Knifemaking: eating your way through Europe, and the Famiglia

In 1999 I was a terribly maladjusted, acne-riddled, socially-delinquent bowl-cutted high school freshman.

As I nervously made my way through the beginning of my first year of high school, I found myself deeply attracted to a World Geography class taught by an eccentric but deeply curious and fascinating man.  Going to that class was like a much needed reprieve from reality.  His classroom was a cluttered mess with flags and maps of the world, bas reliefs, posters of exotic locations, and and army of file cabinets anchored around the room like knowing sentinels, guarding the mysteries of the world, containing God only knows what.  There were artifacts from all over the place- African masks, replicas of Mayan relics, and more knick knacks and tchotchkes than I had ever seen.

All of this encircled a giant table in the center of the room, overflowing with stacks of papers, maps, and charts.  Mr. Crippen, my teacher, was a soldier of exploration.  In his lectures he told us stories of spending time in Ghana, and of being locked down in his hotel in Nicaragua during a revolution in the late 1970’s.  He told us of Tsetse flies and African sleeping sickness, and how sudden rainfalls in deserts cause drownings.  We learned about the economics of bat guano.  There wasn’t a lot of homework, but he did like to assign massive research projects and give comprehensive exams based on his lectures.

His field trips were legendary.  He once took us to see traditional Chinese acrobats at a local University, and another time on a whirlwind weekend tour through the Amish country of Pennsylvania.  He also ran an exchange program that partnered with a high school in Altenkirchen, Germany, and had done so for 25 years.  After one such trip he asked me if I’d like to participate.  I would spend three weeks during the summer living with a German family.  This sounded amazing and my parents agreed.

Several months later, my dad and I drove up to the Baltimore-Washington Airport.  I had $300 in travelers cheques for my spending money- which doesn’t sound like a lot but this was 1999.  Debit cards weren’t prevalent but I didn’t even have a bank account.  The Euro didn’t exist and the conversion rate was two Deutsch Marks to one dollar.  Cell phones were around but not common- I certainly didn’t have one.  I took five Kodak disposable cameras with me.

I found myself staying with a deeply sweet and kind German family.  They lived in a small village called Raubach, in Rhineland-Palatinate, closer to the French border.  On the way in from the airport, I noticed it wasn’t a place that was particularly on the way to anything.  The autobahn wasn’t close by, and it wasn’t near any large cities, at least by American standards.  There were lots of farming fields and surprisingly well-maintained dirt roads.  Everything was a deep green.  Norbert, the father, was some sort of soil and water engineer (at least that’s what I gathered from his limited English).  Sibille, the mother, stayed at home and kept gorgeous gardens and an immaculate house, complete with a cranky goat in the backyard.  I would spend most of my time with their two boys, Florian and Jonathan.

The first thing I noticed about Europe was the food.  Everything was fresh and I found that I never had a mediocre meal.  The family I lived with didn’t keep any junk food, save for some chocolate here and there.  Breakfast the first day was soft boiled eggs, and laugenbrezel, a really delicious soft baked pretzel, and some type of sausage.  There were so many sausages that I lost track.  Their bread was bought in unsliced loaves from a nearby baker and they had a commercial grade slicer in their kitchen.  We sat out in a bricked patio in the midst of flowers and vines.

Their house was narrow and three stories tall.  The top floor was full of bookshelves and books, with a billiard table in the middle of the room.  The middle floor was bedrooms and the bottom floor had the kitchen and common areas, complete with an immaculately furnished parlor that I never saw anyone go into.

They spoke almost no English and I spoke no German but they fed me really good food and took me on adventures and I was happy.

……

It was summertime.  The boys were out of school and the family took me everywhere.  We went to Koblenz, where the Rhine and the Mosel river met.  We ate out at quaint little eateries in the country side. There was Doner kebab, a Turkish peasant food similar to Greek Gyros, served with a rich cucumber garlic sauce. I ate as much of this as I could.

They had more property than I was aware of.  Not far from their house was a barn where they had two small horses, Nino and Nena.  Sibille fed them large amounts of garlic- she said this helped keep flies and bugs away.  I would help shovel horse manure and brush the horses.

There were large forests nearby, and on the weekends Norbert would take me riding through them.  He would point out the elevated hunting blinds, which the locals used to hunt wild boar.  They didn’t put saddles on the horses and I was told my legs would get stronger.  From what I could tell they never did- I was sore the whole time I was there.  We rode on old dirt trails, through the greenest woods I had ever seen that seemed to breathe an ancient and enchanted air.  Sometimes Jonathan would come along riding his bike, and sometimes the family dog Taps would run along side us.

On one of our rides Norbert started telling me about an old place in the forest.  His English wasn’t strong but I made out something about an intersection of magnetic fields in this spot.  We rode out to this spot and Norbert asked me to go and stand there and close my eyes, which I did.  It felt like someone was spinning me around.  I opened my eyes, and closed them again. Still spinning.  I looked at Norbert.  He just smiled with an Old World twinkle in his eyes, and we rode back to the house.

…..

