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Creative craftsman

Leeds area farmer Gannon Larson is also a custom-maker of knives

May 15, 2009
Edie Wurgler

The forge sits cold in his workshop, and the sound of the triphammer no longer rings across the farmyard, but Gannon Larson can chalk up another winter spent in happy pursuit of a hobby that has become his cold-weather passion - custom-making knives for eager buyers around the state of North Dakota.

In order to turn out the well-crafted instruments, Larson has become part historian, part scientist, part blacksmith and part artist.

The Leeds area farmer was in his mid-teens when he first spotted a large anvil on a farm his grandfather had bought. There was a little blacksmith shop on the farm, and the tools in it fascinated him.

He hauled the anvil back to Leeds, and using a torch to heat up chunks of metal pounded them flat on the anvil, fascinated by the changes of shape he could make. One piece, which had been part of a leaf spring from a vehicle, ended up looking like a knife blade, and Gannon thought, "Man, this is cool." He became fired up with the idea that he might actually be able to make something with his hands that could be useful.

An avid reader, Larson ordered metallurgy books from massachusetts Institute of Technology and learned about the molecular structure of metals used in knife blades. He also learned there were several ways of making them.

The least complicated, he said, is to take a piece of steel and by heating, hammering, filing and polishing turn out a blade. He made several this way, and while they were functional, they weren't aesthetically pleasing to him. "My first knife was terrible," he admits, "but something about it captured my imagination."

A more complex and time-consuming method involves pattern welding, or as it is more commonly called, Damascus steel. The resulting blade has beautiful swirls in the metal, resembling shimmering water or a piece of fine lace. It is also strong and flexible and stays sharp even with years of repeated use.

Damascus steel is believed to have originated in Damascus, Syria, thousands of years ago, according to Larson. Over the years the method spread so that by the Middle Ages even warriors in Northern Europe were familiar with it. They didn't understand the science behind the complex movement and interaction of the atoms in the two metals used, Gannon said, but at that time no one did. They just knew it made a superior weapon.

At some point the process was lost, but in the 1970s, he said, it was re-discovered by craftsmen, who now also understood the science involved. Larson is able to describe the complex procedure in detail with the zeal of one who has discovered his life's calling.

Every knife blade begins as a seven-layer stack of metal, called a billet, of tool steel and nickel in alternating layers, with the steel on both top and bottom. The stack is four inches long, one-and-one-half inches wide and about one inch high. Gannon heats his forge to about 2300 degrees, tack welds one end of the metal stack, and puts it in the forge to heat until it is cherry red.

He then removes the stack, which has started to resemble a solid piece of metal, but which still has pockets of air between the layers. Flux, a substance used to promote the fusion of metals, is sprinkled on the piece. Gannon has discovered the best flux is borax, a white crystalline salt, which melts when it hits the hot metal and turns into a honey-looking liquid. It flows between the layers and displaces the oxygen, he said.

He puts the chunk back into the forge until the metal reaches about 2200 degrees. Any hotter than that will burn it, any cooler and the pieces won't stick together.

Larson then takes the ingot out of the forge, places it on the anvil and starts striking it with a blacksmith hammer. This is called setting the weld, a procedure which forces the borax out and instantly bonds the layers. It can be tricky, Larson says, because just one molecule of nickel touching another of nickel will ruin the metal. They must always be separated by the tool steel.

Years of hammering have trained his ears to know just when the bonding has taken place. He can also feel vibrations in his hands if there is a hollow spot between the layers.

The metal is put back into the forge and heated to nearly 2000 degrees. Larson takes it out and puts it on the triphammer. The beating of the angled faces of the triphammer draws the metal out to a length of 12 inches by about one-quarter inch thick without making it wider. "Metal moves perpendicular to a force exerted on it," Larson explained. "Because of the shape of the hammer faces it gets longer but not wider."

Gannon's next step is to cut the 12-inch-long strip into three four-inch pieces with a chop saw. He stacks these up, making a 'sandwich' of metal 21 layers thick.

He settles into a rhythm: More tack welding the ends, back into the forge until the ingot is red, take it out, flux it again and back to the forge once more to be heated past 2000 degrees. Take it out of the forge, put it on the anvil, set the weld, place it back in the forge, heat, remove, place it on the triphammer and draw it out to a 12-inch strip. Back to the chop saw, make a stack of what is now 63 layers of metal, and repeat the entire procedure.

It's exhausting work, and from beginning to end Larson puts in 16 to 18 hours of continuous forging, taking breaks to grab a bite to eat only when the metal is heating up to the cherry red stage. The work could be done over a couple of days, he says, but that wouldn't suit his nature. "I'm compelled to finish it," he says with a laugh. "The inner workings of my brain make me finish it. I've got this image in my head. When it comes out of my head and goes into my hands and onto the piece of steel, I just can't quit."

The forging process and repeated pounding manipulate the physical properties of the steel and cause carbides to form, Larson said.

Usually when the piece of metal is 189 layers thick, Larson starts the actual shaping of the blade and the tang, the piece of metal that the handle is affixed to.

