Three Knifemakers Take Us Into Their Shop To Show Us Their Process And How They Forge Steel Into Beautiful Blades.
How serious was Kirby Lambert about buying the necessary equipment to become a custom knifemaker?
“I dropped out of school at the University of Calgary to start my knifemaking career,” he began. “In order to purchase machinery, tools, and equipment I had to sell off the one thing I had that was worth any money—my 1969 440 Dodge Charger.
“My milling/drilling machine was one of the very first pieces of equipment I purchased at the beginning of my knifemaking career. It’s a Force International that was made for House of Tools, which is no longer in existence. I purchased it around 2002, and every knife I’ve made since that time has either been drilled and/or milled on it.
“Some of the most important and most-used pieces of machinery I have are my belt grinders,” Kirby continued. “My favorite is the TW-90 [the one with the yellow belt illustrated in one of the accompanying pictures]. Not only is it one of the most versatile grinders on the market, it’s also designed and made by my good friend, Travis Wuertz. This grinder does it all and then some. Not only do I use it for grinding bevels and the like, it comes with small wheel attachments and an incredible surface-grinding attachment, which is perfect when having limited shop space.”
Kirby bought his other TW-90 grinder from KMG many years ago and uses it often to this day.
“Another must-have tool for any folder maker is a tapping head,” he observed. “It allows you to tap and thread holes quickly and easily. I purchased the one I use from KBC Tool in the early 2000s. It’s mounted to a drill press that has some sentimental value. I got it from knifemaker Bill Schiller, who helped me out a lot when I was first getting started in the early 1990s. Sadly, Bill passed away in 2017.”
Lambert extolled the virtues of a good buffer for fine surface finishing.
“Another of the first tools I purchased that I still regularly use is my buffing unit. I bought it from Bill Schiller as well,” Kirby recalled. “He had done some modifications to it by machining heavier shafts/arbors. With a number of different wheels, buffers and compounds, I use this machine to achieve a variety of finishes on knife blades and parts.”
Kirby’s heat-treating oven is key for preparing the steel that goes into his blades—and it holds sentimental value as well.
“My Paragon oven was given to me by my dear friend and mentor, Brian Lyttle. I worked with Brian for a few years in his shop in Alberta before moving back to Saskatchewan to set up my own shop. If it weren’t for Brian, I would not be where I am today. He passed away in 2016,” Kirby lamented. “No matter how fancy the steel or materials, a knife doesn’t become a knife until it’s properly heat treated. It’s the most crucial step in knifemaking and is the moment the knife gets its soul.”
A knifemaker since 2005, Mike Quesenberry received his ABS journeyman smith stamp at the 2009 BLADE Show. At the 2014 BLADE Show he earned his ABS master smith stamp and the coveted B.R. Hughes Award for the show’s best knife submitted by a master smith applicant. In a nutshell, Mike makes top-shelf stuff and has the shop to do it.
“A good grinder is essential for the knifemaker and the TW-90 is a great one,” he opined. “Travis Wuertz was the innovator with this style of grinder and has had countless copycats. It’s made with the best materials, motors and VFDs [variable frequency drives] on the market.
“The one invaluable accessory is the surface-grinding attachment. As knifemakers we are in constant need of making things flat, and this does it quickly and efficiently. I own two of these machines. The first one was out of the initial batch back in 2010 and is still going strong today. I can’t say enough positive things about the TW-90.
“If you’re looking to cut down on your hand-sanding time, the 9-inch disk sander is the answer. I made mine from sourced components—a 1-horsepower, 3-phase Leeson motor paired with the KBAC-24D VFD and a 9-inch flat steel disc. The stand is fully adjustable and the addition of the task lighting makes seeing a uniform scratch pattern a breeze. I use repositionable adhesive for the 9×11 sandpaper sheets and for the quarter-inch rubber backing, available from K&G supply. The bare steel disk gives crisp flats and the rubber backing allows higher-grit finishes and bevels blended to a zero edge.”