We usually had four meals a day.  Breakfast on the patio, followed by a midday dinner which was the large meal of the day.  Norbert came home from work for this.  There was an afternoon tea between three and four, but no tea was served.  Instead Sibille made a rich cake and gave us coffee.  There was a light supper in the evening usually sandwichy-type things or pizza.  Norbert and Sibille liked wine- Norbert said his favorites were actually California wines.  Florian sometimes snuck a beer.

There was also a lot of apple juice- they ordered it by the case. Soda was actually pretty expensive and it was never in the house. The apple juice was fresh and I drank a lot of it.

The funny thing was the only time anyone ever got made at me was when I brought a Coca-cola home.  Sibille got really upset and started telling me it was bad for my teeth and bad for my skin.  I didn’t come home with any more sodas.

…..

The family had a hayfield which fed the horses throughout the winter.  The hay would be cut and left in the field to dry.  There was some drying when I got there.  One day Florian told me we had to go bale the hay.  We got onto a massive tractor fit with a rake attachment.  Florian drove and I hung off the side.  The rake attachment pushed the hay into neat little rows.  Then we attached a baler to the back of the tractor and drove over the rows, which fed into the baler and spit out neat little bales of hay.  Then Florian proceeded to take the tractor at full speed through town with me holding tightly.

After an extended joyride through town were went back to the barn to help Norbert and Jonathan load the bales into the barn.

I spent three weeks running around with this family and it was one of the best times I’ve ever had. When it was time to leave, Sibille made sure I had a couple rounds of fresh goat cheese to take home (the cheese didn’t make it home- it was actually seized by customs).  I never learned much German, but I learned a lot about this family and about myself.

Sometimes best way to experience a place or people is through what they eat.  As I have found, speaking the language isn’t always important. This is the lesson of La Famiglua. This knife was built for lady who loves to cook and share that with her family.  It was commissioned by her daughter.

We went with the top design, a German style knife:

Profiled:

Hardening:

When metal gets very hot it likes to warp.  Here is a system for correcting that.  It has to be done while the blade is still hot:

Rough grinding:

Removing the machine marks:

Many hours later:

For the bolster, I made some material from an old corduroy shirt:

Layered and smashed together with fiberglass resin:

Olivewood:

Fitting

Glued

La Famiglia:

fami1

fami2

fami3

fami4

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Knifemaking: therapy for large men, Buddhism with the boring parts left out, and the Rumfoord

“I was a victim of a series of
accidents, as are we all.”

Malachi Constant, from Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan

 

A few years ago I went to see a therapist.  I was stagnating.  I had lost my job and was doing all sorts of ridiculous things to make ends meet.  Over the course of about six months I floundered about.  I worked security for outdoor festivals, fixed toilets in a friend’s apartment buildings, and did tree work with another friend.

I remember being baffled by the whole situation, and feeling like a victim of unfortunate circumstance.  This wasn’t how any of this was supposed to happen.

Knives were not doing well.  As I was sitting there staring at my belly button and not doing anything about my situation, it was suggested by those close to me that I go talk to someone who could help me.  That was the last thing I wanted to do.

After some consideration, and a good amount of trepidation, I called a counseling office recommended by my insurance company and I went in for an appointment.

I remember sitting in a very Spartan office, with lamps suggesting a mood of emotional intimacy, and an institutional nightstand with a box of off-brand tissues sitting on top of it.   My therapist walked in.  He was a large African-American gentleman, crisply dressed, and carrying a folder.

He asked me the formal therapist/patient questions: what I hoped to accomplish in our sessions, and what it was I hoped to gain from our time together.  The truth was that I was a little stuck.  There were things about myself that I missed, a spontaneity and ease of being that I had lost.  I knew where I was and I knew where I wanted to be but I didn’t know how to get there.  Also there was a lot of emotional clutter and traumatic bullshit in the way.  I told him all of this.

‘I think I can help you with that’, he said.  ‘As for the emotional clutter and everything else in the way- I think it’s time to let that shit go’.

So we began.  Nearly every two weeks for about a year, and then maybe once a month for the year after that.  My therapist was technically a licensed clinical social worker who specialized in substance abuse counseling.  I didn’t have any substance abuse issues- I had simply told the administrative lady at the office that I was most comfortable talking to a middle-aged man, and this gentleman had an opening.  He didn’t wear a suit like all the other therapists.  His dealings with addicts, I found, left him with a particular knack for getting to the root of personal problems , and a no-bullshit way of going about it, like a sort of Krav Maga of psychotherapy.  I come from a place where you didn’t talk about how you felt so to voluntarily talk about things that were bothering me was, and is, something that is incredibly uncomfortable.  And honestly I wasn’t looking to talk about what was bothering me- I was looking for someone to tell me what to do.

Of course that isn’t how therapy works.  He didn’t tell me what to do.  He would ask how situations made me feel and then challenge me.  I came in one time really bothered about something and I remember him laughing at me.  ‘Welp, you’re in the shit now’ he said, ‘What do you intend to do about it?’

The bluntness was empowering and it didn’t come with any judgement.  This was simply how one large man was helping another large man.  I would go in and tell him that my shit was all fucked up that week.  And he would nonchalantly ask me if I had a plan for unfucking my shit, and that if I did not, perhaps there were some goddamn unresolved childhood issues being played out and my fucked up shit was just a manifestation of that.  Then we would unpack my goddamn issues so that I could start unfucking my shit.

