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Mike Haskew

What Do Judges Look At In Custom Knife Competitions?

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Know some of the criteria judges use to evaluate custom knives.

Artistic impression, technical merit, fit and finish, walk and talk: What are the standards and where are the attributes that lead to a judge’s conclusion when awards are on the line at a custom knife show? It goes without saying that sometimes the difference between a winner and runner-up is as thin as the edge of a sharpened blade.

Those who judge knife competitions are obviously obliged to employ their experience, skill, years of involvement with the industry and discerning subjectivity. As a result, looking at the criteria that some veteran judges employ helps observers develop a deeper perspective on the competition among the best custom makers in the business. Moreover, if you’re a collector, knowing what judges look for should help you improve your collection; if you’re a knifemaker, it should help you make better knives—or at least knives that are more likely to win judging competitions.

Peter Johnsson's Harbinger
It’s not unusual for a knife to win a category based simply on how hard it is to make—and when you make it as superbly as Peter Johnsson does with the Harbinger, so much the better. (SharpByCoop image)

“I use the four F’s,” advised longtime purveyor Les Robertson, “fit, finish, flow and function. Fit is the overall look of the knife, focusing on how well the guard/bolster fits the blade and guard. How well does the material fit up against the guard and spacers? If a full tang or tapered tang, how well does the handle material fit to the tang?” When it comes to finish, Les primarily looks for consistency and degree of difficulty.

“No matter what type of finish, is it consistent from the tip to the end of the knife? It can have no spots, scratches or other inconsistencies,” he explained. “The degree of difficulty comes in the form of the type of finish. A mirror finish is much more complex than a tumble or bead blast finish. I give bonus points for two-tone finishes, such as a mirror finish on the hollow of the blade and satin for the flat of the blade.”

Finishing up with flow and function, Robertson commented, “Flow—does the knife transition smoothly from one end to the other? Sometimes art knives become more about the art. The embellishments can take away from the basic design the knife was built on. Function: will the knife do what the design intended it to do? While there is always room for improvement on standard designs, the maker should temper the changes and base them on reality. Often, the design borders on or moves into the fantasy realm.”

Robertson adds that the first thing he notices when judging is whether the knife fits the category entered. Hunters, for instance, do not generally feature 10-inch bowie-style blades. Common errors or flaws, he observes, can usually be found in grind line symmetry in the choil area, whether a folder or fixed blade.

Complexity

Jared Oeser has been a custom knifemaker for 13 years and finds himself most familiar with folders. “Folders tend to be, more often than not, the more complicated knives to make,” he began. “Fit and finish are big factors, especially on a folder, and every detail has to be taken into account along with how hard the knife is to make. Adding a lockback feature or multiple blades makes the knife more complicated, and I have seen knives win in categories—even best in show—that might have a tiny flaw but win on the sheer complexity of the knife, just how hard it was to make.”

Oeser likes to take a broad view in the beginning, looking over each of the knives in a particular competition and moving from there. “In a process of elimination, I take some away and then give an overview of the ones that stand out with their level of detail, refinement and craftsmanship,” he said. “I try to leave style aside because everybody has a style of their own. But I do want to see that they have accomplished what they intended to do within their own style. It may not be to my taste, but if they have nailed it, that’s great! What does the entire package look like?”

Top-down views of knives can reveal the good or the bad.
Top-down views of knives can reveal the good or the bad. Here it’s the good with the proper spacing between the closed blades on an Evan Nicolaides sportsman’s knives. (SharpByCoop image)

After judging for the first time at BLADE Show Texas in 2022, Jared has seen some entries that immediately fall out of contention. “There are automatic disqualifications if knives have massive flaws,” he related. “I was judging a competition with [ABS master smith] Jim Rodebaugh once, and there was a big bowie with the nut on the end of the pommel way off center. Jim put that knife down and said, ‘Well, that’s out.’”

Scale & Proportion

Scale and proportion are critical elements in the overall presentation of a custom knife, and these ideals apply to both fixed blades and folders, according to Jim Berkenfield of Forged in Thread, an apparel company that contributes revenues back to the knife industry. “I typically examine a knife from the tip of the blade to the handle,” he said, “but that’s just me. Right away your eye will pick up on common errors such as disproportionate size between blade and handle, major flaws in fit and finish, or any sort of material or structural flaw. In my opinion, line and flow are extremely important in both fixed blades and folders, yet as in most judging this is a subjective characteristic of a knife. Really, it’s no different than admiring a fine piece of sculpture or artwork and saying ‘I like that’ or ‘I don’t like that.’”

Fit and finish factor into the award-winning formula in virtually every judge’s point of view. Visual appeal and quality construction go hand in hand. “That’s extremely important in judging knives,” Berkenfield added, “because judges are always looking for perfection in whatever the category may be. Smooth transitions between materials, perfectly centered blades, and smooth locking mechanisms are all vital characteristics of a winning knife.

Flow is when the knife’s shape transitions smoothly from one end to the other.
Flow is when the knife’s shape transitions smoothly from one end to the other. ABS master smith Adam DesRosiers nails the concept with his damascus keyhole hunter. (SharpByCoop image)

“In categories that I have judged, the judging teams quickly have been able to reduce the submissions to the top one, two or three knives almost at a glance. Occasionally a piece can be overlooked by a judge based upon the fact that it’s a knife that doesn’t fit [his/her] general aesthetic or knowledge set, and therefore [he/she has] a hard time appreciating it. Obviously, this is one of the reasons that judging is done by a panel and not by an individual judge.”

When it comes down to a pair of high-quality knives, Berkenfield seeks a closer examination of each piece, sometimes with a magnifying glass if necessary. Bad welds and asymmetry in damascus steel can make or break a winning knife.

“A piece of advice I have given to a lot of aspiring and up-and-coming makers is to try and find a way to distinguish your work from the multitude of other incredible knifemakers out there,” Jim concluded. “I tell them to imagine a table with 100 knives on it and one of their knives somewhere in the mix. They should be able to quickly scan the table and identify their knife from all the others. This is easier said than done and sometimes is accomplished with a completely unique design or simply by a small detail that identifies a knife as their own.”

Half The Equation

After making custom knives for eight years, Pennsylvanian Jim Vandeveld sees the judging aspect of his involvement weighted heavily on fit and finish, and his perspective on the topic is pretty specific. “Fit and finish are absolutely critical, and honestly, to me encompass more than 50 percent of a knife’s virtue,” he explained. “Polishing, edge breaking, hand satining, etching, buffing, etc., all must flow just as the design must flow. Inspecting it is purely visual and deficiencies are often glaringly obvious. For me, light usually tells the story. How a finished surface catches the light will often show most imperfections.”

Common errors or flaws can usually be found in the grind line symmetry
Common errors or flaws can usually be found in the grind line symmetry in the choil area. Carl Colson matches the plunge cuts quite well on his Loveless reproduction. (SharpByCoop image)

For Vandeveld, the judging experience begins at first sight—literally. “I think the way the knife is perceived visually at a distance is very important,” he commented. “I personally look for balance, flow and symmetry. These are broad spectrum visual cues that tend to draw me in to take a closer look at a piece. When judging a knife, all views must be taken into account. Lateral, top down, down the point, and more, all propose a different perspective and opportunity for detail to be found or missed. The same is true for folding knives.”

