A Knife with Legend


By John Smith

The search for the perfect knife often takes on quest-like proportions. But are we chasing myth or reality?

The myth of the perfect knife plays a role in carving lore similar to that of the sword Excalibur in the legend of King Arthur’s Camelot. The idea is that once we find the right knife, the rest will take care of itself. We will suddenly begin to carve the wood, now breathing with life and vigor.
I used to live in the notion of finding that perfect knife, too.
I tried them all.
I bought them over the counter, by mail order, from clubs, flea markets, and handmade one-of-a-kind. I bought expensive ones, those endorsed by big-name carvers, some with special handles. I tried some with special steels, special shapes. And in the long lineup, I still couldn’t find the magic knife. So I ventured even farther and explored the fringe world of oddball knives. Broom handles, bone handles, oddball blades.
Yet I never found the right knife, though I knew it must certainly be out there somewhere.
Attending a woodcarver workshop seems to intensify this desire for the perfect knife. You find yourself sitting mere inches away from an instructor and watch in breathless fascination as the knife dances over the wood, whipping out one beautiful carving after another. Most workshop participants are familiar with what might be called the magic knife phenomenon: That is, by the third or fourth day of the workshop, almost everyone in class has ordered and acquired the exact same knife as the instructor.
But, usually, the results aren’t quite the same.
Perhaps some of the magic settles during the shipping.
I remember a revealing incident that took place at a Tom Wolf workshop in North Carolina. It kind of cleared up this whole magic knife issue for me. We were watching Tom do magical things with a knife, as he wanted it to do. He worked it like the pro he is, making long cuts, short cuts, and generally creating wonderful images. With on bold cut, he made a stop cut, and another, and the knife seem to work itself. Like magic.
Finally, one guy broke the long silence. “That sure is a fine knife you’ve got,” he said in a reverent tone.
“Well,” replied Tom without skipping a beat, “the arm behind the knife ain’t so bad, either.”
Then, with an impish grin, he turned back to his carving. As he did, the magic seemed to leave the knife and settle in the artist himself, where it had really been all along. In that split second, I realized that wizardry of the knife comes from talent and dedication—not spells or sorcery.

The author in his display room with one of hundreds of his carvings.

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