CRAFTING CUSTOM KNIVES WITH KEVIN SILLIKER
(originally published Jan. 13/2009 in the Aquinian)
Sunlight gleamed off the blade as sharply as its edge. The handle seemed to fit in Kevin Silliker’s grip as if it were made for him. But he had made it for someone else- sanded the mahogany to fit the contours of his customers hand, carved the guard to protect the index finger, and shaped it all below a blade just long enough to give the knife the right weight every time it’s wielded.
“It could be a letter opener, or traditionally a people opener,” he said with a wry grin.
That’s not the only tradition that has changed. Silliker said that people own knives for much different, less practical, reasons these days. But he insists on sticking to certain rules for every knife he crafts in his tiny Miramichi shop, so that they aren’t reduced to dangerous novelties.
“I won’t make a perfectly round handle, or a knife without a guard,” he said flatly. The guard, a curved indent in the handle just below the blade’s base, keeps the fingers of anyone holding it from slipping up to be sliced on the edge. “That way you always know where your grip is, in relation to the business end.”
He said the cold steel of that business end can be very unforgiving- any nicks, scratches, uneven surfaces, or other mistakes he makes while shaping it become practically permanent once the steel hardens.
“All craftsmen make mistakes. The good ones make fewer, or at least they know a large repertoire of hiding them,” he said. “But it’s difficult to hide any imperfections on a blade- I mean, it’s a flat surface in plain sight. You can’t add anything to cover it up, or just leave it in the case forever.”
“So you find ways of grinding it to change the shape or smooth any mistakes away. And if you can’t, well that’s when you hack it down to something much smaller and less ostentatious. Or that’s when you discover the beauty of knife making- it’s all small parts, so if you screw up real bad you can step out the back door, practice your profanity, heave it as close to the river as you can, and start over.”
But before practicing his profanity, Silliker makes a call to local supply shops to order steel slabs of every grade and thickness. He etches an outline of the basic shape of the blade his customer would like on one of those slabs, before grinding it down to size. Then he cooks it to at least 600 degrees in a special oven to temper the steel, before letting it cool to take a permanent shape. Before long, the newly made blade is ready to be sharpened, polished and finished.
And it’s the finishing touches that he likes best. Taking customer’s hand measurements to figure what exact shape and size the handle needs to be for the perfect fit. Finding the right wood to fit the blade’s (or customer’s) style- everything from the Sussex fiddle back maple that can give it an aged look, to blood red synthetic composites that give it a polished, almost furniture like aesthetic. Often, he’ll go hunting in his neighbors’ woodpiles, bartering to make them a knife of their own for a lend of the right grain.
“There’s an infinite variety of handles you can craft, an endless combination of woods you can fit together, from artificial composites to the scraps in your backyard.”
Silliker slides these varieties onto the blade’s bottom, where it’s still square an unsharpened, as if they were different vegetables on a strange backward skillet. Then he drills brass bolts on the end to hold them in place, and sands it all smooth.
Finally there’s the case. Nothing fancy, just soft leather that fits the blade like a glove, and a loop to fasten on your belt. Silliker stamps the outline of an owl on every case as sort of signature, in addition to etching his initials into the blade’s steel.
“It’s woodsy enough for the bush fellows, without implying hunting or fishing for anyone that has more domestic intentions for it. Plus, an owl gives the whole thing a supposed wisdom that I really like.”
He added that the right case may just be the most important part of any knife- a matter of safety more than style.
“The case should protect the knife from you, and you from the knife. So it should be thick enough that when you sit down it won’t tear though the side of your belt, poking in your leg.”
From crafting the hilt, to sharpening the edge, the whole process can take up to 60 hours for a single knife. But Silliker wouldn’t trade a moment of it for a generic commercial blade.
“I make these for less than half the price of just about anything you can order,” he said. “But it’s not about that. It’s about having a tool that’s customized to your style, that fits you and where you’re from. And it’s about preserving some of the traditions of folk art.
Photos taken by Kyle Mullin