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Oct 1, 2019


Discover stunning custom knives!

Throughout history, knives of untold numbers of styles, materials and designs have been carried as tools, weapons and adornments -- and each knife has a distinct attraction all its own. That allure has helped custom knifemaking evolve, and continue to grow and thrive today. The pages of Knives 2020, 40th Edition gives you the most elite crop of knives and makers that the world of blades has to offer.

Knives 2020 showcases blades of every class and style with more than 800 spectacular full-color images, along with descriptions of the makers who created them.

Inside this 40th edition of Knives you will find captivating feature articles on a wide variety of knife styles and designs, the latest trends and state of the art in materials, patterns and fabrication that will not disappoint any knife enthusiast--whether you're a newcomer or a seasoned edge aficionado. In addition, you can utilize the completely updated Custom Knifemaker Directory to find the creator of your next favorite blade.

  • Enthralling articles about the legendary Bowie knife, Wharncliffe edges, tomahawk evolution, dive knives, traveling with blades, tactical folders and more.
  • Trends chapter with the hottest designs for flippers, daggers, sushi knives, fighters, straight razors, tantos, folding saws, ultra-thin setups and pocket knives.
  • State of the Art chapter parades carved, sculpted, damascus, engraved, san mai steel and artisan knives from some of the world's most skilled craftsmen.
  • The comprehensive Custom Knifemaker Directory includes contact information, websites, specialties, materials, price ranges, tools, tang stamps and comments.

Knives 2020 is your go-to resource for all things knives, blades and edges. Dive into the world's greatest knife book and discover the wonderful universe of custom blades.

Oct 1, 2019

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KNIVES 2020 - Gun Digest Media



Making of the Montana Mafia


The clandestine crew has infiltrated the dark corners of custom knives for 28 years

If you have been around the handmade knife world for any amount of time, you have probably heard of the Montana Mafia. I’ve been asked by the editor of this publication to give some history on this infamous group from Big Sky Country. I may be risking serious retaliation from the other members of the mafia for telling the story from the inside. I’ll tell the story as well as my memory can bring it back to me. Some of the activities that were required of a mafia member are not conducive to long-term memory. No names have been changed since no one is innocent.

Barry Gallagher’s folding art dagger is not short on innovations or embellishments, including gold inlay, mosaic damascus, file work, carving and stippling.


The mafia has its roots in a Northern Rockies Blacksmiths Association meeting in Stevensville, Montana, in 1992. At this hammer-in, I met Shane Taylor and Wade Colter. Soon after our introduction, I made the acquaintance of Barry Gallagher at a gun show in Lewistown. These two meetings formed the Montana Mafia. Many claimed membership since, but the original mafia consisted of these four. Over the years we only allowed one honorary member, namely, Rick Eaton.

With a common interest in obtaining knife knowledge by any means possible, the original four members began making an annual pilgrimage to the Oregon Knife Collectors Association Show in Eugene. This show was ripe for the mafia to steal ideas and techniques from a room full of talented makers. Wayne Goddard confessed a wealth of knifemaking knowledge and was easy prey for the Montana Mafia. We also shook down Devin Thomas and J.D. Smith for ideas and techniques, too.

Shane Taylor’s Kentucky Derby folder incorporates mosaic damascus, complete with profiles of horses forged into the steel, ancient ivory, gold inlay and file work. (Caleb Royer image)


After several years of this, it became obvious that we would have to infiltrate other areas of the country, as we were bleeding the Northwest dry of information. In 1995, I started holding a hammer-in of my own in Lincoln.

Over five years, I invited Goddard, Al Dippold, Don Fogg, Hank Knickmeyer and Rob Hudson as demonstrators at the hammer-ins. During this time, Shane also held two hammer-ins at his ranch outside Miles City, with Steve Schwarzer as the demonstrator. It was after one of Shane’s hammer-ins that Schwarzer started referring to the group as the Montana Mafia. It was also during this period that the mafia started to develop its own style of knives that were an amalgamation of all the information we had pillaged.

By the late ’90s, the mafia moved east to make its presence known at knife shows in New York, Florida and Atlanta. We found fertile ground to rob more ideas and techniques from unsuspecting makers. Although from the outside the mafia looked strong, there were internal struggles. Shane stole damascus patterns from me, and jealousy between the members began to be a problem. After another few years, these fractures in the organization caused its demise. The Montana Mafia had run its course and the members faded into knifemaking infamy.

All the names in the above paragraphs are real and they all played a major part in what became the Montana Mafia. The dates of events are as close as our memories can recall. Everything else is fiction.

Though the Montana Mafia jokes that it pilfered most of its ideas from other knifemakers, they did have a few original innovations of their own. Some are seen here in Rick Dunkerley’s circa-2000 damascus auto dagger with gold-washed blade and handle, and black-lip-pearl handle inlay. (PointSeven image)


The real story is one of four friends who shared a common passion. I often wondered how egos and jealousy never drove the group apart. We are all close in age, and I think that was a factor, as well as the fact that we were all at about the same level of knifemaking skill when we met.

In the mid-’90s, it became apparent that knifemakers in the northwest U.S. tended to work alone, separated by large distances. In 1995, I decided to have my first hammer-in. With Goddard as the demonstrator, the energy at that event was off the charts. It marked the beginning of the excitement that would define the Montana Mafia.

My formula for my hammer-ins was to hire makers I wanted to learn from and then get 30 attendees to pay for it. This exposure to some of the best bladesmiths in the country provided a great learning and creative atmosphere that led to many new ideas and techniques. Shane’s hammer-ins provided that same opportunity.


