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Lin Rhea

Carrigan Knife: Is It A James Black Original?


In the author’s view, the Carrigan has tells that prove James Black made it.

The work of James Black is iconic. Once you’ve seen one of his knives, you’re not likely to forget it. While a casual observer sees a steel blade that’s well formed and a coffin-shaped handle with black walnut and silver trim nicely complementing each other, informed observers see much more.  

Consider yourself more than just a casual observer. You study the knife in every detail. A steady stream of questions begins to cross your mind. You may contemplate the time period, the location and the tools by which the knife came to be.

Why did the knifemaker do this? What were his thoughts when doing that? What factors prompted the design? What subtleties of design did Mr. Black discern and were there any he learned along the way?

I am not a casual observer when it comes to the work of James Black. In fact, I am among “the birds that have flocked together” to study his work. Our group has been studying and gathering data to serve as a baseline for future revelations that may occur pertaining to historic knives. The database can be used to aid in authenticating existing as well as newly discovered knives thought to have been made by Black.

While our group includes collectors, engineers, historians and archaeologists, it also includes knifemakers. The perspective of each adds invaluable insight to the discussion. And oh, what a discussion it is!

What Is The Carrigan Knife?

For several years I was fortunate to have been the resident knifemaker for the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas. It is a rich environment to learn and observe examples of historic knives, among which are some examples of Black’s work. Noteworthy among those is the Carrigan Knife.

Its historic provenance is solid, pointing directly to Black as being the maker. Since Black did not mark his work by stamping his name on it, the reliable historic provenance of the Carrigan Knife is of even more importance—in fact, it’s pivotal to the attribution of any other possible Black knives. Once determined to be authentic, the other knives in the museum’s collection, or elsewhere, can be attributed to Black as well.  

Consider Image 1 (top of page). The knife in the middle is the Carrigan, known to have been made by Black. It has provenance. What about the ones on either side? Do they have rock-solid provenance? No.

In the eyes of the museum curatorial staff as well as in the context of this discussion, an object’s provenance is important. However, some of the knives attributed to Black, while not having direct provenance, have circumstantial provenance.  Does this lessen their value in the historical narrative? No. If determined to be authentic, they are just as important. Even a newly discovered knife with no provenance at all may indeed be authenticated to have been made by Black.

Being able to determine the authenticity of a possible Black-made knife, apart from provenance, would require an examination of the knife. The examiner would need to have intimate knowledge of details and factors unique to Black’s body of work.

Lin Rhea forging
For several years the author was the resident knifemaker for the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas, home to a number of authentic 1830s and other vintage bowies. (B. R. Hughes image)

In Image 1 you can’t help seeing the obvious relationship between the three knives. While they are not identical, they are so similar that it would be logical to assume they were made by the same hands. While those things are compelling to the belief that Black made all three, much more must be considered to authenticate a knife as his work. Some of those considerations follow.

Any maker’s work, whether currently or in the 1830s, will exhibit common features that, in some way, set the work apart as different from others. Some features may be noticeably subtle and some radically bold. Bold features can be imitated to a degree by others. The subtle features often go unnoticed and are much more difficult to imitate. Black’s body of work exhibits several features that tie the individual knives together circumstantially. Some features are subtle, some bold.

In Image 1 you can easily observe the bold features common to each individual knife, such as the dark handle scales, the silver trim, the coffin-shaped handles, etc. However, to authenticate them as being made by the same maker requires familiarity with that maker’s known body of work and an opportunity to document the features.

The features may be construction techniques or tool marks that are the same from knife to knife. Documenting the common features involves quite a lot. It implies that multiple knives are closely examined for these common features. In some cases, the common features can only be seen through modern technology such as X-rays or other forms of testing.

It is not known how many knives Black made but there’s enough in existence to create a problem of logistics. The knives that are thought to be authentic Black knives are scattered over several states. Getting them together has been tough but we’ve had some success thanks to the knives’ respective owners. The trust and support they’ve shown to the research group is very gratifying.

