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Lust for Knife

Ray Kirk and Scott Reed are both artists and craftsmen producing custom knives as stunningly beautiful as they are razor sharp.

Jennifer Zehnder
February 28, 2019

Knives have been a lifelong fascination for Ray Kirk.

“I started on knives at an early age of about 4 years old,” Kirk recalls. “My first one was from a gumball machine and was lost down the side of the window in my uncle’s ‘47 Chevy. I cried because they wouldn’t take the door off to get it.”

A welding instructor by trade, Kirk began his knifemaking journey in the fall of 1989 to make presents for Christmas. A friend lent him a copy of Step-by-Step Knifemaking: You Can Do It! by David Boye — and so it began.

Kirk found a hands-on mentor in Harry Fentress.

“He was the first person I met in the knifemaking world and was the one who helped me the most,” says Kirk. “He taught me how to heat treat and to hollow grind blades.”

In 1997, Troy Brown introduced Kirk to the Arkansas Knifemakers Association (AKA) and the American Bladesmith Society (ABS). There, Kirk found a path to learning what he never knew existed. It was in ABS that he melded his love of forging and learning with a documented system of certification. Today, Kirk is one of four Oklahomans — and the only Cherokee Nation citizen — to carry the ABS Master Smith designation.

Ray Kirk’s crafting philosophy is very much a reflection of his tribal heritage.
Ray Kirk’s crafting philosophy is very much a reflection of his tribal heritage.

Kirk’s crafting philosophy is very much a reflection of his tribal heritage. In Cherokee, the word Gadugi means “working together” in a community sense. For him, Gadugi in knifemaking comes in being honest in your methods and sharing that knowledge with fellow makers.

According to Kirk, the Trail of Tears knife has been his most meaningful build so far. 

“The steel came from one of the points of departure and ended up in Tahlequah to be paired with a native wood, the Bois ‘D Arc,” he explains. “It fits the hand, so it’s a comfortable, everyday using knife — even after extended use.”

Creating quality knives for discerning customers, Kirk takes pride in perfecting his proven performance blades. The NDN hidden tang integral is his most popular series. Forged from a round bar of 52100 high-carbon steel, each blade is shaped into the desired form. The tang (blade portion which extends into the handle) fits inside the handle and is secured with a pin and epoxy to maintain a strong connection. The knives are named based on differences in blades or handle shapes, or a combination of both. Kirk also creates heritage knives, utilizing a client’s material.

With nearly 30 years of crafting to his credit, Kirk has no intentions of resting on his laurels. In addition to a new line of Mini NDN knives featuring two-and-a-half- to three-and-a-half-inch blades with a good skinning and using knife shape, he has started making gigs for local fishermen.

“Knifemaking has played a very important part in my life,” Kirk reflects. “When I was on the TV show, Forged in Fire, I never really thought about being recognized in so many places. I was overwhelmed and can see the importance of making knives for a lot of people. Everyone loves knives.”

Scott Reed’s knifemaking pursuits began with a favor to his father in the fall of 2014. The elder Reed had asked if his son could help him process a deer. During the task, the patriarch’s knife handle busted, so Reed took the knife and one of the antlers home to fix it. Little did he know the repair would lead to a future career.

“That first knife was a mess. It was a cobbled piece of metal and deer horn,” he admits. “It’s amazing to look at that and see how far I’ve evolved.”

Reed’s distinctive knives are a nod to both his cowboy and outdoorsman roots — from the natural beauty of the materials used to the unrelenting work ethic they deliver. Working with Watusi cow horn is not without its difficulties, notes Reed, who also uses elk antler, bone and wood for making his knife handles. Uniformity can be the biggest challenge, especially when searching for the right shape, diameter and color for his pieces.

On July 7, 2015, Reed’s Custom Cowboy Knives debuted on a Facebook business page — where, in the first three days more than 30,000 folks tuned in to see its unique wares. As demand grew, Reed sought ways to improve the efficiency of his operation — without sacrificing quality. Hand cutting his stock from broken saw blades was no longer a realistic option. So, in addition to upgrading his blade material to competition-grade CMP M4 tool steel, Reed enrolled in CAD (computer assisted design) classes. The additional training enabled him to digitize his pencil-and-paper designs and transfer them easily to facilities for blade stock cutting.

The Cowboy Switchblade, Reed’s signature knife style, arrived on the scene in the fall of 2016 —  almost a year after its inception. The idea was born in the hustle of the cattle pens as Reed studied how many seconds a cowboy could save if he had access to a one-handed, automatic blade during processing. He wanted something that would appeal functionally and visually to the working cowboy — meaning it didn’t have external screws or that tactical look. It wasn’t an easy build.

“I asked the Lord to bless me with wisdom and knowledge on how to do this,” Reed shares. “He did, but He was slow. It was His timing. I had so many setbacks.”

As well as introducing stainless steel bolsters and engraved options, Reed is currently at work on a five-inch Cowboy Switchblade to join his six- and seven-inch models. A slimmer version of its cow-horn-handled cousin, this true grit version looks to feature a rustic gunmetal patina and brass fittings. The new automatic knife will have all the quality and ability of the original — for about half the price. Reed is already contemplating collector options that might include Damascus bolsters.

“Aside from Christ and my family, knifemaking is where I find my peace and joy.”

Scott Reed’s distinctive knives are a nod to both his cowboy and outdoorsman roots — from the natural beauty of the materials used to the unrelenting work ethic they deliver.
Scott Reed’s distinctive knives are a nod to both his cowboy and outdoorsman roots — from the natural beauty of the materials used to the unrelenting work ethic they deliver.

Knife Care

Tips from Forged in Fire Fan Favorite Ray Kirk

  • Protect your fixed-blade knives with a knife block — a large chunk of wood with slots to put your knives in. This protects the knife’s edge and body from cuts. A sheath can also be used for protection, but is generally not a good idea for long-term storage as the tanning acids may cause the knife to corrode.
  • Always wipe off the knife after use and return to the knife block, sheath or pouch. Carbon steel knives will develop a patina which also helps to keep the knives from rusting. 
  • Don’t wait until you can see the edge before you sharpen a knife. It will take a lot longer to sharpen and is the main reason some people say that they can’t keep an edge. They simply got tired of sharpening and quit before it was sharp.
  • Don’t put knives in a sink or dishwasher. Putting your hand into a sink of soapy water and sliding it along the edge of a sharp knife is dangerous.
  • Never cut toward yourself. A sharp knife will cut easily and a dull knife will need a lot of extra pressure — both are dangerous, especially when cutting toward yourself. 

This also can apply to stainless-steel knives. Stainless-steel knives don’t rust as easily as the high carbon steel knives, but if you follow the care tips, you’ll have no problem with any of them.

Raker Knives
Park Hill, Okla. | rakerknives.com
Method: Forging
Signature Style: NDN integral hidden tang (fixed blade)
Blades: 52100 high-carbon steel
Handles: antler, wood, composite
$$$: $225-$750+

Reed’s Custom Cowboy Knives
Locust Grove, Okla. | facebook.com/CowboySwitchblade
Method: Stock removal
Signature Style: Cowboy Switchblade (automatic blade)
Blades: CPM M4 tool steel
Handles: cow horn, bone, antler, wood
$$$: Automatic blades from $500+; fixed blades from $175-$250