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Christopher Price

Knifemaker Interview Series, a biography workshop

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This was a great read. Thanks to both Matt and John for making it possible. Now I have to read the first 41 pages....... :blink:

 

Matthew, if you are serious about coming to AZ to do a demo in the winter, I might be able to arrange that. Our local chapter of ABANA (AABA azblacksmiths.org) does a demo every January in the Phoenix area. PM me if you are serious, and I will put you in touch with our BOD and program organizer. Maybe we can work something out. I certainly have enough room at our house for you and your family to stay.

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Well, fire away when ready, sir. I will do my best to give answers worthy of this conversation!

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All right then! lets start with some basic stuff.

How long have you been making knives?

What was the inspiration to get started?/what got you started making blades?

How did you learn to make knives?/did you have any teachers mentors?

Looking back is there anything you would do differently in the early years now that you have hindsight?

lets start with that for now

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Glad to see this thread back in action! Looking forward to hearing from you Salem :)

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OK. That gives me some good stuff to think about, off to the shop til noon to work on some jellyroll.

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I have been making knives for about 11 years. A little before that point I had cobbled together a little charcoal forge from a Datsun brake drum, some old pipe, and the cabin fan from a Toyota pickup; I had a little chunk of RR rail for an anvil. I'd ramble around the woods with a bucket and a hatchet, and anywhere I found an old burnt slash pile, I'd spend hours hacking charcoal off and breaking it up. I graduated to a hand crank forge and a 150 lb. Fisher after a while and began making drawknives, chisels, log dogs, hinges and other tools and hardware necessary on the homestead.
My parents had bought property 40 miles from town, off the grid, and I lived there during the warmer months, helping them build the log home that they now live in. Many times we needed something metal altered or repaired that we had to do ourselves. That's also why gas welding was the first process I learned, no electricity necessary.
I started forging bowies out of leaf springs and such, and razors out of files. I remember trying to shave with the first razor I ever made from a file- even now it makes my eyes water a little...
During winters I'd move to the more populated coast, rent for a few months, and blow whatever extra money I made on more shop tools to lug around with me.
I was learning only from books at this point, reading Wayne Goddard and Jim Hrisoulas, Ed Fowler, David Boye. I still have a lot of those books and loan them out when I meet people interested in the craft.

I moved to Hawaii with my wife, the year we finished the log cabin. I was chasing construction work, as a pipefitter. As soon as I got to Maui, I was looking around for an anvil to buy and whatever other tools I could find. I had a propane forge and anvil set up for a while by our conex at a big jobsite, building a hotel in North Maui- at lunch, after work, and weekends I'd often go forge blades there. I was using a lot of cable in those days, crane cable and seismic tension cable from the concrete structures we were putting together. It was pretty cool, waiting for a heat and looking out across the water to Molokai, seeing whales spouting out there...

I had a kind of 3rd world shop on the side of this surf house we lived in, with a tarp roof. It doubled as a surfboard repair shop; the roommates would be glassing a dinged board, I'd be grinding bowies and hunters. A lot of my knives were sold to other construction guys and their friends, mostly pig hunting knives and personal defense stuff. Meanwhile I was in the Plumbers and Fitters Union, benefitting from some welding classes on weekends.

Construction took a dive in 2008, so I moved to Oahu and got a job in retail for a while. As luck would have it, we ended up living on the same street as Ken Onion. I brashly walked up there and knocked on his door, and introduced myself. He took me into the shop, we sat down and talked and he looked at my knives, and ultimately I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a lot of time there, learning from him.

I moved back to the mainland only six months later, but the difference in my work from having studied with Ken was huge. My knives had been a bit rough, but now they were clean, and I knew I wanted to try to make a go of it full time as soon as possible.

Back in Washington again, I took the 1600 lbs. of tools I'd shipped back from HI and set up shop once more. I took other work in as necessary, but the bulk of my income remained knife work from 2009 to 2013.

That's the tale of my early years making knives- there's more I can and will go into, but my wife tells me I need to go eat dinner, so that will have to wait.

As for the last question, would I do anything different back then, having the advantage of hindsight... no, not for the most part. I would tone it down quite a bit with the drinking. That never was as much a friend to me as I thought it was. Although, I really like my life now so perhaps it would be wiser leave the past completely unscathed.

Edited by Salem Straub

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I like having started with solid fuel... there's a lot of romance to it, and it teaches some fire tending and heat-watching skills that you just don't need with gas forges. Nothing like burning off the end of your bar to teach you to pay attention! I used mostly softwood charcoal until I found a source for foundry coke. That stuff was not bad but wouldn't stick together, so I pretty much used a big pile fire like I would with charcoal...