I would tell him that I struggled with faith that everything would be ok.  He said everybody does.  I told him I had a hard time dealing with disappointment and uncomfortable feelings that came from harboring resentments.  I let him know I was ashamed about not being able to accept failure.  He told me that all these made me a completely normal human being.  Month after month he would talk me off of existential cliffs.  ‘Don’t be a victim’, he would say.  ‘Be a warrior.’

We talked a lot about transformation and how it can be difficult to change.  I would be frustrated about something that was so deeply innate to my being that I didn’t know where to start.  He would gently tell me that a person can only change so much, and some things simply can’t be changed.  And then he would say that some of the things I was trying to change weren’t bad things and I should reframe what it was I was trying to do.  It was a study in Buddhism, but with the boring parts left out, and a whole lot more expletives.  When a sculptor wants to make a statue of an elephant from a block of stone, he simply removes the parts that don’t look like an elephant.  There comes a point when you can’t remove anything else to make the stone look more like an elephant.  This was what we were doing- removing (or at least identifying) the parts that didn’t serve the whole, and accepting everything else with kindness and compassion.  Om Mani Padme Hum…

We laughed a lot.  Lots of sad things came up, and I would get really weepy and reach for the off-brand box of tissues in that intimately lit office.  We talked about music and books and art, and what it was to be a good man and what doing the right thing looked like.   We usually ran over our time limit.

After a while I started bringing in the knives I was making and talking through the stories.  It was like sculpting an elephant, or yourself, but I was taking away the parts that didn’t look like a knife.  I was afraid it might be weird bringing big knives into a shrink’s office week after week but he told me to keep bringing them and to keep telling him their stories.  So I did.  I told him they were guardians that helped me to write the ridiculous experience that life has been for me.  I’ve never done things the conventional way, or even the smart way, and bringing your handmade knives in to help you talk about your story with your large African American psychotherapist probably falls into at least one of those categories.  He was always kind to that part of me.  He told me to keep building little sharp guardians and to keep writing.  At the end of each session I would shake his hand and thank him.  ‘No, thank you,’ he would say.  He said he always looked forward to seeing me on his schedule and to what I would come in and tell him.  I think he dealt with people much more fucked up than I was.

I started seeing him less frequently.  I found, slowly and when not crippled by self doubt, that I was getting to where I wanted to be and was able to find what I needed in myself.  I was doing good things and feeling alright.  He told me that much, and that nobody really knows what they are doing anyway, and he was always there if I needed him.  He also told me to keep my knives sharp.

Every so often, when I’m about to do something dumb, I’ll hear that man’s voice telling me not to be a dumbass and I’ll think twice…

Sometimes one may know where they want to be but don’t always know how they’re going to get there.  The journey to that destination is often the most interesting part of making it in the world.  This blade gets it’s name from one of my favorite books, The Sirens of Titan, where the main character is at the mercy of the whims of chance and destiny (and also aliens), but through the grace of the almighty chonosynclastic infundibulum, ends up precisely at his foretold destiny.  Along the way all of his core beliefs are challenged and his world is completely upended, yet there he is at the end of it all.  This is the lesson of the Rumfoord.

This knife was built for a gentleman who was waiting a very long time for it:

Heating can cause warping.  A sophisticated setup for straightening…

Roughing in a full flat grind:

Removing all the machine marks…

…to achieve something a bit more pleasing.  A smoother finish helps the blade to move through food better.

An acid etch to force a patina.  This helps with corrosion resistance on the high carbon steel.

A PCB board blank from a server chassis.  This will be spacing material for the handle:

Texas Pecan, from my cousin Bill:

Drilling out the rivet holes:

Laying out the handle profile:

The handle near the ricasso, at 40 grit:

The handle near the ricasso, at 1500 grit:

Glued up:

Profiled:

Shaped:

Smoothed:

The Rumfoord:

Knifemaking: managing it and the Directeur

“…also he had learned that a person could be happy with having done the best they could under the circumstances. It didn’t always have to be bright and shiny and impressive to the outside observer.” 
― Ellen Airgood, South of Superior

 

When I was twenty-two I took a summer job at the the university I was attending.  The School of the Arts at the university put together a three week summer residential program for high school kids.  For three weeks in July, roughly a hundred and twenty teenagers would come to the university, live in the dorms, eat in the dining hall, and take classes in their respective art disciplines taught by real college professors.  This was a way to give kids a little taste of what art school was like, and hopefully to get them to apply to the university when they graduated.  I did this for eight summers and it was one of the best jobs I ever had.

High school kids who were interested had to submit portfolios and go through an application process.  There were disciplines for sculpture, photography, dance, theatre, fashion design and merchandising, filmmaking, digital animation, and drawing and painting.  Some of the applications were pretty hysterical.

