1971-1980: Early Years of Knifemaking
Carbon Steel Knives
Halfway into a doctoral degree in Social Psychology at the University of Minnesota, I became disillusioned with the academic world and left school in 1969, returning to my home state of California. I started hauling trash for a living. There was an old sawmill blade in the back of the house I was renting, and I got the idea that I could make a knife out of it, and I used an auto body grinder to make the blade. I finished the knife and that same day sold it to the first person I showed it to for $10.00. That was more than I was making at hauling per day, and it was the fateful launching point for my knife making career.
I acquired tools on a shoestring, set up a makeshift shop, and applied myself intensely to learning the craft. At that time there were only a few knife makers in the US, and very little knowledge was available. My father sold heavy equipment when I was growing up, so I had a background in machinery and metals, and a Minor in Art, both of which were helpful. I liked inventing and designing, and I was able to build and modify machines.
The craft movement burgeoned in California in the early ‘70s, and was perfectly timed for supporting my knives. For the first ten years, I made thousands of knives using recycled sawmill blades. Early into this period I visited the de Young Art Museum in San Francisco and saw an old etched sword with a design. A lightbulb went on in my head and I immediately began etching my knife blades. Francine Martin (now Larstein) joined me shortly after that and was instrumental in developing the etching craft and helping me in the knife business in a myriad of ways. I worked with Francine and several local artists who hand drew designs into asphaltum on the blades, which we then etched in acid. We exhibited at many Bay Area craft fairs during that time.
Step by Step Knifemaking
About 4 years into knife making, I saw a book on tool making by a local author, Alexander Weygers, called "The Making of Tools." It planted a seed about writing in my mind. Then a friend took a class with Weygers. It inspired me to begin writing a book outlining all I had learned about knife making. Typing on my Royal typewriter from my graduate school days, I completed version one of what would eventually come to be called “Step by Step Knifemaking: You Can Do It!”
I contacted Rodale Press, then a premier publisher of back-to-the-earth, self sufficiency books. Robert Rodale was taken with the idea (he eventually wrote the foreword to the book), and wanted to publish it. I worked on it for an additional year under their supervision and added more photographs and illustrations.
Step by Step Knifemaking has been in print for 43 years, and has sold over 200,000 copies. It is one of the foundational influences in modern knife making and started the careers of many custom makers working today.
Cast Dendritic Steel Knives
I became dissatisfied with the quick discoloration of carbon steel - after putting so much work into the knives, they would darken and rust fairly quickly. I spent 2 years experimenting with commercial stainless alloys but was unhappy with the lackluster cutting performance.
During that phase, I was welding a three-dimensional bolster onto the knives at the juncture where the blade meets the handle. My friend Don Longuevan suggested that I cast the blades both for the sculptural effect and to cut down on grinding. The idea appealed to me and I made rubber molds and located a foundry. I liked the look of the new cast blades, and following tradition, I believed I needed to forge the blades. I built a 900 lb drop hammer for this purpose and began cast-forging.
I started doing cutting tests with my cast-forged blades and was amazed to discover that the cutting performance was much better than the high-end commercial cutlery alloys that I had been using. I was very intrigued with this phenomenon. When I forged the red hot blades with the hammer, I could see that the grains in the metal got smaller. I started to wonder what would happen if I didn’t forge it at all. Up until that time, forging was the definitive way to prepare metal for use as a knife. It still is now. It was a real “out of the box” idea not to forge at all.
My experiments at withholding forging were very exciting. By not disturbing the virgin casting, edge holding was significantly improved. I was very curious about why this was happening. I could easily see large crystal structures in the blades when they were etched. I had microscopic pictures taken, and they showed “dendritic” (branching) formations throughout the cast blades. Then I had pictures taken of the same stainless alloy that had been roll-forged for commercial use. It looked entirely different than the cast blades under the microscope! Instead of big, beautiful fern-like patterns, there was a field of dots.
Boye Dendritic 440C
Roll forged 440C
I realized that roll forging was breaking up the dendritic formations. It didn’t take long to put that together with my earlier observation that commercial stainless didn’t hold an edge that well. The formations in my blades were interconnected carbide crystals, extremely wear resistant and capable of preserving an intact edge even during prolonged use. The “dots” in the roll forged alloy were disconnected carbide spheres that had been broken up by forging and were easily dislodged during cutting, making the edge dull.
I made cast stainless steel knives for kitchen and outdoor use for 20 years. My knife shop in Davenport, California was located 5 minutes off Highway 1 along the California coast and attracted many tourists.
During these years I also exhibited in several American Craft Council shows, the Philadelphia Museum of Art show, the Smithsonian show in Washington, DC, several craft shows in the Bay Area, and knife shows on the East and West coasts.
My Boye Dendritic Steel kitchen, outdoor, and folding knives continue to be produced by Francine Larstein and knife maker Todd Kopp as Francine Etched Knives.
Cast Dendritic Cobalt Knives
Through a serendipitous exchange with knife maker Blackie Collins, I started looking into using cobalt for casting my knife blades instead of stainless steel. My early experiments showed that casting blades in a cobalt alloy improved edge holding, and this was corroborated by a test done by Blade Magazine. Citing both my cast stainless and cast cobalt knives as “in the top 1% of all knives tested for cutting ability,” cast cobalt was shown to cut 3X longer than cast stainless, especially on fibrous materials such as rope and net.
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Because cobalt is entirely rustproof, even in the harsh ocean environment, it was the perfect material for a knife used in salt water. My ancestry drew me to this field as well: my great-grandfather, grandfather, and father were all boat captains. We began casting our folder blades in Cobalt Alloy 6 and started offering them to the sailing world. Soon after, in 2000, Practical Sailor, the “Consumers Reports” of the nautical world, rated my Dendritic Cobalt Sheepsfoot folder #1 boat knife in a test involving several top selling boat knives. Since then, we have established a strong reputation for well made, high-performance boat knives. The blades are cast in Utah and the knives are then made entirely at our location in Dolan Springs, Arizona.