As a group, we never kept anything secret from the others. We learned early on that a team thinking about the same new idea would come up with many spins-offs of the original technique. I never felt that energy in another group of makers. After a hammer-in that I held in 1997, Fogg told me, I haven’t felt this kind of energy since Schmidt, Fikes and I worked together.

There’s an undeniable appeal to this Bumblebee folder from the mind and hands of Montana Mafia member Barry Gallagher, and it wears its stripes well.

The lengthy mosaic-damascus blade of a 1999 Shane Taylor bowie is nothing short of impressive, as is the carved bolster and handle, the latter of which leads into the patterning of the damascus pommel perfectly. (PointSeven image)

The following year, Knickmeyer became the demonstrator at my hammer-in, and his comment was, There are maybe six or eight guys in the world doing innovative work with damascus, and most of them are here in this room. The creative atmosphere was infectious and seemed to attract more creative people who wanted to be around the energy of the mafia.

By this time, the mafia members won awards at national knife shows and received lots of publicity in the knife magazines. Most in the knife world thought that we lived in proximity to one another. In contrast, Montana is a huge state, and long distances separated us. I resided in western Montana, and Barry lived closest to me 200 miles away. Shane and Wade lived even farther, over 400 miles to the east.

This distance may have been a benefit to our group. We stayed in constant communication by phone and shared whatever we were working on individually. The fact that we were so far apart may have helped avoid any personality conflicts from too much time together.

Whenever we got together as a group, the amount of fun we had could be considered borderline legal. The midnight madness gatherings at the Campus Inn, in Eugene, proved legendary. The pit at the BLADE Show was, and continues to be, a bladesmith’s paradise, with information shared until all hours of the night. The energy level flew off the charts, and the Montana Mafia sat at the center of it.


To say the mafia was hot would be a great understatement. Between 1997 and 2007, the group won over 40 national knife awards, including five Best Damascus honors at the BLADE Show. Three of the four members achieved American Bladesmith Society master smith ratings, and one received the Jim Schmidt Award at the East Coast Custom Knife Show. Another was honored with the KNIVES 2000 Wooden Sword Award. There were many other awards and articles in knife publications, as well as several magazine cover appearances for the group.

Listing these accomplishments is not meant to be a glory days kind of thing. I didn’t list the names of the winners, as I feel that we earned most of them as a group, except for any damascus awards that Shane won. He stole all his damascus patterns from me!

Gold wire inlay around the black-lip mother-of-pearl inset of a Rick Dunkerley damascus folder leads the eye directly into the sculpted front and rear bolsters. (SharpByCoop image)


It is close to 30 years since the initial meeting of the Montana Mafia. Some things changed, and some will always be the same. One member entered the witness protection program, one semi-retired and the other two hate each other because Shane continues to steal all my damascus ideas.

The history of modern handmade knives is not a long one. Much of it occurred in the last 40 years. The Montana Mafia is a part of that history, and I am one of the fortunate members of that group. I cannot put into words what the group meant to me. From the beginning, I had the most to gain from the association of these talented makers.

As Taylor recently put it, It’s very difficult to quantify what the Montana Mafia has meant to me because, even to this day, every pattern I make has its roots in what we shared and did back then. There is also the brotherhood connection that we still have.

From damascus steel development, locking liner folder innovation and the modern cut-and-shoot pistol knives trend, the Montana Mafia members left widespread ripples in the pool of handmade knives. I am proud we shared our innovations over the years and continue to teach around the world. I made friends worldwide because of knives. Gallagher, Colter and Taylor are much more than friends to me. They are family, and everything about me is better for that family. Thank you, guys, for all of it!

Willie and the Goat Boy Weren’t Playing


Bill McHenry, inventor of innovative knife mechanisms, relished old-time craftsmanship

The Willie in this case is Bill McHenry. Goat Boy is the affectionate nickname given to his stepson-in-law, Jason Williams, due to his chin whiskers shared with a Saturday Night Live character.

Bill McHenry often hand-chased Celtic and mythical creatures on sterling silver bolsters and steel handle spines, and set precious gemstones in the thumb studs. (SharpByCoop image)

Most readers are familiar with the AXIS Lock designed by McHenry and Williams, and the series of folders utilizing the mechanism offered by production knife giant, Benchmade. Bill and Jason designed the Benchmade 705, 707 and 710 models, but each knife in the series that utilizes the AXIS Lock, regardless of overall designer, also bears the McHenry and Williams design etch.

This is the last photo of Bill McHenry at the Northeast Cutlery Collectors Show a few months before he departed this realm.


As I was told, it was a long process from development of the revolutionary lock, after gaining inspiration from tinkering with old Indian motorcycles, to the lock’s final perfection, due in no small part to Jason’s omega spring idea contribution. This led to initial meetings with Benchmade in the mid-1990s to ink the deal that eventually helped the company garner the Knife of the Year® Award at the 1999 BLADE Show.

McHenry and Williams designed a couple other Benchmade knife models. Bill was the sole designer of the Infidel out-the-front (OTF) automatic. Prior to Bill’s design improvements to standard OTF autos, the mechanisms on the old knives would hang up after prolonged firing of the blades. Bill studied the strong points and weak links of OTF knives available from various companies at the time, and then fashioned his own version.

Jason told me that Benchmade had a machine that tested the Infidel by repeatedly firing and closing the blade. The company shut off the machine after deploying and closing the knife 35,000 times without failure of either function. That’s no surprise to me, because that’s the way Bill worked in his pursuit of optimal performance.

A carved Bill McHenry latch-release switchblade features a damascus blade and front bolsters, mother-of-pearl handle scales and a serious-business skull crusher pommel. (SharpByCoop image)


The tale I wish to tell is how McHenry Forge arrived, pre-AXIS Lock fame.

