Wyo. knife-maker's craft still has edge

By Nathan Payne

Gillette News Record

Published: Wednesday, June 22 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Knife-maker Kirk Rexroat shows handles for his knives made from mammoth husks, giraffe bone, walrus husks and other exotic materials. Just because he has reached the status of Master smith in the knife-making world doesn’t mean that Rexroat has stopped learning.

Gillette News Record, Joy Lewis, Associated Press

GILLETTE, Wyo. — On a warm June afternoon in a quiet Wright neighborhood, the only thing that broke the idyllic peacefulness came from a steel shed behind a modest green house.

Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump.

The jarring metallic clunking echoed between houses, yet neighbors tended to their lawns and sat on their porches unencumbered by the whacking. It paused for a moment, then continued once again.

Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump.

The mechanical whacking could be a little unsettling if the neighbors didn't know what it was, but it is just something that they expect to hear once in a while along the otherwise quiet street.

After a few more thumps, another pause, and a man wearing soiled leather gloves and mirrored sunglasses walked into the sunny yard next to the hut. His mountain man white beard gave way to a wide grin and a warm hello.

A forge roared behind him, heating steel that will be painstakingly massaged and ground into some of the highest quality knives in the world on the two 100-year-old trip hammers.

The 53-year-old man is Kirk Rexroat.

Just because he has reached the status of Master smith in the knife-making world doesn't mean that Rexroat has stopped learning.

The mine welder and metal fabrication specialist has been shaping custom knives for about 30 years, but it isn't a lack of innovation that has made him world renowned.

"He made his first knife with sandpaper in our living room out of an old truck leaf spring," said Rexroat's wife, Holly, while shooting him a glance. "Your knives have come a long way since then."

She jokes that he made a mess in the couple's living room while filing and sanding the blade into shape.

Rexroat's hallmark is constant innovation.

"A lot of guys will specialize in one type of blade," Rexroat said. "I get bored with just doing the same thing."

The red-hot sandwich of bar steel that he coated with flux and hammered together starts as three layers of two types of steel. When he is finished folding, twisting and folding it again, the stock will be more than 200 sections of nickel and carbon steel in alternating layers.

Each fold, bend and twist will result in a unique pattern in the blade once Rexroat shapes the blade and dips it in acid.

"You don't get to the really good stuff until the center," he said.

The corrosive agent will eat the metals at different rates, etching deep patterns in some of the steel and not in other areas. It is a design called Damascus steel.

"A lot of people think you're melting it, but you don't," he said. "You just heat it 'til it's like plastic."

Rexroat has spent decades learning new techniques and perfecting his methods for forging the knives he sells.

Being a custom knife maker is a combination of art and perfecting metallurgical processes, he said.

"Sometimes you go through all of that work and it doesn't work out," Rexroat said.

His basement shop is full of almosts that didn't reach his standard of perfection.

He has found through trial and error that the best steel for simple high-carbon steel blades is made from worn-out roller bearings from equipment at Antelope mine where he works.

He stretches and hammers the egg-shaped bearings into flat strips of steel that he grinds and shapes into knife blades.

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