After Decades In And Around The Knife Industry, The Author Reflects On His Five Favorite Knifemakers And What Makes Them So Memorable.
Over the past 38 years, I’ve met thousands of knifemakers with work ranging from newbie to legend. Being a newbie myself at first, I found myself gravitating to the newer makers, primarily because I could afford their knives and could get one without waiting years or decades.
Today I approach things differently and look for outstanding makers who share the following traits:
•Each is charismatic in his own way;
•Each gives of both his time and talent(s) to educate others, and;
•Each has a great sense of humor and is serious about his knives.
Here are my five favorite American makers who share the traits I look for most.
During my military service in the U.S. Army 101st Airborne, my unit went through processing for an overseas deployment. At the time I was carrying a Robert Parrish hollow-handle fighter with a serrated blade. It was suggested to me that I find a new knife that didn’t have serrations. That was the bad news. The good news is I had to buy a new knife, and the search began.
Scanning a magazine I saw a photo of three knives, all different lengths of the same model. I was immediately drawn to one of the knives, found the maker’s contact information and called him. On the other end of the line was Walter Brend and I ordered the knife: an 8-inch Model 2. In October 1985 I bought my first of hundreds of knives from Walter. In my opinion, his Model 2 is the finest tactical fixed blade in the world.
What draws my eye to the knife are the impeccable grinds. Perfect symmetry runs the length of the blade, including both the top and bottom grinds. The radiused guard and contoured handle are also trademarks of Walter’s work. These features may not be more evident anywhere than in his daggers. Clean, precise, sleek and lethal are words that all come to mind.
I was visiting family and friends near Chicago in 1988 and attended a small knife show. I had recently started buying guardless fighters, as the knives’ clean lines appealed to me. On the show table before me was a beautiful guardless fighter with an engraved bolster. The knife felt great in my hand and the price was more than reasonable. I bought the fixed blade from David Broadwell.
My favorite knife has always been and still is the sub-hilt fighter, and David excels at making one. Having written about him for several publications, I have always pointed out I think he makes the best sub-hilt fighter(s) in the world.
David is an artist in the true sense of the word. His eye for detail and beauty in steel is exceptional. He and I have collaborated on several designs over the years. He takes my basic two-dimensional linear drawing and brings it to three-dimensional life.
Diversification is one of David’s hallmarks. In the early 2000s I asked him to build knives that featured stone handles. Most were sub-hilt fighters and today remain some of my favorites.
When Bob Neal and I did our LDC Custom Knife series, David was the only maker to contribute both a folder and a fixed blade to it. Today he creates masterworks of art that would be at home in any museum in the world. While my design ideas were not always his favorites, David delivers knives that were everything I had hoped for—and more.
I was at The Knifemakers’ Guild Show in 1996 and, like everyone else, walked up and down the aisles looking for that one special knife or 12. I passed a maker who had Japanese-style tacticals on his table. I took two steps, did an about-face and walked back to the table. I was greeted by the big friendly smile many now know belongs to RJ Martin.
The guards, handles, sheaths and particularly the blades were the cleanest I had ever seen on a Japanese-style tactical. Trends change and I suggested to RJ that he should consider making a tactical folder. Within a month he sent me his first one, the Q30. I couldn’t believe it was his first folder. It easily rivaled most of the well-known tactical folder makers of the day. Then again, I should have expected this from a lead airframe engineer for Sikorsky helicopters such as RJ. He lives in the world of thousandths of an inch and milligrams.
From 2000 to 2010, RJ made 12 different limited designs for my Robertson’s Custom Cutlery Vanguard series. They featured hollow-handle fighters, a sub-hilt fighter, Japanese-style tacticals and, of course, folders. He is one of the few knifemakers in the world skilled enough to do it all with equal excellence. Quite notably, he has won the award for both best tactical folder a number of times and also best tactical fixed blade at past BLADE Shows.
Today his folders are among the most sought after in the world. Unlike so many of the tactical folders built over the past decade, his increased in price in the aftermarket. For those in pursuit of a level of perfection most of us cannot appreciate, RJ is that perfectionist.
I was attending the 1987 BLADE Show when a friend introduced me to BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member George Herron. With his pipe hanging from his lip, George said, “Lad, what is it you do for a living?” I said, “Mr. Herron, I’m in the Army.” He smiled and said, “I was in the Army, too. You see anything on the table you like?”
Had I known then what I know now, I would have bought every knife on the table. His knives were clean, lightweight, possessed exceptional handle ergonomics and were design-driven—all traits you would expect from a lifelong hunter and fisherman.
Years after meeting George and his wife, Miss Barbara, I attended the Southern Wildlife Expo in Charleston, South Carolina. This was long before the drawings and bid-up knives that have become common today. It wasn’t long before I noticed over 90 people waiting in line. I asked the person at the end of the queue if this was the line for admission to the show. He said, “No, this is the line to get a knife from Mr. Herron.” With that, I bought my show ticket and went to the table where Miss Barbara was standing.
There I was treated to an experience akin to watching children waiting to visit Santa Claus. They all had ordered their Herron knives long in advance of the Wildlife Expo. They approached the table, paid Miss Barbara and she handed their knife to George. It was then you would see young and old alike light up as if it were Christmas morning as they received the “toy” they had longed for—a Herron knife from George himself. I saw three generations of knife buyers—first-time knife buyers, hardcore Herron collectors, they were all there. It was truly a sight to behold.
Before the 2015 BLADE Show, I was checking out custom knifemakers’ work on various social media platforms. I kept returning to one maker in particular, ABS journeyman smith Steve Randall.
While photos can be deceiving, I have a pretty good eye for knives. Looking at images of his knives, I could tell he too had a good eye and understood making knives well beyond the short time he had been making them. He combined all the dimensions and aspects of the knife to make it flow.
I bought my first knife from Steve at that 2015 BLADE Show. In 2016 he earned his ABS master smith stamp. In 2022 his knives continue to impress me. There is no backward movement with his work and his knives continue to improve.
One of Steve’s best attributes is that he is willing to learn and try new things. In my opinion, many ABS master smiths are reluctant to work outside their comfort zone. I have asked Steve to build knives for me and my clients that may have some aspects he had never done before. Steve and his work never disappoint.
I was fortunate to have worked with or still work with my five favorite American makers. They have taught me so much about the art of knifemaking, and those who are with us still do. (Mr. Herron passed away in 2007). Perhaps more importantly I consider each of them a friend.
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