Personal experience of the master - how I learned to make a knife

Personal experience of the master - how I learned to make a knife

The author learned the art of knife making from the legendary Mississippi knifemaker Les George.

Personal experience of the master - how I learned to make a knife

The author draws the outline with a tree

When I finally met him in person, Les George had been making knives for 30 years. I have never made knives in my life.

Before we met, I spent most of my life in the Marine Corps. Rice himself served in the Marines for ten years, and although we did not reunite in Iraq, we got to know each other through our mutual Marine connections.

After several years of correspondence, we both seemed to be good at sarcastic insults and self-deprecating jokes, and found ourselves driving south from Memphis to discuss a design I was going to do in his shop.

His approach is to "try to reimagine what the people who created the classics were trying to do, and then use 100 years of technology to bring it to life."

The knife I wanted to make seemed perfect and my grandchildren probably remember wearing it, but it took full advantage of modern design and technology. I envisioned a classic utility field knife that I could use to butcher a deer, cut a rope, or make a cane for a blind man, but still have enough aesthetic value to be passed down someday.

As we drove down US 78 in Mississippi, I chose one of several complete shank patterns that Rice had drawn on wood and carved on his CNC machine. Given my level of experience and general familiarity with mechanics, the potential for catastrophic injury seems high.

A sign on a vending machine in a shop confirms George Nivers' impression: "DANGER: THIS WON'T KILL YOU, IT WILL MAKE YOU DEAD FOR ALL TIME." SKIL saw blade, bow saw and step by step book, I thought it would be a solid help.

Teaching machine

At nightfall, we started working in the Mississippi woods where George's knives are made. The door of his workshop was open and the sound of tree frogs mingled with the smell of coolant, and I chose a piece of Chad Nichols' Damascus steel because I liked the look of it and because Les thought it was the best in the country.

Personal experience of the master - how I learned to make a knife

Safety is the number one priority in a knife store, and while the sign at Rice's may seem frivolous to some, it makes the point very seriously - pardon the pun.

Nichols can carve patterns into his steel in just about anything the customer wants. I chose the classic Damascus wave lines because they were reminiscent of the old Damascus shotguns my great-grandfather used to hunt quail. I placed a piece of wood on top of the steel and used a scriber to trace the outline of the knife.

For me, making a knife was an introduction to a world of machines designed to purposefully separate pieces of hard material, a jungle full of new things meant to hurt me. Les smiled and pointed to the blade as we prepared to roughly cut the profile of the knife with a bandsaw. “This is the part that you must not touch under any circumstances,” he warned. I saw my suddenly amputated finger spinning on the store's concrete floor.

My fears were unfounded, but I still went to the grinder we used to pick out the knives from the steel, and to the drill press we used to make holes in the shank for bolts and rope, and like a belt . carefully, like a saw, he lightens his weight.

When asked if he needed protective gear, Les replied, "No, you don't need protective gear, you need a better plan. Remember that all the machines in the shop hate you. Lubricate their parts."

Even though I'm a little wary of beginners, it's easier when you're willing to learn new things and go through the process with a wizard. In short, Les was a great teacher of knife making and a great knife maker. I started when a piece of metal shavings fell to the floor and my thoughts took the form of a knife. Focused pleasure.

Heat treated steel

Personal experience of the master - how I learned to make a knife

While the steel is still hot, the boys harden it by placing it between aluminum plates to quickly lower the temperature and harden the steel.

The heat treatment of steel is not the most exciting step in the knife making process, but perhaps the most important. Rice makes it clear that this is not an art, but the science of repeating numbers—simple mathematics. Did I say I write because I'm bad with numbers?

My incompetence did not discourage us, we made the steel hard. Les explains the goal: "Heat treatment determines how long a knife cuts. Knife making is always a balance between strength, which means the knife doesn't break, and hardness, which means it doesn't dull."

