The Art of Making Custom Knives

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Parrish working on the handle of one of his custom knives.
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Custom knives start as a steel shank; Robert Parrish cuts the shape he wants with a band saw.

Bob Parrish is the proprietor of a shop named RP Knives that’s located in MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ hometown. Besides being the individual kind enough (and trusting enough) to lend us several thousand dollars’ worth of his inventory for photographs, Bob is a custom knife craftsman. He allowed us to slip into his workshop and take a peek at (and a photo or two of) some of the painstaking steps that go into the production of Robert Parrish knives.

The artisan told us that the major differences between custom and commercial knives–other than the customer’s freedom to influence the design–are that only one person (a very skilled one) works on each of the handmade tools from start to finish, and that a number of very time-consuming steps go into preparing the product.

For example, Bob begins forming the edge of one of his creations with a 36-grit disk. He then proceeds with a 140-grit wheel, and follows up with 240 paper backed by a file. At that point, the knife is heat-treated (it’s first wrapped in stainless foil for protection), and the craftsman returns to 240 paper to remove any imperfections. Next on the list come 320- and 400-grit papers. Finally, to bring the blade to a mirror finish, the steel is buffed on wheels with 500-grit, 800-grit, and 1,000-grit compounds in succession. All told, more than 100 steps go into the making of an RP knife … and the results speak for themselves.

Custom knives are rapidly becoming valued collector’s items. Many can command prices of well over $1,000. But a very fine knife offers more than aesthetic and investment advantages. You might be surprised to learn, for example, that because of the smooth finish given to the metal, a mirror-polished blade may have only one-fifth the surface area of a less-polished commercial knife of the same dimensions–and as a consequence will be much more resistant to corrosion.

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