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Dave Rhea

91-Year-Old Knifemaker Murray Sterling is Still Going Strong


Murray Sterling has seen a lot and done a lot in his 91 years on this earth. For the past 30, he’s made a name for himself as a custom knifemaker. When approached about doing a story for BLADE® that focuses in part on his age, he agreed without hesitation. 

“I’m proud that I’m still here to talk about it!” he grinned. “I love to go out to the shop and do this stuff. I don’t have any real physical ailments and I’m steady enough. I can do just about anything—and I just love doing it. It’s therapy!”

In terms of making knives, Murray seems to be at his best these days. He attributes it all to experience, saying every time he makes a knife, he refines his knowledge base. “I can make 10 knives in a row, and I’ll learn something from one to the other,” he related. “A little different, and a little easier, a little better.” 

Murray made this stag stockman earlier this year.

One of the most interesting things about Murray’s career is that he didn’t even start making knives until after he retired, likening it to “a good retirement hobby.” Machining was his original career choice. He recalled that back in 1947, when he was a “late teenager,” he and his cousin decided they didn’t want to go to school anymore. Murray said, “Let’s go get a job,” and they drove to a nearby tool-and-die shop. “They hired both of us,” he remembered. “My cousin didn’t stay too long but I was there for about four years.”

Flash forward about a decade and Murray had gotten married and started his own machine shop. Being in southern California in the wake of World War II, he found himself doing jobs for big companies like Hughes Aircraft and Northrop Aviation. A typical job was machining hydraulics parts for aircraft such as the DC-7 and, later, the B1 Bomber. His work product spread out across the world.

Pictured: Murray’s dual linerlock folder sports 2 3/8-inch blades of Doug Ponzio damascus, ancient walrus ivory scales and filework. Closed length: 3.5 inches.

“It was all about high quality and reliability,” he recalled of his formative days, and he carried that ethic forward over the following three decades of his successful business. In 1986, he decided to retire, but kept his shop in the family for a few more years. This was about when computer numerically controlled machines were becoming prevalent, so, Murray recalled, he figured it was time to get out of the business. Consequently, he closed up shop and brought some machines home to start making knives.

“I’m an old-school machinist. I started on old overhead belt-drive machines,” he recalled. “When I went out of business, we had some pretty modern machines, but not CNC.”

Murray doesn’t keep it a secret that he’s not a big fan of using CNCs or water-jet equipment, though he understands why makers use them and that the machines certainly make things easier. He explained that in his day all the machines had handles, but the trend continued toward “machines with buttons that can be programmed from 50 feet away.”

Murray’s dual mid-release auto features ATS-34 stainless blades, a 416 stainless steel frame and stag scales. Closed length: 4 1/8 inches.

“When I started working in that tool-and-die shop, there were about six tool-and-die makers in there,” he remembered. “When they came in in the morning, they’d bring out their files, a cup of coffee and a cigarette. It’s hard to imagine how much hand work they did in those days. They had an old lathe and an old mill, but most of the work was done on the bench filing and sanding.” 

As he reflected, he added that he admires some of the “out-of-this-world” knife designs that have resulted with the benefit of computerized, automated machines. “They do fantastic work, no question about it,” he allowed. “The machinery these days makes it much easier. If I was 20 years younger, I’d probably have one!”


His journey into the knife world began in 1977, when he ventured into the MGM Grand in Las Vegas for a knife and antique gun show. It was there he experienced his first custom knife show and bought his first custom knife—a coffin-handle folder from BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member Wayne Goddard. “That was when I got impressed with the work that these guys were doing with the equipment they had in those days,” he recalled.

Murray set out to learn knifemaking in 1989. Along the way, he had guidance and education from a lot of makers, as well as reading iconic books on how to make knives. However, he draws a distinction between that and actually learning the craft. He characterizes himself as mostly self-taught through a lot of trial and error and the determination to put in shop time.  

Murray profiles bolsters on his belt grinder.

“Hollow grinding is not something you can teach somebody,” he explained. “They can tell you how to do it and show you how to do it, but you have to put in the time and learn to get the feel for yourself. You can’t give the feel to somebody.” So, he burned up a lot of gloves, as well as his fingers sometimes, until he finally learned how to do it.

He made fixed blades until about 1991, when he talked to slip-joint master Jess Horn a lot about transitioning to making folders. Murray said that’s when he learned he needed to add a surface grinder to his shop. “I didn’t make really good folders until I got a surface grinder,” he allowed. “I learned a lot from Jess.”

That year, Murray also sold his first knife. By 1995 he had won his initial award—for best folder—at the Oregon Knife Collectors Association Show. He was on the map.