Keeping everything organized is key, and Mike considers his workbench the most valuable asset in the shop.
“The efficiency and organization behind it save me countless hours. My wife, Antoinette, was a huge help in the construction of this bench. Without her it would have never looked this nice,” he noted. “The two side stands are made from Craftsman toolboxes with different drawer configurations. They sit on 2×6 frames, giving rigidity to the structure, but, most importantly, the screw or pin that falls off the bench has nowhere to go. I have found that a paper cutter is the most efficient way of processing strips of sandpaper, and I go through a lot of it. The granite surface plate with 120-grit paper is great for finishing flats.
“The most used part of my bench is the vise. It’s a small one—3-to-4 inches is ideal—and perfect for holding knife-sized work. The stand is built from 21/2- and 3-inch square tubing. It allows the vise to move in and out and up and down. Versatility is the key, allowing you to sit or stand and be comfortable no matter if you’re hand sanding or doing detailed filework. Hours spent at a workstation that is not ergonomic can be hard on the body. Take the time and build a friendly work environment—your body and productivity will thank you.”
Knifemaker Rick Eaton forges the blades for his exquisite art knives, so a dependable hydraulic press is a must.
“For forging damascus I use a Carlisle Imagination Xpress 25-ton hydraulic press made by Jeff Carlisle of Simms, Montana,” Rick stated, adding he doesn’t know if Carlisle still makes the presses or not. “I got this one in 1999 after starting to learn how to forge damascus from Shane Taylor and Steve Schwarzer at Shane’s family ranch. This press has given me 23 years of use with zero problems and I’ve made a whole lot of damascus with it. It has a two-stage pump so the hydraulics work fast. If you have one machine for forging damascus, this one is great. Dies are easy to make and changing them is fast when going to different operations.”
For cooking his steel, Eaton made his own heat-treating oven.
“It’s has a 20-inch outside diameter and about an 18-inch vertical interior diameter. It’s propane fired with forced air using a blower. I received guidance from Shane and Steve on how to build it back in 1999. It has castable refractory cement in the bottom with Kaowool insulated sides covered in more refractory cement. I’ve relined it multiple times—it’s about due for another one. It works great for large cans or stacks [of steel].”
One of Rick’s specialties is the interframe folder, which requires an extraordinary degree of precision to execute. For reducing and transferring his designs he relies on his pantograph.
“I use a Gorton P2-3 pantograph, made about 1972, that I’ve owned since 1994. I do all my interframes and side-locks using it,” Rick noted. “The one issue with this pantograph is it only goes down to a 2:1 ratio, so my final templates are made at this size. For doing interframes I hand make a 4:1 template, then use this one to make a 2:1 template to cut the handle. This machine gives me the ability to remake an interframe pattern accurately and quickly. Any of my knives that are numbered were done with this, even though my high-end art models are not copied—they are all one-offs.”
Like Kirby Lambert and Mike Quesenberry before him, Rick is a big fan of the TW-90 belt grinder.
“For many of my grinding chores I use a Travis Wuertz TW-90 vertical/horizontal grinder with a 2-horsepower variable 220 motor. I can do just about anything with this grinder,” he commented. “It tracks real well and I love all the different attachments that you can get with it. It’s a top-of-the-line grinder.”
Rick not only does all the engraving on his art knives. He’s been a GRS engraving instructor since 2005.
“I have an engraving office desk station with a GRS GraverMach with Magnum and 901 Monarch handpieces, plus an 860 high-speed rotary handpiece. It has the GRS positioning vise on top of the satellite stand,” he stated. “I also use the Acrobat stand Leica A60 variable microscope, and for keeping the tools sharp it has a GraverHone with Apex sharpening system, all hooked up to a large air compressor out in the shop area. This is GRS’s top-of-the-line setup.”
- Shop Dump: Tom Krein, Jerry Moen, And Ben Breda
- Shop Dump: Salem Straub And Andreas Kalani
- Shop Dump: Steve Schwarzer
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