“Hey, give that back,” I said, laughing, to the African tracker.
He was fixated on the leopard-like swirls and circles on the ball bearing Damascus of the J. Neilson skinner I had taken to Africa. He didn’t speak much English, but the night before I had watched him break down the better part of a gemsbok with a knife that looked like something that came free with a toaster. This knife was so different from what he used everyday it might as well have been a spacecraft. I handed him the knife while he was making the final cuts on our eland steaks before they hit the hot coals. I was curious to see the reaction of one who made part of his living as a butcher and skinner of wild game.
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We called him Wally, but the “W” sounded more like a “V” when others spoke to him. Wally turned the knife in his hand under the fading natural light of the setting African sun and a large grill lamp. He closely inspected the lines of the blade, its edge and the fit of the handle. But the oblong shapes of the hammered ball bearings that shone out from the high-carbon steel continued to catch his eye. He felt their smooth texture, rubbed them, and watched how they changed as he used the knife of some on the scrap pieces of meat. Then he began to wander off.
I called him back in my own language, and when he turned he was all smiles and uncorked joy. He had the knife positioned in his hand with his index finger down the spine of the blade and rapidly described how it would work in skinning the delicate cape around the neck and head of the South African plains game.
He was pointing to the blade and describing how he would use it for separate cuts, and how he had to use the fingers of his other hand to work with the blade. I didn’t understand a word, other than perhaps “kudu,” but I didn’t need to; he was taking this knife through the whole skinning process right there in front of me. Wally handed the knife back to me, smiled, and pointed the knife saying what I took to mean “helluva knife.”
J. Neilson’s knife making began in a simple way. Like most knife makers, he had done some other things, including welding and bartending, before the knife bug bit him. His first knives were cut from old saw blades and files. One by one, for around $30 a piece, he began to sell his knives as a side business. Things began to change when he spent the weekend with Keith Bagley, a farrier in Maryland. Bagley taught him the basics of hammering Damascus. Inspired, Neilson returned home and found an anvil from an old barn and a hand-crank stove, and he began hammering raw steel in the Pennsylvania snow.
Neilson attended his first knife show in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and he continued to attend local shows and ultimately began selling to local hunters. With the help of a good website and word of mouth, Neilson’s side business became a full-time job. Today, Neilson has customers in 17 countries spanning North America, Europe and Asia.
Neilson takes pride in the fact that he is a full-time, sole-income knife maker. “There are not many of us out there.” Neilson said. “You must truly love making knives for it to work. For me, I get to work by myself, on my own.” He also points out that his knives are a product of sole authorship. “I create the steel myself—I forge it, shape it, heat-treat it and build the handles all in house. When you buy one of my knives, you know it is a product created by hand, not on an assembly line.”
As his business grew and his designs evolved, Neilson found himself drawn to the traditional designs of the frontier period.
“Good steel during that time was hard to find, and so it was used over and over again. A piece could start as a sword, be ground down to a butcher knife and ultimately into a smaller paring knife. Blades were rarely thrown out, and they frequently had long lives and several incarnations.”
Many frontier knives came from buggy springs and were hammered into shape in a primitive style. Neilson added, “There was very little waste on frontier Damascus steel. Multiple steels were blended to create alloys that were adaptable to the purpose. We have Bill Moran to thank for ‘re-inventing’ the Damascus steel process in the 21st century. Moran was always very open with his techniques, and for the most part the custom-knife world has continued to honor him in that tradition. Most makers don’t hide their secrets and are open and helpful to those serious about improving their technique or trying to solve a problem.”
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Neilson has also partnered with some of the best sheath makers in the business. For his primitive knife designs, he often partners with John Cohea of Nettleton, Mississippi. A published author of several books and DVDs on rawhide knife sheaths, Cohea is known for the quality and creativity of his primitive designs. Some of his sheaths can take over 12 hours to make, but according to him, “If you don’t have a perfect sheath for a custom knife, it’s a bit pointless. One should complement the other.”
Cohea works primarily in deer rawhide and often accents his sheaths with antique trading beads, copper and horsehair. Cohea’s passion is keeping the old arts alive and interpreting what ‘could have been’ in his period pieces. Neilson and Cohea’s first collaboration was for a “Coyote Scraper” knife with a handle cut from a coyote’s jawbone. Cohea crafted the sheath in primitive rawhide with coyote and bear claws.
