Forged To Outlast A Disposable Society


October 31, 1990|By Marie V.Forbes

TANEYTOWN - Mark Sentz extracts from its sheath one of the custom-made knives he produces in his workshop here.

"A lot of people would say, 'One hundred and seventy-five dollars for that knife? You're crazy!' But then they'll turn around and spend $175 for a pair of tennis shoes that will only last a year," he said.

"My knives, if properly maintained, will last a lifetime and longer."

The knife Sentz refers to is his most popular product, the Ultra-Lite.

It weighs only 2.5 ounces and is, Sentz says, the "ideal all-around knife, large enough to field-dress a deer, but also small enough to be used for pheasant or rabbit."

Sentz resembles a stocky, bearded Vulcan as he bends over the forge on which he creates his cutlery. Not only eloquent in his dismissal of our "disposable society," he is also well versed in the history of his craft.

"The camp knife had its ancestry in the Roman broadsword," he says. "The Bowie knife can be traced back to the falciform (sickle-shaped) swords used by the Spanish and the Moors."

While Sentz takes great pride in the knives he produces, he is quick to point out that not everyone needs -- or wants -- knives in his price range.

"It is possible to walk into a sporting goods store and buy an outdoors knife that will perform well for $40 or $50," he points out. "A guy who wants a knife to go deer hunting once a year doesn't need a knife like this."

But, he says, customers shouldn't compare his knives with factory-made ones.

"That's like comparing apples and oranges."

Manufactured knives, he explains, are made by the "stock-removal" process in which blanks are cut from metal and the excess material (stock) is ground away. By contrast, his own method is a far more painstaking one in which each blade is individually forged and hammered into shape.

"A properly forged blade is superior to a stock-removal knife," he says.

"However, an improperly-forged knife is inferior."

The basic material Sentz chooses for his blades is a medium carbon steel of the type used in making automobile springs.

"Some cutlery-makers try to promote the superiority of their products by claiming they are made of the same high-tech materials that go into jet turbine engines," he says. "These complex metals are not necessarily better."

For Sentz to complete a custom-made knife and sheath requires anywhere from 10 hours up to 125 hours. First, he heats the steel bar to approximately 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit.

"I can tell when it's ready by the dull red color," he says.

When the correct temperature is reached, the blade is hammered into the desired shape. Next, the edge is profiled on a belt grinder and scale is removed from the forged blade with an emery wheel. The edge bevels are ground and the blade is returned to the forge.

The edge is heated, then quickly "quenched" (dipped in oil) to harden it. The back of the knife is also heated but, to retain flexibility, is not quenched.

A final grinding brings the edge to razor sharpness. The guards are applied and the blade is polished.

For the handle, the customer has a choice of several woods or exotic materials such as buffalo horn and fossilized walrus bone, a popular substitute for ivory, which no longer is available.

Sentz attributes his success as a knife-maker to three factors: "God gave me my skill; a good teacher taught me how to use it; my wife has made it possible for me to turn it into a career."

The teacher he refers to is Bill Moran, a master knife-maker from Middletown in Frederick County. Sentz attended Moran's class at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, and has since worked closely with his instructor.

Although Sentz's academic background is in forestry, he has always been interested in creating with his hands. He previously worked as a gunsmith and made his first rifle when he was in college.

On the way to Frederick to interview for a forestry job, he stopped off to show the weapon to Ray Good, a local gunsmith. Good suggested he apprentice himself to George Herold Jr., a master gun-maker in Waynesboro, Pa.

Sentz served a four-year apprenticeship with Herold and began his own part-time gunsmithing business. During this time, he also was working as a machinist and machine maker in Koppers Company's laser division.

In 1987, he turned to gun-making as a full-time profession. His decision to make a hunting knife for himself led him to the combined career of gunsmith and knifesmith.

These days, Sentz's work is receiving both national and international attention. He has had inquiries from as far away as Japan, England and New Zealand.

Further evidence of his success is the acclaim his knives are winning from his peers: At the Super Blade and Cutlery Fair in Knoxville, Tenn., last May, Sentz was awarded Blade Magazine's "Best New Maker of the Year" award.

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