As you probably have noticed I’ve been very careful with my words since it’s not my place to share too much out of respect to the owners. Some details that are important in matters of authentication shouldn’t be divulged. Lack of these invisible details wouldn’t prevent a modern maker from faithfully reproducing a knife of the style. Remember, imitation is flattery but counterfeiting is illegal. Counterfeiting has been done and there are cases where collectors have been duped. Makers should always mark their work. 

Tells Of An Original James Black Knife

All this said, there are things “invisible” that we can discern by observation. In Image 2 (below), an illustration by Steve Hotz, notice that the construction assembly of the Carrigan Knife is comprised of three basic layers: the blade and two handle scales.

While there are three basic layers, each layer can have other parts that contribute to the overall knife. For example, the blade’s tang has additional pieces of silver: one on the ricasso and one each wrapped around the top and bottom of the spine. These serve as a soft bed for the scales to sit on. While thin, these wraps of silver can be filed flat for a good fit of the right- and left-hand scales. They extend back to where the maker chooses to put the silver pommel wrap. The blade tang is also bored for the pin holes to attach the scales. Moreover, the scales have front caps that are flush fit so the scale will lay flat, as well as escutcheon plates apparently individually mounted to the scale independent of the layer’s assembly. When the three basic layers are completed and prepared sufficiently, the scales, which are drilled to fit the tang, can be assembled to the blade and the capped pins installed as well as the pommel wrap.

The construction assembly of the Carrigan Knife
IMAGE 2: The construction assembly of the Carrigan Knife is comprised of three basic layers: the blade and two handle scales. Each layer can have other parts that contribute to the overall knife. For example, the blade’s tang has additional pieces of silver: one on the ricasso and one each wrapped around the top and bottom of the spine. (Steve Hotz illustration)

What I’ve described is the general assembly of Black’s Carrigan Knife.* The entire blade’s steel tang is covered by a protective layer of silver along with the wood scales. Considering the lack of modern epoxies and rust-resistant steels, I consider Black’s logic and resourcefulness very impressive. He strategically placed the silver on each of the three layers so that, when assembled, they meet and provide protection for the knife’s steel full tang, as well as an aesthetically pleasing appearance.  

Historically, a blacksmith shop may have had a post drill and some early machinery available. I can reasonably assume that Black had some of this equipment too, but I have no way of being sure. Where we today would likely grind a part, Black may have filed it. To save filing he probably forged very close to finish before filing. We today may skip the forging stage entirely if required and still be able to reproduce a close facsimile of his knife. For every step of his process, we bladesmiths and/or knifemakers can transpose a modern technique or tool.  

Picture of assembled Carrigan Knife
When the three basic layers are completed and prepared sufficiently, the scales, which are drilled to fit the tang, can be assembled to the blade and the capped pins installed, as well as the pommel wrap. The result is the completed Carrigan Knife. (Steve Hotz illustration)

Black’s process was an interactive, emergent one. The second step emerged from the first. The third step emerged and interacted with the first two steps, and so on. In other words, it was not precision technology as we commonly see today where the parts can interchange from one knife to the next. Emergent technology enabled a craftsman to create complex designs with a reasonable expectation of consistency, albeit not precision.

Again, study the three knives in Image 1. Although they are not identical, you can see the family resemblance. It was a structured process that was organized to lead to a predictable result. On top of that, Black was taking only three materials—steel, wood and silver—and creating a process that makes sense. Considering the relative lack of resources and technology, I think he did well to even create a knife. But he did much more.  

When thinking of Black’s work, think not only of his knife design but his process design. It’s his process design that made his knife design repeatable. Modern knifemakers can learn from him in that regard.

Three Questions To Consider

In closing, following are three questions to ponder. The first two are for all of you and the third is for the bladesmiths and/or knifemakers among you.

  1. If given a limited number of resources, would you be able to make a knife?  
  2. If given these limitations, would you be able to design a knifemaking process? 
  3. In your knifemaking endeavors, how much of your process is an imitation of others and how much is yours?

*Author’s note: I have not gone into detail on each of the individual parts and how Black performed these steps for two reasons: 1) I can only observe the appearance of the knife and speculate on his exact techniques, and
2) It would only serve the purpose of counterfeiters.

