The knife community lost three dedicated contributors recently with the passing of knifemakers Michael Holtschulte, Bernard Sparks and Ralph Turnbull.
A full-time knifemaker for almost 50 years, Ralph specialized in knives in the latest materials, including mosaic damascus, tigerwood, white and black ebony and others. He made a wide range of models, including though not limited to folders, fixed blades and even butterfly knives.
We had just published a story on one of his folders written by J.T. Hill (J.T.’s No. 1 Knife Hero) in the July issue when we got word Ralph had passed on June 6—the anniversary of D-Day. He was 85.
The last time I saw Ralph Turnbull was at the inaugural International Custom Cutlery Exposition in 2015 in Kansas City. Mrs. Raenelle Turnbull was there with him, as usual, and Ralph was smiling and sassy as he almost always seemed to be. Though he was 81 he looked at least five years younger—he always did look younger than his age—and talked about how he had beaten just about everything old age had thrown his way.
He said he’d had bypasses, diabetes and one other malady that I can’t recall, and talked about how the doctor told him he’d lived through the biggest killers.
While Ralph recently succumbed to the inevitable fate that eventually awaits us all, his attitude toward life is one I will always envy. To paraphrase the old sports saying, it wasn’t that anything beat him—he simply ran out of time.
Born in Dingle, Idaho, on the longest day of the year, June 21, 1931, Bernard Sparks began making knives part time in 1967.
According to Mrs. Vicki Sparks, Bernard was among 16 makers who met in 1969 to discuss forming The Knifemakers’ Guild. He served on the Guild’s board of directors for a time. His full-time job was as a teacher, which he retired from in 1996, at which point he turned to making knives full time until the spring of last year.
Over the decades, his obituary noted, he made several thousand knives. He was one of the first makers to use Vascowear, a high-speed tool steel, for blades. Bernard passed away on his birthday. He was 89.
BLADE field editor Ed Fowler remembers Bernard and Vicki, who survives her late husband.
“Bernard was one of the very early makers and a good one, totally honest, and made great knives,” Ed wrote. “They were high quality, well designed and each blade had a very practical geometry for its intended purpose. He and Vicki are a tribute to all that is good about our community.”
Michael Holtschulte was born Nov. 17, 1956. He served three years as an Army combat engineer during the Vietnam War. He built knives for 28 years, making and selling over 12,000 of them over that span.
In a December 2013 BLADE® story that asked if a soldier had just one knife what it should be, Michael said he preferred a fixed blade with a 6-inch blade of 1095 or 5160 carbon steel.
“I would say that because a knife is a tool that becomes a multitool,” he reasoned. “One knife would have to do all the chores of self-defense, cutting, chopping and skinning game.”
He passed away May 10. He was 63.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Michael, though I did get to talk to him on the phone, and he was most professional. As his daughter Lisa wrote, he expired while forging a knife for a customer.
“My dad put his whole life into making knives and he passed getting to do what he loved,” she stated. “I remember how absolutely smitten he was that you guys did an article on him, and it was by far one of his proudest accomplishments.”
I’m sure I speak for the entire BLADE staff when I state we are humbled that we were able to inject a moment of pride into Michael’s short time on this earth.