Fine-edged craftsman

Ross Tyser’s handmade knives are more than decoration

By Jeremy L. C. Jones

Published: Wednesday, November 12, 2008 at 3:03 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 12, 2008 at 4:01 p.m.

Knife smith Ross Tyser leans over the Wilton belt-grinder and presses the rough-cut blade against the whirring belt. Yellow and white sparks shoot out below his hands. Blackened steel dusts his denim shirt and blue jeans. Tyser dips the blade in the bucket of water at his feet, and when he holds it up to check the edge, steam rises off the freshly ground Damascus steelRoss Tyser.

“You don’t ever want to lean into it too much,” Tyser says over the thrumming of the grinder. “Don’t ever take too big a bite with the grinder or else your client won’t have anything to sharpen. You want between fifty percent and seventy percent of the blade to be edge.”

These days, Tyser is the only custom knife maker in the Upstate. There were two others, Tyser says, but they moved away a few years back. He estimates the number of knife makers in the United States at around 400, with a disproportionate number living in Arkansas, home of the American Bladesmith Society’s (ABS) School of Bladesmithing.

“Knife making is a dying art,” says Tyser. “It takes time and work to make a blade.”

The blade Tyser is grinding is about halfway through a process that started with the welding of a billet of steel. This billet started as three separate bars of differential steels. Tyser then heats the “three bar sandwich,” as he calls it, in a propane-powered forge to bond the layers.

Damascus steel is made by the repetition of a very labor intensive process of heating a billet to just the right color, hammering it to twice the length desired, and folding it back on itself. The knife-maker repeats the process until he has the number of folds he wants. Japanese sword-makers have been known to fold steel up to 20,000 times. Tyser has folded the blade he is now working with 384 times. pic2

“You decide how many folds you’re going to make,” says Tyser, “and you don’t stop. [Because] once it cools, you’re done.”

Each fold refines the steel and reduces the grain structure, strengthening the blade. The result is a billet of Damascus steel. Tyser then chooses a pattern for the shape of the blade from the dozen or so hanging on the wall of his shop. He scribes the desired shape onto the billet and profile grinds to the lines.

Tyser ordinarily employs the “stock removal” method, rough cutting a blade from 440-C stainless steel barstock. But, unlike stainless, Damascus steel carries the weight of tradition, and holds an edge much better.

“A well-made Damascus blade is almost self-sharpening as you reveal layers of steel through use,” Tyser says.

There is a direct correlation for Tyser between the amount of time and effort put into a knife and the depth of satisfaction he experiences. He loves a challenge as much as he loves a well-made knife.

“There’s nothing easy about knife-making,” he says.

pic3Most of the tools in his shop are what you might expect--hammers, files, uncut billets. Small cabinets are filled with screws and springs. The machinery is vaguely familiar—drills, lathes, sanders. But many of the tools are homemade or jury-rigged; many are inventions made to satisfy a need specific to the craft.

Tyser got into knife making back in 1995 as an extension of a life-long love of woodworking and stone cutting. He soon met ABS Master Smith Jerry Fisk, and, later, Marvin Poole, both of whom shared years of experience and also provided Tyser with valuable work space to forge steel and learn the finer details of blade craft, respectively.

Today, Tyser’s knives are carried far and wide, by both celebrities and sportsmen throughout the world. Country singer Louise Mandrell, actor John DiSanti, and journalist Joe Galloway (co-author of We Were Soldiers Once and Young) all count themselves among Tyser’s clients.

“Ross Tyser’s knives are strong, well-made and attractive,” says Willy Evans, a blues singer-songwriter from North Carolina. “I was so impressed with his knives that I bought my wife one to use while gardening. She found it so attractive that it took me almost a year to get her to actually use it. Now she can’t do without it.”

“It’s rare to find something hand-made and of this quality these days.”

Largely from word-of-mouth, Tyser has clients throughout the United States, and in England, South America, Iceland. His knives, as he puts it, have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and competed in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

“People buy custom knives because it gives them a chance to have something that is unique to them personally,” Tyser says. “I try very hard to make sure that the client has every opportunity to express his or her desires in handle material, blade material, furniture (bolsters, guard, inlay, etc.) as well as the overall design of the knife itself. This makes the knife unique to that one person. No two knives are ever exactly alike.”

Every client gets asked the same set of questions before he or she commissions a custom knife. What is the ultimate intended use for the knife? Folder or fixed blade? Is the client right-handed or left-handed?pic4


Furthermore, Tyser encourages clients to look at the knives on his Web site ( to get a better idea of the many possibilities. Often clients request variations on his many “patterns,” and Tyser relishes those variations as a chance to try something new.

Two trends permeate Tyser’s work: His is generous with his time and expertise. He has made and donated knives for Roughnecks Ride for Hospice in South Carolina and, more recently, was asked to teach the folks at Disability Resources, Inc. in Abilene, TX how to throw a tomahawk at the West Texas Dove Classic.

Secondly, Tyser is constantly experimenting and is inventing new tools to achieve more refined results. He is undaunted by the limitations of time and materials. In fact, Ross Tyser is one part mad inventor and one part devoted craftsman. And each of his knives shows the depth of his love and integrity.

“If there is a flaw -- even if it’s a cosmetic flaw -- on one of my knives, it doesn’t go out of here. I discard it and start over,” says Tyser. “The joy on the face of an individual who has just had something made specifically for him, and for him to realize that he had a guiding hand throughout the entire process,” Tyser says, “that is probably the strongest driving force behind my knife making.”

“I want my knives to be heirlooms to be passed down from one generation to the next,” Tyser adds, “but I also want people to understand that my knives are a tool to be used. I can’t help it if I like to make pretty tools.



Original Article