Editor’s note: While BLADE® recognizes the author’s superior knowledge concerning the provenance of the Carrigan and other knives attributed to James Black by the author and others, BLADE continues to stipulate that for BLADE to recognize that a knife was made by a specific maker, the knife must bear the specific maker’s name or mark. The presence of such a mark does not necessarily prove the knife was indeed made by the person or company marked, but the absence of a mark is enough to preclude BLADE from attributing the knife’s make to any person, company, etc. Since, as far as we know, Black did not mark his knives, BLADE does not attribute the make of any specific knife to him. That doesn’t mean BLADE is right or wrong, it’s simply our policy concerning the matter. To be both fair and accurate to all, it is a policy we apply not just to Black but to all knives and all knifemakers.

More Knife History:

Why The X-Rhea Knife?


The X-Rhea Is The Result Of Having A Curious Mind And The Ability To Explore Possibilities.

Why did I come up with the X-Rhea knife design? I’ve asked myself this several times and only recently have I been able to supply a reasonable answer. Th e X-Rhea started as a personal challenge. I wanted to make a knife, handle and all, from one piece of steel. Th at’s it: no scales, no added glues, pins, extra space fillers, inlays—nothing. Moreover, I wanted it to look good and be comfortable and as structurally sound as any good knife should be, without being overly heavy.

This challenge nagged at me. If I limited myself to steel and fire as my basic resources, could I forge a knife from one piece of steel, a knife that left no doubt about its viability? Could it look good, feel good and perform well? I also wanted a handle design versatile enough to fit different sizes and types of knives.

“A full tang knife is stronger than a hidden tang knife” is something I’ve heard many times. That statement oversimplifies the matter; which is better? I’ve heard some say, “At least with a full tang, if the scales fall off you still have a knife.” While I don’t agree with either statement, it indicates in some people’s minds a full tang blade alone qualifies as “a knife,” even without scales. And what qualifies as a knife, as well as what part strength plays, might differ from person to person.

In my visits with renowned historic blacksmith Peter Ross, my eyes were opened to the multi-dimensional vision the historic blacksmith needed in order to execute the complex forgings of everyday objects of the colonial era. The ability to understand how something is shaped, combined with the hand skills to actually shape it, are two separate things. The combination of those two qualities in one individual is rare. Peter showed me how to change the way I think about shaping steel. My mind raced with possibilities every time I worked with him. He taught me how to take a project from concept to reality.

Just as steel is shaped by the blows of a hammer, my thoughts were shaped to the challenge at hand. I felt I was in a unique set of circumstances that directed me to mix my forging with the mostly forgot ten techniques of historic blacksmithing. My years of training helped provide some ability to execute my ideas and theories. Theories? OK, it’s my “theory” that about 90 percent of tactile, meaningful contact between the hand and a knife handle is concentrated on the top and the bottom. Think pliers, wrenches, etc. The mind seems to understand the vacancy of the remaining areas between the top and bottom. Also, the hand “soaks up” and “fills in” to meet these vacancies to a degree. If I could add contouring and sculpting to the essential top and bottom, could the hand and mind fill in the rest? Can a knife with no scales be an option?

The Answer To X-Rhea

Finding the answer took significant effort and a lot of time. I worked out a forging sequence for my X-Rhea hunting knives that satisfied me, but I kept thinking it would be great to forge a bowie with top and bottom lugs. It took years to work out the stages of the process. While the accompanying photographs attest to my relative success, it leaves a lot unsaid about the adjustments I had to make in my thinking. I used the blacksmithing principle of eliminating things that hinder the process, and re-emphasizing and adjusting things that assist it. I also considered efficiency in timing, appropriate temperature, or other techniques** that are most practical.

The author up close and personal with an X-Rhea Knife forged red hot.
The author up close and personal with an X-Rhea Knife forged red hot.