 

I have a coal forge in my shop now, in addition to the propane ones. I really like days when I can fire that up instead. The pace of the work is different and I like the smell of it... a guy I worked with one winter, an old time smith, swore that late at night sometimes in his shop he could hear his coal fire singing and talking to him, could almost make out words.

I had a lot of frustration, learning to make drawknives from leaf springs in a coke fire. It's amazing the things I would try to do, not knowing any better- the sheer time I would waste trying to make a dumb idea work! That's probably what got me hooked so deeply on it though, the challenge of it. That and just working out there in the quiet by myself for hours, on the edge of the wilderness. I could drop the work if I got too frustrated or tired and just cross the fence and hike all day when I wanted.

A lot of times I'd bring a practice sword and a book and work on sword forms. I got into tai chi sword, and practice it to this day. A lot of what I've been trying to break into is making jian swords- I have blades in various stages of forging, grinding, and HT laying around the shop now, some ready for fittings, none finished yet. Wrestling with keeping them straight has been interesting, my new vertical HT furnace helps them not be red-hot pasta though!

I was quite a troubled youth in my day, wore out the patience of nearly everyone who cared about me, and worried the hell out of them too. It took me until my early twenties to really find a direction- I credit my wife, my obsession with steel, and tai chi with helping me to work through my anger and learn to focus my mind and be patient. Not that I've finished that journey just yet.

Working with smithing projects other than knives has always been good to me. I really like welding and machining, and knowing something about those helps maintain and improve my shop quite a bit. Plus, the art of welding itself is so attractive. I really think a career in that might have been good enough for me, had I not stumbled upon the deeper art of smithing. But that's the glory of metal working! It's such an amazingly huge field of endeavor that I feel truly blessed to be a part of this never-ending fascination with material manipulation. If I ever get bored with it, I wish someone would slap me awake...

 

The smith I mentioned working with, Gary Eagle, is a local artist blacksmith who has lived up on his own mountain since moving there in the 70's. I worked with him over the winter a few years ago- quite an opportunity. To see his design process, from paper to iron, taught me a lot about how to think about work. He'd draw something beautiful (art degree guy, amazing sketch artist and painter) and then figure out how to make it in iron. Usually he didn't have to change it much or at all, and if he did, he wouldn't get hung up on it. He'd spend a few hours making a few practice pieces to work out a method, then that iron would go on the floor in the corner and he'd make the finished element. The corners of his shop were full of discarded figments of his imagination, stuff that if I'd forged I'd have been real proud of. So I learned that you don't have to take the first try all the way to a finished piece, especially if it's fighting you. Be the willow, not the oak, and listen to the iron.

 

I always had a problem with authority; that lead me to drop out of school in 10th grade and never go back, get arrested many times, become a felon as a juvenile, hitchhike all over the West. In iron I found authority worthy of respect: the things it will and won't do never change, you change yourself until you reach a better understanding of how to work with it. If you can do that, the rewards are sufficient to pull you in all the farther.

Gary Eagle is also a wonderful interpreter of of art nouveau and art deco design- many of the iron figments on his floor and tacked to the wall in the shop would look so great, adapted slightly in scale and design to work as knife hardware. I have art deco dagger fittings bouncing around in my head still, that I need to make, from that chapter.

That will conclude my ramblings for the morning. Now, to go work on that jellyroll that I did nothing with yesterday, having been distracted into a dust-collection tangent.

Edited by Salem Straub
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In iron I found authority worthy of respect: the things it will and won't do never change, you change yourself until you reach a better understanding of how to work with it. If you can do that, the rewards are sufficient to pull you in all the farther.

THIS is true wisdom. Ya done good!

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Thank you, Alan.
In other news, my billet turned out SO good... I have it tiled out into a dagger blade already and did a check etch, and I am kind of high on that right now.
Now if i can HT it with no tinks, I think it'll be a dagger that I try an Art Deco approach to forged fittings with. It will work with the theme.
You can see a path from my press to my forge, in drifts of scale and steel dust tonight!

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I was going to say the same thing Alan!

 

Salem thank you for your great reponse!

 

You mentioned the tai chi sword and art deco dagger as being a goal or directio for your work is there any other directions You feel called to?

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There's so many directions I hope to eventually go with blades, to list them would look a bit foolhardy...