The University hired forty other college students like me to be counselors in the program.  We were there to keep the students safe.  Students were divided up amongst us.  We would stay in the dorms with them, take them to their classes and meals, make sure they were in bed when they were supposed to be, and come up with activities for them to do.  Our presence was designed to keep bad behavior to a minimum.  We had a week of training to go over protocols and procedures.  There were university policies that handled underage alcohol in the dorms, as well as drugs, and what to do when students went missing or fell ill. There were a group of grad students who were our bosses and handled disciplinary issues.  Nearly everyone at the program was between the age of fourteen and seventeen, not legally adults, so these policies and procedures were important.

The kids moved in and for three weeks we were their caretakers.  We took them to class, ate dining hall food with them, and came up with evening activities for them to do as only art school kids can do.  We made themed dances- my personal favorite was “Merry Christmas Taylor Swift: Live from the Galapagos Islands”, and everyone dressed accordingly.  There was “Dress Your Counselor Night”, where one of the more attractive male counselors wound up shirtless and in a dress.  On the weekends we took kids to museums, and to some of the nearby restaurants.  Counselors took some of the kids on morning runs.  One time I bought my kids a bunch of Nerf guns and we went to an unoccupied floor of the dorms and had a giant battle.  Kids were always working on their art and we helped and encouraged them.  I scored the music for a film one of the kids was working on for class.  We kept everyone occupied and mostly out of trouble.  Mostly.

Every year there was pretty predictable behavior.  With a little bit a freedom the kids would start to push boundaries- they were teenagers after all.  Some kids would go vegan during the program and then get sick because all they were eating were french fries and Captain Crunch.  Other kids would dye their hair or cut it all off, and then we would have to explain to a parent why their little Jessica had a purple buzzcut.  The lactose intolerant kid would order a large cheese pizza and fart up the dorm. Some kids were figuring out their sexuality and we delicately did our best to be supportive and help them along their path.

We had a lot of kids with…peculiarities?  One kid with irritable bowel syndrome had to get his mom to overnight him his homeopathic diarrhea medicine from New York because he had left it at home.  There was a Saudi Arabian boy with Aspergers Syndrome who terrified all of the girls because they thought he was yelling at them when he tried to talk to them.  One year we had a kid from the Make-A-Wish foundation come who was on kidney dialysis- his dorm room looked like a medical lab.   Another year there was a girl acting out horribly the whole time and we couldn’t figure out why until we called her mother.  Turns out her father had left the family six months before to live as a woman, and this little girl was pissed about it.  I worked with a team of really awesome people and and no matter the situation or issue, nobody ever had to shoulder anything by themselves.

Every so often there were really awful kids that we had to send home.  We called one kid’s father at midnight on a weekday because he was smoking pot in his room.  That kid was gone by morning.  Another kid decided to throw a frozen water bottle out of his 14th floor dorm window at ten o’clock at night.  It smashed the windshield of a car driving on the street below.  The police came and woke up everyone on three of the floors to find out who did it.  That kid ended up getting sent home and having to pay for the guy’s windshield, but he did avoid a felony charge.

By the end of my tenure at this summer gig I was supervising all of the counselors and everything that went on in the dorms.   I had graduated but it looked good for the program when Alumni were involved.  The money was good and it fit into my schedule.  The only person I reported to was a tenured professor who was the program director, and she trusted everyone to do their jobs.  I was on the hiring team and doing all of the scheduling for the counselors’ shifts.  I ran a lot of the training, wrote policies for the program to help it run better, and wrote itineraries for staff meetings.  I handled disciplinary issues and procedures and when kids fucked up, they dealt with me.  I made changes as I saw fit.  For example, in the earlier years the other counselors and I would all go out and get hammered after we put the kids to bed, and then stumble back to the dorms wasted.  No longer.  Funny how things change when it’s your ass on the line.

I’ve never really considered myself a very good manager or administrator.  I’ve also never been great at following the rules or being a team player, and I’ve always struggled to fit into corporate and traditional workplace scenarios.  In the instance of this job I just tried to make sure everybody was safe and all the institutional ‘t’s and ‘i’s that kept everyone safe were crossed and dotted.  It wasn’t always cheeky and fun.  There were two separate summers where I was going through really awful breakups, and another summer where there was a death in my family.  I would still DJ dance parties and take sick kids to the Urgent Care facility and make sure everyone was ok.  The responsibility and sometimes difficult tasks were worth it.

Because in spite of all the shenanigans, and the calling of parents, and confused teenage sexualities, and homeopathic diarrhea medicine, the vast majority of these kids left our little three week program at our state university really inspired and ready to do kick ass things, and a lot of them have.  That felt really good and was what kept me there all those years.  I grew a lot.  I made lifelong friends.  I met my girlfriend, though I didn’t know it at the time.  I learned what it was to run something and to have people back you up.

I’ve worked for a lot of crummy managers, people who are ready to throw you under the bus and only care about how they look to the company they are supposed to represent.  A real manager is someone who knows how to steer their organization toward its goals while inspiring their people and navigating through all the stupid things that get in the way.  This is the lesson of the Directeur.

The Directeur was a commission for a lady who has been running restaurants and events in Washington DC for the past decade.   It’s probably similar to working at an Art School summer program but I’m sure the stories are much better, as only Washington DC can provide.

