Meet The Living Legends Who Make Knives

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Living Legends
If you want to collect or make knives, you need to know the big names.

A new book from the publishers of BLADE magazine, Greatest Living Knifemakers, celebrates today’s legends who make knives in ways that most can only dream about. They make knives that can easily fetch tens of thousands of dollars, and even more. 

Given all that talent, how does a book like this come together? Who gets to decide who is counting among the “Greatest Living Knifemakers” anyway? If you’re someone looking to collect or make knives, you’ll enjoy this interview with the editor of the book, Steve Shackleford, who is also a member of the BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall of Fame®.

Many talented people make knives of outstanding quality. How did you go about choosing who should appear in this book?

Steve Shackleford Make Knives
Steve Shackleford

The hardest part was choosing who NOT to include. I’ve been covering the knife industry for BLADE®, the world’s No. 1 knife publication, since 1985, so I’ve had the privilege of seeing and handling some of the world’s greatest knives, and meeting some of the world’s greatest knifemakers.

As a result, some of the makers I picked peaked years ago and don’t even make that many knives anymore. On the other hand, some are peaking now. However, at some point in their careers each has made knives that are among the world’s best.

In addition, each has either made knives and/or introduced designs, techniques, folding mechanisms, damascus or other steels and other materials, etc., that in turn have set a standard or inspired other makers in the way they make knives.

And, of course, to qualify as per the book’s title, each must be living, though Tony Bose passed away after the book was finished. We decided to include him as a tribute to his fantastic slip joints and the overall impact he had on the knife industry, which was and remains monumental.

Book Make Knives
A mechanism that enables the handle to slide back while the blade closes, with the result being that the handle and blade can be the same length, distinguishes Emmanuel’s Mata Hari Dagger. What makes the feature so notable is that the handles of most folding knives must be at least one-half to 1 inch longer than the blades so that the blades will fit into the handles properly. The sliding mechanism is a combo of titanium and stainless steel gears, with the inlays moving on Teflon™ pads. (Francesco Pachi image from 2017 AKI)

What makes a knifemaker “great”?

Some of that is covered in my first answer above but there are other things as well. They must have a lifelong dedication to making knives, which all of those profiled have exhibited, as well as a passion to make knives for much more than just the money.

It’s kind of hard to explain unless you’ve followed knives for a long time, but, in a nutshell, most great knifemakers make knives because they sweat the load, they agonize over the details, and they don’t provide just a “product”—they produce a knife that almost always acts, looks and feels like it’s the best knife that maker makes. There’s much more but that’s part of it.

Are there any names that couldn’t make it into the book due to space limitations?

As noted above, yes, many make knives worthy of inclusion. However, I won’t name names here in case we decide to do a second volume of the book.

Making Make Knives
The Razorback State is the theme for Jerry Fisk’s Arkansas #1. The 11-inch blade has a Dog Star-pattern damascus with 1836 layers to represent the year Arkansas became a state. The blade also has steel welded into it from the Statue of Liberty. The walnut handle is from the official James Black walnut from the cemetery where Black is buried in Historic Washington Arkansas. Some believe Black made a bowie knife for James Bowie. The mountings are fully engraved and carved, including deep relief scrollwork and 24k-gold inlay—all by Jerry. (Whetstone Studio image)

Are the names ranked or is this just a collection of noteworthy knifemakers?

Since they are all great and, as John Wayne’s character once said of two great gunfighters in the movie Rio Bravo, “I’d hate to have to live on the difference,” I decided to list them all in alphabetical order—with the exception of R.J. Martin.

His profile appears first in the book because it is the only profile written by the maker himself. I did not ask him to write it, he volunteered to do it. I was so taken by the quality of his writing and the information he provided on what being a great knifemaker is really like that it was a no-brainer to include it.

In my opinion, it’s one of the best ways for the reader to truly appreciate what it’s like to be a great knifemaker—done from a great knifemaker’s point of view. I think it’s the best profile in the book, hands down.

Make Knives Best
Steve Johnson’s spectacular repro of a Loveless Big Bear sub-hilt fighter is highlighted by Barry Lee Hands engraving that includes 24k-gold inlays and overlays set with diamonds and gilded mother-of-pearl. The knife is made from one block of 5/8-inch thick, 4-inch-wide and 16-inch long CPM 154 stainless steel. The blade is a quarter-inch thick and 8.5 inches long. Overall length: 14 inches. Steve made it for the 2015 Art Knife Invitational. (Francesco Pachi image)

Do great knifemakers have a peak or a golden era within their careers, or are they great throughout their careers?

As with most all great talents, they do indeed seem to peak at certain times. Some peak for longer periods than others and some even seem to have more than one peak. Some may burn out early and then something happens to help them regain their mojo.

However, in most cases the great ones maintain varying levels of greatness throughout their careers, and I think that’s the case with all of those featured in the book.

Is there a list of the knifemakers featured in this book posted somewhere for people to check out?

Yep, right here.

What’s a standout knife for you that’s featured in this book?

I wouldn’t touch that one with a 10-foot blade, other than to say they all stand out.

 

Greatest Living Knifemakers is available here directly from the publisher.

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