Murray made this stag stockman in 1999. Note the blade mark of his surname in cursive.

Over the course of the ensuing 25 years, he would go on to make and sell a wide variety of folders that runs the gamut of styles and mechanism applications, from traditional multi-blade slip joints to modern automatics and seemingly everything in between. His choice of blade steel is ATS-34 stainless, and a wide array of beautiful damascus forged by Mike Norris, Devin Thomas, Alabama Damascus or Doug Ponzio.

“I’ve never had a lot of luck selling wood handles, so I like a lot of stag, ivory and pearl,” he explained. He also uses acrylic to great effect. When he wanted to start doing inlay, Murray said, he turned to award-winning maker Tim Herman. “I wanted to do inlay and I called him—this must have been 15 or 20 years ago,” he recalled. “I’m still doing inlay the way he taught me, which is the hard way.”

As for mechanisms, he enjoys making several variations of locks including button, front, mid, rear and even dual locking liners. He also makes autos that feature bolster release, button release, mid-release, top release, frame release and most any release imaginable. 

A double-ground damascus blade, a bolster of mokume gane and an ancient ivory handle highlight Murray’s folder. Note his “S” mark on the ricasso.

“They’re hot and cold,” he surmised of making autos. “Two years ago, I sold 10 right off the bat in Atlanta. Then the next year, they cooled off, so I went to something else. Every year you have to come up with something new and stay aware of the trends.”

In fact, the true problem Murray admitted to is, after making knives for 30 years or so, he must continuously come up with something new. Trends tend to go round and round, he explained, so what was hot 10 years ago will go away and then return.

Nowadays, Murray goes to only a couple of shows each year, including the BLADE Show, with his 63-year-old son, Steve, who has started making knives the past couple of years. Murray admits that the shows are getting too long for him and he gets worn out pretty quickly.

“My son goes with me all the time or otherwise I probably wouldn’t go,” he noted. “I don’t go to the ICCE Show”—he’s been a voting member of the Knifemakers’ Guild since 2000—”because it’s a two-day drive and I just don’t think I could handle it.


When asked about what he’s taken note of as any drastic changes in the industry over all these years, he mentioned few things in particular. One, as mentioned, is the evolution of equipment across the board. “The quality of the knives back in the day was great, but the quality of the equipment today is 100 percent better,” he pointed out. “The gravers, the machines, even the belts you can get today—2,000-to-3,000-grit belts. You couldn’t get that 25 or 35 years ago.”

The other drastic change he’s noticed is the Internet, which he believes changed the industry in terms of selling knives. While the real knife collectors still want to see and know the maker, he’s noticed a lot of impulse buyers on the Web.

Also, he added, “Instead of hundreds of custom knifemakers, today there’s probably thousands of them. They’re using water jets to cut out the blanks and using CNC machines—there’s a lot of production, it seems like. They’re still custom made,” he qualified, “but handmade is kind of going out the window.”

However, as usual throughout our conversation, Murray hesitated to grind for too long on makers who use state-of-the-art equipment, concluding, “There’s a market for everything. High-dollar, low-dollar, mid-dollar—two-dollar knives and two-thousand-dollar knives. There always seems like there’s a buyer today.”

“Hollow grinding is not something you can teach somebody,” Murray explained. “They can tell you how to do it and show you how to do it, but you have to put in the time and learn to get the feel for yourself.” He continues to get that feel on a regular basis in his grinding room.

For more information on Murray Sterling and his knives, contact him at Dept. BL10, 693 Round Peak Church Rd., Mount Airy, NC 27030 336-352-5110 fax 336-352-5105 sterck@surry.net, sterlingcustomknives.com.

Forged in Fire: Gimmick, Inspiration or Both?


Bladesmithing enjoys the same treatment as motorcycle building got in the mid- 2000s—that is, it has become a well-established reality show competition on cable television. Such treatment has ups and downs regarding its effect on the knife industry. Be that as it may, History Channel’s hit show, Forged in Fire, has been on the air for seven seasons, which proves its staying power.

FIF is characterized as both inspirational and gimmicky depending on who you ask. And ask we did—two contestants, a former FIF guest judge and a member of the board of directors of the American Bladesmith Society—with the goal of shedding light on where the hit show lands on the spectrum between the two.

At 19, Josh Smith was the youngest smith to ever achieve ABS master smith status when he did so in 2000. He has appeared on two episodes of FIF. (Brandon Horoho mage)

The long-running TV competition undoubtedly has been an asset to the forging community. For starters, it has introduced the general viewing public to a cast of characters that constitutes a realistic cross section of the knifemaking community. While its list of participants is far from a comprehensive Who’s Who of bladesmiths, one would be hard-pressed to spend more than an hour at the next BLADE Show without encountering a first- person recollection of pounding steel on the small screen.