A quick design for an 8″ chef’s knife, in the German style:

Profiling the blade:

Hardening the steel…

…and oil quenched.

Grinding the bevels:

Hand Sanding:

The blade is then soaked in acid to etch the steel.  This knife has a Hamon line, meaning the cutting edge is at full hardness while the spine is a touch softer.  This gives the blade durability.  You can start to see the line forming:

For the handle, I started with a computer board blank for spacing material:

img_4579-1

Cut, drilled, and pinned:

It’s important to remember to keep it casual.  Blue jeans layered in fiberglass resin should be a good reminder:

img_3242

Black Walnut, milled by a man of the cloth from rural Virginia:

img_5077

Piecing it together:

Clamped.  You can see that lovely Hamon on the blade:

All glued up:

Shaped:

Helping the grain to speak:

The Directeur:

May you manage your circumstances to the best of you abilities.  The outcomes and experiences are absolutely worth it.

Knifemaking: having a quiet day and the Woodsman, Mark Deux

‘In silence there is eloquence. Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves.’

-Rumi

From mid-January to mid-June of this year everything had been a blur.  I was running from job to job, gig to gig, knife to knife, trying to stay on top of everything.  Every time that I felt like I had room to breathe, something else would come up.  Car repairs, state taxes, doctors’ visits, new tools.  It was always something and I was hustling left and right, making sure everything was moving forward and getting taken care of.

Then I had an accident that pretty much stopped everything.

I injured two of my fingers pretty seriously on a table saw.  I was cutting some very thin material when the saw bound up and kicked, and I couldn’t get away fast enough.  The shop is at my partner James’ house and he happened to be home when this happened.  I quickly grabbed a dirty towel and, doing my best not to panic, politely yelled that I needed to go to the ER, right that second.  

On the ride to the ER, which was about twenty minutes away, I took stock of the situation.  James, who teaches shop and technology education, asked me to double check that my fingers were still attached and not on the floor of the shop.  Indeed they were still attached.  I would be told later that I was very lucky to keep my fingers- none of the major tendons or arteries were damaged beyond repair.  

I do my best to practice calm in my life.  Strong reactions happen from time to time, and the best way to deal with them is to feel them, let them pass, and address what caused the strong reaction in the first place.  This is an incredibly challenging thing to do and I don’t always do it well but I’ve gotten better at it over the years.  On the ride to the ER I found impossible to calm down.  I noticed that my thoughts were manic and erratic and I had trouble breathing normally.  I felt a pretty deep sense of guilt and shame, as if I had this coming because I wasn’t slowing down.  A doctor would later tell me that what I had experienced was an acute stress reaction and was normal for what I had experienced, largely in part from the sheer volume of adrenaline and other chemicals that my body had released.  

The ER was a miserable experience.  The ER doctor told me they would need to operate but they would need to transport me to another facility because there was no one covered by my insurance at that particular hospital.  Nobody even looked at my fingers and I sat on a hospital bed and bled on myself for two hours before someone gave me any pain medicine.  The paramedics finally arrived and bandaged my hand- the first time anyone had done anything. They pumped me full of IV fentanyl before loading me onto an ambulance to go to another hospital.  Those guys knew how to get shit done, and in my very stoned state I kept telling them how glad I was that they were there.

We got to the next hospital, and my girlfriend met me there.  In my state of shock I had forgotten my phone at the shop and James had called her.  I was really glad she was there because it would be another four hours before the surgeon showed up.  As it turned out he was not covered by my insurance either.  Somebody had screwed up. 

The worst part about the ER is that you are forced to make life-altering decisions when you are in a state of shock, and/or heavily medicated and not in your best of faculties.  The surgeon gave me the option of going ahead with surgery but understood if I didn’t want to- he was very kind and professional, and pretty pissed that this was the way the system was working.  I opted not to have surgery that night because it would have medically bankrupted me.  I would never have been able to pay that kind of money back.  I would have to find another surgeon on my own.   He cleaned and temporarily stitched me up enough so that I could safely leave, which involved two incredibly painful nerve block shots and a pretty shoddy cast courtesy of the ER nurse- I think it was her first.  By the time we left, my pharmacy had closed and the hospital wouldn’t send me home with any medication.  I had to make it the night without pain pills or antibiotics (I would end up taking 2000mg of Keflex a day for 20 days- I was so filthy when I went in they were afraid I was going to give myself sepsis).  We went home and tried to get some rest, because the next day would be busy.

I think this was what it looked like when the system fails you.  

……

The next morning we got on the phone.  We called my insurance company and they found a place that would take a look at me right away.  Ironically enough their office was located at the first hospital I had gone to the day before.  I met with an orthopedic surgeon and his nurse practitioner.

I found out that orthopedic surgeons do a lot of hip and knee replacements on the elderly, so when a young person comes in with an exciting injury everyone wants to see.  I had no less than six people come and look at me, all very excited. 

The doctor was really excited to work on me- he was an artist and I was his canvas.  He drew me a picture of the procedure he would do and explained the whole thing.  They were going to fuse the middle joint of my index finger which the table saw had blown out, and remove a bit of my thumb.  I got another two painful shots of nerve block while he examined everything and moved some things back into place.  There aren’t a whole lot of words to convey how painful those shots are- I nearly crushed my girlfriend’s hand with my good hand.  My surgery would be two days from then, and they told me to rest.  So that’s what I did.

