On Knives, Fathers, and Life

Guest post written by William Johnston, custom knife maker.


[W]e are driving north, away from what I don’t yet think of as a city. My sister and I in the back seat. My mother turned a bit to the left so she can play highway games with us. My father is driving. We’re going to my grandparent’s farm, as we do most weekends.

I know this drive by the landmarks, and as we switch from interstate to state highway to county road to gravel farm road I’m leaning forward more and more. Up the driveway to the small, white house. Walking to the trunk before my father reminds me. Wanting to show him how responsible I am, and that I remember what he said to me as we got in the car. Carrying as heavy a bag as I can, up the steps, and my grandmother is taking it from me on the porch and thanking me with her effortless country manners. Into the big kitchen and I can smell banana bread baking. I know that’s her special treat for me, and we’ll have it after supper. Bouncing from foot to foot as I answer questions about school and Christmas lists and losing a tooth. Finally she smiles and shoos me out the back door. Down a path between the two fields, past the orchard, and then the trees close in and I’m in The Woods.

[T]hey say man has used fabricated – as opposed to found – cutting tools for at least 2,000,000 years. Some research says 5,000,000 years. After all that time, the knife is in our DNA. We’ve evolved together, alongside one another.

No other tool is found in every culture in endless, countless varieties and still, if you put one into someone’s hand, no matter how foreign the design, the person holding it would know instinctively and automatically what it was and how to use it.

My father ran these woods as a boy, and he is showing them to me, little by little. There is a ridge with an exposed rock face. Perfect for climbing, but I’ve been told not yet. In another two years, when I’m 10. I’m allowed to cross the creek and swim in the places deep enough to swim in, but I can’t build dams, and I can’t under any circumstances go all the way to the river.

My father has started to teach me the sign. He’s taught me rhymes to use to know which tracks belong to which animal. He’s taught me look for scrapes and snagged fur and scat, and how to look with just the corner of my eye as I walk the trails to see the faint game trails that cross. He’s taught me you can’t see something if you look too hard at it. Instead, let it show itself to you. When I see one I lie down and look for the tiny tracks of squirrels and rabbits.

I got my first knife when I was 10. A two blade Victorinox Swiss Army. Red, of course. I had handled knives before and considered myself an expert, and I immediately cut myself and learned important lessons in both humility and how to handle a knife. I grew up southwest of Pittsburgh in what was then still farm country. Although I lived in a nice middle class suburb with skyscrapers on the horizon, I was aware that my neighbors and teachers and the policeman and fireman I saw daily had either grown up on farms, or grown up with kids that had.

Pennsylvania public schools at the time still had a policy of not taking attendance on the first day of deer season. So at the time, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was common for a kid to carry a pocketknife. I did, and many of my friends did. It’s a habit I’ve had for so long that I truly can’t imagine going out of my home without one.

We’re checking snares. I got to set them all, wherever I decided was best. So far they’ve all been unsprung or sprung but empty. I can see the rabbit grey on the dark loamy soil, churned up a little where he dug his feet in trying to get out of it. I don’t know if he’s dead or not. I don’t want to be doing this anymore. My father stays behind me. He waits while I sort it out, then tells me there’s work to be done. I freeze when I see the rabbit is breathing, and he tells me to kneel down with him and watch. He moves slowly, in his confident way. As he works he tells me there are pets and there is food, and if I don’t like this, I shouldn’t eat hamburgers or turkey on Thanksgiving, because this is where meat comes from. He asks if I like turkey. I tell him I do, and he tells me he can make rabbit taste just like turkey. When it’s dressed he shows me how to leave the rest for the muskrats and raccoons. He tells me this is nature, and we’re part of it, and this could save my life someday.

[T]he simplicity of the knife is what draws me to them. There is a Zen aspect to a piece of metal drawn to an edge so thin that the PSI goes exponential and becomes high enough that it crushes anything you slide it over. That’s the physics of a knife. We call it ‘cutting’, but it is really the pressure from your arm and wrist concentrated on a sharpened edge, applied to a surface, crushing it, but only along that thin edge. A knife doesn’t need a handle or a sheath to be a knife. At its most basic, a knife only requires one part. No moving pieces. Very little maintenance. Just metal brought to a point. Simplicity itself.

Late November near Kinzua Dam. Pissing rain. Just above freezing. Mist in the hollows and below me. In a tree stand since before dawn. So angry I’m actually trying to fall asleep, just so I can wake up and know they’ve moved through and go someplace warm. Scraggly buck with a lopsided rack wanders in, and I should wait for something better but the cold has made me impatient and childish. I hold wrong and too high, and he’s hit but moving. Safe the 70 and climb down, trying not to fall and break my neck. Wandering around, suddenly ashamed of the mess I’m making, trying to spot a blood trail. Back and forth doesn’t work. I’m trying concentric circles – more or less – when he walks up. Doesn’t ask or reprimand. Just strolls around in that quiet way of his. He seems to be staying in one place, and when I walk over he points and says that might be a blood trail there, don’t you think?

As I spent more time in the backcountry in my 20s, I began to appreciate the functionality of fixed blade knives more and more. Big enough, but only just, because all that weight has to be carried all day. And I found as I began to study the history of knives, the craftsmanship and design became as important as the utility.

The combinations of blade style and handle style and sheath suddenly become an endless number of completely unique knives, each perfectly specific to the man who carries it. And that’s when I realized I’d like a custom knife, perfectly specific to me.