In the mid 1980s, Bill was becoming disillusioned with the jewelry shop in the beach town of Newport, Rhode Island, where he worked as a designer, and as a gold and silversmith. He felt deeply passionate about the crafting of his pieces, and he took offense to customers who valued only the carat weight of the gold or the number of points in the diamonds. It hurt his artistic senses to have his efforts reduced in this way.


Bill grew interested in making handmade knives after seeing his first examples at a local gun show. Bill became enamored by the magic he could wring out of a small length of steel and some antler. Goldsmithing’s loss was to become knifemaking’s gain!

Like many other knifemakers, he began his journey fashioning hunting and outdoors knives, which he displayed in his store or sold to other merchants in touristy Newport.

Fate would intervene when Bill attended an annual weekend Cajun music festival where he displayed his knives. One of his friends dated the sister of Jason Williams’ mom, and he told Bill that he had to meet this 15-year-old kid who was as nuts about knives as he was. After being introduced to the young whippersnapper, McHenry also hit it off with Jason’s mom, Lisa. Bill and Jason began grinding blades in the basement of Lisa’s house, where McHenry was a frequent visitor in his courtin’ and sparkin’ phase.

Lisa and Bill married, sold their houses, bought some land and built their new home in the serene woodlands of Wyoming, Rhode Island. Their new digs at the end of a long, forested driveway called Easy Street became affectionately known as The Ranch.

Bill and Jason shared a two-story workshop where they put up an American flag with a circle of stars in the field like the one that flew over Fort McHenry in the War of 1812. Together they expanded their knifemaking skills to include folding knives.

They found out about the Northeast Cutlery Collectors Association (NCCA) and would display their wares at the associated knife show where they met up with the few makers in the region. Their thirst for knowledge led them to the Ashokan hammer-ins hosted by Tim Zowada in upstate New York.

The whimsical, carved goblin-face folders of Jim Schmidt impressed Bill. Schmidt stood among such stalwarts in the knife world as Jerry Rados and Don Fogg in attendance at The Ashokan Center. A few years later, Mardi Meshejian, a skilled maker of art knives, recalled when Bill and Jason used the first AXIS Lock folders to cut their steaks after the Ashokan events of the day.


New Hampshire’s Wayne Valachovic specialized in folders that proved real eye openers for McHenry. Wayne also made good use of simple materials, with a focus on the look of the knife’s lines and proportion, coupled with great performance. This appealed to Bill.

Bill and Jason also took note of the ease in traveling with folders versus fixed blades, and of setting up a show table with folders. They bought damascus steel billets made by Daryl Meier and Howard Clark, reasoning that more folder blades than fixed blades could be made from a single billet. They also realized that, while it is more labor intensive to make folding knives, folders could sell for as much or even more than fixed blades.

Initially they built lock-back folders, but Bill felt that a locking liner could be stronger when correctly made. The LinerLock folders of the esteemed Michael Walker served as a great inspiration to McHenry Forge.

The distinctive look of McHenry Forge knives took shape in the waning months of 1989 and into the final decade of the millennium. Bill upped the ante, utilizing his jeweler skills by carving and file-working the blades and natural handle materials. He also hand-chased Celtic and mythical creature engravings on sterling silver bolsters and steel handle spines, and set precious gemstones in the thumb studs.

These knives were essentially one-of-a-kind objects of edged art, a radical departure from the multiples-of-a-model train of thought in handmade knives of the time. Knifemakers J.D. Smith and Richard Wright have said that the face of folding knives changed after Bill McHenry’s work was featured in the KNIVES annual books, edited by Ken Warner at the time.

No slouch himself at making artistic folding knives, Rex Robinson told me that, after seeing McHenry’s work at the Gator Cutlery Club Knife Show in Florida, he felt like throwing all the knives on his own table in the dirt and making new ones like Bill’s. The impact proved life changing for many makers, present company included!

This set up McHenry for raising the bar in the mechanisms of folding knives as the ’90s unfolded.

Black-lip pearl handle scales go well with the Celtic woman engraved on the bolsters of a William McHenry folder. (SharpByCoop image)

(Left to right) Richard Wright, Bill McHenry and Ralph Selvidio collaborated on The Valkyrie. Here they pose with the knife at an early Rhode Island Knife Show. The image captures the essence of McHenry’s persona and over-the-top creativity. He rarely collaborated with other makers, but with a 3-foot-long switchblade, it’s nice to have some extra hands.


Rhode Island was one of only two states favorable to switchblades at the time when McHenry Forge knives rose to prominence, and Jason and Bill were fortunate to be Ocean State residents. As Jason puts it, it wasn’t an accident, but it wasn’t really planned, either.

McHenry and Williams became friendly with a purveyor at the NCCA shows who opined that a handmade switchblade would be a good seller. He offered Bill $500 cash to make one.

A month or so after the purveyor made the offer to Bill, the newly elected governor of Rhode Island closed all the credit unions in the state due to mass corruption. State police stood guard at the credit unions with shotguns, and assets were frozen, preventing any deposits or withdrawals. Bill and his new bride had a mortgage to pay, so he called the purveyor to see if he was ready for a switchblade. With a reply in the affirmative, Bill put on a pot of coffee and went out to the shop for a marathon session. Four days later, he finished the knife.

The knife caused quite a stir at the next show. The NCCA thought Bill was a madman who would get the club in trouble with his evil switchblade. However, a few collectors said they’d each like one, and Bill obliged them.

At the time, the scant few makers of automatics believed that a little play in the blade’s lockup was necessary for a switchblade to function properly. This thorn in Bill’s side dissipated with the help of a man he met at the NCCA Show.