More important is the awareness such publicity has brought to the craft, according to J.W. Randall, veteran ABS master smith and winner of FIF’s 2017 international championship (season four, episode 19). “It’s brought the public’s awareness around to hand- crafted items, and that’s a good thing,” Randall observed. “It appeals to a lot of people because it’s an old craft, and it’s been brought back, in a sense.”

Indeed, the fiery furnaces easily translate into a burning interest among many of the show’s viewers. For them, witnessing the process of manipulating steel into a knife, sword or axe using fire, a hammer and other assorted machinery and instruments, while facing the adversity of time constraints and random surprises, is at once exciting and inspiring.

ABS master smith J.W. Randall holds his spadroon sword, the one he made to win the International Competition episode of FIF. At left is “Dan the cameraman.” (Tammy Randall image)

“The men and women who compete on this show are engaging in an arena of gladiators,” described ABS master smith Jason Knight, B.R. Hughes Award winner and guest FIF judge during portions of seasons three and four. He agreed that the show’s primary value lies in inspiring its audience to appreciate, and perhaps pursue, a craft that ties together history, art, science and technology from an ancient world. “It’s important in our culture,” Knight added. “People like me hold fast to it, and I want to share it as art.”

Such interest has had a measurable effect on ABS membership, according to ABS journeyman smith, board member and treasurer, Bill Wiggins. “I don’t know what to call it,” he pondered. “It’s not a spike—I’d call it a steady rise in membership since the show started.”

An ABS journeyman smith and treasurer of the ABS, Bill Wiggins said the ABS has enjoyed a steady rise in membership ever since FIF’s debut episode seven years ago. (image courtesy of Bill Wiggins)

He added that the ABS has also seen a lot more turnover lately, with people joining up for a year only to never be heard from again. “We’re still gaining members, though,” he allowed. “There’s good and bad, but the good outweighs the bad.”

“The bad” is definitely part of the mix, according to the story’s sources who were contestants. Though none had the proverbial sour grapes about their FIF experience, the recurring caveat was that good television producers have one goal in mind, which is producing good television—and that doesn’t necessarily translate into total satisfaction for the contestants.

One way to achieve “good television” is to introduce drama. Thankfully, according to Josh Smith, a two- time FIF contestant and the youngest person ever to earn an ABS master smith stamp at 19 in 2000, it didn’t include any typical reality-show-style infighting on the set.

“Everybody needs to realize that they’re trying to make an entertaining TV show, and I think they do a good job,” Smith explained. “The clock provides the drama that they need instead of drama between the contestants.” He added that Mareko Maumasi, his competitor and winner of the “Judges’ Pick” special episode (season four, episode one), is now a good friend. “We didn’t have to become enemies!” Josh emphasized.

Unanimously, those interviewed who appeared on FIF maintained that the contestants should be better paid. “If you’re not sure if you do that show that you’ll be able to make your house payment, don’t do it,” advised Josh Smith, here admiring a red-hot billet in his shop.


Regarding the clock, each bladesmith is presented with strict time constraints— typically three hours to forge, grind and heat treat a blade, followed by a round of judging. In a second round, they have three hours to finish and handle the blade, followed by another round of judging.

“Three hours is a totally unrealistic timeframe,” Randall said. “That’s what makes the show interesting. Everything is stacked against you from the front, and that’s just a critical-thinking-and-an- overcoming-adversity deal. If you realize you’re backed into a corner, you have to adjust and come up with something to overcome it to gather yourself some time back on that clock.”

J.W. wipes down the spadroon sword in his shop. Of FIF he said, “It’s brought the pub- lic’s awareness around to hand-crafted items, and that’s a good thing.” (Tammy Randall image)

“A lot of these contestants have no experience, and it’s very entertaining to watch someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing get out there and forge a blade with unknown material,” Knight added. “It’s like throwing them to the beasts. It’s very gladiatorial and can be catastrophic. A lot of people will win by default because competitors will push themselves to the edge or get a bad choice in some garbage materials.”

Jason (left) and his fellow FIF judge, Doug Marcaida, deliver looks that “will keal” at the Winkler Knives booth during the 2018 SHOT Show. (image courtesy of Shelly Knight)

He emphasized that the use of questionable materials adds a dramatic challenge to the mix, and during his time as a judge, Knight would advise the show’s producers on what to make available. “They have no idea about metallurgy, chemistry, physics or any science,” he remembered. “Their job is to produce content, and they have license to do whatever they want because it is entertainment. It’s good television but it’s not good bladesmithing.”

