Editor’s note: Ken Warner, the visionary behind and original editor of the acclaimed KNIVES annual book series, recently passed away. In tribute, BLADE is featuring this article from the August 2009 magazine issue about this titan of knives.
The turn of a phrase, the flow of the narrative, and simply getting the story straight are hallmarks of the writing craft. BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer® Ken Warner brought the ability to perform each of these, along with an unmatched eloquence, to the knife industry.
Universally, knife authorities acknowledge him as the individual who lifted custom knives out of the shadows. He helped to accomplish this with a straightforward, crisp, and clean writing style that captured the imagination of readers for nearly half a century.
A “True Poet” of the Knife Community
“Ken Warner is the true poet of the knife community,” related BLADE field editor Ed Fowler. “While he did not write the most knife articles, what he did write was worth reading and serves as an eloquent inspiration for all who have thoughts to share. He had no axe to grind other than to share knowledge. As a fledgling knifemaker, I used to read his comments and soon learned that he knew well his subject matter.”
Though he is not currently writing—he instead stays busy offering a wide range of fixed blades and folders through his Ken Warner Knives knife company—there is always the possibility that Warner will return to print. Meanwhile, he says he is becoming computer savvy enough to run a knife forum on the internet and to continue his online blog (kenwarnerknives.blogspot.com). He also stays busy designing knives.
“I’m 80 years old,” he reflected, “and I have some things I want to say and there are some stories I can do that nobody else can do because I was there. I will get to that when I get to it.”
Forging a Path
Literally, when custom knives began to gain national and international attention, Warner was there. In fact, he was the prime mover in publicizing the work of the knifemakers. As a writer for the popular annual Gun Digest, he started writing about knives in 1964. That first article, titled The Best Knives Made, has been reprinted numerous times.
Back then, though, it was a challenge just to get enough material to put a story together.
“I could hardly find any knifemakers,” Warner commented. “I found [Bill] Moran and [Bo] Randall, and Buck was small then and I wrote about them. However, a number of knifemakers and collectors have told me that the article got them started. Bob Loveless, for example, has told me that he was about to give up making knives because it wasn’t going any place. Then, he read the article and decided that somebody would understand. There was a time that I was actually giving away Loveless knives just to see what people thought of them. Butch and Rita Winter were pre-eminent collectors of handmade knives, and they told me I got them started.”
Educating the general public about knives evolved into something of a mission for Warner. In 1976, he wrote The Practical Book Of Knives, a primer of information on the mechanics, components, function and terminology associated with knives. Through editorial contributions to a number of publications, he has managed to spread the word.
Along the way, he has gained a multitude of friends and admirers. One of the closest was with the legendary Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer, Bill Moran. BLADE field editor and Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer B.R. Hughes, co-author of the Moran biography, Master Of The Forge, credits Warner with his introduction to the great bladesmith.
A Man of Many Firsts
“Ken was one of the first to write knowledgeably about handmade knives, and he’s important to me personally because he’s how I heard about Bill Moran,” Hughes remarked. “Ken used to live close to Moran’s shop and visited there often. He was the first to write about Moran in a national magazine. He mentioned Moran in the Gun Digest article in 1964, and that article did more to publicize handmade knives than everything written about them up to that time.”
Of course, Moran, Hughes, Don Hastings and Bill Bagwell went on to found the American Bladesmith Society in 1976 and the rest, as they say, is history.
Hughes said he remembers working at a magazine called Gunsport in the mid-1960s and Warner was the editor. Even then, Hughes knew Warner was something special.
“Ken’s writing was a cut above what I was used to seeing in a gun magazine,” Hughes continued. “I soon became shotgun editor of Gunsport, and no gun magazine of that day was going to publish a lot of knife articles, but Ken got a knife article in there from time to time.”
When Warner left Gunsport to publish his own magazine, Gunfacts, the idea of writing about knives had caught on.