"I don't cut the shape of the blade," Larson says, "but do it all with heating and pounding with a blacksmith hammer."

Roughly six inches of the 12-inch strip of metal becomes the actual blade, the balance is the tang.

Gannon heats the strip, puts it on the anvil, and shapes the profile of the blade. It could become a Bowie knife, possibly a skinning knife, or just a general purpose blade. "Each shape has a specific purpose," he says.

Once it's shaped he bevels the blade to what will be the cutting edge with hammer blows starting near his body and pushing away with each strike. He turns the metal over and repeats the blows on the other side of the blade, and thousands of hammer strikes later has a rough-forged knife blade.

The repeated hammer blows are what form the pattern in the finished product.

"It's rough and scaly," Gannon says, "so I use the belt sander to remove the scale, shine it up and take out all the hammer dings and other imperfections." The belt sander also is used to true up the bevels.

The tang is forged also. "While I'm profiling the blade I form the tang," he said. "Basically, I reduce the piece of steel by pounding it down to a long, skinny piece of metal." Later he taps threads on the tang.

Once more the blade is heated, this time to 1450 degrees, called 'critical temperature', the heat at which steel demagnitizes. Larson immediately quenches it in oil. The sudden cooling changes the structure of the steel and makes it harder. Once it's been hardened, he tempers it. "I leave the cutting edge hard, but heat the spine of the blade to a blue color to make it tough and springy."

The final steps are to polish the blade and etch it in ferric chloride, which turns the steel in the blade dark but has no effect on the nickel. "That brings out the pattern and makes a really nice contrast between the dark steel and the shiny nickel," he said.

Gannon makes handles the same painstaking way he fashions the blades. First he shapes a guard out of brass, grinds a slit in the middle of it and slips it on the tang. Sometimes the handle is discs of leather with a slit cut in each to be stacked on the tang. He may alternate the leather with discs of ebony, azurite or Japanese coral. Sometimes a disc of ivory or copper is added. Other handles are made from exotic wood or deer or elk antlers. "I use files to shape the material into a nice ergonomic handle," he said. The handles can be made to fit the size of the hand of the person who will be using the knife and can be customized for the left or right hand. The last step is to add a pommel, or cap, to the end of the handle. It is also made of brass, with threads cut on the inside, and is screwed onto the tang and tightened.

Larson also hand-makes the sheaths for his knives. Usually they are of leather, sometimes with a design tooled into it. Occasionally a customer has a specific piece of material that will coordinate with the knife, and he uses that.

The last step is to sharpen the blade. Gannon learned the hard way to leave that until last. "It took 27 stitches in my hands to learn that I shouldn't sharpen the blade until I have the handle on," he noted, laughing.

Indeed, the past 15 years have been a learning experience. Larson, a graduate of UND, grew up hunting and fishing and as a child whittled knives out of wood. Crafting them out of steel, however, required assembling an array of blacksmith tools. He built his triphammer by combining two he found at auction sales in the area. Because he was in school at the time, that job took nearly two years, and he ended up making some of the parts, including the hammer faces, which he fashioned out of a railroad rail. Some of his tools, mainly tongs and files, came from the same little blacksmith shop where he had found the anvil.

Because of a buildup of propane, his original forge blew up the first time he lit it, completely demolishing the fire brick. Fortunately he didn't get a scratch. Early on, the layers of the billet wouldn't always fuse and he had to throw many away. At the time, he didn't know about oxygen between the layers. He always had a vision in his head about how his knives should look, but for years he was frustrated. "I just couldn't get it to work," he said. Through the North Dakota Council on the Arts he was put in contact with Herman Kraft, an elderly blacksmith from Timber Lake, S.D. One spring he went to visit Kraft. "In the first 10 minutes I worked with him I could see what I had been doing wrong," he said. After that, while other college students were heading to Florida or Texas beaches for spring breaks, Gannon went to South Dakota and spent his with Kraft.

When he uses a knife Larson is always thinking, "How could I make this better?" When he started his hobby he routinely put hundreds of hours into a knife, but he's gotten that down to between 50 and 80 hours now. "It took probably five years before it actually started clicking," he said. He makes only one knife at a time, and it's all built in his head before he starts, he adds.

No two knives are ever alike. "Even if I wanted to I couldn't make two the same," he stated.

He has never advertised, but word of his craftsmanship has spread. He makes about 20 knives every winter but still has 35 names on a waiting list. He has sold knives for up to $1000 but says $325 is more of an average price. Even at that, he makes less than $10 per hour.

For now, Larson is out of the workshop and into the field, struggling to complete spring's work in a cold and wet planting season. But his hobby is never far from this thoughts, and he believes that's a good thing. "It makes me want to pursue excellence," he said. "It's helped in farming to pay attention to detail."

Clearly, it is a labor of love. "I enjoy doing it, and it's my creative outlet in the winter. Knives are basic human tools, and Damascus steel makes a very aesthetically pleasing knife," he said. "They really are three-dimensional art."

 
 

 

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