To avoid flaking and decarburization of the steel, we seal the blade in a stainless steel foil bag, and put a sheet of paper and the blade in the bag. The paper ignites at the so-called critical temperature and absorbs all the oxygen in the bag.

When this steel first appeared, it was brittle and sounded different when lightly tapped. While the steel is still hot, we quench it between aluminum plates to quickly lower the temperature and harden it. When we went to get a good night's sleep, the hardness was returned to a usable level by putting it back in the heat treatment oven for a longer time and at a lower temperature.

Create great work

The next morning, Les said, "I can do 30 in one day, you can do one in a whole day." A center line has been drawn that defines the chamfer grinding process.

This is how I imagined working with a knife and I was right. As Les told me, "Chamfering is what makes knives. Sharpening determines the geometry of the cut and therefore how the knife cuts." shank to the leading edge, which is a design feature known as plunging.

It's a superficial factor, and Rice cautions me against diving too hard. “If you chase perfection,” he said, “you are setting yourself up for failure. We do not set goals that we cannot achieve. bad boys." I want bad boys, But the lesson is to let him come to me.

Personal experience of the master - how I learned to make a knife

The author's finished fixed blade consists of a Chad Nichols Damascus blade and a brown micarta hilt. The blade is engraved with "RW Parker 2021".

As Les watched me practice, calling our mutual friends to tease me about my progress, I began to create something worthy of being called a knife. The forest offers corrections from time to time, but allows me to feel the belt and the blades coming out. He also told me, "The great thing about fixed blade knives is that we never make a mistake, we just make a smaller knife."

The holding time of the steel gave us the opportunity to polish the micarta to shape the handle. No detail has been overlooked in the design of the Les Georges knife. We discussed how I wanted the pen to feel, how I envisioned using it, and how to make sure the aesthetic I had in mind was achieved. We then sand both parts of the handle and oil them to create some of the wood or patina-like leather that I want.

Finally, we have come to the last major stage - sharpening the blade on the grinder. We walked around the store for a bit and Les asked me if I would like to sharpen my knife. “This is almost the last chance you have to really screw up,” he said. I'm not sure, let's just say. Les looked at me with a rare seriousness and said, “When I made my first folder, Stan [Fujisaka, knife maker and mentor] sharpened it. Michelangelo's final blow to David. It's the only thing he can do. This is a decision funnel. with a large steel plate. The closer we get to the end, the fewer decisions we make."

Despite the fact that I proudly took every step along the way - under the supervision of adults, I decided to let Les handle it. Trying to calm my ego, I asked him, "How long did it take you to become confident at this point in your game?" Looking at the blade, he took hold of the spinning lapping belt, laughing, “I'm still not sure. “Then he puts the knife down and tells me that we have reached the point where we are no longer going to be perfect and put up with a damn fine.

Looking for meaning in my knife

Les George knives are a combination of technical craftsmanship, space age technology and timeless art, sometimes just the physical application of metal. Mine was no different. While Les admits that his greatest strength as a knifemaker is "the ability to work at any skill level, from hand tools to computers", the essence of his projects is that he takes his craft seriously and not to yourself.

Knowing that innovative blades are at the core of his business, he does "bold designs that speak to your inner 13-year-old" and has little time for himself. He is an artist, and he does not so much reject the title as he refuses to think about it, saying: "I do not thinkyu about it. I don't know what art is. I am against people who should be judged." by what they do. Define your point of view."

It's tricky if you make knives and sell them before they're even made. Whether he defines himself as a knifemaker, craftsman, artist, or just a guy in a shop, there's no doubt he's still answering the call he heard when he was 12 years old.

However, he said, "I try not to base my life on what happens in this store. Sometimes I feel like giving up. But what else do I want to do? I do it because I have to do it. I know I'm going to make a knife. I decided that after a day of doing something else, I don't need to make a knife."

I understand desire when I look at a knife that I once wanted to hold in my hands, a knife that I created with my own hands.