Master bladesmith Murray Carter reveals the successful traits of knife designs that have lasted throughout history, and shares patterns he has created and perfected.
Reviewed by Mac Overton
When it comes to knives, Murray Carter is an original, and a gentleman, too. I’ve met him several times at shows and always found him charming and knowledgeable. The Canadian native, now living in Oregon, has the distinction of being the first Westerner to be accepted as a 17th generation blacksmith at Yoshimoto in Japan. (He got the gig by walking into a several-hundred-year-old shop and asking for a job while on his high school senior trip, the story goes.) He is also an American Bladesmith Society mastersmith. His work and designs are original, and whether for outdoor sports, utility, or the kitchen are designed to earn their keep by working efficiently.
It’s my privilege to own two of Carter’s knives, one a general-purpose neck knife, and the other a kitchen utility blade, both out of his own laminated steel. That steel consists of a super-hard core of fine Japanese high-carbon steel (I think it’s called “blue steel,” from the color of the paper the blanks come wrapped in), sandwiched between soft but tough low-carbon stainless. These hold an edge superbly, clean up fairly well (you only need to keep rust off the middle layer), and, when needed, are
relatively easy to resharpen.
This type of construction is reminiscent of some of the finest knives of history, as well as the present day, including those used by the Vikings and other Northern peoples, in ancient Japan, Toledo in old Spain, and, in the modern day, the Morseth knives and others (although all of those were combinations of carbon steel, without the advantage of rust-resistant outer layers).
The back part of the book, probably close to half, consists of traceable templates of Carter’s own designs. A friend commented to me that “a template seems to defeat the concept of a custom knife.” But hold the phone! No less a knifemaker than the late, great Bob Loveless sometimes used templates.
And while I never plan to make another knife (I made one from a kit once, which left me admiring even more those who make knives from the ground [pun intended] up – thankfully that embarrassing blade eventually vanished), the first half of the book with its ideas about the fine points of design is fascinating. There is also a chapter on “How to Modify a Pattern to Improve It,” which should allow plenty of variation for those who want to go beyond Carter’s templates.
Carter sets himself apart from makers of art and fantasy knives. They may be fine for their purpose, which is being looked at, but Carter’s designs are meant to be used. His philosophy of knives is simple: For most purposes, short means sensible. About four inches seems to be the preferred length for everyday knives. There are big, bowie-style blades, too, but these are based on traditional Japanese utility designs.
Drop-point, clip-point and sheepfoot/wharncliffe blade shapes are much better than tanto points. He even regrinds the tanto point on a fine utility folder to drop point configuration (Gasp! Is that an Emerson Wave?!?) Carter says that, despite that sacrilege, the reconfigured blade cuts better. This is typical of the information imparted in these pages.
I especially liked his explanation of knives found in museums. He points out that, many times, the knives which found their way to museum displays were there because the designs just weren’t functional! If they had been, they would have been worn out, rather than being left nearly pristine, like a bowie shown as an example. The knife shown has a long blade, offset from the handle at about 20 degrees. It looks awkward and probably would have been as a fighting or camp blade. Next to a drawing of this knife, which has been pictured in photos many times, Murray asks “Does anyone really wonder why this one made it to the museum?”
If you are a maker, read this book and you’ll learn nuances about knives that will keep yours from ending up in a museum.
If you are someone who uses a knife (and who among us isn’t?), read the book and you’ll know how to pick practical blades that you might hand down as heirlooms, so that other generations can have the joy of using them like you did.
Softcover, 208 pp.