June 26, 2013
The Blades of Maine Knifesmith Lamont Coombs
By David E. Petzal
So I needed a knife reground, and I asked Chris Kravitt, the sheathmaking swami of Waltham, Maine, who might do such a job. “Lamont Coombs,” said Mr. Kravitt, “he’s as good as any knifemaker in the United States.” So I went to see Lamont Coombs, who lives in the town of Bucksport, and damned if he isn’t just that.
Coombs, who is 43, got his start as a machinist, turned to knifemaking as a hobby in 1988, and began as a full-time smith a decade later. He has been busy. In the quarter-century since he made his first knife, more than 3,000 have emerged from his shop.
Working as a machinist gave him not only the skills that come with that job, but a philosophy as well. “Figure out the simplest way to do it,” he says. “Look for the fewest steps. If you work in a machine shop you learn to do good work, but you also learn not to waste time or money on a job.” Because of this, Coombs’ prices are quite reasonable. His least expensive knives are around $100; the fancy ones—and they are really fancy—are $6,500 plus.
There are two more tenets to Coombs’ knifemaking philosophy: First, “If it comes out of this shop, it’s going to be pretty.” Even his simplest knives are immaculately fitted and finished. He favors a hand-rubbed satin finish and a blindingly perfect mirror finish, often used in combination.
Unlike many knifemakers who settle on a particular style or look, Coombs will make anything, and I’m not using that term casually. He had just completed twin replicas (one for using, the other for collecting) of the knife Crocodile Dundee carried. He makes neck knives and tactical knives and hunting knives and pipe tomahawks that can actually be used for smoking (tobacco, he points out, not killer weed).
Coombs will use just about any handle material, and for steels, he relies chiefly on 154CM, 01, and 1095. He’s stopped using ATS-34, as it’s too expensive, but will work in Damascus if you like that. He will special-order steel. One customer wanted a knife of S-30V, which he did not know how to heat treat (He has his own electric furnace.) so he looked up how to do it, got the S-30V, and made the knife. “It’s horrible stuff to work with,” Coombs said, “I had to hand-rub the blade for two days to get a decent finish on it.”
Coombs makes his own sheaths and hand-stitches them. Having tried this myself, I can’t see how you can get the stitches so small and so even as his are. Most of his sheaths are on the fancy side; they are notably heavy, and he even lines them with calfskin if you want, which I can’t recall seeing before.
The waiting period for a Coombs knife is 4 to 8 months for the plainer work and up to 2 years for art knives.
About the only thing he won’t make is folders. “I got burned out on folders, so now I make one a year. I don’t even put a serial number on it, just the date it was made.”
Did he regrind my knife? Yes he did, and his grinding was much better than the original maker’s. I watched Coombs’ hands. He was not slow, careful and deliberate. He was quick and deft. Zing, zing, zing, change belts in a couple of seconds, zing, zing, zing. And done. You get this kind of speed and precision after doing something thousands of times over more than two decades.
If you’re in the market for a knife, the best way to get in touch is via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Coombs can send you a sketch beforehand, or just get your ideas and go for it. “Sometimes,” he says, "the best knives happen when you go into the shop with a piece of steel and see what happens.”
And whatever happens in that particular shop, it will be pretty.
Above are a couple of representative Coombs hunting knives. Upper knife: 5 ½-inch D2 blade, hollow ground, combination finish, black micarta bolsters, ivory micarta scales, mosaic pin, 9 oz. tooled leather sheath, $300. Lower knife: 4 ¾-inch 154CM blade, flat ground, satin finish, 416 stainless guard and pins, stabilized redwood burl handle scales, tooled leather sheath, $325.