While modern tooling could speed up some of the steps in my process, modern thinking and modern expectations would not. Aft er all, this process was being developed around the early 19th-century blacksmith tools: a coal forge, blacksmith leg vise, and the use of handheld hammers. This uncluttered my thinking and required me to face the same challenges as the early blacksmith. Elevating one’s skills with basic tools, improving understanding of the materials, and bearing full responsibility for the outcome was my expectation. While this might seem restrictive and limiting, the improved skill level and the readjusting of my views had a freeing effect. I am not as dependent on modern tools, which enables me to be more creative. The willingness to adjust one’s thinking was, and remains, an invaluable aid to the blacksmith.

Material Limits

When forging a complex shape, a smith must consider the limitations of the material, sometimes working near its limits but never exceeding them. Wisdom calls for choosing material suited for the extreme changes of geometry in the knife. Steels that are prone to air hardening must have special consideration or be avoided. Like some historic objects, the X-Rhea Knife is forged from one piece of steel, in this case, entirely high carbon steel. Those qualities and characteristics must be allowed for and considered.

Making an X-Rhea is a multi-step process. It must be pre-formed, with all needed parts and adjustments made before final shaping and peening the handle. Recognizing and maintaining a high standard of precision in the pre-form details is absolutely necessary to a satisfactory final result.

Even after I successfully made one of these knives, I found that part of the challenge was yet to come—acceptance. I showed up at a cutting competition with one of my X-Rhea bowies and sure got some stares. The safety judges looked it over as if it were a new species of animal. “Is it strong? Will it hurt your hand?” they asked. As I recall I placed well in the competition using it, but the initial reaction was still mixed.

Will it hurt your hand? I previously mentioned the handle contouring and sculpting. This is a standard part of the forging and filing process, as it is with any knife handle. Depending on the maker’s forging skill, it may require some filing in-between forging steps. Each step has some amount of adjustability to allow for correction, while leading to a beautiful profile and comfortable grip. It can be surprising to those who handle the knife just how good it feels, considering the remarkable difference in construction and the “open” appearance.

X-Rhea Strength

Is it strong? This is where the application of common blacksmith tool-making skills and logic are applied. Sufficiency was the guide for an early blacksmith. Making a piece overly strong for its intended use might sound impressive, but in use it becomes clear that this strength adds unneeded and undesirable weight for the intended use, and does not account for other desirable characteristics such as flex and toughness. I view heavy,
unwieldy blades generally as a mark of a novice. Unless the intended purpose calls for excessive strength, sufficiency should also, be the guide not only for blades but for knives overall.

For those inclined to overthink a matter, look at the “T” cross section of the blade-to-handle transition. It eff ectively converts the stress loads in the needed directions.
For those inclined to overthink a matter, look at the “T” cross section of the blade-to-handle transition. It eff ectively converts the stress loads in the needed directions.

Today when I see a thickly built knife, instead of looking at it and saying to myself “This thing sure is strong!” I ask, “Why does it need to be so heavy?” For the X-Rhea handle, I try to use sufficiency as my guide. Where it can structurally be lightened, I do that by forging and filing, leaving it sufficiently strong but not overly heavy. This distribution of strength serves to provide literal balance to the knife exactly as any conventional knife, regardless of construction. Either should have balance when properly built to a purpose and have sufficient strength to perform its purpose. That fact, while amazing to me at first, is testimony to the principle of sufficiency. In other words, the X-Rhea should compare well in balance and weight as well as function to any well-made conventional knife for the same application.

For those inclined to overthink a matter, look at the “T” cross-section of the blade-to-handle transition. It effectively converts the stress loads in the needed directions. Viewed from the profile, the slight rotation of the ricasso as an “X” instead of a vertical “cross” assists in adding strength with less material (weight) to the connection. The upper leg of the ricasso’s “X” tapers back to brace the upper part of the handle, which bears the majority of the workload. The handle then tapers in thickness slightly as it goes back to the forged integral pommel and proceeds to the handle tenon where it is peened. To further lighten the knife, the handle band is sculpted gently to taste. Taste? I try not to get so engrossed in the math and mechanics that I lose the necessity of making the knife look good. Like a scroll forged by a blacksmith, the application of math and mechanics are the basis for all aspects of proportion and form. To keep it simple, I want to make it graceful, not blocky, getting the absolute most out of a minimum of material volume.