During a third portion of the show, makers have five days, or 40 hours, at their home shop to produce another more elaborate project.

Knight likened the whole production to a television game show made to entertain rather than inform viewers of the actual forging process. “You shouldn’t watch Forged in Fire with an expectation of learning how to forge blades,” he said. “That isn’t what the show is about.”

He should know, as he said he and his wife, Shelly, created the original premise. Before Forged in Fire was ever conceived, Battle of the Bladesmiths began as an ABS competition. “In 2010, Bill Wiggins asked ‘Hey, what could we do at a hammer-in that would be more fun?’” Knight recalled. “Shelly got the idea from Iron Chef. She said ‘What if you did a competition where you have unknown materials, a limited amount of time and you have to make a knife that works?’”

“Jason approached me about doing Battle of the Bladesmiths at the Haywood Hammer-In,” at Haywood Community College in Clyde, North Carolina, Wiggins confirmed. “He won the first one, and since then it has become a yearly event.”

Flash forward to 2014. Knight also competed in and won the first-ever, never-aired pilot episode of Forged in Fire. “I’m glad to have been a part of the founding legacy that no one knows about,” he laughed, adding that he also advised the content producers on 12 of the episodes but remains unlisted as a creator. “I wouldn’t do the show again unless they paid me what I want to get paid,” he added. “What I want to do is what I’m doing. What I want that show to be, it can’t be.”

Smith, who competed on the show twice (including season three, episode five) but never won, said if he could change something about the show, it would be an opportunity to explain the knife project to the judges. “Instead of just handing the sword over to the judges, give me two minutes to talk about it,” he said. “I would have educated those guys about details that otherwise they wouldn’t notice with a cursory glance. I think it would have made a difference.”

He feels like he got a raw deal with his Kora Sword, in which his mosaic damascus was oriented so the pattern lined up, made with all take- down construction and blind-pinned together. “It’s a lot of stuff that no one on TV knew,” he noted. To his credit, changing the rules to allow non-winners to get their knives back was a prerequisite for his return to the show.

Randall said editing was an aspect that bothered him. “I want to be represented for who I am. I don’t want television to modify me and make me be somebody that I’m not,” he said, referring to being “bleeped” twice during his episode when he did not use profanity. “I don’t want to be seen by the world as that guy. That’s not who I am and what I want to represent, and it bothered me.

J.W. and Argentina’s Guillermo Mendoza (left), the two contestants in FIF’s Inter- national Competition, enjoy a reunion at a past BLADE Show. (Tammy Randall image)

“And more so in my closing remarks,” Randall added regarding the editing. “I gave God the credit and the glory at the end of this deal, and I also gave our military a bunch of credit for providing the freedom that we should never take for granted. That all got omitted. Represent people accurately for who they are and what they are.”


Unanimously, those interviewed who appeared on FIF maintained that the contestants should be better paid. The $10,000 prize, which is only administered to the winner, isn’t enough compared to the month it takes the maker away from his or her work. For non-winners, it is a big financial hit to walk away with nothing. “If you’re not sure if you do that show that you’ll be able to make your house payment, don’t do it,” Smith advised.

“It’s like rolling the dice,” Randall proclaimed. “For me, it’ll take $25,000 to get me back. They’re cutting a fat hog, partner. That producer is making money hand over fist. They asked me to come back and I told them I’m not leaving my shop for 10 grand when I can make more money staying in my shop. Why would I roll the dice and potentially come up empty and lose a month of income?”

Overall, each source in the article was gracious in his comments about Forged in Fire, often reiterating that the drawbacks are tied into the fact that it is a television show. The point is to be entertaining, and it comes at the expense of some grievances about how it should be produced. They unanimously agreed that the most important effect is that it has enlightened and inspired millions of people regarding the craft of forging and knifemaking.

For the latest knives, knife news, trends and more visit blademag.com, BLADE®’s popular Instagram page @blade_ magazine, and on Facebook and Twitter.

Safety Gear for Making Knives: What You Must Know


Avoiding safety complications in a knifemaker’s shop is essential. BLADE® polled some key players in the knife supply industry to see if there are any trends in motion in the area of shop safety. While everyone can agree that common sense is a good thing, and that certain stand-by items as fire extinguishers and safety glasses will always be among knife shop essentials, there has been somewhat of an evolution in this area.

