Thomas McGuane, Knifemaker

Thomas McGuane, Knifemaker

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Orms, R. Kent
He's got the big hammer out now, raising it high with a thick-gloved hand. It comes down hard, smacking the glowing metal bar with a dull slapping sound. Bright orange flakes fly outward from the anvil and land on the floor, where they cool to dark gray. The steel is dented only slightly. After twenty or so hits, he clutches the heavy bar with tongs and flips it over. Ten more fierce hammer blows are struck and the bar is now cooling to a cherry red. He's sweating, but the steel has barely budged—maybe a quarter of an inch smaller. Standing to one side, he opens the furnace door and flames shoot out. The whole room heats up. With the tongs, he grabs the bar and places it in the roaring furnace. This is the process of forge welding that began this morning: heating, hammering, shaping, and heating again. And night has already come when Thomas McGuane, knifemaker, calls it a day on the long, slow, and incredibly arduous process of making his Damascus steel knife.

After a decade of making custom knives, Thomas McGuane is defining his own place in the knife world. "I’m finally able to do what I want," he says from his shop in Bozeman. "One of the most difficult parts in getting started was figuring out my own style." He squints at the rough metal, holding it close, then turning it, looking for hidden flaws. "I guess I’d call my style organic-looking…unusual, hopefully emotion-evoking…maybe a bit Japanese-influenced." Whatever it is, it’s in demand. He has orders backlogged for the next two years and some of his knives go for over ten thousand dollars. The knife industry’s leading publication, Blade magazine, featured his latest knife on the cover. It’s a folding knife made of four hundred layers of deep-blue Damascus steel with pearl inlay, imbedded gems, and the end swirled like a conch shell. The knife bespeaks the months of precise forging, grinding, meticulous filing, and polishing it required.

Unlike plain steel, Damascus or "pattern-welded" steel is made by folding and welding multiple layers of steel over and over, making hundreds, even thousands of layers. The layers of steel, when ground, polished, and etched, show up as a pattern like a wood grain—each layer displaying its own subtle character. The result can be absolutely stunning—intricate patterns and swirls, fine waves contoured through the shape of the knife, even designs like dragonflies and skulls. Though each project is unique, Thomas starts most of them the same way: cutting, then tacking 20 or so 10-inch pieces of thin bar stock together. Over this, he sprinkles a powdered flux to help join the layers, and heats them in the furnace. When they turn orange-red, or the surface bubbles, they’re taken out and hammered down, which fuses them together. Each time, more flux is added and each time, the bars look a bit more homogenous, a bit smaller. The stack of bars that started out about the size of a phone book is beaten down to a one-inch-square bar that’s a couple feet long. "This is my favorite part," he says, "all the possibilities are still there." This is the raw material, like a painter’s wetted canvas, from which he begins his creations. He might heat, then stretch the bar. Or twist it, then fold it on itself. Sometimes, he’ll cut V-shaped notches out of the sides and then stretch the whole bar straight. Often he’ll add other bars, forged earlier, folding and welding them carefully into the design. In his mind, he has a vision of the completed knife, but has to constantly evolve it with what comes out of the forge. It might be that after weeks of forging, he has to start over because of a flaw or a misplaced hammer blow. This is what Thomas refers to as "the workmanship of risk."

Even as a kid, Thomas was spellbound with knives. He lived in a house of fine collectible knives, reels, and fly rods. "My dad and stepdad both had great knives around," he remembers. "There was something visceral about them, something ancient about it all." His father, a renowned author, had a custom tomahawk made for him when he was six. "I still have it," Thomas says, laughing, then goes on to explain his early propensity for craftsmanship. "I was always making boats and cars, bows and arrows. I was always tinkering." In college at MSU, he saw pictures in a magazine of striking folding knives with dramatic inlays and racy lines revealed in the steel. He couldn’t resist it any longer—he had to make his own. He bought a drill, sander, and a saw at Ace Hardware, picked up some steel at the local scrap yard, and went to work. The first ones were rough and simple, but he was learning. He bought dozens of metallurgy and knifemaking books and a library of Japanese swordmaking videos. He studied and practiced. Early on, he recognized that he had enough talent to make it, and was way too hooked to give it up anyhow. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, he explains, "if you’re obsessed enough, you’ll get good enough to make money." After about a year, Thomas sold his tenth knife to his dad for $80. With a chuckle, he remembers that it cost him about $200 to make.

