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I misinterpreted a reader's question.

He asked us to recommend a knife, to which I replied that any knife that handles well and holds an edge will suffice for every application.

That was not what he wanted to know. His terse "Thank you" said that he wanted to know which knife would fit his hand so perfectly that it felt like an appendage, with a blade made of the best, most durable steel. He wanted to know what kind of handle would feel cool and yet warm in the palm, and catch light in such a way as to make his heart skip. He wanted a knife that would become such an extension of himself that the mere sight of it would make his heir remember him and their times in the woods together.

Because to many sportsmen, myself included, a knife is an avatar. We all have favorite rifles and favorite shotguns, favorite duck calls, favorite this and favorite that. A knife is different. It's the most personal item we own. Its blade has been blooded by many a deer, many a squirrel and many a duck. It has cut rope, shaved kindling and maybe even opened cans.

More important, a proper knife has also blooded its master. His or her sweat permeates the handle, and his hands has molded its contours.

How does one recommend a knife to fill that role?

A custom, hand-made knife fills that role in a way that a mass-produced knife cannot. Unlike assembly line knives, a custom blade has soul, first from its maker, and later from its owner.

Arkansas is a knife-making hotbed. Many prominent bladesmiths, like Bob Dozier of St. Paul, came to Arkansas as apprentices to A.G. Russell of Rogers and then settled nearby. Jimmy Lile of Russellville, who made the iconic knife used by Sylvester Stallone in his "Rambo" movies, is another.

Rick Binz of Benton is a newcomer to the knifemaker's art. He's an eclectic guy that doesn't do things halfway. He immerses himself in his interests. His wife Connie recognizes this trait and saw trouble approaching like an oncoming train when Rick engaged a knifemaker several years ago at the Arkansas Big Buck Classic.

That conversation lasted too long and too intensely for Connie's comfort, and she finally managed to tug Rick away.

But she couldn't keep him from going back.

That bladesmith, despite his New Jersey swagger, was helpful and recommended 80CRV2, a user-friendly steel that would make a good, serviceable knife for a beginner.

Binz obtained a small supply of 80CRV2. He made a forge from an old metal barrel, lined it with fire bricks and fashioned a propane feed that could heat the forge to about 1,700 degrees. Binz's goal was to make a blade that fell into the hardness sweet spot of 56-60 on the Rockwell hardness scale. He did it. He made a pretty handle and gazed at the finished product with the awe and wonder of a young Arthur gazing upon Excalibur.

Some four dozen blades later, he finally crafted a blade that was worthy of selling.

Blade steel

Before selecting a custom knife, first determine its primary use. Knifemakers generally specialize in certain steels. Dozier, known in the knifemaking world as "Dr. D2," specializes in D2 tool steel.

D2 is a high-carbon steel with enough chromium to almost qualify as stainless steel. It is very hard and holds an edge well, but it also has a reputation of being hard to sharpen if it loses its edge.

It is also reputed to be a very difficult steel to work correctly, so quality among different makers is inconsistent. That's why Dozier's knives are so highly coveted.

More common is 1095, a high-carbon steel that holds an edge well and is easy to sharpen, but is also susceptible to rusting.

Even more common is 5160, or spring steel. It will rust but not pit, which, along with its toughness, makes it suitable for automotive leaf springs. My most prized knife is made of 5160 in Damascus style by Ron Duncan of Cairo, Mo., about 20 years ago for a magazine article. The handle is highly burled Missouri walnut. He gave me the knife when the project was finished.

52100 steel, preferred by Lane Barlow of Monterey, La., is harder than 5160, but its lower chromium content makes it more susceptible to rust.

06 is one of the hardest steels, and is known for ultimate edge retention.

Among the stainless steels, 440 is common. Known as "razor" steel, it comes in several grades. It is noted for edge durability and corrosion resistance.

There are many, many other kinds of steel, each with distinctive strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, every hunter merely wants a blade that is easy to sharpen and stays sharp.


The blade is the heart and soul of a knife. The handle is its personality.

Micarta is a durable, no-nonsense, utilitarian handle that resists scarring and scratching, but you don't really care if it takes a beating because that's its job. It also looks cool, scarred or not.

More aesthetic handles are made of walnut or maple, stained and lacquered to educe the wood grain.

Some bladesmiths, when they can get it, make handles from mammoth tusks unearthed from tundra, or from walrus tusks. More common is deer and elk antler. Antler handles are beautiful, but Binz said working with antler stinks up the shop.

Others make handles from leather discs, which they sand and polish to a high, warm sheen highlighted with offsets of turquoise, bone or other materials.

Making handles is an art unto itself, and the handle is what often sells a knife. First it catches your eye and summons you to hold it.

Your hand should mold to it, and you'll look at it endlessly until you finally take it afield.

When it finally draws blood on game, the bond is complete.

That's the answer my correspondent wanted.

Photo by Bryan Hendricks
Bob Dozier of St. Paul puts an edge on a freshly shaped and treated D2 blade.
Photo by Bryan Hendricks
A proper knife not only has blooded game, but also blooded its owner.
Photo by Bryan Hendricks
A custom knife is the most personal item a sportsman owns.

Sports on 12/02/2018

Print Headline: The edge

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