Vandeveld’s judging eye gravitates toward high quality, but common and recurring errors in the knifemaking process do surface. “I think the most common flaws that pop up within custom knives tend to be both visual—related to plunge and grind symmetry as well as faceting on handles and other components, straight-line fit-ups as far as gaps and locations, finishing with etching, sandblasting and polishing—as well as ergonomic hot spots and unbroken edges. These tend to be more subjective based on the maker’s style, but when judging a knife, how it fits in the hand is just as important as the aesthetic in my opinion.”

Set Of Standards

Most judges would probably agree that the devil—or the delight—is in the details when it comes to evaluating the entries in a custom knife competition. It’s way more than a beauty contest. Accessories such as sheaths or pocket clips are not necessarily required. As more than one judge has said, “I’m judging the knife and not the sheath.”

The sheer weight of the knife may even come into play for some, while others make it only a minor consideration. Walk and talk in folding knives certainly demonstrates the proficiency of the folder maker’s tolerances, centerline and spacing, and ease of opening. The list goes on.

One thing is certain—in judging the merits of a custom knife, an experienced individual learns to apply a set of standards to which all makers aspire.

More On Knifemaking:

2024 ABS Auction: Bidding Looks To Be Forge Hot

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Four outstanding smiths will have gems coming across the block.

The annual auction of American Bladesmith Society knives to support the continuing programs of the ABS is a highlight of the BLADE Show, and 2024 will be another memorable year when the hammer comes down at the Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta.

Once again, ABS master smith Brion Tomberlin is handling the logistics of the pre-auction process. He has brought together a roster of four outstanding ABS bladesmiths for this year’s event, and his appreciation of the ABS and what it means is reflected in his recent years of dedication to the auction.

“The ABS means so much to everyone involved and to the legacy and future of bladesmithing,” Brion commented. “It has developed so many bladesmiths through the years and helped to carry on the traditions and methods that have been used for generations. At the same time, it has brought along a younger group that will help keep interest in the forge alive and prospering.”

Jonathan Caruso holds the trophy
Jonathan Caruso holds the trophy and the knife he used to win the Arkansas Knife Guild Chopping Competition in Pickles Gap, Arkansas, in 2023.

Long Clip-Point

Jonathan Caruso of Conway, Arkansas, has been an ABS member for nine years now and earned his ABS journeyman smith rating at BLADE Show ’22. He will provide a long clip-point hunter with a single guard for the auction and to showcase his talent. “I chose this style of knife for the purpose of use,” he commented. “Although the knife was designed to be eye-catching, all my knives are created to be used for the tasks they were created for, which in this case is a functional hunting knife.”

Caruso adds that his goal with his ABS contribution knife is to deliver form and function with “a nice appeal, much like an evening gown or a cocktail dress.” He has added the flair and visual appeal of a hamon—essentially the line of demarcation where the hardened cutting edge and the softer spine converge on the blade—using a technique he learned from ABS master smith Jim Crowell. “It’s a process dubbed a ‘flame-painted hamon,’” Jonathan explained. “Instead of using the traditional clay method to create the hamon, I use an oxyacetylene torch to heat the cutting edge before hardening. I chose this method because I wanted to incorporate what I’ve learned from a very well-known master smith who has taught me a wealth of knowledge about bladesmithing and the history of the ABS.”

Caruso’s clip-point hunter features a 6-inch blade of W2 tool steel, sculpted guard of 416 stainless steel with vulcanized red and black spacers, and a handle of stabilized black walnut from Knife & Gun Finishing Supplies. Overall length: 11 inches.

“I chose the W2 to get a more definitive differentially heat-treated appeal,” Jonathan noted, “and the black walnut handle because it draws the eyes in to look at its stunning details. I feel like the handle material was waiting for such a knife and such an occasion as the ABS auction to be used. The black walnut handle material was purchased from Iron Dungeon Forge at BLADE Show Texas in 2023. I finally made it over to their table late on the afternoon of the first day and couldn’t believe that this beautiful piece hadn’t been bought yet.”

ABS master smith Steve Dunn
ABS master smith Steve Dunn

Chairman’s Trapper

Current ABS chairman Steve Dunn has been a member of the Society since 1990, two years after he began making knives as a hobby. He became an ABS master smith in 1994 and has taught at the ABS schools regularly. He joined the organization’s board of directors in 2003 and has been a committed servant of the ABS for 34 years.

“Each year the ABS has an auction at the BLADE Show to raise money for our schools for education of the forged blade,” he remarked. “I was asked to make the master smith folder this year, and I chose to make a traditional slipjoint. The reason I chose the slipjoint is that most everyone carries some kind of pocketknife—mostly slipjoints, I would think.”

Dunn’s contribution to this year’s ABS auction is a single-blade trapper with a 3-inch blade of twisted W’s pattern damascus. The damascus is a combination of 1075 carbon and 15N20 nickel-alloy steels. The bolster sports American-style scrollwork with 24k-gold inlay. The scales are sambar stag. Closed length: 3.75 inches. “The reason I chose this blade steel is that the two components contrast well together and for the edge-holding ability they offer,” Steve said.

Dagger Hamon

For James Rodebaugh, who joined the ABS in 1999 and received the Society’s master smith designation in 2004, the ABS is a worthy recipient of the contributions from its members to the auction each year. “Number one, the ABS is largely responsible for the high level of bladesmithing in the world today and the award winners that are recognized at the BLADE Shows in Texas and Atlanta. The ABS is always well represented when the winners are named in these shows, overwhelmingly so.”

Rodebaugh became a member of the ABS board of directors in 2014, and he sees the organization as continuing to build a future for the art of bladesmithing. Meanwhile, he is pleased to help out with the auction. “The ABS has given a lot to the knifemaking world,” he observed, “and this is my way of giving back in general.”

For the auction, James has chosen a dagger with an 8-inch blade of W2 tool steel that’s about an inch across at its widest point. The frame handle construction will feature domed silver pins and Tasmanian blackwood. James expects the overall length to be between 12 and 13 inches. An added feature is the clayed hamon.

“I don’t see many people doing a dagger with a hamon,” Rodebaugh opined, “and that used to be one of my signature things until I got away from it. I was originally going to go with damascus, but we see a lot of that, and with the finishing aspect of the work it is harder to do a properly finished carbon steel blade with a hamon than it is to etch a piece of damascus. Plus, I just like the look of the hamon. Also, the W2 steel shows a lot of action on the hamon, and it has a fairly short time and temperature curve so that the edge will harden and the thicker portion will stay soft, which gives you definition and activity on the hamon.”

Coffin Bowie

coffin bowie
As French ABS journeyman smith Nicolas Dartus noted, “For me, the coffin bowie is a typical American knife, and I love it.” His rendition for the ABS Auction offers 320-layers of damascus, a giraffe bone handle and a leather sheath. (Eric Eggly/PointSeven knife image)

ABS journeyman smith Nicolas Dartus began forging in his shop in eastern France in 2014, joined the ABS in 2016, and received the Society’s journeyman designation at BLADE Show ’19. He is working toward his master smith goal today, and he says that it is an honor to have one of his knives included in the prestigious ABS auction.

“For the auction, I’m making a coffin bowie,” Nicolas said. “For me, the coffin bowie is a typical American knife and I love it. Of course, my eye is a French eye, and I don’t have an American interpretation for this creation, but it is my vision! I think individuals have their own styles of knives. Of course, the ABS is an American society, but its members come from all over the world with different cultures and design ideas.”