Hughes said he recalls a memo circulating to ask if anyone else at Gunsport had an interest in or knowledge of handmade knives. Hughes raised his hand, contacted Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer A.G. Russell for a crash course in handmades, and took up writing about knives himself.
The Knives (KNIVES) Books
For many, Warner’s greatest single contribution to the knife industry was not that first article in Gun Digest, nor his continuing effort to publish knife stories in popular magazines. Rather, it was the publishing of the first Knives annual in 1981 that sparked what became an explosion of interest in handmade knives.
“The big thing with Ken is that he mainstreamed knife interest, and everybody credits him with that,” assessed Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Bruce Voyles, with whom Warner co-authored the book Knives Digest in 1999. “That, in my opinion, was not his greatest contribution. That came when he got the Knives series started. For the first time you had a listing of not just a particular organization’s members but all knife people. You also had pictures. It was a snapshot of the state of the knife industry at the time, particularly handmades—and the industry was pretty disorganized at the time unless you were a member of the Knifemakers’ Guild.
“I think he gave tremendous publicity to people that had not gotten publicity,” Voyles continued. “Plus, there’s something that most people will not notice about him unless he has edited something they’ve written. He’s one of the most gifted editors I have ever known in any genre. He takes average stuff and makes it sound good, and makes good stuff sound fabulous while making it flow easily. The different thing about Ken’s writing and editing is that Ken made it readable. Most of the stuff before Ken was clumsy, and he made it interesting. He could make the phone book interesting. One of my favorite quotes was when his former wife said some years ago, ‘Ken has the most annoying habit of being right most of the time.’”
Among the many happenings during his association with Warner, Voyles will never forget that it was Warner who organized Voyles’ induction into the Cutlery Hall of Fame at the awards banquet of the 1993 BLADE Show. It was Voyles’ 40th birthday, and Warner took the stage to announce—to Voyles’ surprise—that he was being inducted by acclamation of all living members of the hall at the time.
When Warner and A.G. Russell were inducted into the hall at the 1988 BLADE Show, each was invited to the banquet to provide the introduction speech for the other’s induction. Neither Russell nor Warner knew they were being honored themselves.
“Ken said at the time that as long as there was a BLADE Show, he would eat the BLADE Show’s rubber chicken,” Voyles grinned. “Then, the next year we presented Ken with a rubber chicken and taped a knife that he liked inside the chicken’s mouth.”
Warner is also a member of the ABS Hall Of Fame and counts the society’s prestigious Don Hastings Award among his many honors.
A Lasting Legacy
As for the Knives annual series, it is still going strong under the capable hands of former BLADE managing editor, Joe Kertzman.
Fowler said Warner was the right man for the successful development and promotion of what has become a virtually indispensable part of the knife industry, a book which will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2020.
“Thanks to his knowledge, editorial ability, choice of writers and relevant topics, Ken started a legacy to the knife community that continues to this day,” Fowler noted. “Ken knew the difference between a hunter and an art knife, as well as the pretenders, and described each knife eloquently. Many of his one-sentence comments were worth hundreds of words. He inspired many makers through his comments on design, steels, handle materials, leatherwork and scrimshaw. Reading back through my collection of his books, I find many of his comments that I once glanced over were far from simple but offered great understanding and predictions of the future and well being of our community.”
A Renaissance Man
Warner, it turns out, is something of a renaissance man as well. Fowler related sharing a huge bowl of crab legs following the BLADE Show a few years back.
“We debated the styles of Steinbeck and Hemingway, as well as other great authors, what makes poetry great, and the responsibilities of authors,” Fowler recalled. “I learned that everything we write is an echo of our total experience. The more we read and the greater our personal experience, then the better we will be able to express our thoughts. There is no question in my mind that Ken Warner has been, is and continues to be one of the great, if not the finest, of icons of the community of knives.”
Perhaps the greatest test of a true “living legend” is that he has contributed to his lifelong interest, building something where little or nothing existed before, and assuring that his influence will last long after he and his contemporaries are gone.
In the case of Ken Warner and the knife industry, there is no better definition.
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