The X-Rhea Process

In my situation, I set a challenge for myself and it led to the X-Rhea. For me, the process is as important as the knife itself. I made a lot of individual knives, some better than others, but what I was actually concentrating on was developing a forging process, so the one-piece forged knives could be repeated via a repeatable process with predetermined features, checkpoints and adjustability built-in along the way. To emphasize adjustability, whether by forging, grinding or filing, is key. It enables the smith to reach predetermined checkpoints before proceeding with the rest of the process. When following a well-designed process, the outcome will be consistent and meet a standard as would the product of a well-designed and adjusted machine.

While we are far from machines that guarantee specific outcomes, diligent attention to the execution of each heated and hammered step and making needed adjustments, when appropriate, will carry the project along. As aptly pointed out in David Pye’s book, The Nature and Art of Workmanship, “The quality of the result is continually at risk during the process.” Overcoming the risk by careful determination, as well as time spent in practice, is its own challenge and entirely rests upon the craftsperson.

Like some historic objects, the X-Rhea Knife is forged from one piece of steel, in this case, entirely high carbon steel.
Like some historic objects, the X-Rhea Knife is forged from one piece of steel, in this case, entirely high carbon steel.

I believe it is noble to preserve cultural objects, and it’s also my belief that preserving the processes used to make those objects is equally important. The hand of the individual craftspeople, following already established processes, can be seen in the objects of the past. A society or culture can lose appreciation for the craftsman’s touch. Pye stated, “The danger is not that the workmanship of risk will die out altogether but rather that, from want of theory, and thence lack of standards, its possibilities will be neglected and inferior forms of it will be taken for granted and accepted.” It would be a shame to neglect the possibilities or take for granted why we craft things the way we do.

I also believe there is room remaining to explore new designs and theories in today’s knifemaking. We can find new ideas and inspiration from places we don’t expect. With the ever-changing laws and shortages of materials such as stag and ivory, we may be wise to consider creating a market based on a process we develop using otherwise unexpected, but available, materials and techniques. This requires time and risk. Are we willing to apply time and effort to follow through with a concept without certainty that there will be a payoff? Is the payoff worth it in monetary or cultural dividends? One can really never know the answers to such questions, and those possibilities were not a serious factor in my efforts.

The X-Rhea is the result of having a curious mind and the ability to explore possibilities. It was an idea, turned into a challenge, turned into reality. The simple sequence is available to everyone. Its cultural value is a matter of opinion, but the process of the X-Rhea Knife shows that new and interesting ideas can be pursued in knifemaking.

Also Read:

Intermediate Forging: Blending the Old with the New



Blending the old with the new sometimes can yield notable results.

It’s been said there’s nothing new under the sun. I might add that new ideas in knifemaking are rare. I do not claim the technique I am about to share is new because that could start the story off on the wrong foot. On the other hand, I will say I have not seen it done in the context of making knife parts. Comparisons can be drawn to particular cultural techniques, and I encourage that in the name of inspiration. Speaking of, that will be the purpose of this discussion—inspiration.

I have been fortunate to have had several sources of inspiration, not the least of which is my time and training in historic blacksmithing. One of the guiding principles of the early blacksmith was practicality. You will end up being the judge as to whether or not this technique is practical or not for your purposes. I will try to show how blending the old with the new sometimes can yield unique results that can be beautiful as well as inspiring. 

I call the technique intermediate forging. I chose the name to imply it involves a mixture of old and new techniques within the same process in order to accomplish the task. It can involve forging—the old—as well as the new via the use of modern tools such as grinders, saws, etc. The particular order of the use of the techniques is at your discretion as well. In other words, you may forge, then saw/grind, then forge more before, perhaps, grinding again and finishing or polishing. 

Intermediate forging can be used on blades or integral parts of blades. This may be where it is easiest to see and accept the possibility of enlisting the technique. I’m sure you may have seen the need to return to the forge to refine or make corrections in order to improve or actually save a project. It’s often viewed as a concession or acknowledgment of defeat if you must return to the forge for corrections. I now present to you the possibility of pushing aside the puristic view and actually using the intermediate forging technique as part of some projects, and opening up new combinations of techniques for new looks.