This fixed blade with engraved bolsters is an example of how using simple materials with a focus on the look of a knife’s lines and proportion, coupled with great performance, appealed to Bill McHenry. (SharpByCoop image)

The LinerLock folders of the esteemed Michael Walker were a great inspiration to McHenry Forge. Bill’s, of course, showcase hand-chased Celtic and mythical creature engravings on sterling silver bolsters.


Richard Wright wasn’t the talented knifemaker he is now at that first meeting. The machinist, tool maker, welder and gunsmith admired Bill’s work, and found out he lived within a few miles of him. Wright became a frequent visitor to McHenry Forge. He showed Bill how a trigger sear worked because he thought it could be useful information in McHenry’s quest to make the perfect switchblade.

According to Jason’s account, Bill went wild-eyed nuts and another marathon session ensued. He called Wright to tell him of the new release mechanism he invented for his latest knife. This was the bolster release, and soon enough Jason and Richard were making them, too. They went all out making various mechanisms, including the latch or rocker release housed within the bolster. This would become the ubiquitous style in the switchblade tsunami.

McHenry found this nearly 1-inch long, 3/16-inch thick, ¹⁄4-inch wide latch presented him a new canvas to create upon. His skills as a jeweler gave him the ability to put a ton of eye candy into a small space, and he sure knew how to work it. Bill and Jason studied every nuance of the switchblade. They noticed that the knives made a certain sound when all the right things were done to the engaging parts. Bill called it the series of engagement that would yield the money click. He said that acoustics were an important factor in the finished switchblade.

More importantly, Bill and Jason noticed that knife customers reacted favorably to the sound of a well-tuned knife. Operating these knives felt akin to a handheld hotrod in both performance and embellishment. It proved no easy feat to make a knife with these attributes, combining a balancing act of using proper materials and spring tensions, and heat-treating and polishing, all crucial engagement components of the inner mechanism. To top it off, that needed to mesh with the lines, curves and sculpting of the outer knife.

I visited McHenry Forge several times and always thought the larger-than-life cardboard cutout of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, was just the shop pinup girl. Jason recently enlightened me that Bill placed her in prominent view as a reminder of how pleasing it is to the eye to view flowing curves. No argument here!


McHenry wanted to build a knife in tribute to his Viking/Celtic heritage and make it a showcase for the bolster release mechanism he and Wright had developed. He figured that, to make a big splash in the knife community, making a big, 3-foot-long switchblade was the ticket.

He asked local knifemaker Ralph Selvidio to help, as he was a gifted blade grinder that could serve this project well. Richard was charged with making the main frame, handle spine, kick spring and the manual skull crusher folding tail of the knife. Bill used the lost wax casting method to cast the bronze bolsters and fashion the handle scales from a large impala horn, and he also made a display stand for the finished piece.

The three craftsmen unveiled The Valkyrie at the Rhode Island Knife Show, and it put all of them on the custom knifemaker map. Richard recalled the knife sold before the unveiling.

I first became aware of McHenry when knife broker Phil Fallon, of Nashoba Valley Knifeworks, in Massachusetts, displayed a couple of Bill’s folders at the Gator Cutlery Club Show. These knives blew everyone away in all aspects, including the princely sum to acquire them, and sell they did.

The following year, Bill and Jason had a table at the little show in Plant City, Florida. I assumed a meticulous old man made the knives I saw the year prior, someone well versed in old-world artistry and craftsmanship. Instead, I found Bill to be a ’60s counterculture refugee who looked like he should have been at a Grateful Dead concert instead of a knife show.

We saw one another as kindred spirits sharing a passion for knives and guitars. We hit it off right away. Bill and Jason stayed at my house as a jumping off point for future Florida shows, since I lived in Orlando at the time. I gave Bill the nickname of Willie Jim while he was in Florida, and he, in either reciprocation or retaliation, called me Deputy Dawg. In turn, he invited me to stay for a visit at The Ranch while attending the Rhode Island Knife Show.

After sweltering Florida summers, I fondly recall glorious New England Indian summers hanging out with Bill and Jason and their trusty dog, Rufus, while Lisa and Bill’s step-daughter, Heather, made tasty dinners and to-die-for cookies for the knife shows. Bill possessed a strong intuitive and spiritual side to him, and he looked into your eyes to your soul. Jason said that if Bill liked you, that meant something.


After McHenry Forge knives became sought-after items at shows, Bill and Jason wanted to help their friends sell more knives, too. They invited me to their intense switchblade seminar, along with Selvidio, Bill Saindon and Smith. The seminar focused on how to make knives with structural integrity so that they wouldn’t tear themselves apart after repeated firings.

I later designed a different sear construction from the integral design they showed us, because Bill’s enthusiastic pep talk on experimenting with mechanisms fired me up. Our friendship endured over all the years and the storms we weathered. We still yakked on the phone quite often, and I finally caved in and gave him my vintage motorcycle jacket. He also wanted one of my knives, so I sent him a coffin-handle damascus dagger, of which he was very pleased.

In our last conversation, he wanted to know my ring size so he could send me a ring he designed. I told him I’d get back with him on that after I caught up on my Christmas knife orders. We kept talking about guitars until his phone battery gave out. He left a message the next day, saying that we needed to finish our conversation. I replied aloud to nobody but myself, I’ll catch up with ya later, Bill. I gotta get this work done. He was gone that night.

I have reminders of the McHenry ranch in my house in the form of a whimsical dragon letter opener like the one Bill and Lisa kept in their home that Rob Hudson of Maryland forged. The first thing you’d see coming in to Bill’s house was an elaborate Elvis shrine with a clock of The King with a swinging-legs pendulum. I have one doing likewise in my house as well.

I always thought a photo of Bill in a confident pose and dressed in a gold Lamé jacket with the slogan Millions of AXIS Lock Fans Can’t Be Wrong! would be great advertising for Benchmade.

