The Author Got To Spend A Weekend Making A Custom Knife With Legendary Maker Bob Terzuola
Over 30 years ago when I was just getting into the knife collecting hobby, I was at a gun shop on Long Island. I noticed the knife in the salesperson’s pocket and asked if I could see it. It was a custom Bob Terzuola.
I had my own Spyderco Terzuola factory/custom reproduction that recently had been introduced and I was amazed to see and handle a custom Terzuola for the first time. I thought to myself that someday I would own a custom Terzuola. Little did I know that one day I’d have a chance to make my own custom knife with Bob as well.
In the course of my “collecting career” I managed to get one Terzuola—to say the least. Now I have around 75 Terzuola knives! During this journey, I’ve met Bob many times and we’ve become friends. He’s a truly remarkable person who’s been making knives for over 40 years. More than just a knifemaker, he is an artisan, inventor, and craftsman, too. In addition, he has plenty of interesting stories to tell.
This past fall, Bob and his wife, Susan, were in Chicago and we met for dinner. It was around my 50th birthday (which, coincidentally, I share with Susan). As a gift, Bob invited me to come to his shop near San Diego to make my own knife.
So in March I flew to San Diego to spend a few days with Bob at his storied “Knife Camp.” I was a bit nervous. I don’t really have any knifemaking or even machinery type experience. My family came along with me—my daughter loves Bob’s dogs, while my wife enjoyed the local botanical gardens with Susan, who is an artist and a master gardener.
Who Is Bob Terzuola?
Bob’s knifemaking journey began in Central America. In the late 1960s, he served in the Peace Corps in Panama. After completing his service, Bob settled in Guatemala, where he managed a jade company. It was there, in the late 1970s, when Bob began to first make knives, mostly for military operatives in Central America. In 1984 he returned to the USA and set up shop in Santa Fe, where things really took off.
Bob is often referred to as the “father of the tactical folder” and is best known for his ATCF (Advanced Technology Combat Folder) model, which was released in 1985. Wanting to create a discrete yet robust, functional, and easily deployable knife, Bob was one of the first custom knifemakers to use titanium, pocket clips, and G-10.
He was among the first makers to use a thumb disc and have parts laser cut. Bob is also credited with being the first custom maker to do a knife collaboration with Spyderco. Made in 1989, the knife was the Spyderco C15, which held patents for being the first U.S.-made factory knife using premium steel and G-10, along with a linerlock.
Bob Terzuola’s Shop
When you first walk into Bob’s shop, you’re immediately struck by how neat and organized it is. As far as equipment, he has all that’s required with over a dozen machines including a band saw, milling machine, grinders, drill presses, and blasting cabinets.
More than the equipment, though, Bob’s shop is like a history of his knifemaking. The shop is dotted with mementos of his career, gifts from customers, letters of praise, awards, and trinkets from over the years. There’s also a collection of police patches from all over the world, along with hats and photos. On one bench he even has an artillery shell. Of course, the C15 Spyderco knife patent is on display as well.
Knifemaking With Bob
Time to make a knife! We decided to go with a 3-inch tanto folder, which is one of my favorite overall configurations. Bob suggested basing it on his Mini Athena model. He already had two handle liners cut out that we could use. I had to do the rest.
He explained the basics of operating the machines and got me to work right away. Within 45 minutes of pulling into his driveway, I was using a bandsaw to cut a blade profile drawn on a sheet of MagnaCut steel. Then I was drilling the pivot and screw holes in liners, countersinking holes, and smoothing out edges.
Things got quite serious when Bob had me “practice” taking the blades out of the heat treat oven. It’s pretty crucial to not drop the blades, which are heated to 1900° each when removed from the oven. Oh, and you read right, I did say “blades” as Bob had me cut two in case I screwed one up at some point. Fortunately I didn’t drop the blades after the heat treat, so that was a relief.
Next, I picked out my scale material. I like Micarta® so green canvas Micarta was an easy choice for me. Bob gave me a sheet of the material and off to the bandsaw I went. Same for the backspacer, for which I used some yellow/white Micarta for a bit of contrast.
The next day a lot of time was spent cutting the lockbar—Bob set up the milling machine for me—smoothing out the scales, adjusting stop pin placement, and putting the handles together many times to make sure everything fit just right.
Of course, all the work was made a bit easier and more efficient by using the tools that Bob has made, often even invented, over the years. His shop is filled with a plethora of tools, devices, holders, clamps, and more, many of which he’s designed and made himself to make his knifemaking process more reliable and efficient.
Next came the grinding, probably what many think of as the hardest and scariest part of making a knife. One of the first things Bob said to me when I arrived at Knife Camp was, “We can always take more away but we can’t put things back.” I think that nowhere is this truer in the knifemaking process than in grinding a blade. If you make a big mistake here, there’s no fixing it. Obviously, there is a practiced art to this. I seemed to do OK on the grinding part—until I wasn’t.
Overall, I ground the blade well but got sloppy on one of my final passes. I started a bit too soon and ground some of the area near the detent hole. When we put the knife together, it was pretty clear that the mistake had implications. Basically, there was no detent. It was pretty disappointing, but then we remembered the second blade I cut in the beginning. Clearly, Bob had been thinking ahead.
Finishing My Blade
On day three I got to work grinding the second blade and managed to not repeat my mistake of the day previous. Then I sandblasted the blade. After that, I began the process of putting the knife together, taking it apart, tweaking it a bit, putting it back together, all over and over again until it worked just right. Finally, the action, lockup, and centering were good. Bob sharpened the knife for me and it was done.
I don’t know that I’ll ever be a knifemaker but I made a knife, and I love it!
Over the years, I’ve gained a lot of knowledge about knives but to actually make one was something else entirely. The amount of planning and work, especially detail work, that goes into a handmade knife is truly remarkable. Being guided by and watching a master like Bob made my experience even more remarkable. He knows what works well functionally and artistically. He thinks several steps ahead and takes the time with each detail. That’s why his knives are highly desirable.
Thank you again Bob—and Susan—for your hospitality and for making this opportunity happen.