I have always had trouble finding quiet places and allowing myself to rest.  Now I had no choice.  I called my work and told them what happened and that I wasn’t sure when I would be back in.  I had to cancel some contractor work and push back a lot of client work.  That was what hurt the most.  My girlfriend and I watched a lot of Netflix, something we rarely ever do together.  I don’t watch a whole lot of TV but over the next week I would watch more TV than I had in the past five years.  And honestly it was really nice to check out.  I slept a lot and took pain medication and was generally kind of dopey.  I told my girlfriend that she was beautiful and I loved her, frequently.  I couldn’t bathe myself, or put my contact lenses in, or dress myself.  I just had to surrender to everything and let myself be helped. 

…..

Two days later we went to have surgery done.  I have never had any surgical procedure done before and was really nervous.  They took me in the back and had me put on a hospital gown and fixed up an IV in me.  After a large bump of a sedative they gave me a giant nerve block shot in my shoulder, which made my entire arm go numb.  I was dopey but still semi-conscious when they wheeled me into the OR.  They had music piped in- Bryan Adams was playing.  From what I understand of these things, the anesthesiologist has you count backwards from one hundred till you knock out.  Apparently they didn’t do this with me- I knocked out on my own singing ‘Heaven’ from Canada’s most famous musical export.  I think this was an auspicious sign.

…..

After surgery everything was kind of fuzzy.  We went home and my girlfriend put me in her bed and told me not to get up while she went to pick up my prescriptions.  My entire left arm was completely numb from the nerve block and I remember being really hungry.  Apparently I got up and ate an entire box of her kids’ Pop-Tarts while she was gone and then swore to her that I didn’t.  There were Pop-Tart wrappers all over the place- I don’t remember any of this.  I slept a whole lot and my dead arm, which I was supposed to keep elevated, kept falling and hitting me in the head.  I had a whole pile of pills that I had to take and my girlfriend dutifully kept me on a tight schedule.  The best I could do was tell her that I loved her and tell her how beautiful she was.

The next four days passed like that.  She took off from her high stress-job and looked after me. She helped me bathe, made sure I was taking my medicine, and kept me fed.  I would get really weepy from time to time.  It was all a lot; the trauma from the accident, the bone-deep pain from the surgery, and the bills that would be coming (because even with insurance these procedures are very expensive), and the people I felt I had let down.  Then there was this really wonderful woman taking care of me telling me that it was ok and how well I was doing.  The pain medication peeled away all of the armor I usually wear to function in the world and so from time to time all of this would hit me and I would just sit there and cry.

A few days later we went to clean up my apartment.  I had gotten off the major pain killers to see how my hand was doing so I could get back to my day job.  In situations where there is a caregiver and a care receiver things can turn toxic and codependent— I’ve seen it happen.  The pain pills can be addictive and I didn’t want to be a patient or lean on anyone if I didn’t have to. 

I had a couple of my friends come over to help.  I couldn’t really do a whole lot.  My girlfriend spent two hours cleaning my shower- a knifemaker’s shower can get really dirty.  One of my friends washed all my dishes for me.  James had let me keep my car at his place till I could drive again, and I finally went and picked it up.  And I started going back to work.

……

My two fingers have been in special splints as they heal, so I’ve been doing everything with eight fingers instead of ten.  All the simple things I do that I never think about, like brushing my teeth or packing a backpack or making a sandwich, suddenly require a lot more thought and take twice as long.  It’s really draining and frustrating and a full day of that makes me really tired.    

One thing that continually catches me off guard is the amount of help that is available.  Whenever there is something I can’t do there is always someone right there to help.  Shortly after the surgery I was working a large concert and I had trouble getting a pack of snack crackers open.  I had to grab a union stagehand, an older gentleman with a long white ponytail, and ask him if he could open my crackers for me.  “Well sure brother,” he says.  “Everybody needs a little help now and then.”  Cue waterworks from me.

Getting back into the shop has been scary, and a slow process.  I was in the middle of this knife when I injured myself and I had to keep emailing the client to push back when I would have it finished.  I did all of the woodworking and leatherwork with eight fingers.  It’s been an exercise in leaning into fear and getting back on the horse. 

I tend to have a lot of quiet days of late.  Quiet days allow everything to settle and help one’s focus to reset and help one to cultivate a sense of gratitude.  They also allow for deep processing and healing.  This is also lesson of the Woodsman.  Any good person of the Woods knows how to find quiet and the goodness that comes from within.  The second part of this build has been an exercise in just that.