My thanks to Smith, Williams and Wright for their input and help in getting this story right. I tip my hat to Jocelyn McHenry-Arruda who sent me a surprise ring I thought I’d never get to see, and it’s a perfect fit. You inherited your father’s kindness.

Vaya con Dios, Willie Jim!

Great Filework Tells Its Own Story


Exquisite hand filing in intricate patterns adds an artistic dimension to custom knives

Just when you think you may have taken in all there is to enjoy on a custom knife, it catches your eye. It’s a subtle enhancement, a bonus for those who appreciate its intricacies and the simple fact that an artist has gone the extra mile: filework.

This Tobin Hill folder includes a stunning damascus blade and intricate filework along the back spacers and liners. (SharpByCoop image)

While it is sometimes overlooked in the beginning, exquisite filework soon awakens the senses with its beauty, craftsmanship and timeless appeal that leave no doubt as to the talent of the author.

Whether a rope, vine, rolling ribbon, diamond or other pattern, filework is not to be taken lightly. After hours of labor, a single slip of the hand puts the custom maker in damage control mode. When complete, however, it’s worth the risk.


Steve Schwarzer, Dellana, Gene Baskett, Johnny Stout, Luke Swenson and Tobin Hill stand tall among the virtuosos of filework. These custom knifemakers made a name for themselves with the embellishment that is always optional but often preferred. Others noted for their filework abilities include Bubba Crouch, Phil Preston, Tim Lambkin, Joe Szilaski and Trevor Burger, to name a few.

There are untold numbers of different patterns, Stout explains. Some are relatively simple, and others are very complex and can take as much time and attention to detail as building the entire knife. I limit my patterns to the two or three I like best, and that will depend on the particular knife I’m building and what it calls for on the liners, back spacer, blade, bolsters, etc.

While no area of the knife is necessarily off limits to filework, the liners, back spacers, blades and bolsters tend to lend themselves most often. Outstanding filework requires tremendous skill honed by scores of practice, a keen eye for aesthetics, a steady hand, and plenty of time and patience.


Most of my customers request filework on their knives, comments Baskett, who currently serves as president of the Knifemakers’ Guild. Most of the time they have already seen my filework on a knife or in a photo of one of my knives.

Sometimes they say to surprise them with what I think is best, Baskett adds, and some of my best work has been from a miss-lick with a file. I look at such a mistake and think, ‘What can I do to save all the work I’ve put into this?’ Most of the time the result has been very beautiful.


The legendary Jim Schmidt is among the giants of the custom knife industry, and his legacy embraces the concept and implementation of filework. It lives on, in fact, in the work of Dellana, Barry Davis and other Schmidt protégés, along with the incomparable talent of ABS master smith Schwarzer, whose encounter with the late art knife maker taught an incredible life lesson.

Jim Schmidt was a master, the godfather of filework, reflects Schwarzer, and I met him around 1979 or ’80. He was doing filework then, and it was a way to display his overall artistry on a knife. He taught Dellana, and she is as close to a master of his method as there is.

Basic filework is easy, but it is still all handwork, and sometimes it isn’t easy to do right, Schwarzer continues. One time, I had gone home from a show and done a bunch of filework on a knife. I was so proud of that effort, and I couldn’t wait to show Jim what I had done.

I pulled that knife out at the next show and said, ‘What do you think?’ Schwarzer recalls. He looked at me and said, ‘Well, filework has to tell a story, and what you’ve got on here is a series of incomplete sentences. Would you buy a car with four different hubcaps?’ So, if the embellishment isn’t better than the knife itself, don’t do it. You can’t do a hodgepodge and call it filework. It has to flow and tell a story.

Schwarzer, who has won a truckload of awards in a career that dates to the 1970s, relates that filework itself has been done for centuries. In the days when artisans searched for ways to display their talents beyond the building of a tool or implement, filework was the preferred vehicle. Back as early as the 1200s, they were doing very elaborate designs on any kind of hand tool. It was all ornate or baroque, and they called it ‘white-smithing’ because it was all done cold, Schwarzer says.

A four-blade congress model by Luke Swenson has CPM-154 stainless steel blades and springs, along with stainless 416 bolsters and 410 liners. It sports a rope fileworked center spacer, and scallops and V’s along the liners. (Caleb Royer image)


Acknowledging Schmidt as her guiding light in a career that evolved from metalsmithing into custom knifemaking, Dellana stresses the importance of developing her own style, both in the knives and in the filework.

The more intricate the pattern, the more time consuming it is, she observes. A fine vine pattern done on liners is much more difficult than vine on a blade, backbar or lock bar. The filework pattern I choose is based on the overall concept of the knife. A more organic overall design will get an organic filework pattern, but a more geometric design will require a geometric pattern.

Dellana honed her filework skills with rolling ribbon and rope forms, which she stresses are two distinct patterns often misidentified, and others that give her knives an unmistakable flair.

I personally like to use one that I call ‘pyramids’ and a new variation that I like to call ‘double pyramids.’ I also like diamonds, dentil, and hugs and kisses, which I also call ‘black tie,’ she notes. I have another one that I used with my nickname in a runic pattern. I did that one on my first knife.

For Dellana, the filework is an integral component of the overall presentation. The winner of numerous awards, including the BLADE Magazine Handmade Knife of the Year®, she makes the call early in the design process.

I decide on the filework pattern almost as soon as I have designed the overall knife, she relates. I have a mental image of what I am going for. I have made sample filework blocks that I will use once I have the knife working and the scales and bolsters completed, if I physically need to see the specifics to make the final design decision. Really good filework requires precise laying out before starting to cut the pattern. That can mean either laying out the entire pattern or just the first cut.