One way in particular I have made changes in the look of my knives by intermediate forging is on the handle spacers. The accompanying photos and descriptions pertain to how I set up and mix the techniques of old and new to arrive at a unique process with almost endless possibilities. I show the progression of one project along with a finished photo, and then some other examples of variations of the technique.

I use stainless steel for the spacer, though mild steel or other forgeable materials would work as well. I start with three layers, leaving the middle layer proud by a chosen margin according to my plan. Note: I often “lean” the guard and spacer forward. This creates the need to provide a fake middle spacer that will be discarded after the outside spacers have their inclination established. I then insert the actual middle spacer and leave it proud for the subsequent steps. 

The author used his intermediate forging process to make the handle spacer for his S-guard bowie. (Whetstone Studio image)


As noted, you must be the judge as to whether intermediate forging is for you. I’ve found that the results are worth the extra effort it takes to accomplish my intent. Also, while steps in this process are examples of workmanship of risk*, the risk is usually limited to an individual part of and not the whole knife. I’ve also found that risk itself adds intrigue to the project, and intrigue attracts the curious. Of course, as with a movie, risk and intrigue are good when the ending can be written with a predictable result. Hence, intermediate forging also needs to have predictable results. I can say that it certainly has for me.

*Workmanship of risk refers to a principle found in the book, The Nature and Art of Workmanship, by David Pye.

For more information, contact Lin Rhea, Dept. BL11, 413 Grant 291020, Prattsville, AR 72129 870-942-6419 lwrhea2@windstream.net, rheaknives.com.

Knife Design 101: What are Line and Flow?


“A Hint of a Curve Looks Better than a Curve”

Of the assorted American Bladesmith Society-sanctioned knifemaking classes I’ve attended, many pertained to the construction of a well-made knife. In one class, the subject of line and flow was a topic.

An ABS founder and a BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member, B.R. Hughes said, “A curve looks better than a straight line”—pausing for effect—“and a hint of a curve looks better than a curve.”

The human form and other objects in nature often have been used to illustrate proper execution of line and flow. Some of the simplest of things common in everyday life are there for our benefit if we would notice.

Taking Cues from Nature

Line and flow knifemaking tips
When flow is hard to achieve on a knife, Jerry Lairson puts the design on paper to figure out what does not look right. Once he has the general shape he wants, he starts changing things until the knife starts to flow. Lin Rhea also worked on his art dagger in drawn form (above) before arriving at the finished knife (top). (Chuck Ward knife photo)

An unfurling fern, drifting snow, a vine climbing to the sun—these things look alive and give the impression of fluidity even though they are at rest. Consider a falcon’s dynamic grace. Simply when perched it looks designed for motion. These are things the great masters studied and emulated, often applying mathematical formulae, yet concealing any and every hint of math within the object’s overt beauty.

We are all “wired” to be attracted to certain combinations of lines that flow into the whole dynamic appearance of an object, whether a person, a falcon or a knife.

Knifemaking long has been elevated to an art form. It’s a natural medium to express artistry in a functional tool. Knifemakers are the formulators, mechanics and artists who create from raw materials something static that also has dynamic character. It looks like it wants to be moving even though it’s not. Remember the falcon?

The object of this brief dissertation is to help makers wanting to improve their work find a perspective. I say “a perspective” knowing it would be uniquely each maker’s since each maker is different and can’t see things exactly the same. Michelangelo’s perspective was not Leonardo da Vinci’s and vice versa, but each developed an eye for his own work.

Also, it may not be possible to explain to another exactly how to have an eye for line and flow. My attempt is simply to rationalize that it is possible to cultivate its development.

Developing an Eye for Line and Flow

If this development is possible, then each maker should ask, “How can I cultivate it in my own work?” Considering the question requires a level of honesty that some are just not willing to attach to something they mistake for “a knife.”