Some of my favorites, then:

 

I want to take iron sand from the Similkameen River (I grew up on it) and smelt it into steel, then make jians from it. Since I live in Okanogan county, this will be called "Okano-gane." I will finally find out where people are getting that gorgeous marbled green serpentine from somewhere around here, and I will make carved handles from it. My tatara will be made from local clays that I've worked out how to use- basically, the idea being that if I was stranded here 1,000 years ago, I'd have to get back to the iron age by myself with only locally available materials. I want to see if I can do that.

There are iron ore deposits elsewhere in this county, fairly good magnetite ore running up to the surface in large quantities. I have a map to some test pits and exploratory iron mines from early in the century, so at some point I'd like to explore working with that stuff, too. I was fortunate enough to go to a tatara smelt that Mike Blue ran at Ed Schempp's shop a year ago, and got to throw some Similkameen iron sand in with the charges... so, it has begun but there is a long road to get there. I am very grateful that this forum and other resources about backyard smelting exist, there's an amazing amount of info to be gleaned.

I would like to create a vocabulary of design, taking ideas from forged architectural work, modifying and miniaturizing elements to work mostly on dagger and sword fittings. My favorite styles are Art Nouveau and Art Deco, or rather the cusp between the two styles where Deco hadn't reached ultimate abstraction and modernity, and still retained some of the sweetness and lyricism of Nouveau. Right now I'm building my ability to weld on a small scale, having gotten a nice Tig welder, and practicing more with small tips on my Henrob torch. I'd like to get a jeweler's little torch as well. I guess what I'm getting at is fabrication on a large jewelry scale, but not so much soldering and more riveting and welding. We'll see.

I love pattern welding, and I currently prefer multibar and w's based patterns. I like steel with a lot of distortion in it, rather than outright pictures and canned elements. I haven't done any canned stuff yet, if I do I'd like to try some "out of the box" stuff like Ettore Gianferrari does. Rodrigo Sfreddo may be my favorite smith right now, my greatest hope is that some day I could be as virtuosic and original in my own right.

I find the work of others to be so inspiring- I like lurking around this forum and others to see the amazing things people are making- a couple of my favorites here are Jake Powning and Peter Johnson. The conceptual and highly artistic approach to design and execution that I see there are something to work towards. Jake's work in particular makes me want to start learning to cast bronze. It just makes sense for sword fittings, and when well carried out, the results can be gorgeous!

 

I got into knifemaking, moving from building hardware and tools- with an eye always to making swords one day. I'm a big Asian culture nerd, I love my samurai and kung fu flicks, martial arts and associated weaponry, sushi, Thai food, Chinese and Japanese art, cha no yu, zen gardens, and on and on! Because of the movies in particular, my imagination was peaked by swords and fencing long before I began to dabble in metalwork. Well, I'm beginning to make them now- I just didn't know starting out that shorter blades would distract me for ten years! I figured I had no business trying to make functional long blades without first becoming solidly competent with shorter pieces.

I'd like to learn to engrave, not so much in the western style of built up scrolls and foliage, but more incorporating eastern themes- I love geometric art from the Islamic world, Persian paisley motifs, Idonesian batik. To be able to draw from those for carving and engraving would be great. I'm practicing up with die sinker's chisels and a chasing hammer; my cuts aren't nice enough to put on professional work but I'm reaching the point where I have a knife half built that I'm hoping will be the first I sell that incorporates copper wire inlay into the bolsters and tang.

I have an idea that ultimately the highest goal I currently have in embellishment would be to create a new vocabulary of design- a cohesive group of elements pleasing to the eye, but not directly derivative of any particular style extant. On the face of it, I realize that sounds a bit high of an aim! I just think, if sci-fi and fantasy authors can convincingly create intricate hypothetical worlds, cultures and even languages, perhaps I could create an alternate or augmented history from our earth's own past. A great culture that never was, human and so identifiable to us intuitively, but nevertheless possessing a provincially unique worldview, gods or lack thereof, and a vocabulary of decorative arts somewhat alien to us.

I'm just putting that out there, it's something I daydream about sometimes, if I've explained it in an intelligible fashion that will be a surprise to me. Honestly with how distracting life and work is, I'd be overjoyed to ever realize the beginning of that before I die.

I think that it's good to have lofty goals, and that it's absolutely not necessary to ever fully achieve them. They exist to pull us down the path, and if we ever totally gained them while never projecting any further- then where would be be? Hell, our goals change over time and we never know what they will become. The important part is to have them and work toward them; it's just the hope and interest in things necessary to enjoy life.

Jeez, sorry about the soap box, it's probably that I've had all coffee and no breakfast yet. I'll go fix that now.

