Knifemakers And Their Tools

Knifemakers From Around The World Share What Equipment They Can’t Live Without And How It Helps In Creating Their Knives.

There are high-quality knifemakers on every continent. We chatted with some of the world’s best makers about what equipment and tools are must-haves for them in their shop. 

Bertie Rietveld

Bertie’s Legacy Roman pugio in Dragonskin damascus with a Stanhope lens just below the guard and lapis lazuli cylinders with titanium spacers in-between is spectacular even by his high standards. Overall length: 16 inches. (SharpByCoop image)

One of the world’s leading makers of art knives, South Africa’s Bertie Rietveld is known for magnificent custom daggers and fixed blades, many in his Dragonskin damascus and with a Stanhope lens at the ricasso, a peek into which reveals whatever image Bertie likes to put there—usually the Stanhope logo.

Among his knifemaking equipment that proves invaluable to building his award-winning knives are his Rosa Italian precision drill presses. 

“I have three of them,” he wrote, “each one set up with a different-diameter drill bit so I don’t have to change bits. The speeds are set to match the ideal speed of each drill bit in the chuck of each machine. They are super accurate and an absolute pleasure to use when drilling small holes. Each one has a light that automatically comes on when you start the drill. They’re probably 30 years old but I have rebuilt them to their former glory.”

Next on Bertie’s list of top knifemaking machines is his Schaublin 102 plain lathe. 

“It was manufactured in 1961, which makes it a year older than me!” he grinned. “I have a full set of collets and chucks for it and use it a lot to turn small pins and pivots for my folders. It’s one of those machines built in the golden area of mechanical excellence: the 1960s. I love working on it because it’s very accurate and just a solid, well-built machine.”

Third among his most valuable knifemaking machines is his Cutlermatic belt grinder, which he built about 20 years ago when he ran Batavia Engineering. 

“We built some 300 of these grinders for knifemakers at the time,” he recalled. “This machine has a whole myriad of contact wheels, from 2 inch to 20 inch, and is fitted with an inverter speed control. I use it to grind all my knives and also for hundreds of other grinding jobs. It’s probably the most used machine in my shop. It has a foot pedal to change belts and also some really bright LED lights on stalks so I can see where I’m grinding.”

The fourth machine is “Shaya,” Bertie’s “famous” 500-pound Massey power hammer. It was built in 1941 and he completely rebuilt it in 2000, a process that took eight years. 

“I make all my damascus on this hammer, Dragonskin, Nebula, and Fracture, as well as other laminar damascus. It is a gentle giant but packs a mean punch when at full speed. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t have two or three forging sessions.”

Murray Sterling 

Murray makes nothing but folders, including slip joints, linerlocks, and lockbacks. Among the latter is this fileworked and engraved straight-edge model in mother-of-pearl.

Murray Sterling turned 93 the first day of Spring and still makes knives like he’s 39. What are the most important pieces of knifemaking equipment for the self-described “old-school machinist” on the low side of 100 who’s been making knives for over three decades?

First are his four 2×72 belt grinders. He made three of them, including one he built 25 years ago that he uses 90 percent of the time. 

“I hollow grind and profile all my folders and finish all my folders with it,” he wrote. “The only other grinder I bought new was a square wheel in 1989. I only use it for 45-degree scales.”

Next on Murray’s list is his Taft Pierce surface grinder. “This is probably the most important machine in the shop for making folders, and that’s all I make now,” he wrote. 

The machine is over 50 years old and Murray bought it 20 years ago when it came available from a company his son worked for that was in the process of upgrading its machinery.

“In making folding knives, everything has to be flat,” Murray observed. “This machine is one of the best ways to achieve that. It has upgraded the quality of my folders by 100 percent. It also has a 2×72 belt attachment and, with a 60-grit belt, you can remove a lot of material fairly fast.”

Murray has four disc grinders, including two side-by-side models with 9-inch and 12-inch discs, the former with a 100-grit abrasive and the latter with a 320-grit one. Murray made the tables for the grinders 20 years ago. The motor for the 12-inch grinder is the original one from his square wheel grinder, the latter which he reoutfitted with a DC motor a couple of years after he bought it. The grinder on the fixed 45-degree table he uses for knife parts that need to be made square, such as backsprings for slip joints and lockbars.

The handiest machine in Murray’s shop is his Burgmaster drill press. He bought it in 1967 and uses it to drill 90 percent of the holes in his knives. It has six spindles, each of which runs at a different RPM. 

“I can set it up with a tap drill, clearance drill, and counter bore for .080-inch screws,” he wrote. “It makes things quick and easy. I would hate to do without any of these machines. I also have a lathe and make my own bushings and pivot pins.”

Brian Tomberlin

An example of Brion’s knives is his Nagabowie—a Japanese-style blade with hamon complemented by a bowie handle.

ABS master smith Brion Tomberlin makes a lot of hidden-tang knives in his shop in Norman, Oklahoma, and a set of handle broaches he got from fellow ABS master smith John Perry are a must-have for that style of knife construction.

“They do a great job of opening up the slot for the tang in handle blocks,” Brion observed. “I bought the first two from John way back when there was a Spirit of Steel knife show in Mesquite, Texas, probably his first or second batch of them. I still use them all the time. They’re very finely crafted tools.

“Another must-have tool for me and most makers is a set of calipers. In order to get things fitted correctly, such as guards and getting the measurements on things like the depth of clips even on both sides, you need to have accurate measurements. A good knifemaker thinks in thousandths and you need to be able to accurately measure them. So, I have calipers everywhere. I’ve got to have them.”

Brion uses a Foredom tool on every knife that leaves his shop. 

“It’s a super versatile tool,” he noted. “I’m sure everyone has used Dremel tools, especially the variable-speed models. But the Dremel tools wear out and I hear all the time that people keep buying them every two or so years because the tools stop working. So, save money and get the standard rotary-flex-shaft tool used in the jewelry trades. Just get a Foredom tool and you will not regret it.

“Mine is variable speed and reversible and that is what I suggest. I bought it from an old name in knifemaking supplies, Mick Koval [of Koval Supply], over twenty years ago. It’s still going strong. There is so much you can do with them and they have so many attachments. Rio Grande and Gesswein jewelry supply are knifemakers’ friends. I use this tool for guards, contouring buttcaps to match stag, polishing things, carving, etc. It has so many uses.”

Another tool Brion uses on every knife he makes is his trusty file guide. 

“The shoulder filing guide or just plain file guide should be standard in every maker’s shop,” he advised. “My main one is a carbide-faced model from Riverside Machine in DeQueen, Arkansas.

“You need to get the shoulders on a blade flat in order to get the guard to fit up correctly,” Brion wrote. A file guide will do that. “Also, with the carbide faces you can use the guide with grinding belts to get the plunges even. I bought this years ago when Uncle Al [Alton Lawrence of Riverside Machine] first started making them. It has served me well. You don’t have to have the carbide faces as there are hardened steel file guides too, but pay the extra money and get the carbide—you will not regret it.”

Rounding out Brion’s top knifemaking tools are his machinist squares.

“You have to be able to lay out lines and have them be true, everything from laying out guard slots to making sure things are 90 degrees, such as platens on grinders,” he advised. That’s where the machinist squares come into play. “You have to have them and they aren’t expensive. Making sure your layout lines are correct will help you make better knives,” Brion concluded. “Every knife shop should have them.”

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