A thing of beauty may be a joy forever, but it can be a real pain to make.
Buster Warenski is suited to painstaking work. A quiet man with a fathomless reservoir of patience, he has been making knives by hand for 22 years.That patience and his quiet passion for beauty have earned him an international reputation. The reputation is reflected in the price of his knives.
"For a utility knife that someone would take out in the field and use, my bottom dollar is $400," he said.
His most expensive knife - a solid-gold replica of King Tut's favorite knife - is valued at $100,000.
Other knives fall somewhere between, depending on how the customer wants the knife made.
Warenski's knives are completely handmade, designed for their beauty. The handiwork on the King Tut knife is so intricate it would take a magnifying glass to appreciate all of its detail. Warenski spent nearly five years making it, using $18,000 worth of gold and spending long months rediscovering ancient Egyptian practices used to make the original.
When he's not working in gold, he grinds his blades from bars of steel. After he has shaped the blade the way he wants it, he heats it to 1,900 degrees to strengthen it. He quenches the blade in water, then reheats it to 450 degrees. The second heating tempers the steel. He quenches it again and heats it a third time, again to 450 degrees.
After tempering the steel, he polishes the blade, working through progressively finer grits of sand paper and sanding belts. After the blade is polished, he buffs it with a buffing wheel.
"I would probably spend six or seven hours on a simple blade," he said.
The handle is a different matter. "Even the simplest handle takes two or three days."
Warenski doesn't do many simple handles.
One of his latest knives, typical of exotic requests he receives, is a martial arts knife, with a slim blade and square, flat handle. The handle is sterling silver inlaid with black mother-of-pearl from the coast of Australia. There is a two-carat diamond imbedded at the end. The sheath is Moroccan leather with sterling silver fittings.
Warenski used small hand chisels to sculpt intricate floral patterns in the silver. One pattern flows from the diamond down the front and back of the knife. A second pattern covers the edges of the handle.
The knife represents six weeks of full-time work - $4,000 worth of labor. The material - excluding the diamond - cost $1,000. The diamond was provided by the client and Warenski didn't know its worth.
Warenski insists that all of the pieces of a knife - the blade, cross-guard and handle pieces - fit each other perfectly. "The fittings can take many, many, many days. Making all of your fits exact is very time-consuming."
There are three critical qualities in a Warenski knife: "It has to be appealing to the eye; the execution of the work must be meticulous; and any applied decoration literally has to be of the highest quality."
Like all things rare and flawless, the value of Warenski's knives appreciates sharply each year. He estimates the appreciation at about 20 percent a year. Every once in awhile, it's 30 percent every 10 minutes.
"I had a fellow buy a knife off of my table at an international knife show," Warenski said. "He was still visiting with me - he hadn't even handled the knife yet, when another fellow came up and bought the knife from him. The first fellow made a $400 profit without even laying a finger on the knife."
Warenski didn't relate the anecdote to brag; he used it to answer a question. Despite his obsession with quality work, Warenski is a stranger to arrogance. He is a soft-spoken man, with slightly stooped shoulders, a grizzled gray beard and gentle eyes that droop at the corners.
He lives in a simple house in Richfield with his wife and her four children from a previous marriage. He spends nearly 12 hours a day in the basement, bent over a workbench working on his knives. His wife, Julie, works beside him.
They met two years ago, when she took an engraving class from him. At the time, both were married to other people. But several months after the class, Julie broke all her chisel tips trying to engrave a knife blade instead of the handle.
"I didn't realize you didn't engrave blades," she said. "So I went to him for help." That was Julie's first chance to get acquainted with Warenski. "I didn't have a whole lot of early impressions of him in class because he never said anything. He was shy and quiet."
As the two talked, they discovered that each was going through a divorce. The rest is romance.
While Buster works on his knives, Julie sits beside him doing the engraving on the handles of knives made by several regional knifemakers.
They work and talk most of the day and into the night, knocking off between 10:30 p.m. and midnight.
"She's already a world-class engraver and she's only been at it for two years," Warenski said with pride. "If I can catch her when she's not terribly busy, I can get her to do some of my work. She's so diligent and so good. Her work is highly appreciated in Sweden, Japan and the United States."
When it comes to Julie, Warenski's reticence drops away. So does his modesty. "Engravers who have been doing it full-time for many years are just awed by her work," he said.
Warenski draws his customers from all over the world. Lately, he's been selling a lot of knives in the Orient. Most of his clients are wealthy collectors who happily pay what it takes to have a showcase knife unlike anyone else's.
Their requests are sometimes unusual. "We did one knife handle out of Rhinoceros horn, which is considered an aphrodisiac. This client wanted all of the dust from the horn back. We literally worked over newspapers to send him his dust back," Warenski said.
Warenski's knives are in such demand there is a 10-year backlog of customers. If you want a knife in 1998, place your order now.
The wait costs him half his business.
"After waiting that long, many of the customers have died, moved or lost interest," he said. "I lose a lot of them that way."
But there's not much he can do. He works long and hard to get his knives out, but he refuses to cut corners.
Warenski never planned to be a knifemaker. He has always had an artist's eye and has been drawing and painting since he was a child, but when it came time to make a living, he chose to paint houses. He made his first knife in 1966 because it was a change from making gunstocks, which he had been doing as a hobby.
The first knife took nearly 100 hours to make. "It was pretty crudely fashioned," he said.
But he was intrigued with the art. That's what knifemaking is to Warenski: art. He talks about knives as if they were paintings. "There's a finesse to a knife. It has to have a homogenous flow to it and still be totally interesting."
In the early years, Warenski continued to paint houses, making knives on the side. In those early days, a local knifemaker pointed out some of the mistakes he was making. That's the only formal instruction Warenski has had.
At first, he traded his knives for material to make new knives. But the hobby got so expensive, he started selling his knives to defray the costs.
It was the demand for his knives that finally drove him off the painting ladder.
"The orders built up so quick, I really had no choice but to give up painting and get into knifemaking."
In 1975, he opened "Buster's Custom Knives."
The decades spent grinding, polishing and sculpting pull in a few perks along with the praise. In October, Warenski and Julie will fly to Japan as guests of the Japanese knifemaker guild.
"They called and persuaded him to come because they wanted to introduce him at their knife show," Julie said. She telephoned after the interview to announce the invitation. "He's too shy to tell you himself," she said.
Her husband's reputation in the Orient is surging and the Japanese are flying the couple in because they wanted to reveal the face and personality behind the famous "Warenski" stamp that marks the blades of all his knives.
"I am really proud," Julie said. Warenski was too embarrassed to talk about it.