Out Of This World
One of the joys of his work, noted Neilson, is experimenting with new techniques and materials. “Many of the breakthroughs I have had came from trying new things that made sense. The ball-bearing steel was a fluke that came from me trying out ball bearings as base materials in my forging process. The result was a quality steel with a distinctive look, and it has become popular with my customers.” That willingness to try new things led him to building knives from meteorite material.
“I got a call from Keith and Dana Jenkerson at KD Meteorites about making a working knife from meteorite steel. There have been others making knives and random things from meteorites, but most objects were conversation pieces, and steel made from chunks were not particularly great knives. Some steel makers were making ‘meteorite Damascus,’ but most buyers were skeptical because it was difficult to know they were actually getting meteorite steel. I contemplated using the dust and shavings from the meteorite cuttings in the canister process.
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“I mixed the meteorite particles with 1095 steel powder and they produced a solid working steel with a Rockwell hardness of between 58-59 and a distinctive texture and pattern. The high carbon level in the 1095 steel facilitates a good carbon migration and the higher nickel content in the meteorite makes the blade more stain resistant.”
Most of his current knives are from the Gibeon meteorite, but he is also working with cuttings from the Glorieta Mountain and Seymchan meteorites. In addition to being from outer space, each meteorite has its own unique metallurgical properties, so those found in one location are distinct from others that have struck the Earth in another location.
So how does one get meteorites and ball bearings into a workable hunk of steel that can become a knife? Neilson creates what is called “canister steel.” Canister steel refers as much to the process as the steel itself. Select mixes of ingredients, such as steel dust, ball bearings, old Damascus scraps and meteorite dust, are poured into a rectangular canister of tubular steel between 1 to 3 inches wide, 1 to 3 inches deep and 8 inches long.
The bladesmith can choose the size of the canister depending upon the need and the job, but most are made in sizes that lend themselves to produce enough steel for one to four knives. A large, single blade might merit a 3-by-3-inch-diameter canister, but most amount to a enough material to create a 2- to 4-foot bar of steel that can be hammered and shaped according to the type of blade the maker has in mind.
Each canister is custom made from square, carbon-steel construction tubing and the end caps are welded on, leaving a single, small hole for gases to escape during the smelting process. Neilson coats the interior of the canister with white-out, allows it to dry and then adds the component steel dust and solid materials, depending upon the visual effect and type of steel he is seeking to create. The canister typically goes into the furnace at around 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit for about 30 minutes, but the time and temperature can vary depending upon the size and specific contents of the canister. After smelting, the canister is allowed to cool and the tubular shell is then pried away from the core billet. The bladesmith then has a core piece of steel to reheat and hammer into blanks and, ultimately, blades.
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The distinctive patterns in modern Damascus are a product of the component alloys within the steel, and they are chosen for both their functional and aesthetic qualities. Further, the pattern’s orientation reflects both the art and skill of the bladesmith. Typically, a canister is filled from the top down, and for his distinctive ball-bearing Damascus, Neilson intersperses the dust with the ball bearings.
Neilson noted, “I prefer to let the pattern evolve naturally. A unique, one-of-a-kind Damascus blade should not look like it was produced from a machine. I like to see slight variations in the shape and path of the pattern.”
In some circumstances, Neilson has experimented with alternative techniques such as the “canoe” canister. In a canoe canister, rather than filling the canister from the top, Neilson removes one side of the canister, giving the appearance of a blunt-ended canoe. The steel materials are filled lengthwise, allowing him to control the pattern across the steel.
In a blade Neilson recently made for a March of Dimes auction, he used the canoe canister technique to create a trailing arrow-shaped pattern in the steel. Angled steel wedges were oriented horizontally across the canister and then the space was filled with powdered steel. When forged, the wedges formed the core of the blade and gave the visual effect of direction and motion down the length of the blade spanning from the handle to the tip. Combined with a primitive sheath created by John Cohea, the knife drew over $2,400 at auction. For more information, visit mountainhollow.net.
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This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN™ Winter 2016 issue #205. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.