Indeed, the question pertains to the process rather than the product. It is a way of thinking about the craft and not simply “a knife.” That mistaken thinking will never allow a person to elevate knifemaking to an art form, and it can’t help but to manifest itself in a maker’s work. Fortunately, there are many examples of makers who have enhanced their natural talent by honest self-improvement.

What do some of the world’s best makers do to cultivate their eye for line and flow? Where do they look for inspiration? What influences have shaped their perspective?

How the Master Smiths See Line and Flow

ABS master smith Lairson
Jerry Lairson indicated embellishments such as carving should enhance the line and flow of a knife rather than compete with it. (Buddy Thomason knife photo)

“Many of my best knife designs were inspired by nature,” such as a lily, a bird’s wing and vines, stated ABS master smith Jerry Lairson. “I think it’s good to follow a theme throughout the knife. An example is the fluting on French flintlock pistols combined with the other parts of the gun to create flow. If you see something you like, even if it doesn’t pertain to knives, try to use it as a theme to design a knife. If a knife is decorated with engraving, carving or filework, it should enhance the flow and line of the knife rather than
compete with it.

“Sometimes I see things in museums that have nothing to do with knives but have graceful lines that can help design a knife that flows. How a knife design starts and stops at the point and butt has a lot to do with flow. Sometimes flow is hard to achieve even when you have a good design in your head.

“When this happens to me,” Jerry continued, “I put it on paper and if it doesn’t flow, I start trying to figure what doesn’t look right. I always design a knife on paper. Once I have the general shape I want, I start changing things one at a time until it starts to flow. Sometimes one small line that isn’t right will throw the whole thing off. Sometimes simpler is better.”

Rodrigo Sfreddo knifemaker
Rodrigo Sfreddo’s eye for line, flow, and overall design and innovation shines in his “Dark Tulip.” (photo courtesy of Lin Rhea)

ABS master smith Rodrigo Sfreddo pointed out that good line and flow is the “obligatory minimum” for any custom knife.

“What makes a knife more desirable than another? Good design,” he began. “Nobody spends hundreds or thousands of dollars on a knife just because they need a good knife for camping or cooking; they’re buying for collecting because [the knives] are beautiful, so good design and aesthetics are of the utmost importance.

“I always say to my students to think about the beauty when planning a knife, not what is easy or what not to make. It’s very easy to make the same blades, guards and handles we’ve already made and seen. The result is just a combination of designs we’ve already used before—one blade just like the one we made some time ago, combined with another guard we made in another project, with another handle, and even the filework, just new combinations of our same old ideas!

“That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to anything that’s beautiful and has great design,” Rodrigo maintained, “like cars, antiques, furniture, architecture and so on. We must refine our taste on everything so it will reflect on our work. It’s unbelievable how we can figure a knifemaker’s characteristics from his work, especially if he’s ‘thinking’ about his work or just following the crowd.”

Jason Knight custom knives
Jason Knight is a proponent of curves, and long and subtle arcs, in his knife designs. This recurve bowie in damascus and stag—winner of the award for Best Bowie in the 2012 BLADE Show custom knife judging competition—is an excellent example. (SharpByCoop.com photo)

ABS master smith Jason Knight’s knives are known for their superlative lines and great flowing execution. He spoke of the ancient ways of looking at and designing things, saying they work and that he won’t try to change them. He described his method as a “way of seeing” involving his eyes and his heart. He pointed out that makers have choices in materials that offer color and texture.

“Materials can limit or enhance design. Some designs might look cool but don’t work well. Usually,” he qualified, “if it looks good, it works well.”

He recommended taking inspiration from other art forms, such as sculpture and woodworking, adding that he likes curves and both long and subtle arcs.

Open Your Eyes

Trying to express the causes and effects of something whose nature is so intangible requires some degree of interpretation, and I’m not sure I am the one to carry this task to completion. However, most makers are in the same boat. Who would have thought so much would be involved in the making of a knife?

Do I understand it all? Not by a long shot. Am I overthinking the matter? Maybe. But it could be that considering these points will help my perspective become a little clearer. Besides, considering that the above three makers give serious attention to advancing line and flow in their work, I feel I’m in good company.


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