The Author Learned What It Took To Make A Knife From The Legend Les George In Mississippi.
When I finally met him in person, Les George had been making knives for 30 years. I had never made a knife in my life.
I had spent most of the years preceding our meeting in the Marine Corps. Les spent a decade as a Marine himself and, though we just missed overlapping in Iraq, we came to know one another through mutual connections in the Corps.
After a few years of exchanging texts featuring the kind of sarcastic insults and self-deprecating jokes in which we both seem to specialize, we found ourselves driving south from Memphis and discussing designs for the blade I intended to make in his shop.
His approach is to “try and reimagine what the guys who designed the classics were trying to do, and then do it with the advantage of 100 years of technology.”
That seemed perfect for the knife I wanted to make, one my potential grandkids might remember me carrying but that used modern design and technology to its fullest advantage. I envisioned a classic utilitarian field knife I could use to dress a deer, cut a rope or hack some limbs for a duck blind, yet one with sufficient aesthetic value to pass on someday.
As we drove down US 78 in Mississippi, I chose one of several full-tang designs Les had drawn on wood and then cut with his computer numerical control (CNC) machine. Given my experience level and general facility with machinery, the potential for catastrophic injury seemed high.
A sign on one of the shop machines confirmed that impression on arrival at George Knives: “DANGER: NOT ONLY WILL THIS KILL YOU, IT WILL HURT THE ENTIRE TIME YOU’RE DYING.” Still, given that Les started making knives at 12 with a SKIL® saw blade, a hack saw and step-by-step book, I figured I was in good hands.
Learning The Machinery
We started work as night fell on the Mississippi woods where George Knives are made. With the door of his shop open, the sound of tree frogs joined the smell of machine coolant as I chose a piece of Chad Nichols damascus steel because I liked the look of it, and because Les considers it the best in the nation.
Nichols can pattern his steel with almost anything a customer desires. I chose the undulating lines of classic damascus because they hearken back to the old damascus shotguns my great-grandfather carried hunting quail. I laid the wooden blank out on the steel and used a scribe to trace the knife’s outline.
For me, making a knife was an introduction into a world of machines designed to strip away parts of a purposefully hard material; a jungle filled with new things specifically designed to maim me. As we prepared to rough cut the knife’s profile with a bandsaw, Les smiled and pointed at the saw blade. “This is the part you don’t touch under any circumstances,” he warned. I had visions of my suddenly amputated fingers spinning onto the cement floor of the shop.
My fears proved unfounded but I still approached both the grinder we used to bring out the knife from inside the steel, and the drill press we used to create holes in the tang for bolts, lanyard and to lighten it with the same trepidation as the bandsaw.
Asked whether I needed protective equipment, Les replied, “No, you don’t need protective equipment, you need a better plan. Remember, all the machines in the shop hate you. They think you’re a big bag of grease they can use to lube their parts.”
Despite my new-guy fears, when you are open to learning something new and are guided through a process by a craftsman, it becomes easier. Simply put, Les is a great knifemaking teacher as well as a great knifemaker, and, as a cascade of metal shavings fell to the floor and my idea took the general shape of a knife, I began to have a kind of focused fun.
Heat Treating Steel
Heat treating steel is not the most exciting step in making a knife but it may be the most critical. Les explicitly says it is not art but a science of repeatable numbers—just simple math. Did I mention I write because I am atrocious with numbers?
Undaunted by my incompetence, we hardened the steel. Les explained the purpose: “Heat treating determines how long the knife cuts. Knifemaking is always a balance between toughness, which means it resists breaking, and hardness, which means it resists dulling.”
To avoid scale, in which the steel flakes and is decarburized, we sealed the blade inside a pouch made of stainless-steel foil, placing a piece of paper inside the pouch with the blade. The paper ignites at what is known as critical temperature and consumes all the oxygen in the pouch.
On emerging, the steel was brittle and sounded different than before when lightly struck. With the steel still red hot, we placed it between aluminum plates for plate quenching to reduce the temperature quickly, making it hard. That hardness was drawn back to a usable level by again sending it for a longer, lower temperature ride in the heat treat oven while we headed off for a well-earned night’s sleep.