Nicolas plans to make the knife with a blade of 320-layer damascus forged from 1075 carbon and 15N20 nickel-alloy steels. The handle will be giraffe bone and the piece will be accompanied by a leather sheath. “I’ll make the knife the traditional way,” he offered. “For me, working with the ABS is a great adventure.”

When these wonderful examples of modern bladesmithing come up for sale, the bidding is liable to be as heated as any forge. Those who go home with one of these beauties will not only have the satisfaction of ownership, but also in knowing they have directly assisted the ABS, providing support for the society’s ongoing mission of excellence.

Check Out Previous Custom Award Winners:

Folding Knives: New Sleek, Lanky And Able Options

Sleek new factory folders fuel consumer demand.

There’s a lanky breed of factory folder fueling consumer demand, and several notable entries in the genre are turning heads. Accomplished designers have teamed with knife companies to meld form and function with select materials to accomplish a sleek, majestic look exhibiting comfortable carry and easy deployment.

CRKT Stylus

CRKT Stylus
The lightweight aluminum handle of the CRKT Stylus features a ridge line that brings a dimension of safety, preventing the knife from twisting in your hand. The 3.18-inch blade is 12C27 stainless steel. Country of origin: USA. MSRP: $75.

The high-powered combination of BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member Ken Onion and Columbia River Knife & Tool has resulted in the Stylus, tailor made for a man or woman on the move who appreciates quality attributes in an EDC knife with great aesthetics.

“The Stylus is made to tackle just about any EDC task you can throw at it,” related Doug Flagg, CRKT vice president of marketing and innovation. “Boxes and letters are, of course, no match, but the blade has some paring knife characteristics so that it excels at peeling and even piercing tasks as well.”

Flagg has carried a Stylus for months and attests to its ability to make short work of straps, clam packaging and even a steak. “We went lean with the Stylus to balance form and function, really,” he added. “It’s lightweight, so it’s easy to carry, but it also has a certain panache that makes a statement any time you pull it out of your pocket.”

The lightweight handle combines strength with minimal weight. Texture adds purchase and control with a ridge line that brings a dimension of safety, preventing the knife from twisting in your hand. Fine 12C27 stainless blade steel and assisted opening with the Ikoma Korth Bearing System (IKBS) add to user enjoyment.

CRKT Stylus features an assisted opening blade
Designed by BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member Ken Onion, the CRKT Stylus features an assisted opening blade and a linerlock, and opens and closes via the Ikoma Korth Bearing System (IKBS). Pocket clip: stainless steel. Closed length: 4.15 inches.

According to Flagg, Onion wanted to create a simple, streamlined pocketknife that could act as sort of an office EDC to be carried in a shirt pocket, fifth pocket or standard pants pocket. “Across the knife world, Ken noticed a movement toward cleaner, leaner, more simplified designs that were a different approach compared to his typically large and more flowing knives,” Flagg concluded. “With the Stylus he was really trying to emulate that and have some fun with something new and unique.”

Coast Products Founder Series

Coast LX500
The LX500 in the Coast Founder’s Series is a design by Todd Ernst and David Goldman. The 2.85-inch tanto blade is flat-ground 9Cr18MoV stainless steel and the handle comes in a choice of black (shown here) or green canvas Micarta®, aluminum and titanium. The deep-carry, rollover-style pocket clip is reversible.

The Founder’s Series from Coast Products is a design collaboration between Todd Ernst and David Goldman, and it hit the mark with the intent to produce an elegant executive knife. “Based on feedback from customers and when looking at our offering, we wanted to design something that would not necessarily look like a knife when in a shirt or pocket,” explained Doug Hutchens, Coast sales operations manager.

“A knife designed to flip open must have a combination of correct geometry, minimal weight in the blade, and ball bearings at the pivot to create minimal friction to facilitate easy flipping,” Hutchens noted. “The tanto blade style is also popular and provides good looks. Then, without sacrificing strength in the frame, we designed the Micarta®, aluminum and titanium handle choices to keep weight at a minimum.”

The variety of handle materials makes buyers checking out the Founder’s Series feel like kids in a candy store. Hutchens noted that each material is attractive, strong and designed to give the customer variety in aesthetics. “That’s so they can choose the style that they like best,” he said. “Another customization was the pin color in the end of the knife handle, which was designed to be visible when carried in a pocket. At purchase, we provide two pin color options for the customer to further choose their own styling. The red pin is a nod to the red Coast ring trademark, which you’ll find on most every Coast product.”

Coast Founder’s Series LX502
The LX502 iteration in the Coast Founder’s Series sports a blackened blade that secures via a linerlock and a stonewashed titanium handle. The red pin in the handle butt is a nod to the red Coast ring trademark found on most every company product. Closed length: 4.25 inches. Country of origin: China. MSRP: $49.99.

Thin but mighty, the Founder’s Series is up to the rigor of daily use. Hutchens commented, “All knife design is a compromise with purpose. The length of the handle allows the butt of the knife to be captured by the user’s palm easily and quickly. Because of this there is no need for large finger grooves or guard projections. Lock it into your palm and it is very secure in your hand.”

Spyderco Ikuchi

Spyderco Ikuchi
The Ikuchi is a mythical Japanese sea monster, and the Spyderco knife of the same name and its flat-ground blade of CPM S30V stainless steel is built to weather whatever your everyday cutting needs may be. Blade and closed lengths: 3.26 and 4.35 inches.

Paul Alexander and the Spyderco design team have created a long, lean gem in the Ikuchi, distinctive with its scalpel-like blade boasting the company’s trademark hole. Alexander looked at a number of traditional knife patterns while scheming the Ikuchi, including the Texas toothpick and French laguiole.

“The Ikuchi design came from two distinct drivers,” Paul remarked. “First, I wanted to explore some designs based on more traditional patterns, but evolving and modernizing. Second, I wanted to create a piece with decidedly different blade geometry than the other collaboration pieces I’ve done with Spyderco. On the latter front, I was looking to design a pocketknife with a much narrower/shorter blade and width/height.

“I decided to take the narrow blade concept to the extreme, working to conceal the entire blade width within the handle scales when closed. The idea was that a knife this size would inherently take up a minimal amount of pocket space, strongly feature the handle shape, and create designs unique among Spyderco offerings.”

The thin nature of the Ikuchi handle makes the knife responsive in your hand while maximizing a user-friendly experience. Alexander explained, “The thin handle, without any features to lock any fingers into a set location, makes the knife more grip agnostic and easily repositionable in the hand. But thin handles can cause some difficulty for folks that may have limited hand dexterity, or lost some of it.

Spyderco Ikuchi profile
In addition to its Japanese name, the Spyderco Ikuchi combines elements of the Texas toothpick and French laguiole for a truly international design. Handle: carbon fiber/G-10 laminate. Lock: Compression. Country of origin: Taiwan. MSRP: $244.

Both are true of the Ikuchi, but seeing as it’s meant for EDC and light-duty tasks, I don’t find myself overly concerned when using the knife appropriately and responsibly. The handle material was Spyderco’s call but I admit I’m a sucker for carbon fiber scales, and the textured, peel-ply carbon fiber [Spyderco uses] is a great blend of aesthetics and grip without adding much mass.”