One of my last memories of my father is him sharpening his pocketknife. It’s a black, jigged bone Case XX Congress. Elegant, understated, dignified, and utilitarian. Nothing could better symbolize my father. He would sharpen his knife Sunday night to have it ready for the week. Just an old Arkansas stone. Freehand. No guide, no jig. Decades of experience. That rising tone as he slid it across the stone. It is the chime in a Buddhist temple. Testing it on a page of the Sunday paper. So sharp it made no sound as it split the page like a magic trick.

[H]e wasn’t perfect, and I wasn’t either. For a time it seemed every word we said had no purpose, other than to be the opposite of what the other had just said. But no matter how much I disagreed with him, or pretended to, I always remembered his words about handling life when it goes shitstorm. First, stop. Knock down the panic. Take an inventory. Assess. Realize you’ve got a chance, and this is all going to work out. Because of him, the first item in that inventory, inevitably, always, every single time, is a knife.

I use a knife – not including cutlery during meals – probably 5 or 6 times a day, minimum. More when I’m in the backcountry. Since I started carrying a knife when I was a kid, that’s about 50,000 times. I can’t think of anything I’ve needed and had and used more. I’ve split kindling, shaved tinder, and sparked a ferrocerium rod to start a fire on a day hike turned rainy bivy. I’ve opened a thousand cans and wine bottles. I ran off 2 junkie muggers in the basement of Centraal in Amsterdam with a Kershaw Whirlwind that would have landed me in a Dutch prison if John Law had seen it. I’ve dug drain trenches around tents in a rainstorm in Montana. I’ve chipped ice 3 inches thick off my truck in Colorado. I’ve skinned deer, antelope, coyote, a boar, and countless small game, but no elk, yet. Removed hundreds of splinters, trimmed hundreds of stray threads, opened hundreds of stubborn packages, smoothed hundreds of split fingernails, and made pants into shorts. I’ve cut a seat belt off myself, and cut climbing ropes that had fouled the belay device. I’ve cut a T-Shirt into bandages when my friend Michael impaled his arm and shoulder on a downed pine. I cut an itchy tag off my date’s sweater at a restaurant in Newport Beach, and saw our friends gasp at my tiny folder. This response puzzled me, as they each had a 9 inch steak knife in front of them.

[B]ecause there are knife people and there are non-knife people. The non-knife people are actually knife people. They’re just counting on you to be the one to have one, should the need arise. If you don’t carry a knife, start carrying a knife. In a city – or around city people – a pocketknife. In the backcountry, carry a fixed blade.

You will from time to time see a terrified look from a hiker or climber. In my life I’ve only had one person tell me I didn’t need a knife that big. We agreed to disagree, and I respect their journey.or your pocketknife, I recommend at least a 2” main blade, and a can opener. The Victorinox Climber is a timeless classic. Keep in mind that the Climber, like most classic Swiss Army knives, does not have locking blades. If you use it on a spark rod, you will use the back of the blade. Be careful.

If you need a one hand opening blade, there are endless thumb stud and flipper knives. Most use a liner lock for security. Since a liner lock is generally a larger, single blade knife, choose your shape and handle material carefully. You’ll be using this knife for heavier work, and applying more pressure. Think about conditions. Will you be in rain or sea spray? Will your hands be covered in grease or dirt?Heat above 100F or cold below freezing? Mud? Sand? As a rule, the more slippery you expect conditions to be, the more you want finger grooves and a textured handle material.

Multi-tools are bulkier, but in addition to blades, you also have access to pliers and screwdrivers. Very useful if you work around machines or vehicles. These have enough moving parts that maintenance becomes more critical.

All of those though, are just tools. The only real knife a man ever owns is a custom fixed blade. For a fixed blade knife you should first make a list of what you plan to do with it, from best to worst case scenario, and where you will carry it. Take those criteria to a custom knifemaker, and challenge them. If this is your first knife or if you haven’t handled one for awhile, start around 9” or 10” long by 3/32” to 3/16” thick at the spine, adjusted for your paw size. Very small specific knives are used with frightening efficiency by experienced men – hunting guides, surgeons, chefs – but until you have that experience you will try to do the work yourself, rather than letting the knife do it. You will hurry, and bear down too hard, and it will end badly. Don’t get too small a knife. There are also huge knives that cause nothing but trouble, in addition to being heavy as sin. Find a balance between the two. A good short list to start with is: converting dead wood to fire (chopping, splitting, chipping, shaving, sparking), converting an animal to food (dispatch, skinning, gutting, quartering), converting plants to food (chopping, slicing, crushing), and making shelter (chopping, digging, pounding, cutting cord). Keep in mind that each of those criteria impact all the others; a thin, curved blade is great for skinning, but doesn’t chop well; a short, heavy knife is great for chopping but tricky for fine work. Challenge your knifemaker to find the perfect compromise.

Be specific, be demanding, and be patient. And don’t be cheap, because this isn’t your knife. It actually belongs to your grandson.

You’re only taking care of it for him.


My knife is a 11.5” X 1/4” S30V stainless steel with an M4 tool steel buttcap. Hardened to Rockwell 60 and triple cryo-tempered. Modified tanto blade, chisel ground, with the blade angled down relative to the handle to keep my wrist straight while chopping. A little rocker on the main edge. 1+1+2 sculpted G10 handle, with a secondary set of choils allowing me to choke up for fine work. Fully phosphate coated, kiln cured. Blue glow dots along the spine. My family crest engraved on the guard.

I’m currently accepting deposits for custom knives. My ship date for new customers as of January 1st is approximately 100 days from design approval. I can be reached via Wilderness Collective by clicking here.

Written by William Johnston, custom knife maker.