Respirators for Knifemakers

“I think the biggest advance is really progress in bringing safety awareness to the knifemaking community,” observed Shanna Kemp, marketing manager at Jantz Supply. “For example, we see a marked increase in the use of respirators as makers come to understand that breathing in even small amounts of wood dust might not seem like a big deal, but over time it can really affect your lungs.”

She added that some woods, such as ebony, release small amounts of arsenic, so an increase in awareness of the dangers of particulates and resins is a good trend.

Dealing with Dust in the Knife Shop

Dust collection for knifemakers
A new addition to the line of Jantz safety products is the Benchtop Downdraft Sanding Table. The 20 x 40-inch dust collection system is about 6 inches tall and connects to the maker’s vacuum system to help capture dust.

A new addition to the line of Jantz safety products is the Benchtop Downdraft Sanding Table. The 20 x 40-inch dust-collection system is about 6 inches tall and connects to the maker’s vacuum system to help capture dust.

“I feel like everyone is more conscious of their health these days than they used to be,” agreed Shannon Edgington of Knife and Gun Finishing Supplies. She said that while there isn’t anything new or cutting edge in her inventory, she definitely agreed that particulate concerns have become more of an issue.

One budget solution K&G offers is the 3M N95 Respirator for Vapors that features the Cool Flow Exhalation Valve that reduces heat build-up inside the respirator.

Respirators That Don’t Need Replacing Often

Face mask for blacksmithing
The 3M Particulate Respirator N95 8511 is approved for at least 95 percent filtration efficiency against certain non-oil-based particles. Braided headbands in a two-strap design with dual point attachment help provide a secure seal. An adjustable M-noseclip reduces potential for eyewear fogging.

As buyers jump from budget-friendly dust masks to the newer, more effective respirators, they don’t have to be replaced as often.

“The technology has definitely come along so that people don’t have to replace as much,” she said. “It’s not like the old paper respirators that people are constantly replacing, which don’t filter out that much anyway.”

K&G and Jantz both offer the 3M 7500 Series Half-Face Respirator Mask, which features a better seal around the nose and mouth, and replaceable filter canisters for a better level of protection.

Best Respirators for Beards

Best respirators for making knives
According to Jeff Mutz of Tru-Grit, the 3M Ultimate FX Full Facepiece Respirator works very well for knifemakers with facial hair. He said a lot of bearded makers have trouble getting a good, tight fit with a regular dust mask, or even the half-face respirator. The 3M Ultimate FX isn’t foolproof but it keeps out a lot more particles than the others, he noted.

In the area of high-end respirators, Jeff Mutz, product consultant at Tru-Grit, has high praise for one particular model that he said solves a couple of problems for contemporary knifemakers. For starters, he noted that the concept of “form follows function” even applies to current personal fashion trends.

“One thing I was impressed with,” Mutz said of the 3M Ultimate FX Full Facepiece Respirator, “is that it works a lot better for guys with facial hair, which is a big thing these days. I’ve seen more and more guys using the full-face respirator, so it’s apparently becoming a popular thing.”

He recalled that a lot of guys who visit his shop have longer and/or larger beards, and he noticed they have trouble getting a good, tight fit with a regular dust mask, or even the half-face respirator. The 3M Ultimate FX isn’t fool proof for those who choose to wear beards, he admitted, but the full face piece keeps out a lot more particles than the others.

“Of course, they say to create a seal you’ve got to shave off the beard, but a lot of guys aren’t willing to do that,” Mutz laughed. “So this is the next best thing.”

He recalled a conversation with Scott Sharpe, owner of Tru-Grit, about the younger generation, which seems more conscientious about safety. Scott said that when younger guys walk into his shop while he’s grinding, often they will pull their shirts up over their noses out of concern for what could end up in their lungs.

Field of View and Safety Glasses

Face masks for making knives
K&G and Jantz both offer the 3M 7500 Series Half-Face Respirator, which features a better seal around the nose and mouth and replaceable filter canisters for a better level of protection.

Another good thing about the 3M Ultimate FX Full Facepiece Respirator is a better field of view. Mutz said when he wears a half-face respirator and safety glasses, the glasses interfere with the nose piece because they are not designed to work well together.

“I’ve noticed that the best way to solve that is to tuck the safety glasses under the half-face respirator, which is worse because you’re inhaling even more dust,” he explained. “With the full face, you get a large field of view and you don’t have to worry about the safety glasses interfering.”

