Blades of Glory
Russell White's handmade knives.
photographs by Jane Schneider
In our cash-and-carry world today, we forget that once, people made the implements of daily life by hand. Take, for example, your average steak knife. Its sturdy blade was likely mass-produced abroad, in a Chinese factory. But good knives, knives worth passing down, father to son, are still hand-wrought by bladesmiths like Russell White.
To see his elegant collection of handmade knives, many complete with handles White has fashioned from antlers or exotic woods, it is startling to realize these gleaming utensils and tools all started as dull shafts of steel.
White creates knives the way such tools were long made, using fire to forge the steel or by carving it from a length of metal the size of a ruler. It is a labor-intensive process, one that requires both patience and a keen eye for detail.
White made his first knife in elementary school, his imagination fired by television Westerns and Daniel Boone, “who kept his knife in his boot,” says White. “That was my inspiration.”
While other 10 year olds were out playing baseball, White spent his summer afternoons in front of a makeshift workbench, cloistered in a dusty barn on his daddy’s farm in Rienzi, Mississippi (25 minutes south of Corinth). He patterned his first attempt after the survival knife Rambo used in the movie First Blood and was proud of its simple wooden handle and serrated blade; he even fashioned a sheath from an old car seat belt in which to stash it.
That success stayed with White, and he made several more knives before cars and girls took center stage. It wasn’t until he got married and settled down that the urge to create returned. He wandered into a knife shop one day where a rich red cocobolo wood caught his eye. That would make a good knife handle, he remembers thinking. So he brought it home and began work on a knife he’d promised a good friend, “in exchange for a coon dog,” he says with a grin. His friend claims it’s the best hunting knife he’s ever owned.
Today, White has a small workshop and forge behind his house, just 100 yards from his parent’s place. Heated by a potbelly stove and cooled in summer by an ancient electric fan, his environment harkens back to an earlier, simpler time. White’s ingenuity shines here: in the first forge he built from plans off the Internet, which included the use of a hair dryer, to a grinder he cobbled together using an assortment of odds and ends.
White hand-forges blades from round rods of tool steel. The heavy rod, about the diameter of a magic marker, gets heated in the forge beside his shop until the steel becomes supple enough to be pounded into shape on an anvil, then ground down and polished until it gleams.
The other method is stock removal, where the outline of the knife is traced on a steel bar stock. The shape is created by cutting away the excess metal until nothing remains but a slender blade. From there, he gradually files and hones the metal on a belt sander, making sure it remains symmetrical and even in thickness.
Blade grinding provides the biggest challenge, notes White, since it must be done by hand and “you’ve got to get it even on both sides of the blade.” No small feat when the knife-edge must also be razor sharp. “The steel quality is important, too,” he says. “You can’t make a knife better than its steel.”
White recently joined the American Bladesmith Society as an apprentice, a national organization for knife makers. For the next three years, he’ll continue working to perfect his craft and eventually test to become a journeyman.
What keeps this hobby alive for him? “It’s the journey, the making of knives. There’s always something new to learn, and you can take it as far as you want to go.”
You can find Russell White’s knives for sale on Facebook (search “Handmade Knives by Russell White”). He also sets up at regional gun and knife shows around the Mid-South.