Edited by Salem Straub

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Jeez, sorry about the soap box, it's probably that I've had all coffee and no breakfast yet. I'll go fix that now.

 

Please don't be; I think that's what this entire series is about.

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Agreed enjoy your soap box!

I agree with you about having lofty goals, I think one of the single worst things a man can get is everything he wanted to attain. that is probably what I personally like the most about this work, and about this life , forever having another goal another direction to go. I think I can see a reflection of that in your musings.

 

you mentioned dropping out of school, but you are clearly are well read and seem to have a great breath of knowledge. Is that something you got from some one else or is it something in your self?

 

I can see you have a love of Art , is there any thing else that call to you regarding bladesmithing or not?

MP

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Regarding my education: I was home schooled until the 4th grade, by christian fundamentalist parents who really did a good job teaching me to read and comprehend, critically think, and problem solve. This has empowered me throughout my life to, as you say, self-study well... but it in no way prepared me for the social realities of the world. I have done a lot of thinking about what they did "right" in my opinion, and "wrong," in preparation for becoming a father in my own time...

I've always loved to read, which is another influence that no doubt lead me towards smithing and anachronism in general. So many of the older ways of the world seem to me to be of higher quality, if for no other reason than simply the lack of bombardment by all forms of media, and the greater attention span afforded people by that lack. I have a well stocked library in my home and I usually read myself to sleep- it's been a habit since childhood. So I guess much of what I theoretically know comes from that avenue.

I do have a love of art, not because I think I should, but more akin to my love of music- Duke Ellington said "if it sounds good, it is good" and that applies visually for me, as well. There is so much in this world that appeals to me aesthetically that I am comfortable just liking what I like. An area where I have taken more pains to acquire tastes would be in food, but that's a separate topic for discussion. It is much the same with knives, a given piece will either work for me right away or something about it will seem "off." My main attractions to the craft though, lie elsewhere and are twofold.

At heart, I'm just another lover of fire. I mean, I don't have to commit arson to get my kicks, but I see a mastery of fire as a main role of the smith and that suits me fine. That's why I like working with coal; that's why I enjoy lighting the woodstove in my shop or house, or building a campfire. I enjoy grasping the nature of fire, the conditions it prefers to burn optimally. I see it as a climbing vine or as an elemental spirit and in other morphic ways, but it truly is like the Tao- "the fire that can be known is not the true fire." It can be delicate and elusive, or incredibly powerful and destructive. It is man's essential companion; with it we worked our will upon the world, and without it we are lost.

That working with it is at the core of the craft may be my favorite thing about this pursuit, and that's really the reason behind my company name Promethean Knives. I could go on and on in that vein, but I won't! Here's another angle, though:

 

Bladesmithing is a manly thing to do. I in no way mean to cast aspersion upon or call into question any woman's right or motivation to work iron, that's just my own truth of the matter. I don't mean to say it's some big macho thing, although some surely find that. I mean that many of my role models, for just generally how to be as a man, are or have been craftsmen or laborers. I like a man of few words, who makes friends slow but strong, who deals stoically with adversity, who has patience and integrity and maybe a little dark humor. I don't think that it's any coincidence that I've observed these qualities most often in people who work with their hands. I have great friends of many other types, but this is who I would like to become.

I think the craft has helped me quite a bit in this regard, and it's something that I'd really like to pursue to pay it forward- introducing young folks to metalwork, who may be looking for or needing a steady path to follow, or the ability to achieve and build self worth. Matthew, I think it's awesome that you teach as much as you do, I've seen video of you forging stuff and I can tell that you'd be a good one to learn from. I hope to get into teaching more as the years pass, it's something that I already do when I get the chance.

 

I'll be out of town for three days, Thursday I'll be back in the evening to check up on things here! See you all in a bit.

Edited by Salem Straub

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I would like to create a vocabulary of design, taking ideas from forged architectural work, modifying and miniaturizing elements to work mostly on dagger and sword fittings. My favorite styles are Art Nouveau and Art Deco, or rather the cusp between the two styles where Deco hadn't reached ultimate abstraction and modernity, and still retained some of the sweetness and lyricism of Nouveau. Right now I'm building my ability to weld on a small scale, having gotten a nice Tig welder, and practicing more with small tips on my Henrob torch. I'd like to get a jeweler's little torch as well. I guess what I'm getting at is fabrication on a large jewelry scale, but not so much soldering and more riveting and welding. We'll see.I have an idea that ultimately the highest goal I currently have in embellishment would be to create a new vocabulary of design- a cohesive group of elements pleasing to the eye, but not directly derivative of any particular style extant. On the face of it, I realize that sounds a bit high of an aim! I just think, if sci-fi and fantasy authors can convincingly create intricate hypothetical worlds, cultures and even languages, perhaps I could create an alternate or augmented history from our earth's own past. A great culture that never was, human and so identifiable to us intuitively, but nevertheless possessing a provincially unique worldview, gods or lack thereof, and a vocabulary of decorative arts somewhat alien to us.