Dellana uses Dykem layout fluid marked with a ruler, calipers and a sharp scribe for the layout. Designing a new pattern, she says, is always done on paper first, either with a sketch or laid out on graph paper. Then, she practices with the appropriate thickness of steel since it will impact the result achieved with some patterns.

Of course, every maker has his or her own methodology, and with the virtuosos of filework, each produces dazzling results.

Dellana’s rolling ribbon filework, which should not be confused with a rope pattern, accents a single-blade folder. A second, exquisite, single-blade folder by Dellana is inset with a trio of gemstones and accented with two complementary dentil and double pyramids filework patterns.

Most of my knives have at least some simple filework on the liners, Swenson explains. I just kind of go with what I think will look good. I don’t plan anything out that far.

Whenever I have a blade break, it has been a stress riser from filework, he emphasizes, so I lean away from doing blades for the most part, but the customer can get it if they ask. If I’m working on what I consider a high-end piece, I like to use filework as a statement. I use Stihl brand files or the brand from K&G [Knife & Gun Finishing Supplies]. Also, I use a jeweler saw a lot, and there is no replacement for sandpaper and elbow grease.

Johnny Stout’s fine Baron folder showcases a 3-inch blade of Doug Ponzio Turkish-twist damascus, mammoth ivory handle scales, damascus bolsters engraved by Alice Carter, a niter-blued damascus back spacer that is fileworked in a rope pattern and fileworked titanium liners. (Caleb Royer image)

Swenson started making knives in 2003 and credits an early influence from the hammer-ins hosted by Harvey Dean and Stout. I was amazed at what those guys could do almost effortlessly. Living in my area of south Texas, you would have to be born under a rock not to know who Bill Ruple is, he says.

I had seen his fileworked slip joints at many cafés and cattle sales. I finally met him at one of the Guadalupe Forge hammer-ins, and he has been my mentor ever since. Even before I made slip-joint folders, he would always take time from his masterpiece to help me out.

While Swenson calls filework a simple process, he cautions that simple should not be confused with easy. It is, after all, a laborious process that requires a lot of practice, and you can count on some failures along the way. Good filework is a great addition to a piece, he reasons, and bad filework, well, not so much.

A beautiful Gene Baskett dagger features intricate filework on the spine, a blade of CPM-154 stainless steel, brass bolsters engraved by Paul Markow and a handle of cross-cut mammoth ivory. (Caleb Royer image)


Swenson remembers a Ruple double-blade trapper as the first knife he ever saw with filework, and then a couple of years later he saw his first embellished fixed blade. He attended a Dwayne Dushane demonstration on filework at a hammer-in and still refers to the event as simply amazing.

I wanted to be able to do it, Swenson remembers, and my next visit to Bill Ruple’s shop included a filework lesson, and I got to work. I started looking at some of the old antique knives with filework and trying to figure out the techniques. If not for Bill Ruple, not only would I probably not have tried filework, but I also likely wouldn’t have tried slip joints at all. His love of slip-joint folders was infectious, and when I got the bug, I got it bad.

The influence of Ruple and Dushane is a common thread for Stout and Hill. While Stout himself led others to the forge as an outstanding bladesmith, he learned filework directly from Dushane. Hill credits Ruple with teaching him to make knives, getting him started in the spring of 2016.

Coveted tools of the trade are shown in an image shared by Steve Schwarzer. The files in the image were used by a man many consider the master and godfather of hand filework, Jim Schmidt, in the production of his knives at his shop in Ballston Lake, New York.

My first exposure to great filework was with Dwayne, says Stout, who built his first knife in 1983 and committed to full-time knifemaking nearly a decade later. He is ambidextrous, and that trait is really positive when doing filework. I spent time with Dwayne, and he taught me several of the basic patterns.

I’ve always said that no filework is better than bad filework. Good filework can add to and enhance a good project, but bad filework can take away from a good project, Stout stresses. I suggest paying your dues. Practice on scrap pieces before putting it on a knife. Once it’s on there, it’s on there.

Hill is another native of south Texas, and the name Ruple resonates there. Early on, Hill also became familiar with the custom slip joints of Pat West and Jerry Collett. I’ve admired fileworked knives for many years, he notes, and the knives of these men have always been coveted because of filework. This is ranching and cowboy country, and we like to wear our fancy slip joints in belt pouches. My wife laughingly refers to these knives as ‘man jewelry.’


Hill admits that he has tossed a few screw-ups in the trash and says that filework can be tedious. I have talked to a few collectors who don’t like or approve of filework because it can hide mistakes or flaws in the knife’s fit and finish and mechanical functionality. I get it, so I omit filework when requested, but it is present on most of my pieces, he says.

I have also had customers ask for a vine pattern to continue out onto the back of the blade, Hill adds. I don’t like doing this because it can weaken the blade. I’ve seen blades break on other makers’ thin, trapper-style knives, and the stress riser was always on the filework.

Forty years ago, Baskett embarked on his knifemaking career as an understudy of Lloyd Hale and Gil Hibben. Lloyd introduced him to filework.

He brought out my artistic side, Baskett smiles. He taught me the finer points of filework, in making the proper angles and depth of cuts. It adds a whole different dimension to the knife and dresses up a plain piece.

Baskett knows that filework makes a difference, and an experience at a knife show a few years ago validated that assertion. He walked past another maker’s table, and the poor guy had a discouraged look on his face. When Baskett asked why, he was bluntly told that the man’s knives just weren’t selling. Of course, they were fine knives, but none of them sported any filework. When he suggested that the other knifemaker give filework a try, Baskett also offered to send some patterns and files for his use.

The next time I saw him, he had a great big smile on his face, Baskett laughs. He had added filework to his knives, and they were selling again. He has never forgotten this.