Creating A Badass Knife
The next morning, Les said, “You’ve got all day to do once what I can do thirty times in a short day.” So, supervised by Les, I scribed a centerline on the thickest part of the blade to guide the bevel grinding process.
This was what I had envisioned knifemaking to be and it turned out I was not wrong. As Les relayed to me, “Bevel grinding is knifemaking. The grind establishes the cutting geometry, which determines how the knife cuts.” I watched Les for just a moment before he took off the training wheels and I began grinding the transition from tang to cutting edge, a design feature called the plunge.
It’s a cosmetic factor and Les cautioned me against chasing a refined plunge. “If you’re chasing perfection,” he said, “you’re setting yourself up for failure. We don’t set goals we can’t meet. There has to be technical correction, but after that I’m chasing badass.” I wanted badass, but the lesson was to let it come to me.
With Les watching me grind while calling our mutual friends to make fun of me and narrate my progress, I began to produce something worthy of being called a knife. Les offered corrections from time to time but allowed me to get the feel of both the belt and the emerging blade. He also eased my concerns by telling me, “The cool thing with fixed blade knives is we never make a mistake, we just make a smaller knife.” Once the blade was ground to the point that it really began to look like what we had envisioned, it was time to choose handle material.
For the handle, Les had a pile of Micarta® samples from which I chose a brown finish as a nod to wood or oiled leather. We cut and fitted roughly shaped Micarta to the tang, then disassembled it all again to submerge the blade in ferric chloride to bring out the pattern of the damascus.
The soak time of the steel gave us a window to grind the Micarta to shape the grip. There is no detail left unconsidered in a Les George knife design. We talked through how I wanted the handle to feel, how I envisioned using it, and how to make sure that the aesthetic I had in my mind’s eye materialized. Then we ground the two pieces of the handle and wiped them down with oil to create a bit of the wood or leather-like patina I wanted.
Finally, we arrived at the last major step—sharpening the blade on the grinder. We walked outside the shop for a moment and Les asked whether I wanted to sharpen the blade. “It’s pretty much the last chance you’ll have to really screw it up,” he said. I was unsure and said so. In a rare moment of genuine seriousness, Les looked at me and said, “When I made my first folder, Stan [Fujisaka, master knifemaker and his mentor] sharpened it. The last stroke Michelangelo took on David was the only thing he could do. It’s a funnel of decisions. We started with a huge sheet of steel. The closer to the end we get, the fewer decisions we have.”
Though I had proudly done every previous step—with a lot of adult supervision—I decided to let Les handle it. Seeking to salve my pride, I asked him, “How long did it take you until you were confident at this stage of the game?” Looking down at the blade as he addressed the spinning grinding belt, he smiled and said, “I’m still not.” Then he put a razor edge on the blade before telling me we’d reached the point at which we would stop chasing perfect and accept damn fine.
Finding Meaning In My Knife
A Les George knife is a hybrid born of technical mastery, space age technology, and a timeless artistry that is sometimes simply the application of physicality to metal. Mine was no different. While Les acknowledges his biggest strength as a knifemaker is the ability to “work at any level of tech, from hand tools to computers,” the essence of his designs is that he takes his craft seriously without taking himself so.
He knows that the core of his business is in innovating blades in the pursuit of “a badass design that speaks to your inner 13-year-old” and, as such, he spends little time navel gazing. He is an artist who doesn’t so much reject the title as the contemplation thereof, saying, “I don’t think about it. I don’t know what art is. I rebel against the idea that men have to define themselves by what they do.”
That may be difficult when you’re a man who makes knives that sell before they’re even made. And whether he defines himself as a knifemaker, a craftsman, an artist or just a guy in a shop, there is no question that he is still answering a call he heard when he was 12 years old.
Nonetheless, he says, “I try not to base my life on what happens in this shop. Sometimes I want to quit this. But what else do I want to do more? I do this because I have to. I know I’m going to make knives. I want to not have to make knives after a day of doing something else.”
As I looked at the knife I had wanted and now held, one I created with my own hands, I understood the compulsion.
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