Hand Protection Tape

Gloves for knifemaking
Jeff Mutz recommends that if you wear hand protection, especially gloves, choose Kevlar rather than cloth or rawhide because the properties of the latter don’t play well with heat and moisture, which are both aspects of grinding in the shop. (Buck image)

Kemp said a lot of people may be surprised by two of Jantz’s best-selling safety supplies: two types of tape. The first is basic 3M Blue Masking Tape, which is used to cover the blade edge to avoid cuts from sharp edges. She added that a bandage wrap by Guard-Tex called Self Adhering Safety Tape is also popular in the area of hand protection. It is used to protect skin when grinding, sanding or polishing, while also not being as restrictive as full gloves.

However, in the area of hand protection Mutz warns against the inevitable trade-offs. He recommends that if you wear hand protection, especially gloves, choose Kevlar rather than cloth or rawhide because the properties of the latter don’t play well with heat and moisture, which are both aspects of grinding in the shop.

Mutz recalled when, years ago, he tried grinding while wearing gloves and noticed the gloves got wet when he dipped the blade into a bucket of water to cool it. The heat from the blade quickly transferred through the water into one of his hands.

“I couldn’t get my glove off quick enough,” he remembered. “I’ve rubbed my hand against a 36-grit belt before and that doesn’t feel good either. It’s kind of a double-edged sword.”
Another problem he pointed out was that makers should want to feel the steel. If it is getting warm, be aware of it and cool it off before the heat compromises the structure of the material.

How to make a knife
Learn more about how to make knives with BLADE’s essential book.

“Especially once it’s been heat treated,” he stressed. “You don’t want to soften the steel.”

Mutz teaches knifemaking classes and discusses safety with his students. He stressed that he’s pro safety, of course, but as far as hand protection goes he’s probably not the best guy to consult.

“If you look on Tru-Grit’s website we’ve got this thing called Alligator Skin, which is a protective tape. Then you’ve got the finger guards that are made out of canvas. I’m not going to tell my students not to wear them, but these are the things you’ve got to look out for,” he concluded.

Safety in the Knife Shop is Serious Business

Safety is and should be a concern for those who spend long hours in a knife shop, and all three sources for this story agreed that common sense is the foundation, which, Edgington laughed, “over the years hasn’t always been in great supply!”

What is MokuTi Damascus?

Mokume + Titanium Laminate = MokuTi Damascus

Damascus steel definitions
Michael Burch employed Chad Nichols’ “Stripes” MokuTi for his integral folder. The blade is 1095 carbon steel with hamon and a nail nick. Burch said the Stripes MokuTi works well on larger knives. (photos courtesy of Michael Burch)

In the northern Mississippi town of Blue Springs, in a rural area between Tupelo and the Tennessee border, a company called Chad Nichols Damascus is forging steel that is taking knives to a new level. The company’s owner and namesake, Chad is an easygoing Southerner who created a damascus product called MokuTi that boasts a stunning combination of shapes and colors.

The name explains it perfectly. It is mokume that includes titanium laminates. MokuTi adds an exceptional visual boost to a knife, with swirled or mosaic tones of blue, gold, orange, silver and pink, depending on the composition of the materials used.

In his affable manner, Chad assured that Chad Nichols Damascus did not invent the colorful titanium laminate; the company just came up with a new way to achieve it—which, he noted, was not an easy task.

“We haven’t invented the wheel or anything,” Nichols said of MokuTi. “I don’t have to be the first one doing anything. I just want to be the last one doing it. We run this like a business, not an ego trip.”

Years in the Making

Knife with MokuTi steel
MokuTi is a great way to accent a knife with color. Neil Blackwood does it here for the handle inlay and clip of his Henchman flipper folder. The 4-inch blade is CPM S30V with a two-tone finish. His list price for a similar knife:
$1,200. (photo courtesy of Neil Blackwood)

It would figure that something that looks as good as MokuTi would be difficult to produce. Nichols said it took several years to figure out.

“That’s not blowing it out of proportion,” he laughed. “I messed with it for a while, then I just put it away because I kept failing.”

He remembered getting tunnel vision trying to figure out why it was not working.

“You keep doing it and it’s insane,” he said, “because if it didn’t work the first three times and you didn’t do anything different, it’s not going to work the fourth time.”

Through trial and error he was finally able to figure out how to bond titanium with the other metals, but he is understandably tight-lipped about his proprietary secrets.

“I’m not going to tell you how we do it,” he admitted, “but there’s things we do that might seem minute to some people. However, we found those things to be critical.”

He explained a myriad of variables when bonding the layers in presses and rolling mills, including oxygen, heat and surface texture.

“Without getting into too much detail as far as bonding the layers, I’ll just say it’s tricky and it doesn’t always work,” Nichols allowed. “If I don’t make MokuTi for a month or two, I kind of count on the first two tries being crap.”

