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Wyo. knife-maker's craft still has edge

By Nathan Payne

Gillette News Record

Published: Wednesday, June 22 2011 2:25 p.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.

Once he's crafted the metal that will become a knife, the steel will go through weeks or even months of shaping and polishing before it is fitted with a handle or attached to a folding frame.

It is a practice of perfection for Rexroat who will not stamp his "MS" that represents his Master smith status or his scrolled "Rexroat" on either side of the base of a blade if it is not perfect.

Rexroat became a Master smith in 1999.

When he reached that status, he became one of only five Master smiths in Wyoming and one of only 110 in the world, according to the American Bladesmith Society.

"To get your Master smith, you have to make five knives and this is one of them," he said as he unzipped a case that holds a Damascus steel European-style dagger. "There used to be only 50 Master smiths."

In his basement workshop, Rexroat shapes and finishes his knives surrounded by walls of tools and blade blanks. He makes everything from large custom Bowie knives to intricate folding pocket knives.

"I get bored with just doing the same thing," he said. "I thought I'd be making hunting knives or something, but it's all a learning process. You get good at one thing, then you go on to the next and the next."

For the Master smith test, a knife maker must make a knife that can pass a series of tests. They include cutting a free-hanging rope, chopping through two pieces of wood and holding a sharp enough edge to shave hair. After that, a candidate must present judges with five knives to be judged for quality.

The "MS" emblem on Rexroat's blades represents more than two letters or even a title.

For him, they represent 30 years of constant innovation and learning.

His custom knives cost anywhere from $500 to $5,000 depending on how intricate the work is. Rexroat's knives, many of them clad with mammoth tooth or walrus tusk handles, have been taken all over the world. He has sold knives to customers in Russia, Australia, southeast Asia and just about everywhere in the United States. They have been featured in art shows and even in the Denver Airport.

"A lot of my stuff goes overseas," he said. "One time I went to Manhattan, and all I could say is holy cow."

Rexroat never expected his hobby-turned business to take him outside of Wyoming, let alone across the country or world.

Five of Rexroat's knife designs are made commercially by Al Mar knives, an Oregon specialty knife maker. And recently some of his blades were installed on knives made by Triple Eight Professional, a California knife manufacturer.

Despite his success as a knife maker, Rexroat doesn't see himself getting rich and retiring on what he makes from knives. Some of his most intricate pieces can take as much as a year to complete — a year of hard work that sometimes doesn't work out.

"I'm going to have to keep my day job," Rexroat said.

Information from: The Gillette News Record - Gillette, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com

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