You may know Laura Zerra from her appearances on the Discovery Channel program, Naked & Afraid, or at BLADE Show. What you might not know is that she’s also an accomplished knifemaker with a book coming out July 3, 2018, titled, A Modern Guide to Knifemaking. No less than BLADE Magazine Cutlery-Hall-of-Fame® member Ken Onion, Kaila Cumings, and Mike Jones contributed to the tome.
Fresh from an extended stay in the wilderness, Zerra talked with BLADE about knifemaking, survival knives and the biggest mistake people new to knifemaking make.
BLADE: Most people know of you through Naked & Afraid. Did you get into knifemaking after appearing on that show or was this something you were always practicing?
LZ: I used to be a farrier, so I got my first introduction to knifemaking through blacksmithing. I used to mess around with steel in the forge, and that led to trying my hand at making knives. As a survivalist and outdoors person, I’ve always had a love for knives, and starting to make my own was a natural progression.
What spurred you to write your new book, A Modern Guide to Knifemaking?
I was working on outlining a survival book, and my editor saw that I’d just been at BLADE Show. We talked about the possibility of me writing a book on knifemaking. I’ve always loved knives, and have been in numerous situations where my life literally depended on my blade. I’ve also been humbled by all the legendary knifemakers I know, and I don’t have the expansive years of experience and talent that a lot of them do.
The thought of writing a book on knifemaking was really intimidating at first, but I realized that my perspective would allow to me to write a book that could really break it down for a beginner, and that my relationship with knives as a survivalist could offer some unique insight. Knifemaking is one of those skills that everyone does a little bit differently, so I wanted to interview some experts in the field and have them offer their two cents, as well.
Can someone with little knifemaking experience pick this up and go at it?
I wrote the book that I wish I’d had when I first started knifemaking. I wanted someone with absolutely no experience to be able to pick up my book and be able to make their first knife, from start to finish. While I do talk about what has worked for me in my experience, I think knifemaking is personal. I really wanted to encourage the reader to experiment with different processes as well as designs to develop their own style and find what works for them.
What’s your philosophy when it comes to knifemaking?
As a survivalist, first and foremost, my knives have to be functional and durable. A knife has to be able to complete the tasks I need it to, and I don’t want to have to worry about it breaking or losing an edge quickly when I’m depending on it for my survival. That being said, I don’t think that means it has to be unattractive; I think a functional knife can still be beautiful, and a skilled knifemaker can complete both these objectives.
What are your favorite steels to work with?
I like working with 1095 steel. I find it easy to move with a hammer, and it holds a great edge with a good heat treat. But I have to admit, I’m a sucker for damascus carbon steel. Well-made damascus really does well with that balance of function and beauty. I just love the moment of pulling it out of the etch and seeing how the pattern has played out on the steel.
What’s the biggest mistake people make when first starting out making knives?
I think the biggest mistake people make is not getting started at all. I’ve talked to so many people who have told me, “I’ve always wanted to make a knife!” but have never actually done it. Getting started can be intimidating for people, and that can be enough to prevent them from ever getting out there and doing it.
If I could tell people one thing, it would be to commit to doing it; not in a year, not when you have time, but right now. And don’t be scared of making mistakes. Mistakes are a natural part of getting into any new skill, and are an important part of the learning process; but you have to actually get out in the shop to start making them!
Is there such a thing as a “survival knife” or are there only knives used for survival purposes?
I think the term “survival” is too broad to describe a specific type of knife. Where am I surviving? What’s the environment like? What tasks will I need my knife to perform?
Different circumstances will be best met with different qualities in a knife, from overall size and shape to steel choice to blade geometry. To try to make a “One Size Fits All” blade that will be the best tool for every survival situation seems like an impossible task.
In seasons 1 and 2 of Naked & Afraid, you brought with you a Kershaw Outcast and a Diving Sparrow Mako Shark, respectively. Both of those sport big blades (10 inches and 11.25 inches). Is it safe to say that machetes are better than knives with smaller blades for survival purposes?
I brought those knives based on my location in the tropics. Both of those knives made easy work of cutting through a massive amount of palm leaves and opening coconuts. It’s a bit more difficult to carve trap parts or butcher meat, but it can still be done.
A machete can be used to complete more delicate tasks by changing the way you use the cutting edge; for example, when gutting small game, I hold the machete between my feet and move the animal across the blade instead of trying to move the big knife across the much smaller animal.
For jungle survival, I absolutely recommend a big blade because the of amount of material you’ll be chopping though. Put me in a desert or a deciduous forest, however, and I’m likely to bring a smaller blade; it just depends.
What’s your take on survival knives versus survival multi-tools (those 31-in-1 sorts of things)? Are those multi-tools any better than a knife that’s just a knife?
I prefer a simple knife. A multi-tool has its place in urban survival and everyday use, but I find all those extra tools and edges can limit the use of your blade and get in the way. As a primitive survivalist, I’m used to improvising with what I have so maybe that’s part of it. I know people who love multi-tools, so I guess it’s personal preference.
In the name of safety, we run a series on blademag.com about knifemakers’ worst accidents in the shop (so that no one else repeats the same mistakes). Have you ever had an accident in the shop? What did you do differently the next time around?
Yup! When I first started using the grinder, I ground a big notch out of one of my fingers. It took a minute to start bleeding, but then it gushed for quite awhile. I had to quit for the day, because my hands were so slippery from my own blood that I couldn’t hold the blade anymore.
It definitely gave me respect for the grinder, and I was more aware of the fact that the belt removes flesh much faster than steel. I also had a shirt catch on fire from hot steel dust gathering in a fold. I’d love to tell you that I wear a leather apron now but I’d be lying.
You Never Know Who You’ll Meet at BLADE Show
Laura Zerra is just one of the celebrities who have attended BLADE Show. The 2018 version takes place June 1 to 3 in Atlanta. Buy tickets and find information here.