My Grandfather’s Knife

My grandfather had a modest shop in his basement. It was really just a little space carved into the corner of the larger room, the rest of which was dedicated to storage, laundry, a hot water heater, and a freezer. The exposed floor joists overhead, the stairs and furnace to one side, and poured concrete walls on two other sides squelched any notion of expansion. The shop had a work bench with a large vice with a sliding handle that delivered blood blisters with ruthless efficiency. There were a few small drawers below the bench, so narrow they were of little practical use.

When I visited as a kid I would sometimes snoop through the drawers, always disappointed that their contents never moved, let alone changed. One of those drawers held the pieces of a hunting knife. The leather handle was frayed and separated, the blade flecked with rust, the pommel loosely held with a conventional nut, and the sheath tattered with its belt loop severed. The knife was always in the drawer and had probably been in the drawer since Adam himself last went deer hunting. Like many of my grandfather’s projects, the knife awaited the halcyon days of his retirement when he would have hours of leisure to catch up on a lifetime of deferred interests.

The pieces of my grandfather's hunting knife after several decades in the workbench drawer.
The pieces of my grandfather’s hunting knife after several decades in the workbench drawer.

 

My grandfather did retire, and spent the next few years fighting declining health. At the age of 68, he got out of bed one morning, walked into the den, and collapsed into a stuffed chair under the crush of a massive heart attack. When my grandmother passed away some 15 years later and I began helping my mother and aunt clean out the house, the hunting knife was still in its place in the workbench drawer.

I miss all of that generation, and the threads that bind me to those people, that time, and that place grow thinner with passing time. So I decided I needed to get around to fixing that knife, maybe giving it another life, and shoring up one of the connections I have to that man.

Here’s something you need to know about my grandfather. He was the consummate cheapskate. Like most of his generation who passed through The Great Depression, the experience marked him for life, and he hated to part with money. He was actually pretty generous with his family, but when it came to spending money on himself, only the cheapest would do. In my late teens when I was seasonally working construction I asked for a Makita drill for Christmas. After I opened the present, he let me know what an extravagant gift he deemed that to be. “At that price that drill better last a lifetime!” I remember him admonishing. When I helped clean out the house, he had a bone yard of six dead Craftsman drills lined up across a shelf. Thirty years later my Makita shows no signs of slowing down. The stingy man spends the most.

Granddad probably bought the knife at the Kmart at the south end of Madison Heights, I’m guessing in the late 1950s. I questioned whether the knife was worth restoring, but the German blade gave me a glimmer of hope. Even if it wouldn’t hold a decent edge, I knew its real value to me lay elsewhere, and if it actually worked as a knife, that would just be a bonus.

The other motivation for this project is that I wanted to gain some experience making knife handles. A video over on Wood Workers Guild of America gave me some insight on how to approach the project.

  • I cleaned up the blade on my bench grinder using cloth wheels and a series of grits. I could have spent more time on this task, removing more of the rust pitting and some of the scratches from past sharpening efforts. Keeping the likely quality of the blade in my mind tempered my zeal for perfection, and in the end I opted for a clean-up that would discourage further rusting and at least make it look like someone cares about the tool.
  • I poked around my shop and found a sweet piece of Indian rosewood from Viable Lumber for the handle. I combined this with lapis lazuli, some black spacers, and a new brass guard and pommel from Jantz Supply.
  • The guard is soldered to the tang, and the entire stack of handle components are sandwiched together with epoxy and capped with the pommel which is both threaded and glued in place.
  • After the glue dried, the handle looked like a serious mess. I shaped the handle with the bandsaw and spindle sander, and finally hand sanding.
The after picture--looks a little more useful, now.
The after picture–looks a little more useful, now.

Perfect? Hardly. I could have done a bit more shaping of the handle, I suppose, and more hand sanding. Truth is, I didn’t want to make the knife so refined that I wouldn’t want to use it. Putting it back in a drawer for another 60 years wasn’t the idea. It fits my hand well, and I am pleased with the way it turned out. I think granddad would be a bit surprised. Now I need to make a new sheath and spend some time at the grinder and bench stones.