O1 tool steel, out of the forge:

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Hand sanding:

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Computer board for the spacing material:

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Mesquite from Texas for the handle:

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All profiled:

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Rough shaped on the grinder- from here out it’s all hand work:

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This is at 220 grit:

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Letting a bit of oil set in to help the grain to speak:

The Woodsman, Mark II:

Knifemaking: a walk through the forest and the Woodsman

“Come closer and see,
See into the trees”

The Cure- “A Forest”

This knife was a donation to a charity auction put on by the Virginia Department of Forestry.  Many of the men and women who work for the Department of Forestry spend much of their work time and free time outdoors.  I wanted to build something that fit into that idea- stout and sturdy with no problem disappearing into the woods.  I designed a drop point hunter that was just that:

Cut out:

Centerline is scribed:

Early grinding work:

Hardened…

…and tempered

Polishing:

….to a nice satin finish:

An old shirt of mine I used to camp in.  It’s beat up and full of holes, which makes it an excellent candidate for knife handle material:

Ready to be set in fiberglass resin:

All the layers pressed together:

Everything is cured:

The Woodsman:


You can read more about how the department of Forestry serves you here:

http://www.southernforests.org/

…and here is one of the causes that they serve:

http://www.semperk9.org/

Knifemaking: the other side of things, and the Hippo

“Audi alteram partem.”

“Hear the other side.”

-St. Augustine of Hippo

 

The other side.  Sometime we’re so used to seeing everything from our own point of view that the other side can seem foreign, or even wrong.  But to truly live and to understand, sometimes we have to hear the other side, or even live over there for awhile. 

The “other side” can be just about anything.  St. Augustine’s quote can be applied to today’s politics- gun control, immigration, issues of gender identity- issues that are magnanimously polarizing and place many of us on one side or the other.  We simply don’t listen because we don’t think what the other side has to say has any use to us.

And it goes deeper.  We don’t hear the other side of what many parts of our life have to tell us.  Maybe they are unpleasant or painful, or we feel they don’t serve us, or they are extraneous and not needed, or they poke at a deep wound that we would rather leave alone.  So we go through our world pretending the other side doesn’t have anything to say to us.  This usually works until it doesn’t.  And then life will come and hand us a situation or circumstance that places us on precisely the other side of where we’d like to be.

Some of the happiest people I know have been through the greatest sorrow.  The most loving people I know have suffered losses so great that when I put myself in their shoes I’m not sure how I’d get out of bed in the morning.  But these are the people who have heard the other side, and know that the highs and lows are two sides of the same coin.  The other side of suffering is serenity; the other side of pain is pleasure; the other side of misery is joy; and the other side of grief is love.  In shutting ourself off from misery, we are effectively shutting ourself off from our greatest joy.

…….

It was the summer of 2004 and I had been invited to my first wedding.  A friend of mine was getting married.  We had grown up down the street from each other and had gone to high school together.  As an awkward and maladjusted teenager I had always been grateful that she had been such a good friend to me.  She had graduated a little before I did and liked to travel- she would send me postcards sometimes.  At this point I had been in college for a couple of years and had barely seen any of my friends I had grown up with, including her.  I was really happy for her and excited to see how she was doing, and glad she thought to invite me.  The service was going to be in a little chapel on her college campus, about four hours away. 

Then, about a week before I was going to head out, another friend I had grown up with died in an extremely traumatic car accident.  It was really bad.  It had been late at night and their car had crashed and caught fire.  There were three other passengers and no one could get out.  No one survived and they had to be identified by dental records.

The funeral was a day before I was headed out of town.  I took the day off of work from my summer job to go to the service.  I was much younger and pretty naive to a lot of the ways of the world but I noticed that nobody, not family or church clergy, had anything substantial to say to make any sense of it.  After a few years I would realize that this is the ultimate tragedy of a young person dying- there’s nothing anyone can say to make it better.  I grew up with this guy, we did church youth group together.  We weren’t particularly close but we had spent a lot of time together over the years.  Gradually I felt my emotions getting the better of me throughout the service.  I tried thinking about baseball, but during the eulogy it was all waterworks.  My father, who had come with me (and I was glad he did), handed me his handkerchief.

….

After the funeral, I packed a suitcase and drove four hours to attend a wedding the next day.  I remember that drive very clearly- blasting music and feeling a bit of grief but otherwise very happy to be alive.  I checked into my hotel and went out with a couple of friends that I hadn’t seen in forever.  Up to that point I don’t ever remember laughing so hard.  I stumbled back to my hotel room, which was a mile and a half away, and went to sleep, quite content with laughter and health.

The next day I went to the wedding service.  There was a string quartet playing processional music, I think it was Ravel, and lots of flowers.  It was a really happy and beautiful service, and I remember how incredible it was that one day you could go to a funeral and the next day a wedding, and that these were perfectly natural occurrences to have in one’s life.  I don’t know if I would have been nearly as grateful and present if I hadn’t had the previous day’s experience of being on the other side.

It’s a strange world we live in.  Be sure to hear what the other side has to say. 

…..

The Hippo was a commission from a gentleman for whom I often do contract work.  It was built for his wife, a lady who’s faith is extremely important to her.  She loves to cook and I was told the only kitchen tool she didn’t have was a cleaver, so I designed and built her one.  I named it the Hippo after St. Augustine, as a nod to the saint who’s writings influenced many subsequent saints, and because of it’s sheer size.  This thing is massive.

