Spartanburg man turns knife-making skill into art

LINDA CONLEY, Staff Writer
Published September 19, 2006

PHOTOS BY GERRY PATERoss Tyser of Spartanburg can be considered the knife maker to the stars because his list of clients is a Who's Who in Hollywood.

Tyser owns his business, R. T. Custom Knives. John DiSanti, Irlene Mandrell, Marshall Teague and other celebrities are some of his best customers. His clients also include local veterinarians, re-enactors and collectors.

The durability and toughness of his knives were tested on the Alaskan trails during the Iditarod dog sled race, and some soldiers have taken them to Iraq. The beauty and craftsmanship are admired and sought after at national knife and gun shows.

"Knife making is a craft and an art," Tyser said. "You take pieces of wood and metal that look like nothing and create a piece of art."

Learning the basics

Tyser learned the craft almost 15 years ago from master smith Jerry Fisk. Tyser was making gemstone jewelry at the time when Fisk needed some amethyst cut for a knife. The two talked and Tyser told Fisk he wanted to learn knife making.

He scheduled time around his job at R.R. Donnelly & Sons and took classes at the School of Bladesmithing in Washington, Ark. The school teaches the old-time technique of forging, which involves shaping a knife by taking a piece of metal, adding heat and hammering it into shape. Most knives are made now by stock removal or taking a piece of bar stock and cutting the shape on the band saw. Tyser is a member of the American Bladesmith Society and is trying to preserve the forging technique.

Holding to tradition

"The process takes more time, but it is worth it," he said. "All of my work is done by hand. I go through a lot of pencil and paper to come up with designs."

He works in a small shop behind his home, crafting and designing bowie, hunter, skinner, steak and folder knives. He's made models for some of the most popular knives, making his job easier. The shop also is filled with a variety of materials to make knife handles and blades, such as deer antlers, pearl and bird's eye maple from the old Pacolet Mill built in 1862.

The shop isn't set up for forging, so he makes the Damascus steel to create blades at a friend's shop in Arkansas. He makes enough steel to last for several months and to complete knife orders.

Some of the orders he is working on include a knife for an Army ranger at Fort Jackson, a set of steak knives for a client in Charlotte, N.C., and another knife for DiSanti. DiSanti has starred in television episodes of "NYPD," "Murder, She Wrote," "Baywatch" and "The Golden Girls."

"This is the fourth knife in a set for Johnny DiSanti," Tyser said. "He has about 10 of my knives, not counting the kitchen knives."

Tyser's work has allowed him to meet celebrities and other people all over the world. He has a customer in Iceland who uses his skinners while managing a reindeer herd. Spartanburg veterinarian Sonny King tested his knives during the six times he competed in the Iditarod dog sled race.

Praise for the blades

"His knives held up beautifully," King said. "I never had any problems with them."

King said Tyser designed a more compact knife for him to carry on the dog sled races. He said the blades on regular knives would break in the extreme cold in Alaska, but Tyser's knives were more durable.

"Everyone in the Iditarod was jealous of the craftsmanship of the knives," King said.

Tyser is pleased the knives passed King's test.

"I told Sonny to use and abuse them," he said. "I think he even used them for a crowbar."

Tyser was laid off from his job at R.R. Donnelly & Sons about two years ago. Knife making has become his full-time job, along with working as the director of Irlene Mandrell's Celebrity Shoot benefiting Wish Upon a Star Inc. and serving on the board of the Irlene Mandrell Charities. Irlene is the youngest of the Mandrell sisters.

"Ross is an incredible talent, and his knives are impressive," Mandrell said in a telephone interview from her home in Nashville, Tenn. "He is a wonderful person, too. He does most of the footwork for the shoot."

Mandrell said she has known Tyser for about 12 years and becomes more impressed with him the longer she knows him.

Many celebrities have met him through his work with the Mandrell charities. There's no telling who will call him inquiring about his knives. He recently received a call from retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and has become good friends with Joe Galloway, co-author of "We Were Soldiers."

Galloway said the first knife Tyser made for him was a small hunting knife. He said Tyser promised it in time for Christmas and delivered.

"Once I saw the quality and beauty of the hand-smithed Damascus blade, I knew this man was a master craftsman," Galloway said. "I had admired a folder knife Ross made and had one made for me."

Before Galloway realized it, he was getting Tyser to make a folder knife for his oldest son.

"Ross' knives are works of art and things of beauty, but they are made to be used and built to take a lot of punishment," Galloway said. "He has become a good friend and I quite honestly don't know how many of his knives I will end up owning -- a lot more for sure."

During breaks from completing orders for customers, Tyser is working on two special knives to be auctioned off at an upcoming trade show. This is the third year he's been asked to make knives for the show. The first year his knife sold for $4,000, and the one he made last year sold for $7,000. He hopes his third creation will sell for more money because it will give him more exposure.

A part of Tyser goes into every knife he makes. He is pleased customers like the beauty and craftsmanship, but becomes angry if they don't use them.

"I hate it when people tell me they put up my knives and don't use them," he said. "I make my knives to be used for generations to come."

To view Tyser's knives, go to his Web site at

Linda Conley can be reached at 562-7213 or

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