Peter Carey MokuTi knife
Peter Carey outfitted his Tension flipper folder with “Crosswalk” MokuTi bolsters and a blade and clip of Nichols’ “Whiplash” stainless damascus. The handle is lightning-strike carbon fiber. Carey’s list price for a similar model: $1,200. (photo courtesy of Peter Carey)

The experimental journey to fruition brought Nichols’ shop down some rocky roads.

“We recently made some MokuTi and threw zirconium in there,” he noted. “We love bonding titanium to other metals, but you just can’t do anything with [titanium and zirconium]. They just won’t bond because I guess the ductility is too different and the metals move at different rates during forging. It was a disaster, so we quit trying.”

It is all part of the ride, he said, and you cannot be scared to “just throw something in there” and see what happens.

Meteorology Matters

Another variable that affects producing MokuTi successfully is the atmosphere. While forging carbon damascus is fairly predictable, Nichols said forging MokuTi is much more complex.

“When you get into stainless and even Mokume, with the copper and brass with the nickel silver in it, and especially with the MokuTi, it gets complicated,” he continued. “What people don’t understand about forging, especially down where I live, is that with humidity of 100 percent is going to get hotter than if it’s 50 percent the next day.”

A Sixth Sense for MokuTi Damascus

Nichols searched for the words to explain his approach. Maybe it is a feeling, maybe it is a sixth sense, and maybe it is just exposure and experience.

“I hate saying this but you just get in tune with what’s going on. It’s like using the word ‘organic.’ I hate it when I have to use that word, but sometimes there’s no other word to describe it,” he lamented. “We made a new pattern a couple weeks ago called ‘Boomerang’ and some guy goes, ‘What’s it like?’ and, between groans, I said, ‘It’s very organic looking.’”

Put a Tie on that Knife

MokuTi folding knife
The MokuTi handle of Jon Graham’s GL Razel SS3 Bolsterlock is joined by a blade of Chad Nichols’ Iguana stainless damascus and Graham’s “Tailclip” pocket clip. Closed length: 5 inches. Graham’s list price for a similar piece: $1,400. (photo courtesy of Jon Graham)

“I’ve used MokuTi on a variety of styles,” said Michael Burch, Missouri knifemaker and owner of Burchtree Blades. “It’s like putting a tie on a knife—it just adds some class.”

Adding MokuTi as an accent is a common way to integrate the material into a knife without breaking the bank. Still, it is not cheap. The more of it the maker adds to the knife, the more it adds to the sale price.

“I charge twice as much for MokuTi bolsters as I would titanium bolsters due to the extra finishing time with polishing and heat coloring,” explained knifemaker Peter Carey. “I use MokuTi on all my folders because it’s strong and has an exotic look.”

Carey said he also uses it as an accent material on his knives, such as for bolsters, pocket clips, back spacers, thumb studs and pivot rings. He said accenting with MokuTi injects some color and flash without overwhelming the knife. A good example of employing MokuTi is as a pivot collar on a stonewashed framelock, Burch added.

Allen Elishewitz folder
The Mini Tank flipper by Allen Elishewitz has MokuTi bolsters and carbon fiber scales. The blade is Takefu Special Steel’s laminated stainless with a VG-10 core. (photo courtesy of Allen Elishewitz)

“It makes for great contrast and can really dress up a user folder,” he observed. “It’s costly but if customers saw what went into making it, it would seem cheap.”

“It appears that everyone likes the material and it usually ends up on my higher-end knives,” Carey said. “Some of my customers ask for it as full scales or for a framelock, so I use it that way also.”

As Carey noted, MokuTi comes from Nichols Damascus as a billet that must be worked to shape and then colored.

“[Chad] usually colors it so you can see the pattern, but that gets ground off when you work it,” Carey said, explaining that it is a surface color that does not go all the way though the material. “When you get it to final shape and finish, you have to heat color or anodize it to the colors you want.”

“The other cool thing about MokuTi is dealing with Chad,” he maintained. “He’s a great guy, a friend, hard working and you can’t beat his customer service.”

Your Turn: Learn How to Forge Damascus

how to forge damascus steel

Why is CPM-154 So Popular with Custom Knifemakers?

john bartlow custom knifemaker
In CPM-154 stainless, John Bartlow said he found a steel that allowed for a flawless finish. At the grinder here in his shop, Bartlow uses the steel on his utility fixed blade equipped with his trademark line cutter in the ricasso. (SharpByCoop knife image)
stag lockback custom knife
A veteran of 30 years in the Knifemakers’ Guild, John Bartlow started out using 440C stainless steel for his knives, moved to ATS-34 and today has graduated to CPM-154. Raphael Durand uses the latter steel on his stag lockback. (SharpByCoop image)

Based in Sheridan, Wyoming, by way of Tennessee, 30-year Knifemakers’ Guild member John Bartlow uses CPM-154 for his bird and trout and hunting knives. When Bartlow first started making knives, he was also a hunting outfitter.