Filework done well and with attention to detail is unforgettable in its own right. The addition of the right pattern makes the knife pop. It is eye-catching, classy and adds an aura of intricacy, evidence of quality time invested in a finished product like no other.

Hmong Bush Knives Prove Efficient Cutters


The sweet spot is not where you’d think, but once discovered, it’s so, so sweet!

Sometimes being wrong is exactly what it’s cracked up to be.

Getting warm when it’s cold and wet is made a lot easier with efficient cutting tools like this pair of Hmong-style knives.

Time in the field using and fashioning heavy bush knives granted me an eye for utility that usually doesn’t steer me wrong. But in the case of what are commonly referred to as Hmong knives, I was blind as a bat.

Many years ago, I gave up on hatchets and axes for mountain and woods use. I gave in to the advantages of large bush knives, realizing that such models eliminated the need for smaller fixed blades. A large knife keeps up quite nicely with chopping chores, even when working on heavy cutting media usually associated with the hand axe.

Whether it’s the heat of Vietnam and Laos, or Bitterroot Valley cold, the Hmong knife is a welcome companion.

Grass, brush, small saplings, tinder and the like are far better cut with some sort of knife than a hatchet. Woods wanderers, hunters and backpackers most frequently face these materials.

In addition, there is no question that a knife is more useful when applied to chores that require less muscle and more finesse, like skinning game, meat cutting and general food preparation.

It should be no surprise that traditional east and southeast Asian knife shapes and configurations developed over hundreds of years demonstrate clear utility and marked efficiency when it comes to bush blades’ tasks. Many styles of parangs, bolos and goloks just plain work and work very well.

That’s in contrast to similarly long-bladed, straight-handled bowies, although I wish bowies were up to the job. They are, after all, American classics. Bowies look neat and useful, but overall they just don’t cut it for me. The key problem is in the balance. With weight distribution located closer to the hand, chopping efficiency suffers.


When the edge starts to go, as it inevitably will when such a knife is used hard, I found myself forcing the cuts with the whole arm when using a bowie. Yet Asian blades tend to be more comfortable when relying on an efficient wrist and hand whip style of cutting.

Thus, here is where my big mistake occurred.

Glancing at Hmong knives always left me unimpressed, convinced the type was nothing more than a big bowie sans guard. That is, I figured the style to simply be a big knife not designed for the wide range of duties commonly associated with other Asian blades. I assumed the Hmong knife pattern would probably be great for simple back-and-forth cutting chores, but insufficient when doing what parangs and bolos do so well, such as chopping wood and other large media.

So, I ignored Hmong knives, until I didn’t, and then realized how wrong I had been. What prompted me to investigate more fully was time spent watching videos of Laotian hunters. Almost every one of them possessed some iteration of this interesting knife type. They used it for every conceivable purpose, from building field-expedient pack frames to butchering pigs and clearing trails.

For mitted, cold and numb hands, the grip modification ensured safe use.

At this point it probably makes sense to describe just what a Hmong knife is and from where it hails. Geographically speaking, Laos and parts of Vietnam are most commonly associated with the Hmong people and their knives.

Traditional materials used in the making of these blades range from the normal automotive scrap, like suspension springs, to exotic stuff such as artillery shell fragments, which unfortunately remain as litter from decades of extended warfare in the region.


Though blade shapes vary by personal styles of smiths, there seem to be two primary types. The first is a straight-backed silhouette featuring a long and fine point, while the other exhibits a bowie-like clipped point. Both possess defined bellies, which for some reason escaped me entirely in my early perusing of them.

However, a classic clip-point bowie shape does not define the functional potential and belly common to a typical Hmong blade. Where a bowie edge extends in a more-or-less straight line parallel to its spine from the guard for about three-quarters the length to the tip, the Hmong type, with its narrow start from the grip to a much deeper belly, gives the impression of a bodybuilder with a narrow waist and big shoulders. For heavy chopping chores, this configuration makes all the difference.

With a long stretch of trail to be cleared of springy, dead material, the Hmong blade proved far superior to a hand axe.

Sizes of traditional Hmong knives vary a great deal, with some falling in the 5-to-8-inch blade range and others stretching out further.

Blade thickness varies with the size, but these knives are commonly stout, holding their meatiness for quite a way up the spine. I suspect the thickness is determined by the foundation stock used to forge these knives.


One theory that served me well in the past is that a big knife can do what a little knife can’t, and is therefore superior if only one knife is carried. I decided to make a couple Hmong-style knives on the upper end of the size spectrum, using my observations to serve as a guide.

I forged both from truck springs and heat treated using my favored three-stage method, which probably varies from the southeast Asian originals that I suspect are differentially hardened in water. I quenched mine in used motor oil and then oven tempered after the spines were reduced to spring range.

Past testing indicates edge hardness of my blades should hit about 55RC on the Rockwell scale. Blade shapes duplicated the two main types I’ve seen used by the hill people. One sported a bowie-like clipped point and the other came out as an unclipped, straight-spine iteration. Both featured defined points.

At the thickest, the blades measured a little under 1/4 inch. Width in front of the grip runs 1 ¹⁄4 inch on both and flares to 2 ¹⁄2 inches on one and 2 ³⁄4 on the other. Each grind is flat with a bit of shoulder behind the edge to prevent collapse when bumping into unintended hard stuff, like rocks when cutting near the ground. The length of the longer blade measured 12 ³⁄4 inches, and the shorter piece stretched to 11 ³⁄4 inches.

In the spirit of the original bladesmiths, materials are what is at hand. Here, an old, broken rifle stock becomes a knife handle.


Handles are, admittedly, where I took a wee turn from the traditional. Many Hmong knives are made without guards. That offered no disadvantage and I did likewise. However, most indigenous models sport a grip in the 6- to 7-inch length that’s straight as a broom handle.

