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  • Jan Vaterlaus

Why I Make Knives and Other Things…

I have always been intrigued with making things. I enjoy the process of designing something in my mind, putting it on paper, and eventually bringing it to life. My availability of tools and equipment was limited to my dad’s basic inventory that included hand tools, a corded drill, a circular saw, but not much else. To a boy, that limited inventory was perfect to create anything the mind could imagine.

In my teens I decided to build a gun cabinet. I had the lumber yard cut each piece of oak to length so I could just put everything together. I found that without a jointer putting panels together with dowels was fairly difficult. I bought a handheld belt sander and used it as a jointer to “roughly” square up my wood. I also used it as a planer to level my joints. I used that tool in so many ways that it was not designed for to create what I needed. The gun cabinet was finally finished and looked fairly good but I learned that proper tools would have made a huge difference in my final outcome.

The kitchen cabinets in our second home were cheap and needed to be replaced. We looked at all options but everything seemed to be made out of manufactured wood products other than the doors and frames. I am a lover of wood. I love grain, depth, and texture. I decided to build the cabinets myself but once again lacked the tools. I bought a table saw, chop saw, biscuit jointer, orbital sander, jointer, small drill press, dado blades, router and router table, dove tail jig, and a pocket hole jig. I had everything but a shop to put them in. Our garage became the shop and for years everything we owned was covered in a layer of sawdust. I finished the cabinets after years of work and topped them with thick granite countertops.

With my woodworking tools I made many things. A large butcher block with drawers, a cradle for my granddaughter’s dolls, balance bikes, a mantle for the fireplace, and most recently a baby crib for my newest granddaughter. As I worked on those projects, I dabbled with making knives (adding handles to knife blanks that I ordered in), making custom fishing rods, and tying flies. I added a lathe and a band saw to my inventory of tools. I was slowly growing and learning but with no real direction or destination.

I was bored with just adding handles to knife blanks and knew I needed to learn how to make the blades. I could get high carbon steel and misuse my trusty belt sander (laid upside down on the bench) to shape a blade but I still needed to harden the steel. I found out how to make a small forge out of a #10 tin can and with a small propane torch I built a functioning forge. I made blades that I was so proud of at the time and heat treated them in my little forge, quenching them in vegetable oil, and drawing the temper in a small toaster oven. They were absolutely beautiful knives…. or so I thought. Looking back now, after years of experience, I laugh at what I thought was pretty good work.

My wife was patient but her time of scraping ice and snow off her car each morning had become tiresome and I was told that the shop needed to return to being a garage. We had partitioned off one of our three bays and used it as a storage room for food, Christmas decorations, etc. It was too small for a shop……. But with an extension it would be perfect!!! I removed a metal shed and concrete pad that served as a dog kennel and started digging out dirt to prepare for footings and a slab. I had to build a new shed out in the corner of the backyard to store all of the yard equipment. My good friends offered their construction expertise and after awhile we had added thirteen additional feet onto a single bay garage. Finally, after all of those years I had a shop.

I quickly added a 350-pound anvil, new forge, post vise, full size drill press, welding equipment, 72” belt grinder, Hammers, tongs, surface grinder, and a mill drill. Using the equipment, I built a power hammer and a rotary platen for the grinder. I added a high temp heat treat oven and added another homemade forge. I could now make anything that my brain could think up…But I enjoyed making knives.

I made some knives that were very respectable. They looked nice and functioned well. I thought I had arrived as a bladesmith. I read about Mastersmiths and Journeyman smiths. I wanted the accreditation and found that if I attended a school that it would cut off one year of wait time. I quickly signed up for a course at the New England School of Metalwork in Maine to be taught by Master smith, Jim Crowell. I quickly learned that I knew very little about making quality knives. The two week course taught me many things but the most important was that there is five lifetimes of learning in bladesmithing.

As I have completed my projects over the years the most common question asked of me is, “how did you know how to do that?”. The answer is always the same, “I didn’t know how to do that. I studied, learned, failed, and kept at it and eventually succeeded.” It is ironic that for somebody that did not enjoy school, how much I enjoy learning.

Bladesmithing not only opens up several paths of learning but it incorporates my love of making things, my love of the outdoors, and my love of the Idaho high country. It allows me to experiment with design and materials. I am intrigued by the science of metallurgy, dying and stabilizing wood, and the craft of making leather sheaths. Strangely, I enjoy my time alone in my shop where I can plan, dream, think, and ponder, undistracted, about whatever is on my mind. I enjoy taking a plain piece of steel, whether it be new bar stock or a piece of an old farm implement, and pounding it into a new shape, use, and life. With effort, patience, and time it becomes a tool but also a work of art to be used and enjoyed. During the process I learn and progress.

At this point my knives are of good quality and workmanship. However, as I study the knives made by others it exposes what I do not know or skills that I currently lack. It presents a challenge or a hurdle that must be overcome. It drives me to learn, experiment, ask questions, fail, grow, and succeed. That is why I enjoy making knives.


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