On 1/4″ stock, O1 tool steel:

Boring out the hanger hole:

Profiled:

Bevelled:

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Polishing before heat treat.  Removing machine marks now will make polishing easier what this big boy has been hardened:

This thing barely fit in the forge:

Removing some of the firescale:

The business end is polished:

This is a piece of Cherry wood the came off the mantle of a fireplace:

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Computer board blank for spacing material:

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Drilling the rivet holes to attach to the tang:

The grain is quite lovely:

Brass rivets- the middle is the Father, the right is the Son, and the left is the Holy Ghost:

Clamped and glued up:

The Hippo:

Knifemaking: finding connection, making playlists, and the Songline

“The melodic contour of the song describes the land over which the song passes … certain phrases, certain combinations of musical notes, are thought to describe the actions of the ancestors’ feet.  An expert song man … would count how many times he has crossed a river or scaled a ridge – and be able to calculate where, and how far along, the songline he was … A musical phrase is a map reference. Music is a memory bank for finding one’s way about the world.”

Bruce Chatwin- The Songlines

When I was nineteen I had a summer job working at a large water park.  More specifically, I was working in the kitchen of a restaurant in a large water park.  We were serving expensive diner food, cafeteria style, to about 10,000 people in swim suits a day.  It was an awful job.  I cleaned grease traps, grilled two hundred pounds of chicken a week, worked the fryer, sliced peppers, and steamed sausages.  I had to shave everyday and my work uniform always smelled like burnt french fries, no matter how many times I washed them.

I worked with about half a dozen Polish guest workers, all of whom were grad students and law students in Poland, and, despite an obvious language barrier, were wickedly smart.  They would teach me filthy things to say in Polish, and I would burn them hip-hop CD’s.  If I were working the fryers, one of them would invariably walk by and toss an ice cube into the hot oil and then laugh hysterically as I danced like a scarecrow while getting spattered with 350 degree oil.

My favorite job was washing dishes because nobody would bother me.  There were about five different tiers of management and anytime I screwed something up there would be anywhere from two to three managers coming to tell me about it.  I preferred the solitude of the dishroom and somedays I would be in there for twelve hours.  To this day I have a little bit of eczema on my left pinky finger and I swear it came from that filthy dishroom those years ago.

It was a 25 minute drive from my parents’ house to work.  I had a Sony mini-disc player, which had just come out, and I made a special go-to-work disc that I hooked up in my car.  I listened to that list all summer.  It got to the point where I knew exactly where I should be by what song was playing.  I would start the car and press play and The English Beat’s “I Confess” would take me out of the driveway.  I would roll up to the last stoplight before the interstate entrance about midway through “Alex Chilton” by the Replacements.  If I hadn’t hit my interstate exit by the time Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” came on, then I knew I was running late.  Without any stops or traffic problems I would end up at the security gate by the time Stiff Little Fingers’ “Just Fade Away” was in full swing.

I knew the songs of both tree and pothole, of billboard and gas station.  I couldn’t discern if I was connected to the songs, or if the songs were connected to the drive, or the drive was connected to me.  I imagine all three were intertwined.

A few years later and most of the way through college, I had gotten in the habit of taking a walk every Sunday morning to a very old and picturesque cemetery near campus.  I had a very special list I had listened to every Sunday for about two years.  It was more nuanced than the Stiff Little Fingers and the Replacements, but powerful nonetheless.  No matter how hungover I was, once I had put my headphones in my feet knew the path out the door of my tiny apartment, and onward through every rock and cobble and briar and headstone.

I’ve made many playlists since then.  As someone who has trouble finding connection, I find making these lists help me to connect to my world.  Many people remember their youth by the music of the time, but sometimes this paints a rosy picture while glossing over the more bristly bits.  And one doesn’t walk through life without encountering the bristly bits.

For the past five or six years I’ve built a playlist which has faded the lines between myself, the music, and the experience.  Even with some 24 hours of music, I can start it anywhere and instantly remember where I was, what I was doing, and how I felt when I decided to add that particular song.  This list has been my most recent Songline, reminding me of incredible highs, heartbreaking lows, and everything in between.  Some sections are difficult to listen to, while I find myself frequently returning to others.  The experience, music, and myself all become one.  And while it’s still being built, it serves to remind me of where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going.

This is the lesson of the Songline, a knife built to travel.  It is designed in such a way as to be an extension of the hand and to connect one with one’s work, just as we oftentimes (if we’re lucky) connect ourselves to our journey and those around us.

The design is based on the Nessmuk trapper knife, popularized by George Washington Sears.  Sears was an outdoorsman and writer.  He carried three primary tools when out in the wild: a double-bitted hand axe, a small two bladed folding knife, and a larger fixed blade similar to the one below which he called the “Nessmuk”:

This one starts roughed out in 1095 hi-carbon:

Establishing a center line:

Full flat grind:

Hardened:

Polishing:

Spacing material for the handle.  Computer board blank:

Qaurtersawn White Oak, for strength and wisdom along the journey:

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Bursting the curls- oiled at 220 grit before final sanding:

The Songline:

You can read more about the history of the Nessmuk hunter here:

Know Your Knives: The Nessmuk Knife

Songlines and the Dreamtime- this article is a good place to wet your feet:

Indigenous songlines: a beautiful way to think about the confluence of story and time