Spartan Blades Spartan-Nemec

Spartan-Nemec carbon fiber
Also available in sculpted carbon fiber and a blackened blade, the Spartan-Nemec has a stainless steel pocket clip that’s deep carry and ambidextrous. Lock: linerlock. Closed length: 4.5 inches.

Czech designer Ondrej Nemec joined Spartan Blades to produce the Spartan-Nemec folder, intended to be practical and versatile in the EDC role, a tool for any common job. Compact and easy to carry in a pocket, the Spartan-Nemec is a snap to deploy and makes light work of cutting boxes, envelopes or tape.

Nemec grew up in his father’s workshop, and Ondrej’s steady commitment to quality knives led to the founding of his Acta Non Verba knife company over 10 years ago. “The knives he designed in the past are similar to the quality and size of Spartan models, making him a good fit for Spartan while bringing a new flair to what we do,” related Curtis Iovito, company president.

Looking good always helps says Iovito of the smart, lean lines of the Spartan-Nemec. He adds that the knife incorporates features such as a secure locking mechanism, comfortable grip, and ambidextrous design for easy use by both southpaws and right-handers. “The biggest advantage of the design is that it stays out of your way when in the pocket,” Curtis smiled.

User ergonomics guided the Nemec design, making it ideal for quick and precise handling. The length of the handle contributes to stability and ease of control. In combination, the design elements produce an efficient everyday tool that can act as a backup in special circumstances, too.

“Although made with everyday tasks in mind, the knife boasts sufficient length to serve as a viable defensive tool in emergency situations,” Iovito indicated. “This contributed to our decision to incorporate a flipper mechanism facilitated by caged bearings and a strategically positioned flipper tab, ensuring readiness for such scenarios.”

Iovito also notes that the Spartan-Nemec’s inspiration was a “larger counterpart,” the KA-BAR Ek Models 4 and 5. “Originating from KA-BAR, this larger knife has been scaled down to create our folding version tailored for everyday carry,” he said. “While the concept of a penknife is not groundbreaking, we are confident that our rendition stands out as a well-crafted and reliable tool.”

Check Out More Knife Drops:

The Tony Test: Lockback Whittlers

Tony Bose said if you can make a lockback whittler, you have arrived as a knifemaker.

While the whittler is a classic pocketknife pattern that dates back at least to the 1850s, a variation on the theme incorporating both the lockback and slip joint mechanisms offers a challenge to the custom knifemaker and a delight to the owner of this intriguing style.

Custom knifemaker David Taber explains his take on the whittler as a three-blade knife with the main blade on one end and two secondary blades on the other. Simple as that. However, from definition to completed construction it’s a bit more complicated, particularly when the lockback mechanism is thrown into the mix.

“The whittler as originally designed was very functional in that the larger main blade is used for making larger cuts and the two smaller blades are for more detailed cutting,” Taber advised. “The knife is necessarily thin by design with the two small blades nestled on either side of the main blade in the closed position, which makes for a slim, pocket-friendly knife.”

Taber’s rendering of the lockback whittler features hollow-ground blades of CPM 154 stainless steel and a mammoth ivory bark handle. The main locking blade length is 3 inches and his price for a comparable piece would be $2,100. He attributes an early interest in the lockback whittler to comments made by BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member Tony Bose in a 2008 issue of BLADE® relating to the skill level required to make one.

BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member Tony Bose (Kerry Hampton image)

“I was intrigued and called Tony,” David remembered. “That single conversation started a lasting friendship and started me collecting and eventually making knives. In later years he challenged me to make a lockback whittler and shared his pattern with me. He said, ‘If you can make one of these, David, you will have arrived.’”

Taber took on the task with gusto and through personal experience describes the challenge. “The difficulty, in my opinion, lies in centering the main locking blade in the closed position between the two slip-joint blades at the opposite end without rubbing during function. Equally difficult is balancing the two springs that operate the two slip joints on the one end and the underside of the lockbar on the other end. Think of it like a sophisticated teeter-totter,” he explained. “Care must also be taken to maintain the length, particularly the end that controls the lock tab. It has been my experience that to shorten it even the slightest amount will increase the load deflection rate and thereby make the lock tab not function properly.”

David Taber’s lockback whittler sports hollow-ground blades of CPM 154 stainless steel, stainless bolsters and a mammoth ivory bark handle. His price for a similar knife: $2,100. (SharpByCoop knife image)

The level of difficulty in making the lockback whittler contributes to its collectability, Taber says, which in turn makes the design rarer in the marketplace. “The typical collector of the lockback whittler is usually aware of the skill required to make such a knife and achieves great satisfaction from owning one,” he reasoned.

MOST DIFFICULT?

Knifemaker Luke Swenson shares a connection to Bose with Taber. The Case-Bose collaboration effort introduced Swenson to the design. “The blade configuration and the smaller blades being half the thickness of the main blade set it apart from other patterns,” he commented.  “Some whittlers have a ‘catch bit’ or a piece of liner material to hold the blades apart at one end so the main blade clears, and some have a tapered wedge, commonly called a splitback. In the case of the lockback whittler, there is a full spacer that rests between the rear slip-joint blades. Also, in a lockback whittler the small blades and spacer are exactly one-third the thickness of the main blade. The main blade locks, and I believe this is for safety and allows for harder use.”

Swenson’s lockback whittler features a hollow-ground 2.8-inch blade of feather damascus forged by Mike Tyre. The fittings are 416 stainless steel and the handle is natural stag. Luke’s price for a similar piece is around $3,000. He describes the lockback whittler as “the most difficult pattern to build, even more so than a six-blade. I believe it isn’t just the combining of elements, but the springs are somewhat tricky in that you have to be paying attention—one false move, or even one over-aggressive pass on your grinder, and you’ll be making new springs. Grinding the small blades isn’t easy and requires a developed feel for getting them right. Very challenging! But if it’s right, the results are magic.”

Feather damascus forged by Mike Tyre comprises the hollow-ground blades of a lockback whittler by Luke Swenson (inset)in natural stag and integral bolsters and liners of 416 stainless. Closed length: 4 inches. Luke’s price for a similar knife: $3,000. (SharpByCoop knife image)

According to Luke, the construction of the slip joint and the lockback are completely different, at least in the opening stages. Putting the two mechanisms together with tiny parts, delicate springs and narrow tolerances tests the skills of the knifemaker in an extraordinary way. “The blades have to sit in the handle to make their tips sit in the handle,” he concluded, “and yet the nail nicks have to be accessible. That takes time and patience to get right.”

Renowned custom knifemaker Wolfgang Loerchner happened past Swenson’s table at the East Coast Custom Knife Show some time back and asked if Luke could make a lockback whittler. “This was in the March of that year, and we agreed on a BLADE Show delivery in June,” Luke laughed. “Keep in mind I’m an unknown maker, and starstruck doesn’t quite describe what I was feeling. I said, ‘Sure, I can get one built.’”

From there, Swenson went to “The Maestro,” Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Bill Ruple. “He was quite amused and laughed, a little more than was polite I thought, but he agreed to help me through the process,” Luke recalled. “Like all my slip-joint making, anything I learned to do right was in Bill Ruple’s shop. He was key. I don’t believe I would have made the deadline if he hadn’t helped me. I’d send him pictures, and he’d say, ‘remake this and fit it like this instead.’”

The bottom line for the Swenson lockback whittler is its tremendous appeal. “It is a sleek, streamlined beauty,” he offered. “Like anything Tony Bose decided to do, it is elegant and feels comfortable in the hand.”

