Knifemaking: playing your hand and The Wild Card

“Like I said, I’ve got mixed emotions about wild card games.  In one sense, they tend to bring out the gamble in your opponents.  They often create a carnival of excitement in which players give away a lot of money painlessly.  On the other hand, it’s hard to calculate a strategy for a game the dealer has just invented.”

Doyle Brunson- According to Doyle

I think the best definition of a wild card is something that can be what you need it to be, when you need it to be.  I have a friend like this- his name is Fred and I’ve written about him before.  I worked with Fred at the warehouse dealing with restaurant equipment.  During the tenure of our professional and personal relationship, Fred has set me on fire, twice, helped me fix my car, helped me fix my friends’ cars, helped me fix my girlfriend’s house, and showed me how to fix things I had no idea could be fixed.  The man has infuriated me beyond belief and has also made me laugh till I cried.  Fred is a wild card, a deus ex machina, the kind of person who can accomplish incredible things and can do it, most of the time, without having any sort of concrete plan.  Which makes it that much more infuriating to work with him and can also result in being set aflame…

I’ve always had this paradoxical sense of simultaneously feeling incredibly safe and slightly on edge whenever I worked with Fred.  We would go into jobs and everything that could go wrong would absolutely go wrong.  Somehow Fred would figure it out.  There was the time a one day job turned into three at a federal office building near downtown Washington DC.  A Japanese restaurant on the floor level of a building on Glebe Rd was going out of business and they had a very short amount of time to have everything removed.  The loading dock was in the basement and the bay door was two inches too short to get our tractor trailer in to load all the equipment out.  The only way to get everything out was through a single door at the front of the building onto the sidewalk.  We couldn’t get the truck there till two days later and we had to hot load it on the street, one of the busiest streets on the east coast.  The truck would be there at 3am.  In the mean time we had to dismantle everything in the restaurant, including a walk-in freezer, a walk-in cooler, fifty tables, and twenty hibachi grills.  I never want to move another hibachi table ever again.  Fred orchestrated the truck to get there half an hour after the door people removed the five thousand dollar custom glass door so we could get everything out of the building.  The truck was late and there was maybe two hours before the police would get there and make us move, but not before they asked up why we had a semi-truck, a forklift, and a truck with a tilt deck trailer in front of a government building with no permits.  Fortunately that didn’t happen and we got out of there in an hour and a half, smelling of old fish and rotten bok choy.

A lot of jobs happened this way.  None of this is an exact science.  On my better days I felt like a part of a black ops crack team.  On my not so better days I seriously questioned my life decisions.  None of it was ever boring, though.  Not with Fred.

There was an Italian man who had a few restaurants around town.  Crazy Frank we called him.  He had just opened up a new restaurant and had an emergency with his ice machine and a pizza oven we rebuilt for him.  Fred and I head over there at lunch.  The kitchen is insane.  I go over to the the oven and start to drill out holes on the door to put a handle on- bear in mind the oven is roaring at 600 degrees and has pizza in it.  Fred is reprogramming the thermostat on the ice machine.  It is the lunch rush and there are ten people running around, screaming in Italian.  Fred asked me if I had a ‘big ass college word’ to describe the situation.  I told him that I believed the word he was looking for was ‘asinine’.

“Right,” he says.  “This shit is asinine”

The most memorable job I was on with Fred was a three day bakery extraction.   Fred, myself, and our colleague and good friend Aaron were to fly to Nebraska, load an entire bakery into two tractor trailers, and then fly home.  Adventures started at the airport.  Fred and I are not fans of flying.  At the airport bar I had forty dollar margarita with a cornucopia of liquor in it and Fred had two double shots of Jack Daniels.  We got on the plane and promptly went to sleep.  We arrived in Nebraska that evening, picked up a swanky rental car and went to look at the job.

The first thing I noticed was that it was cold.  Like unbelievably cold.  It hadn’t really hit me at the airport.  This was January and I had never been anywhere that flat, windy, and cold before.  The second thing I noticed was a gigantic rotating bread oven.  Our client told us that it bakes 100 loaves an hour when loaded to capacity.  We would spend the majority of our time dismantling that hulking behemoth.  We got steaks for dinner, because that is what you do in Nebraska, and went to the hotel.

The next couple of days were stupidly cold.  The forklift we rented wouldn’t start most of the mornings until the sun came out.  We had to disconnect and extract the oven exhaust system, which meant going onto an icy sheet metal room.  We had to take that oven apart, which had nearly a thousand 3/4″ screws holding it together.  Fred was confident in his ability to get it all back together.

Everything went as it should, got loaded, and sent back to Virginia.  Our travels were slightly rockier.  There was an ice storm that closed the Chicago Midway Airport and we got diverted to Indianapolis where we sat on the tarmac for seven hours.  Seven hours of Fred without a cigarette.  Seven hours of Fred saying we should have rented a truck and driven to Nebraska.  Seven hours of Fred telling anyone who would listen that no one could keep him on that plane.  I was sitting next to a mother and her small child on their way to Disney World.  The husband and another little one were sitting behind me with Fred.  These little ones had a better grip on the situation than Fred.  Finally they let us off to catch a different flight, on a plane that wasn’t covered in ice.  It was all Aaron and I could do to keep Fred from using the company card to rent a truck and drive back to Virginia from Indianapolis.  Two double shots of Jack got Fred back on a plane.

Left to right here is myself, Aaron, and Fred after three long, flour covered days in the cold.  Happy to be finished, thank you very much.


Wild cards only work when you play them.  They do what you need them to do when you need them to be done.  This is Fred, and also the lesson of the Wild Card.  I wanted to build something to be sent in when the job needed to be done.

I started with a big hunk of 1095 spring steel- 3/16″ thick

The blade is close to 8 inches long…
 Rough grind:   

I used a clay hardening technique to create a Hamon


…and tempered

Sanded to about 600 grit and ready to for a dip in the acid….

Curly Maple.  You can faintly see the wavy bits of curl…


To get the curls to burst I had to go through many cycles of sanding and staining and sanding again.  With each cycle the stain becomes more stable and prominent.

I cooked up a concoction using various finishes I have…

You can start to see the curls as the grain becomes more stable.  This is after maybe two cycles of sanding and staining

This is after maybe 8…

It’s always good to have a Wild Card in your hand- even when you want to kill them sometimes.

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