Making custom knives a work of art for area craftsmen

December 05, 1991|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Evening Sun Staff

Consider the knife. It is perhaps humankind's oldest tool, dating back to dim pre-history when stones of flint were painstakingly "knapped" to form a crude cutting edge.

Today, it is undoubtably the tool used most often by the most people, a marvelously utilitarian implement applied in countless ways, from carving meat to clipping coupons.

But so simple an object can also be a work of highly handcrafted art and a collectible item -- as seen by the Fifth Annual Chesapeake Knife Show, scheduled to take place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday at the Holiday Inn Timonium Plaza.

More than 80 exhibitors, including a number of Maryland makers of custom knives, will have exhibits of surprisingly diverse cutting tools for sale. Another dozen exhibitors will show off collections of different kinds of knives, from the familiar red-handled Swiss army knife to remarkable miniature versions of daggers, bowies and other knife varieties.

"There are two kinds of people in the world, people who like knives and people who don't," says Ted Merchant of White Hall, one of the custom makers whose work will be on display.

With his wife, Martha, and other members of the 200-member Chesapeake Bay Knife Club, Merchant helps organize what he calls "the best single-day knife show in the country."

There are also two kinds of knife-makers in the world, "forgers" and "stock removers," says Merchant. The electronic services technician whose part-time craft produces up to 40 knives a year for sale to users and collectors (with prices ranging from $125 to $600) is one of the former.

He employs the ancient technique of hammering glowing steel rods into shape after heating in a brick forge, which he has built in a garage behind his Baltimore County home.

"I thought there was more glory and grandeur in forging blades," says Merchant, a former president of the Chesapeake Bay Knife Club.

Ray Beers of Monkton is the second kind of knife-maker. In his well-equipped workshop, he progressively shapes blanks of various kinds of steel into fine blades. A band saw does the

rough shaping and a succession of grinding steps finishes the job. His knives cost from about $100 and go well into four figures.

"You can make a knife with nothing but a file and a piece of steel, but it can also get equipment intensive," says Beers, who retired in 1990 from his career as a manufacturing engineer (at Black & Decker and AAI Corp.) to make knives full time. By now his total output easily surpasses 3,500 blades, says his good friend Merchant.

Beers' most famous customer is probably Pope John Paul II, who has a gift set of 12 small knives with pink pearl handles bearing NTC Beers' name, built to a design by Charles Hsu, another custom maker.

Beers presented the set to the pontiff at a memorable 1984 audience, which also included his mother, in Rome.

"'It is a most unusual gift; I hope that I will be able to use it,'" Beers quotes the recipient as saying, noting the pope supposedly carves his own fruit daily. "He's quite a guy, an easy man to talk to," says the knife maker.

Another owner of a Beers custom design -- an 8-inch "Tanto" style -- is actor Sylvester Stallone. His $395 check is framed on the wall of Beers' dining room. (Stallone's famous "Rambo" knife was made by another custom designer, Jimmy Lyle of Arkansas.)

Why do people pay hundreds of dollars for objects whose factory-made versions can be had for far less?

"Why do you buy a BMW and not a Chevy?" responds Beers, adding (with pun possibly intended), "People want to have something a cut above a normal production thing."

Making and/or acquiring custom knives are not the only hobbies the cutting edge. Many people collect, trade or sell factory-produced knives, such as Fred Pickler of Hunt Valley, whose 500-model Swiss Army Knife collection will be on display this weekend.

"I know guys who collect just pocket knives and guys who collect just fixed blades," says Derek Snyder, a city police officer who collects and sells knives as a hobby. (A popular model is a $12 money clip knife with a Baltimore City Police Department shield affixed.)

The Chesapeake Bay Knife Club includes makers, collectors and anyone else interested in knives. It was formed in 1980, and among the founders was Baltimore County Sheriff Norman Pepersack Jr. a collector and knife maker. The current president is Glen Smit.

Meetings are the second Monday of each month in the basement of the Rosedale Federal bank building at 9616 Bel Air Road in Perry Hall. For more information about the show or the club, call Beers 472-2229.

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