 

I learned a great deal of what I know from my work with Al Pendray and John Verhoeven. Most of what I did with them was not directly related to their "figuring it out" with wootz, but I did help some. John taught me how to take notes, and use centigrade, and understand and manipulate the fundamental structures of steel. Alfred taught me a lot of what I know about the practical side of making that theory work, and using what you have to get the job done as best you can, and observe well what happens. And smithing, in general.

 

I've a sign up on the wall that read: "If I practice diligently, and live long enough, I will eventually be good at all this".

 

All day manipulating the microstructure of steel with salt pots and heat treating today, life is good. :)

Edited by Howard Clark

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
"Life is so short, and the craft so long to learn"

 

I stole that line from another of the great smiths that I have the pleasure to call my friend, Daryl Meier. He has taught me, and many others a great deal about pattern welded steel, and integrity. Without his contribution, the world would be diminished.

 

We all must try to make the world a better place, somehow. I believe that the smith with his fire and hammer can make a positive impact (unintentional, but good pun). :)

 

I'm not really sure how to do that a lot of the time, but to try, is the thing, I think.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

ok sorry for the delay once again - things have been a bit hectic at my end. lets wrap this up:

 

Howard, you're noted as having a lot of metalurgical expertise - what are your thoughts on blade steels - what are your favorites to work with, and what for you makes an 'ideal' blade steeel?

 

can you tell us a bit about your working practices - do yo have a set regimen, or do you just do what you feel like on any given day?

 

and finally, what would your advice be to those just starting out in this craft, and in particular those who are seeking to make a living from it?

 

Thank you, howard for your considered and enlightening answers, and for taking the time to do this. and now it's your turn to pick a victim.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Well I have been very fortunate to have made friends with John Verhoeven, Phd professor emeritus Iowa State University. That allowed me access to some tools and equipment that I may not have been able to get to otherwise, like the scanning electron microscope and micro hardness tester.

 

That was a very revealing experience/day, and has direct bearing on your first question, Jake. My preferred steel for most blades, to make a sharp, long lasting edge is 1086 modified. It is a steel that John had a hand in "designing", and was/is a proprietary alloy for a manufacturer of tools here in Iowa. I originally bought it from them, out of their scrap bin. Long story there, but I had to buy 5 tons of it to get it from the mill, which I did some years ago now.

 

We (John V. and I) had a good long look at a couple of blade section made from 1086m in the SEM, and it is very nice if heat treated well. I like simple steels, and low alloy steels. They have been with us for a long time, served us well, and are very flexible and easier to work than higher alloy steels are.

 

I try to work in an orderly fashion, which my wife has been encouraging for many years. :) Reality is, I do whatever I feel like doing on that day, most of the time within the confines of "what needs to be done next" to move ahead with work that pays the bills. There are days though, when I just have to play with fire, whether or not it is "the thing that needs doing" in terms of the work flow. I am still working on that one. :)

 

The main thing, if you are trying to make a ,living this way, is get out there every day and DO something, even if you don't want to. There is never a lack of things that need to be done, and making knives has enough variety of work to keep it interesting almost all the time. Even after many years (20 full time now) there are still things I need to learn, and skills that I need to improve.

 

My only other advice as to making a living is this. Sell the product. Use the internet, dealers, shows, word of mouth. All the tools. But it is not possible to start at the "top of the heap". Twenty years ago I thought so, but I was badly mistaken. Sometimes making a living demands working for less than you want to, but all you can get, and still sell the product. With "time in grade" prices increase, with increasing reputation, a little more. But you still have to do the best you can do.

 

I made and sold a lot of pattern welded steel blades that were not marked, and had no handles through Koval knives in the 90's. Some of my bretheren felt that I was damaging the market for pattern welded knives. I was making a living, as a working smith with bills to pay. It did not make me famous to do that work, nor did it make me wealthy. It DID get me a great deal of real world experience and practice making blades. Wanna be a great smith ? Then go to the shop and get to smithing ! And keep doing it. Practice, practice, practice. Boringly simple I know, but it is the truth. :)

 

As an aside, there is a steel in development by some individuals in cooperation with Crucible Materials that is going to be called 1086 modified, but it is vastly different that what I have. It should be fine steel for knifemaking and bladesmithing though.

Edited by Howard Clark
  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Howard, I want to thank you for your words, it's advice and wisdom like that that helps to keep me inspired, to go out to the shop everyday I can and just do SOMETHING if not inspired, or do let full release to the creative muse, or finish those commissions that pay for the play time:), and to keep at it constantly learning and searching out info and practicing. I hope to meet you in person one day Howard and shake your hand:).

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Thank you, so much, Howard, for sharing your experiences with us.

 

 

Folks, I am really pleased with the way this thread is developing. There are many, many makers here who I'm sure would make fantastic interviews, so let's keep this going as long as we can. New to the craft, or old and grizzled, all are welcome to join... just touch base with them before you call them out "in public". Each interviewee must, of course, be willing to conduct another interview, to keep the ball rolling.

 

 

Can't wait to see who you interview, Howard!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Well my first try has not answered me yet, and it is ok, he has a lot on his mind at the moment. I will wait a bit, then try someone else if he decides not.

 

I have a couple other ideas, folks that are here. ;)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.


×
×
  • Create New...