I'm just putting that out there, it's something I daydream about sometimes, if I've explained it in an intelligible fashion that will be a surprise to me. Honestly with how distracting life and work is, I'd be overjoyed to ever realize the beginning of that before I die.

I think that it's good to have lofty goals, and that it's absolutely not necessary to ever fully achieve them. They exist to pull us down the path, and if we ever totally gained them while never projecting any further- then where would be be? Hell, our goals change over time and we never know what they will become. The important part is to have them and work toward them; it's just the hope and interest in things necessary to enjoy life.

 

If you're gonna dream, dream big. I like that dream. Don't ever give up on it.

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...And I'm back. Thanks Josh, I won't, although who knows how that idea will change along the way. Or, what new interests will distract me.
I like being the millwright of my own shop, as it were- I'm kind of obsessive about obtaining machines to cram into there. Lately I've been thinking about upgrading my power hammer, I have a 50 lb. Little Giant but I'd like to add at least a 100 lb. mechanical hammer, or ideally an old utility or self contained beast.

That's another part of knifmaking that I like, building my shop. I've learned a lot over the years about machines, new lessons from each one. When I started this adventure, I barely knew enough about electricity to wire a light switch. Now I have 8 machines running off one VFD, a 300 amp 3phase mig welder fed by a digital phase converter, and I know about waveform as it applies to TIG, etc. I can calculate SFM and RPM given different motor speeds and pulley sizes and pitch diameters. I can rebuild a Little Giant from the ground up, and pour the babbitt bearings. I can rig and transport machines weighing thousands of pounds, in many cases using mostly levers and rollers. I can run a CNC plasma table to cut out whatever I wish within reason. I can fabricate my own 25 ton forging press from scrap steel, calculate the hydraulics correctly, and stick weld the frame up with 7018 electrode. I have built many gas forges and can make smooth running and fairly efficient ones now.
I understand subtleties like breaking in a new bandsaw blade so as not to lose the teeth prematurely; a lesson which applies as well to grinding belts. I can hand sharpen twist drills and even end mills, fixture odd shaped parts onto a lathe faceplate so as to turn or bore them, and I can dial in by ear a reasonable speed to run an endmill of given size through a given material.
I could go on and on, and I don't mean to boast- I've only been at this 11 or 12 years, most of you will have similar skills, and many will be more advanced than I.

It is that nebulous category of skills called "shop theory" that can be hardest to define at moments, and yet I feel are the bulk of what goes into allowing us to effectively produce an item as deceptively simple to most, as a knife. And skills all of which are learned by mistakes, false starts, and those moments when you've just about soiled yourself, snapping a 3/4" twist drill in an inadequately clamped part, melting your eyelashes together, or tipping a big machine over...

 

Damn it's fascinating. Makes me want to get out there now. I think I will!

Appended to add:
Reading something from above, a question occurred. What came first, the Fire or the Sword?

Edited by Salem Straub

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Well I cant think of any other questions for you, thank you so much for your great responses, I feel like you did all of the heavy lifting on this one.

if there is anything we didn't touch on you would like to talk about please do! and with that I pass the torch on to you.

MP

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Well, I'll round up an interviewee ASAP. Thanks MP for the interview, its been fun! Also thanks for "passing the torch" as I like all figures of speech having to do with torches. Stay tuned for developments.

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This has been an absolute pleasure to read, Salem! Ever since I first happened across your work I've been really inspired by it, and it's great to hear a bit more about where it came from! Cheers :)

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Thanks Emiliano. I like your sword work! That first multibar blade you made was quite ambitious, props on going for it.

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Thanks! It was a good piece to start with, it gave me a real appreciation for what being a blade smith can be. Since then I've pretty much just been try to up the ante :)

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So, it's been almost a year now......

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OK, I have a victim in mind... Ben Abbott, let me see if he wants to be interviewed!

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Awesome! Thanks for doing this, Ben. I'll probably post a couple questions later in the day or tomorrow, after a good shop session or two while thinking about it. You'd think that during the year it's been my turn next, I'd have gotten my interview lined out... :o

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