Tools take up most of his shop, which is basically two garages connected by a doorway. One garage is the forging room, which is quite industrial looking, a bit cluttered, and often dark. A layer of black metal dust coats everything. On one end is the garage door—usually open to vent the hot and often toxic fumes. Opposite the door is a roaring gas furnace that sits under a massive, black iron hood. Next to it are a 25-ton hydraulic press and a large, battered anvil with numerous hammers leaning against it. Hanging on the wall are various sets of tongs, pokers, and several pairs of thick, blackened leather gloves. Metal bars, various forgings, and metal scrap are scattered across every horizontal surface. And though Thomas is often singing or joking, there is little doubt that hard work goes on here. Through the door to the adjoining garage is a brightly lit workspace with a bench extending to the center of the room. It is covered with hundreds of small files, tools, grinding bits, and tiny parts. Against the walls are the hulking machines of the trade: a mill, a lathe, large belt grinders and buffers, a drill press, three band saws. And overhead, a large dust collection system howls to life whenever the grinder turns on. He counts out on gloved hands the use of 20 separate machines that each knife requires as a minimum, and says that on his last one, he used over 300 different tools.

Done now with the forging season for a few months, Thomas is in the brighter, more organized shop, where the exact and meticulous finish work is done. The rough forging in his hands only slightly resembles the skeleton of the hunting knife it will soon be. He flicks the switch on the large belt grinder and carefully begins pressing the metal forging against the belt. The coarse belt takes metal off quickly in a steady stream of sparks and noise. He flips the forging over and works the other side, examining and adjusting. An hour of attentive grinding and the characteristic lines of a small drop-point hunter begin taking shape. He switches to a finer belt and starts on the careful, final shaping of the knife. His knuckles alternately turn red and then white as he microadjusts pressure to different parts of the knife. Occasionally, he stops to apply a caliper—confirming exact dimensions, recalibrating—and then, intense and focused, back to the grinder. Tempering, etching, and polishing remain for the blade, followed by shaping and fitting of a hilt and finally the handle. But the knife is already beautiful, with hundreds of layers of steel revealed. Graceful and lithe, they flow like rippling water down the edge of the blade. "That’s what I love about this," Thomas says loudly through a respirator, "it’s alchemy. I took something that was common and almost worthless and have made it worth more than its weight in gold." After a day of tedious grinding and polishing, I wonder aloud if he ever has trouble maintaining his motivation and creative innovation to make someone a knife. Not really, he explains, "I’m only partly in business to make someone a tool. Sure, they’re functional, sharp, and strong, and the folding action is butter-smooth, but I want to push myself, to make something spectacular. I want to blow them away."

McGuane's Tips
Selecting, Maintaining, and Sharpening an Outdoor Knife

Some people get all riled up about what is the best outdoor knife. But, one of the most important things is that the knife appeals to you aesthetically, and that it fits your hand well. I think the best all-around knife is a drop-point with a four-inch blade.

To care for a knife, you should wash it lightly, then let it dry thoroughly. Rub it down with a light oil, and then wipe it off. If your knife is going to contact food, you need to be careful not to use toxic oils. I recommend using mineral oil for the blade and for natural handles.

To get a wicked-sharp edge, you first need a decent sharpening stone. I don't like Arkansas stones because they tend to get clogged quickly. A much better stone is an aluminum oxide like a Norton, which is sold at Ace Hardware. They can be used with oil or water and give the sharpest edges. First wet the stone, then find your sharpening angle. What I like to do is lay the knife on the stone like I'm going to sharpen it, then put the tip of my pinkie under the spine of the blade. This will show you the angle to maintain while sharpening. With both hands holding the knife, move the blade back and forth across the length of the stone with moderate pressure. Continue this until you think it is about three-quarters of the way sharpened. Flip the knife over and repeat, bringing it about three-quarters sharp. Now flip and bring both sides to finish. You should have a small burr formed on the edge. To remove the burr, I use an old piece of leather strap called a strop. An old belt, suede side up, works well. Rub some green polishing compound into it, which is available at any hardware store. Now, lay the belt flat and, at a slightly steeper angle than you used to sharpen, pull the knife up and down the leather-always away from the knife edge and with a good amount of pressure. This will give you a very sharp and durable edge.
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