COMPLEX SIMPLICITY

When knifemaker Tim Robertson envisions his next lockback whittler project, he knows what he’s getting into. “What truly makes the lockback whittler so difficult to build is the way the springs operate,” he noted. “The slip joint is a standard arch spring pushing down on the blade tang while also lifting up at an equal force on the rear of the lockbar, keeping the blade firmly in position. Too much load on either end loosens the opposite end. In a nutshell, the springs have to be balanced between lockbar function and slip-joint function.”

According to Tim Robertson, “The lockback whittler is appealing due to the complexity of the multiple parts and simplicity of design and operation.” Note the spacer that separates the two smaller blades Robertson mentions in the story at the bottom of the closed knife at right. (Mitchell Cohen knife image)

Robertson has become well known for his lockback whittler proficiency, and two recent examples have won awards. His winners of Best Locking Folder at BLADE Show West 2022 and the 2023 Knifemakers’ Guild Best Multiblade Folder both sport CPM 154 stainless blade steel, 416 stainless frames and stag handles. His prices for similar knives would be about $2,500 each.

With a simple explanation for his foray into lockback whittlers, Robertson remarked, “I just wanted to see if I could do it. The lockback whittler is appealing due to the complexity of the multiple parts and simplicity of design and operation.”

Defining the whittler as a knife with three blades and two springs, Tim commented, “The most common types are the splitback variety with a tapered spacer separating the two pen blades. The reason for the tapered spacer is to allow clearance for the blade to fold into the handle without having to have the main blade thickness increased, and then offset ground for the clearance so that one pen blade falls on each side of the main blade.”

SIDE-BY-SIDE KNIVES

Knifemaker Rhidian Gatrill consulted friend and historian Neal Punchard on the origin of the lockback whittler. In response, Rhidian learned that the earliest examples of it were probably made in Sheffield, England, a major center of European cutlery, and later by German and American cutlers.

“It is a premium pattern and difficult to make, so not many companies took on the challenge,” Gatrill explained. “Some of the early Sheffield multiblade sportsman knives and a few rare jackknives had lockback main blades and slip-joint blades, but they are basically two knives side by side. There’s nothing quite like the lockback whittler. There are a few other pocketknives that have locking main blades and slip-joint secondary blades, but they’re not lockback knives. The electrician knives, for example, have a [locking liner] on the screwdriver blade. And there are pen-blade-release knives where the small secondary pen blade gets pushed in to unlock the main blade.”

Rhidian Gatrill’s Lockback Rhiddler captured Best Folder in the custom category at last year’s BLADE Show West. The cleverly named lockback whittler features a locking 2 7/8-inch flat-ground wharncliffe and 2-inch hollow-ground slip-joint clip and coping blades of CPM 154 stainless steel. His price for a similar knife: $2,600. (Jocelyn Frasier knife image)

Motivation to make the challenging pattern was easy for Gatrill, who won Best Folder at BLADE Show West 2023 for his lockback whittler cleverly named Lockback Rhiddler. “I like interesting mechanisms and figuring out how to make them work,” he related. “I wanted to challenge myself and see how hard it was to make. Plus, I was attending my first knife show ever, which was the Oregon Knife Collectors Association show in Eugene, Oregon, and I wanted to take something that would possibly win an award. That knife ended up winning Best Folder and Best of Show.”

Looking for examples of lockback whittlers that were striking in appearance and function, Rhidian did some research and recalls, “Like most pocketknife makers, I admire the knives of Tony Bose, Bill Ruple, Ken Erickson and other masters that came before me. I traced photos of their knives and read forum posts that give a few tips, and I asked a few questions from other maker friends that have made lockback whittlers.”

That research led to an opportunity to present a lockback whittler interpretation that resonated with the collector community. “I believe knife collectors like them for their rarity, complexity of mechanism, and interesting function of combining the lockback blade with the slip-joint blades,” Rhidian concluded. “They also look cool with the thick tang on the main blade that steps down thinner and tapers to a point. A locking blade is always a little safer than a slip joint technically, so there’s that for the user. Not many custom makers have made them, and those who do don’t make many!”

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Bob Loveless: The Icon’s Indelible Mark On The Knife Industry

Loveless’ impact is still felt today.

A week after BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member Bob Loveless died at age 81 on Sept. 2, 2010, Los Angeles Times reporter Valerie J. Nelson wrote a lengthy story on the man who sold his first knife to the Abercrombie & Fitch sporting outfitter for $14 more than 55 years earlier.

Nelson wrote that Loveless “made some of the world’s most coveted sporting cutlery by refining knife design to high art.” These succinct words convey a glimpse of the influence this giant in the cutlery industry wielded during his lifetime. In this 50th anniversary year for BLADE®, his legacy stands tall among those who have dedicated their lives in building the knife industry to what it is today.

Bob Loveless
Bob Loveless in his shop in October 2006. (image courtesy of Aaron Merritt, grandson of Jim Merritt)

Truth is, there’s scarcely an aspect, nook or cranny of the knife business that Robert Waldorf Loveless did not touch during his lifetime. He was forthright, sometimes gruff and always prone to speak his mind. During an interview for BLADE, he once asked this writer what the tapping noise was that he heard in the background. When I responded that it was the keys clicking as I was taking notes while we talked, he bluntly asked, “Can’t you remember anything? Why can’t you just listen?”

Loveless’ Defining Designs

No matter. Loveless was articulate, extremely intelligent and deep down passionate about art in knives. Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Bruce Voyles knew Loveless and respected him for what he was.

“The thing about Loveless is he made a knife with eye appeal,” Bruce observed. “It was different, and a lot of people don’t understand why, but it was [his use of the] natural French curve. It was the design appeal.”

True enough, Loveless was a master of design. He had actually studied briefly at the Institute of Design in Chicago in the 1950s, and was a student of the Bauhaus Movement, a cultural and artistic design wave that peaked in the mid-1930s, something of a North Star, a muse if you will. Its dictum: Form Follows Function.

Loveless sub-hilt
Another of Loveless’s favorite designs is the sub-hilt, radiant in one of Bob’s Baby Bear fighters with mother-of-pearl scales, Naked Lady logo and Riverside, California, stamp. (Exquisiteknives.com image)

Longtime Loveless authority John Denton told reporter Nelson, “He is pretty much the Picasso of the knife world and the father of 20th century knifemaking. His design is what made him famous.”

Dave Ellis, proprietor of Exquisiteknives.com, agrees.

“Going back to the 1950s, Loveless has been instrumental in perfecting some of the more common traits found in contemporary knives,” he related. “The dropped hunter is probably Bob’s most emulated design, although the Archer chute, sub-hilt fighter and more show that Bob did not rest on his laurels. When a smaller, carry-sized fighter was called for, Loveless came up with the New York Special.”

Denton recalled the Loveless willingness to revive and reintroduce design and construction concepts that caught hold in modern times and energized new frontiers of imagination and artistry.

“He was not the first to use the tapered tang,” John explained, “but he found out about it from an old knife made in the 1850s that was given to him by Billy DuPont of the DuPont family. Loveless brought it back into the modern world with the tapered tang taking the weight out of the knife. Bob said, ‘It has to look so good you want to pick it up and feel so good you don’t want to put it down.’”

Bob Loveless, John Denton and Jim Merritt
From left, Bob Loveless, John Denton and Jim Merritt in the Loveless shop in Riverside, California.