Any blade will do for dicing carrots, but heavy bone doesn’t stand in the way of a Hmong knife while prepping roasts for the slow cooker.

For what I do, I was not happy with this arrangement. I use my knives in all seasons and often in winter, sometimes for extended periods in building blinds, shelters and trails, and I trust them especially as survival tools in ice, sleet and snow. The latter conditions concerned me regarding the traditional form of the handle.

My hands are often numb and heavily gloved or with mittens. Consequently, grip strength is variable when I halt for a break while ski trekking. I’ll admit I have lost hold of a big knife before, so I made an executive decision to forgo the straight handle and add a more positive flare at the butt to prevent loss of the tool under such an eventuality.

I never use a lanyard attached to my wrist, fearing that if I lose hold of the grip the blade will snap back and cut me. As for me tripping and falling, which occurs from time to time on slick slopes, I like the advantage of tossing a blade away from myself and not being attached to a foot-long swinging edge on the roll down a grade.

The desired grip retention is attained with a swell at the butt end of a knife. One of the knives I fashioned features a 5-inch handle of three-quarter-tang construction formed from walnut slabs I carved from an old, broken Husqvarna rifle stock. A bit of hardwood is epoxy-sandwiched from the end of tang to the end of the butt, which produces a bit more forward balance to the whole affair.

Three copper rivets cut from a length of thick grounding wire salvaged from a discarded power pole secured the handle slabs.

The grip on the other knife is 6 inches long and incorporates a stick tang peened over a slightly curved, leather-padded steel pommel that extends past the pinky finger to provide secure retention. That arrangement also assists in making whipping cuts on light brush and large grasses.


I sourced stock for the handle from a piece of mountain maple I cut up in the woods and seasoned for about five years. A ferrule formed from some electrical conduit caps it all off. A little red paint adds some bling and makes it easier to find when I put it down in the bush.

Scabbards on the originals are normally of carved and fitted wood. Leather is avoided, which is not surprising considering the high humidity and precipitation common to the regions where Hmong knives are most commonly used.

However, I made mine of leather, fitted to allow drop-in use so the knife can be drawn and returned with one hand. I added strong retention straps to both to lash the blades securely, lest one of them leaves home at an inopportune time and slashes the user on the way out. That little detail I learned the hard way.


Since forging these blades, my team and I put several elk and deer in the freezer. We efficiently accomplished all field butchering tasks, unsurprisingly, just like the Hmong do! As all-around camp knives, these things shine. Using a big knife for small chores takes a bit of knack, but the blade bellies are usable for skinning and fine work, and the point is handy for delicate tasks.

Jobs commonly associated with an axe or a chainsaw are a snap with a heavy, well-balanced, sharp knife.

With the balance up front, I found the Hmong knives served well even in pounding tent stakes. This is one of those tasks that bowies rarely do well, being both too narrow and lacking the weight up front to serve as good hammers.


One lesson I learned early on was that the sweet spot of a Hmong blade is not where one might intuitively think it should be.

While chopping heavy material, I found that striking with the dead center of the blade belly is less effective than applying the edge about an inch closer to the hilt. The blade makes deeper cuts and severs heavy wood better there than elsewhere.

This latter feature was amply proven during extensive work in late summer and early fall while preparing for the hunting season. I needed to clear buckbrush, pines and firs to form several shooting lanes in front of blinds and stands. This involved a lot of hand work on material ranging from seedlings and long grass to 3-inch-thick trees. The trees needed to go, and the Hmong blades made short work of them.

I employed both blades alongside an improved, re-ground British army billhook and one of my lighter parangs. The Hmong knives left the billhook behind for overall utility and bettered the parang for heavy work. In fact, while much of the work might have been better accomplished with a chainsaw, the Hmong blades performed admirably.


The last stop I like to make before passing judgment on a general-purpose knife is in the kitchen, where common tasks involving food prep always give an added perspective on a field knife.

Though a large blade isn’t necessary for the lion’s share of jobs commonly performed in putting vittles on the table, I noted no disadvantages using the Hmong knives. When a task called for chopping heavy bone while making up some venison roasts, I found no reason to reach for the cleaver. I made quick work of the bone, and the slow cooker filled in no time. Try that with a French chef’s knife!


In the end, I found being wrong is overrated. Finding out what’s right is better, and learning from past mistakes is better yet. I’m glad I gave the Hmong knives a second look and even happier I put a couple to work. They have become favorites.

Differing in some details, both blades possess the definitive belly and sharp point of the Hmong style. Fitted with heavy leather scabbards, sturdy straps ensure the knives won’t fall from their sheaths.

Bronze Swords Speak to an Age of Heroes


The author fulfills part of his childhood dream—to follow Odysseus’ journey

I cannot rest from travel; I will drink life to the lees: All times I have enjoyed Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades Vexed the dim sea: I am become a name; For always roaming with a hungry heart Much have I seen and known; cities of men And manners, climates, councils, governments, Myself not least, but honored of them all; And drunk delight of battle with my peers, Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy. I am part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough Gleams that untraveled world, whose margin fades For ever and for ever when I move.

Ulysses, by Alfred Lord Tennyson

I did all these things in my 11-year-old imagination while reading a child’s version of The Odyssey and picturing myself as Odysseus. My childhood fascination with this story carried into what passes for my adulthood.

This bronze sword ornamented in gold is on display at the National Archaeological Museum of Greece.

Half a century after first reading The Odyssey, on a blustery February afternoon, we ducked into the National Archaeological Museum of Greece where I found the sword carried by Odysseus. Well, okay, maybe it’s not the actual sword, but there are similarities.

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