Ernest Emerson: His Shop And Tools


Ernest Emerson Is One Of The Leading Designer Of Tactical Knives, And We Get To See His Shop And How He Works

Ernest Emerson is entering his 44th year of knifemaking and his manufacturing company, Emerson Knives, Inc., is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Many knife nuts who have been around awhile remember Ernest when he was purely a custom knifemaker who was making exquisite folders exclusively. Then things changed.

When the first Gulf War came along, Emerson—who has an extensive background in martial arts—had already been working on tactical knife designs and, being the patriot he is, was ideally positioned to do his part in the war effort. Along with a handful of other talented custom makers, it wasn’t long before Ernest was instrumental in helping kick off the modern tactical knife movement that is still a huge part of the cutlery market today. 

He never looked back and 25 years ago took his designs to the masses, switching his focus to becoming a cutlery manufacturer of tactical knives, primarily of the folding kind. He continues to make a limited number of custom knives and also uses his skills designing new knives for his factory line. We asked Ernie to give us the lowdown on the tools and equipment he relies on most to do his custom work and prototypes for Emerson knives.

Ernest Emerson’s Tools And Machines

Emerson employs a number of light, low-cost bench-top drill presses. He leaves them set up for various drilling and reaming operations, which saves him a lot of time as he moves down the row drilling liners and handles.

He opened by praising his vintage mill. 

“The old Bridgeport has been fixed and rebuilt more than once but it is solid old-school quality and can still easily hold +/- .001-inch tolerances,” he observes. “I use it for all of my milling, tool, jig and fixture building, as well as all operations on bolsters and handles that require precise tolerances and hole depths such as bolsters, counterbores and handle countersinks.”

For grinding, he calls out one grinder maker in particular as his favorite. 

“I use a variety of grinders but my go-to machines are those by Travis Wuertz. They are solid, sturdy, virtually silent, and extremely well thought out—and engineered by Travis,” Ernest says. “Their real value to me is that I can build a wide variety of specialized fixtures and tools that allow me to do very precise grinding operations on both blades and handles.”

Emerson uses a number of low-cost bench-top drill presses. 

“At $125-$150 each I can afford to own several of them and leave them set up for various drilling and reaming operations,” he notes. “This saves me a lot of time as I can just move down the row as I drill liners and handles. The light drill presses work perfectly for me because all the holes I drill, tap or ream are small diameters and don’t need heavy drill presses to perform the operations. Plus, I get a better, lighter feel when I’m drilling delicate and expensive materials like pearl without damaging them.”

Keeping Things In Order

Hammered-6 in Moku-Ti bolsters with distressed solid copper scales and a hammered blade. Emerson’s list price: $10,000.

Ernest is a firm believer in being organized. 

“Although my work area may look a little cluttered or messy [he was preparing for a show when the accompanying photos were taken], I am extremely organized and orderly,” he emphasizes. “Having come up through an apprenticeship program to become a tool-and-die maker, I had it drummed into me the importance of cleanliness and organization in producing precise results.”

He also relies on the smaller things that make up the whole of knifemaking. 

“Although machines seem to play the biggest role in most shops, in my endeavors it is the jigs and fixtures that are my most valuable tools,” he states. “Coming up through the apprenticeship program early in my career and eventually earning the title of tool-and-die maker, it was hammered into me that the best machinists are the ones that can conceptualize and invent the most efficient and precise tools, jigs and fixtures to help them do their job. There is a lot of truth in that statement. I also have a full machine shop and woodworking shop with all the jointers, planers, sanders, table saws, routers, lathes and woodworking tools that I use.”

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