According to Denton, Loveless also brought the brass wrap handle, hidden pin, two-tone pins and half tang into play.

Design achievement crowns Bob’s career, but there was so much more to him—so much that attempting to compile a summary of his contributions would require more space than this publication might allot in another half-century.

Voyles commented, “I always liked him because he could sum up a complex subject in a sentence. He and I visited one time and I would throw out topic after topic, and he would snap back a quick response. When you left him you knew you left somebody that was phenomenally intelligent on a variety of topics, but that doesn’t mean he had social graces.”

One of Bruce’s favorite Loveless memories was Bob’s rationale during the controversy that raged within the Knifemakers’ Guild as to what truly defined a handmade knife. Loveless liked Jack Daniel’s, so Voyles and Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Dan Delavan bought a 1.75-liter bottle of Gentleman Jack whiskey (Single Barrel wasn’t available at the time) and presented it to Loveless at his home in Riverside, California.

Loveles prototype
In an arrangement between Loveless and Schrade’s Uncle Henry Baer facilitated by A.G. Russell, Loveless sent this actual prototype to Schrade to copy and make the Schrade Loveless collaboration in the early 1970s. It has no guard, an “improved handle,” and a more pronounced belly than most of the Loveless dropped hunters of later years. The handle is burgundy Micarta®. As John Denton observed, the knife “has a magical feel from the ol’ man.” (Denton image)

“I said to him, ‘I hope you will accept this gift in the spirit in which it is intended,’” Bruce smiled. “He laughed and put the bottle on his shelf. Then we sat down and asked him what he believed to be the definition of a handmade knife. We videotaped his answer. He said, ‘I wish I had a machine that I could dump handle material, steel and pins into, and then a knife would come out the other end, boxed and ready to send to somebody. So, make your knives any way you want to. The marketplace will sort you out soon enough.’”

Simple, straightforward and wise.

Bob’s Impact On The Industry

Loveless played a pivotal role in the genesis of knifemakers’ organizations. He was a founding member of the Knifemakers’ Guild and a pioneer with the California Knifemaker’s Association. He was a staunch supporter of knife shows, bringing people to the events just with his mere presence. According to Ellis, Bob regularly attended the Guild Show, BLADE Show, Solvang Show, California Custom Knife Show and Phil Lobred’s Art Knife Invitational

Loveless also brought along younger knifemakers, working with them and offering advice. A few include Jim Merritt, D.F. Kressler, Yoshihito Aida, Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer D’ Holder and Steve Johnson. Bob’s style and artistic interpretation live on in part with the work of these incredible craftsmen.

Loveless-Johnson daggers
Steve Johnson worked in the Loveless shop in the early ’70s and remembers Bob fondly. “He was a true friend to those who were genuine and sincere with him,” Steve noted. Of this rare set of Loveless-Johnson daggers John Denton wrote simply, “Three really great knives.” (Denton image)

“Many a maker is in debt to Bob Loveless for the support, counsel, corrections and guidance that he gave,” Johnson said. “He was a true friend to those who were genuine and sincere with him, and the relationship that they had with him. Bob, as we know, was outspoken and quick to correct what he felt was not right or smart, which led to some loving him and others not, a bit like Ed Henry—love or hate—but both were so very good to me personally!”

Materials Maven

Loveless was an innovator in the aspect of materials as well, including 154CM stainless steel and the introduction of ATS-34 from Japan, while also popularizing Micarta® as a handle material.

Ellis commented, “Loveless pioneered the use of many of the common steels used today, especially 154CM. The shop was able to purchase such quantities that Bob could pretty much order what he wanted. The favorite handle material of the Loveless shop was green Micarta.”

Johnson remembered, “There was a stack of 154CM steel lying in the driveway at 4319 W 187th Street [the address of the Loveless shop] the day I first walked in. Bob mentioned that he was excited to get some blades done and heat treated right off. Green canvas Micarta was set in stone as the best handle material in Bob’s view. It’s still right up there on top and is used by many a maker. It’s because of Bob’s legacy that this happens.”

Global Influence

A lasting dimension of the Loveless legacy was his bridge to Japan, as well as his overtures in the European markets.

“Bob was deified to the extent that every Japanese knifemaker included his designs among their offerings,” Ellis explained. “Bob was an icon in Japan, and to this day many of the top makers in Asia have Loveless designs in their repertoires.”

Five Loveless fixed blades
Five Loveless fixed blades sport the no bolt/no pin look in ivory handles. (Exquisiteknives.com image)

Voyles commented, “Bob went over there and showed the Japanese how to make good knives. I went to Japan in 1981 or ’82, and in every factory I went to there was a picture of Bob Loveless and the factory owner. The thing was that Bob’s wife, Yoshiko, was Japanese, so he didn’t have a problem with the language barrier, and he went to Japan to show them how to make knives that appeal to Americans.”

Loveless used his connections to make things happen, and Voyles credits him with the evolution of the folding knife among Japanese manufacturers, as well as a surge in the Japanese collector market.

“Bob didn’t make folders and the Japanese wanted folders,” Bruce recalled. “He had worked on a design with Jess Horn, and Bob put Jess and Japanese collectors in touch with each other. Horn also had a series of folders that he patterned after the old Remington Bullets. When Japanese collectors discovered that, their market for vintage Remingtons went straight through the roof. Loveless sowed the seeds in the 1990s for the collectibility of vintage knives in Japan.”

Collecting Loveless

Today, a Loveless knife is a collectible phenomenon in its own right. Name the year, name the mark on the blade, name the style and the materials, it will sell for astonishing dollars. Denton has noted some models made in the 1970s that sold for $400 then and have reached the rarefied air of $100,000 or more in recent years. The power of Loveless pricing simply takes your breath away.

Bruce is quick to add that Loveless was professionally unselfish. “If you wanted to make a style of his knife in your factory, that was OK,” Bruce noted. “Just ask him.”

Early Model Loveless
Circa 1955, Loveless sold his first knife to Abercrombie & Fitch for $14 (adjusted for inflation, almost $160 in today’s money). Loveless made this early model for A&F in his shop in Claymont, Delaware.

The pervasive Loveless influence stretched far and wide, from the custom knife shop to the factory.

“His designs for and collaborations with Schrade, Gerber, Lone Wolf and others, and the factory knife market in general, were significant,” Ellis recalled. “Early on the astute factories were taken by Loveless designs and made limited editions in dropped hunters and others. These days factory collaborations are quite common, and you can thank Bob Loveless if you want to give credit where it is due.”

When Sports Illustrated called Loveless for an interview in 1980 and the magazine published his words in the same edition that featured tennis superstar Bjorn Borg on the cover, the impact on the entire knife universe was transcendent. When asked why so many people considered his knives “better” than those of others, he mused, “A knife is an extension of your experience. And I’ve had more experiences than most people. There’s more character running in my veins.”

For those who knew Bob, just the knowing was an unforgettable experience. His contributions to his present and to the futures of others in the knife industry remains incalculable. And so, the longevity of a man does not reside in his years on Earth, but in the perpetual remembrance of his ideas, his workmanship and his innovative perspective on the world.

Therefore, it can be said that when Loveless left us he did not go gentle into that good night. He did not fade away. He didn’t drop the mic. He handed it to those with the foresight and the intestinal fortitude for the days to come. Now, what do we say and do? Loveless might grouse. He might gripe. But he just might also manage a grin.