As a result, he gutted and skinned a lot of animals on a weekly basis. Having many of his guides use his knives, he got a lot of feedback over the years about design and function.

“I started out with 440C stainless steel a million years ago,” Bartlow remembered. “I quit that nearly 20 years ago and jumped to ATS-34 stainless and used it for years and years.”

He said that about a decade ago he started to become frustrated with the quality of the ATS he was getting. There weren’t major structural problems like chipping or breaking, but there were very subtle issues Bartlow observed under 10-to-12-power magnification.

“My customers never noticed it but it bugged me,” he continued. “I was trying to get some finishes in that stuff —and I was buying through normal channels from several suppliers—but when I would go to finish it, once in a while I’d get this little area that looked like it had pits in it, or it kind of had a little ‘road rash’ that I could not get rid of.”

He approached other makers about it at the time and they said they’d seen the same thing. That motivated him to jump ship to CPM-154, he said, which is very much a sister steel to ATS-34 and 154CM.

“They are closely related on the family tree of steel,” he said. In CPM-154, he found a material that allowed for a flawless finish. With the powder metallurgy process and the accompanying uniform distribution of carbides, it eliminated the “road rash” issue.

david sharp custom knives
Here grinding a blade in his shop, David Sharp said CPM-154 exhibits excellent edge retention, sharpenability and corrosion resistance.

Custom maker David Sharp uses CPM-154, including on his reproductions of the knives of BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame© member Bob Loveless. Since Sharp began building knives in 2010, he has specialized in fine-finished fixed blades.

“A large percentage of my knives have a very fine finish, polished or over-1200-grit hand satin,” the maker based in Hesperia, California, remarked. “CPM-154 is very fine, so when it’s finished to a high level you don’t see the steel’s grain.”

He added that CPM-154 is not quite as abrasion resistant as other of the relatively newer steels, so obtaining a fine finish is a bit quicker. He said that though steels are an oft-discussed topic online, he very seldom has customers request a steel type or brand, which could be seen as a testament that his choice of CPM-154 is a good one.

“I have not noticed a downside,” Sharp continued. “The upside is the finish and that it is, in my opinion, a balanced steel. For the majority of users it exhibits excellent edge retention, sharpenability and corrosion resistance.”

Learn More About Making Knives

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Photos: 4 Creative Knife Sheaths


Knife sheaths usually don’t get a lot of press. However, occasionally some particularly interesting developments in the area necessitate attention. While it may seem a rather mundane topic to expound on how to get your knife from here to there in a manner other than carrying it in your pocket or hand, there are some vehicles of transport that require notice.

Derick Kemper’s Sailor’s Delight

Derick Kemper’s Sailor’s Delight rigging set incorporates 30 individual pieces into a sheath outfit that makes mobile a rigging knife, including a marlinspike with individual sheaths for each, all harnessed together on a free-swinging swivel system. 

custom creative knife sheaths
(SharpByCoop images)

custom knife sheath

Smith & Wesson Bullseye Combo Sheath

The Smith & Wesson Bullseye Combo sheath holds two tools as one unit and orients them in opposite directions. This offers full purchase of each handle without interference of the other, and doesn’t take up as much space by having the axe handle hang down on your leg. Blade steel: 420 stainless. MSRP: $54.96

Smith Wesson knife sheath

smith & wesson gut hook combo
The sheath, knife and axe come as a set.


Benchmade 10 Rescue Hook Boltaron Sheath

The shape of the Benchmade 10 Rescue Hook’s Boltaron sheath is a symmetrical polygon, allowing it to cradle and engage the detent from either a left- or right-side mounting. By designing the sheath to allow multiple mounting positions, it increases the versatility of how the tool can be accessed. MSRP for the knife and sheath: $75.

Benchmade Rescue knife sheath

benchmade 10 rescue sheath

Brian Tighe Fighters Sheaths

Brian Tighe matches the carbon fiber handles of his Tighe Fighters with a carbon-fiber pattern with the accompanying sheaths.

brian tighe fighter custom knife

Like Creativity in Knives? You’ll Love BLADE Show 2018

best knife show to go toThe world’s largest and foremost knife show, BLADE Show, is taking place June 1-3 in Atlanta. You’ll find the planet’s most innovative knifemakers in one spot. Learn more about how to attend BLADE Show 2018 here.



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