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Brisket Knife: These Carving Blades Are Bad To The Bone

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Prepare massive meat feast with one of these barbecue beasties at hand.

The barbecue/brisket knife is an indispensable tool for those who prepare brisket and other large-scale meat dishes. Makers go the extra mile to provide the toughness and tensile strength needed, along with a tip that stays sturdy to separate meat and prepare it for serving. Individual recipes include the good looks and visual appeal that make owning and using the best in such knives a pleasure.

Ben Anderson: Brisket Slicers For The Barbie

Ben Anderson forged the 12.6-inch blade of his Mosaic Brisket Slicer
Ben Anderson forged the 12.6-inch blade of his Mosaic Brisket Slicer from 1084 carbon and 15N20 nickel-alloy steels. Done in the Japanese wa (octagonal) style, the handle is ringed gidgee with a damascus spacer. Overall length: 19.7 inches. (Rod Hoare image)

Ben Anderson of Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia, features his artisan’s perspective in two beauties that allow form and function to seamlessly blend. He calls both brisket slicers, and in each case he has styled the big carbon steel blade for use with large pieces of meat. One features a blade of 52100 high carbon steel, handle of ironwood and ebony with textured and filed brass spacer, overall length of 27.5 inches, blade of 19.7 inches, and leather sheath. The second is a stunning piece with a 12.6-inch blade of mosaic damascus in 1084 carbon and 15N20 nickel-alloy steels, and a handle of ringed gidgee with a damascus spacer. Overall length: 19.7 inches.

“The blade shape just seems to be a favorite of the brisket guys [in Australia],” Ben commented. “I think people like it because it’s just an aggressive-looking shape that’s a bit reminiscent of a katana. Most of my time as a maker I’ve offered full customization for my clients, so this really pushed me to try all different shapes, sizes and color combinations.”

A custom knifemaker for about six years now, Anderson uses precision specifications in crafting his brisket knives to perform. “On my standard kitchen knives I’ve always aimed for a ricasso height of around 18 millimeters [.7 inch], which made my handles around 20 millimeters [.79 inch] tall at the front and tapered out to around 5 millimeters [.196 inch] bigger at the back. On the bigger brisket knives I aimed for a ricasso height of around 23 millimeters [.9 inch], which made the handles around 25 millimeters [.98 inch] tall at the front and again tapered to around 5 to 7 millimeters [.196 to .275 inch] bigger at the back. I like to scale the handles up with the blades,” he noted, “so it all looks in proportion. It also helps with the balance a bit.”

Ben Anderson’s brisket slicer is one in a 19.7-inch blade of 52100 carbon steel
Yet another example of Ben Anderson’s brisket slicer is one in a 19.7-inch blade of 52100 carbon steel, and an ironwood and ebony handle with a textured, filed brass spacer. Overall length: 27.5 inches. (Rod Hoare image)

Anderson’s brisket knives have found their way into competitions with a customer who uses them to prep and slice. Ben’s maintenance and upkeep includes Renaissance Wax for long-term storage after a good cleaning. For everyday servicing a bees wax or mineral oil wipe down for the handle works best.

Of course, since Ben is Australian, his take on the barbecue event itself is enlightening. “A barbecue here is often as simple as a 24-pack of sausages and a loaf or two of bread and some basically burnt-to-a-crisp onion,” he laughed. “As for myself, I’m usually pretty happy with a simple steak and sausages.”

Peter Pruyn: San-Mai Slicer

Peter Pruyn’s brisket slicer
Peter Pruyn’s brisket slicer is designed for slicing large pieces of beef. It has a long, thin, Granton-style blade with a tad of distal taper and vertical scallops its entire length. The Granton blade is ideal for cutting large pieces of meat, and the handle supports slicing with a pulling motion. His price for a similar knife: $1,000. (SharpByCoop image)

Peter Pruyn of Grant’s Pass, Oregon, recently produced a brisket slicer that is pleasing to work with and also admire next to the cutting board. His 13-inch blade in a stainless/high-carbon san-mai construction of respective 416 and 52100 steels is complemented by a handle of his favorite handle material from Voodoo Resins, and a copper spacer. Overall length: 18 inches. A zippered, padded pouch is included.

The pouch, Pete says, is more practical in a kitchen setting and protects the knife. If the knife is included in a set, his preference for protection is a leather knife roll.

“This particular knife is designed for slicing large pieces of beef,” Pruyn related. “I made it for a customer who uses it for commercial-size briskets. When I needed to design a knife for that purpose, I called a friend, Rob Baptie, who barbecues and cooks briskets and other meats professionally. He described a very long, thin blade with a little distal taper and vertical scallops the entire length of the blade. Often referred to as a Granton-style blade, it has a handle that supports slicing with a pulling motion.”

Peter forged the blade to about 1/8-inch thick. “The 52100 has always been an excellent steel for butcher and chef’s knives due to its abrasion resistance, and it takes an excellent edge and retains it very well. The stainless protects the core steel and makes it easier to maintain,” he observed. “I also etched the blade, which makes the 52100 more rust resistant, like a forced patina.”

The Voodoo Resins handle material is easy to work with and extremely durable. “It doesn’t change with time, temperature or humidity,” Peter said. “Its creator, Matt Peterson, made a custom color for this knife, which was part of a 14-piece set. For the bolsters I chose copper more for its aesthetic appeal with the other materials than anything else. When you make a custom knife for something like this you have to think about how it looks and not just a comfortable handle and a practical, durable design. It’s part of the whole package.”

Matt Williams: Barbecue Balance

Brisket knife cutting meat
The BBQ Chef’s Knife by Matt Williams is a meat-slicing machine. He outfits it in a 9-inch blade of 400-layer damascus forged from 1084 carbon and 15N20 nickel-alloy steels, and a handle of spalted pecan and cedar elm with a white oak dowel. Overall length: 15 inches. His price for a similar knife: $750. (SharpByCoop knife image)

A heavy chef’s knife with a santoku influence was the goal for Matt Williams of Bastrop, Texas, with his beauty of 400-layer random-pattern damascus in 1084 carbon and 15N20 nickel-alloy steels. The blade is 9 inches long and the handle is spalted pecan, cedar elm and a white oak dowel in a combination that evokes the maker’s woodworking skills. His knives are influenced by feedback from customers who have told him what they really want in a solid performing knife. His price for his BBQ Chef’s Knife starts at $750.

“The blade’s distal taper is .169 to .05 inch,” Matt noted, “and this distal allows for some more delicate work to be done at the end of the blade. Sometimes you need to slice up some peppers or dice up something tasty. The handle is long to balance the heavy blade out. It’s thin because I like wa [octagonal] handles, and this is my interpretation done on a wood lathe. I turn the whole handle and the dowel. I harvest, mill and stabilize most of my wood. They are all local hardwoods. I know these woods well and their capacities.”

When designing his BBQ Chef’s Knife, Matt relies more heavily on balance than weight. His perspective counts on a solid feel in a pinch grip. “Prepping 200 fruit and veggie trays in eight hours will test your wrist,” he smiled. “I learned not to fight a forward-leaning blade. I worked in food prep when I was younger and I have always been drawn to this shape for its overall utility.

“I want the knife to slice well through meat and to be able to break a joint,” he concluded. “Afterwards, it will also look pretty next to a pile of barbecue!”

Editor’s note: Due to fluid market conditions, all prices listed are subject to change. Please check with the applicable maker for the latest in pricing.

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Petty Knife: The Mama Bear Of Food-Prep Tools

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Larger than a paring knife, smaller than a chef’s knife, the petty knife is right-sized for heavy-duty precision work.

Sometimes food preparation calls for something especially suited for close, even intricate, work. The petty knife was made for such employment.

While it may be a bit smaller in stature than other knives chefs regularly use, the petty knife makes short work of otherwise laborious functions.

Its name is derived from the French petit or small, but it’s big on getting the job done.

“Ask a dozen makers what the petty knife is and you’ll get a dozen different answers,” offered custom maker Ian Ronald of Elderslie, New South Wales, Australia. “But for me, I would define a petty knife as a culinary knife that is shorter than a chef’s knife but with a broader blade than a paring knife. I find a petty knife to be incredibly handy for household food preparation tasks, with a blade that is big enough to cut most food items but not so large as a full-sized chef’s knife, making it a little more versatile for ‘in hand’ food prep tasks such as cutting avocados and similar things. I have a few in my kitchen and they are the most commonly used knives in the knife block by far.”

The full-flat-ground blade of 18-year-old Aidan De Fazio’s petty knife.
The full-flat-ground blade of 18-year-old Aidan De Fazio’s petty knife is also slightly convex to preserve edge longevity and provide better food release. (Rod Hoare knife image)

Representative of Ronald’s petty knife work is a piece the price of which varies depending on materials chosen. With a 4.92-inch blade of Takefu Special stainless clad in san-mai fashion over V-Toku2 carbon steel, a desert ironwood handle and 9.25-inch overall length, the petty remains with the maker—and he uses it frequently.

“I designed this knife with quite clean lines and simple shapes, as it was intended to be a workhorse from the beginning,” Ian commented. “I used some premium materials but I didn’t add any embellishments or unnecessary details. I follow that aesthetic with most of the knives I make, preferring to let the form follow the function for the most part. This particular knife has a relatively deep blade with a reasonably high tip profile, which allows it to be used for [rocking/chopping] and push cuts despite its unassuming size.”

The steel combination on Ronald’s knife includes a carbon core with stainless cladding from the Takefu steel company of Japan. According to Ian, it is quite corrosion resistant and maintains a bright appearance, as the carbon steel core etches dark and develops character and patina with use. The blade grind is nearly flat with a slight convex slant near the edge, which is intended to create a fine cutting edge while maintaining toughness.

Precision Worker Petties

Sixty-year-old Australian Zohar Oshinsky has been making knives since he was 12 but became more serious about his work just a few years ago, becoming a full-time maker in the past five years. His petty knife features a 5.12-inch blade of M390 stainless damascus steel from Sanwa Special Steel of Japan, handle scales of stabilized red mallee burl timber—a hardwood from the York peninsula of South Australia—and an overall length of 10.04 inches.

Ian Ronald said a petty knife has a blade big enough to cut most food items.
Ian Ronald said a petty knife has a blade big enough to cut most food items but not so large as a full-sized chef’s knife, making it a little more versatile for avocados and similar things. Overall length of his Kitchen Petty: 9.25 inches. (Rod Hoare knife image)

“This petty knife is a smaller Japanese utility knife,” Zohar said, “generally used for precision knife work and fine slicing. My knives are often made to order, so the material is to the customer’s liking. The san-mai is an excellent steel for kitchen knives in this construction with a very high rust resistance and excellent edge retention. The damascus cladding is made from 67 layers of 410 and high nickel stainless.”

Oshinsky says his blade grind is shallow, convex, very thin and incredibly sharp. The blade’s soft cladding protects the core from shock and provides a small amount of flexibility.

Semi-Dark Theme Petty Knives

Aidan De Fazio is all of 18. He began his knifemaking journey at 11 and his progress has been steady. His petty knife includes a 4.5-inch, full-flat-ground blade of san-mai in 1084 clad carbon steel with nickel. The handle is stabilized spalted maple and ebony. The blade is slightly convex ground to preserve edge longevity and provide better food release. Overall length: 9 inches.

Charlie Ellis and BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member Steve Schwarzer collaborated on the Penrose Petite Chef.
Charlie Ellis and BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member Steve Schwarzer collaborated on the Penrose Petite Chef. The 6-inch blade is Penrose tiling billet of 15N20 nickel-alloy steel in a pattern based on never-repeating Penrose tiling. Overall length: 11.75 inches. (SharpByCoop image)

“The petty knife is a small general-purpose knife,” Aidan explained. “It’s used for peeling, shaping, and slicing fruits and vegetables, chopping herbs, and making garnishes. I design everything by eye and chose this design because everything flowed nicely, and it just looked right. I was going for a semi-dark-themed knife, so to complement the dark san-mai I chose a piece of ebony with some heavily spalted maple for the handle.

“As this is a carbon steel knife, it will change color with use,” Aidan continued. “It’s a patina and it’s a good thing. It develops on carbon steel when exposed to air for extended periods of time or to acids for short periods of time. It is a type of oxidation that helps ward off the rust that eats away at steel and destroys your knife.”
De Fazio recommends regular care for his petty knife, washing lightly with soap and water, avoiding abrasives that could scratch the patina, and then wiping dry for storage.

Light, Thin, Comfy Kitchen Tools

When Ross Arnold makes a petty knife—or any other style knife for kitchen use—he is leveraging experience to produce the most utilitarian design he can. “To me, a petty knife is an all-around food preparation knife for use when a larger knife is not necessary or possible,” he said. “In my earlier years, I worked in kitchens every night. I had a good idea of what worked and what was comfortable for me. This design was focused on being light, thin and comfortable. This resulted in a knife that weighs only 3.8 ounces, and the rounded choil and spine make it a pleasure to use all day every day.”

Andrew Lazarevic offers his petty knives in a selection of handle materials.
Andrew Lazarevic offers his petty knives in a selection of handle materials affixed with brass and carbon fiber pins. The blades are flat ground of AEB-L stainless steel. Overall lengths: approximately 9 inches each. (Rod Hoare image)

A resident of Glenalta, Australia, Arnold learned a great deal from custom maker Peter Bald early in his career. Ross finished his petty knife with a 5.91-inch blade of RWL-34 stainless steel and a handle of spalted sassafras wood. Overall length: 11.02 inches. His price for a similar knife: $390.

“I went with a traditional Japanese hexagonal handle purely for aesthetics,” he related. “As I use this knife primarily with a pinch grip, the handle shape does not have a massive impact on usability. That being said, it is still very comfortable to hold normally. I ground the blade with a plunge-less distal taper design. I came up with the grind design myself, but I’m sure it’s probably been done before. In my opinion, it is a solid performing grind as it gives the knife a light and flexible blade that isn’t super thick toward the tip.”

The petty knife is up to the challenge when a more intricate or tight kitchen job is at hand. The latest custom examples are affordable, provide good looks and perform with style. Dig in.

Editor’s note: All prices are in U.S. dollars and are according to the press time rate of exchange. Due to fluid market conditions, all are subject to change. Please check with the applicable maker for the latest in pricing.

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Read this before you make a knife

Knifemaking 101 – Read This Before You Make a Knife

  by Wayne Goddard My experience has taught me that there's nothing like digging in and getting started. I've often said the hardest part of the...
how to forge damascus steel

How to Forge Damascus

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