Vulcan, god of fire, would recognize this place. A forge deep in the mountains. A man grimed with ash and sweat. Glowing metal. Hammers and anvils. Near Bristol, Va., 45-year-old knife maker Burt Foster builds some of the most beautiful knives on the planet. But he insists that there is more to a custom knife than fancy bolsters. “If you own a knife that belonged to a special person, or you used it in some meaningful way, then it has value because of that story,” he says. “That’s what is unique about a handmade knife. It has a story before you ever use it.”
Foster grew up in Orange County, Calif., camping and riding dune buggies on family trips to the desert. Early on, an obsession with tools and how to use them in wild places took root. “Knives represented this combination of independence, capability, and adventure. As a child, I would daydream that I could be stuck in the wilderness and I would make it—just me and a knife.” Which is how Foster spends most of his days now: Just him and a knife.
Foster lives and works just outside of town in the rolling Southern Appalachian hardwoods with his wife, two daughters, and son. His wife calls his workspace the “Taj Ma Shop.” Built like a house, with wood paneling and stone accents from rock he collected on the property, there’s a special room for leather work, a dedicated forge space, an office, and workbenches everywhere.
“It’s way more elaborate than it needs to be,” Foster says. But every piece and part of every knife he makes is born in the shop, which was featured in season two of History Channel’s popular series Forged in Fire.
To forge his signature three-layer laminated steel, Foster stacks the raw steel pieces in a vise for electric welding to hold them together for the forging to come. Welded to a long handle of steel, the billet is heated to 2,200 degrees. The three pieces of steel have been forge-welded into a single material, which Foster runs through a pneumatic hammer.
“This is now one piece of metal,” Foster says, “with the properties of all its components.” Foster studies the billet for any rough spots or pitting. His laminate steel blades must be forged as close as possible to the final dimensions of the knife, so there is little room for error.
A 25-ton hydraulic press puts the squeeze on the billet of mosaic Damascus steel for the knife bolsters. The patterns in the steel come from the varying pressures applied by the hammer and press. The hammer smashes, the press squeezes. How much force to use, and where to apply it, is akin to brushstrokes on canvas. “It’s not like I’m baking a cake, or building something with Pattern No. 37 using predetermined steps,” Foster says. “I’m following a road map in my head, and I sort of know what’s going to happen, but there’s always an element of surprise as to how the final pattern turns out.”
Foster builds both one-of-a-kind knives and limited runs of time-tested custom designs. The latter is your best bet for a timely delivery. His waiting list for one-offs is at least a year—and maybe never. Foster accepts no deposits for custom knives. “Here’s the deal I make,” he says. “You give me the freedom to be as creative as I want to be, and I will give you the freedom to say no. You tell me what you want, and I’ll make the best knife I can and have fun with it, and you don’t have to buy it. Just about every time, we are both happier—me with the knife I made and you with the knife you now own.”
Forge-welding metal isn’t a magical process, but it results in a peculiar alchemy that is perfectly suited to knife-making. Foster forge-welds both the bolster and the blade. “The beauty of the process,” he says, “is that the material never becomes liquid. I’m creating one thing out of many things, but the different steels never lose their characteristics.” Here, he uses an angle grinder to shear through the scales on the outsides of the Damascus steel billet. He inspects the integrity of the weld. There can be no inconsistencies between the various metals in the newly created material. The many layers of steel become a single entity.
The full tang and blade are drawn out on the finished billet of forged laminate steel, and the two sides of the Damascus steel bolster await finishing. After establishing the blade grind and bevels on a belt grinder, he uses a disc grinder to flatten the tang and edge grind.
“I should be sponsored by Q-tips,” Foster says. “You wouldn’t believe how many I go through.” Here, he cleans off excess buffing compound as the knife blade is held in a special knife vise—think of a pipe rotating inside another pipe. A free-floating belt blends the curves of the handle and bolster, and fine-tunes the palm swell and pommel.
The final product: 85⁄8 inches of knife-making magic. The acid-etched blade shows off each layer of steel; the bolster is alive with its layers of metal; and the gleaming handle looks like it was carved from a lightning bolt. Look closely: There is not a straight line on the knife. Foster fashions his knives so all of the curves work together organically.
With such a knife, Foster says, “There is no compromise. Even with the least expensive knife I make, I’m obsessed with perfection. And with the most ornate knives I make, I’m always mindful that this is a knife. It can be used, and used hard.”
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Foster forges a laminated steel of an inner layer of high-carbon 52100 steel sandwiched between two layers of 410 stainless steel.
It’s not visible in this photograph, but a full-tapered tang is a critical design feature that adds balance and elegance. Foster doesn’t grind the tang to the finished thickness, but forges it so all three layers of steel remain in proportion.
Foster salvages wood from an ancient maple tree on the site of the oldest Roman Catholic church in the Bristol, Va., area. The black vermiculations are decayed wood called spalting. Punky and fragile in its original form, it’s stabilized with injected acrylics.
A Burt Foster knife is paired with a beautifully crafted leather sheath, and comes boxed with the reputation of one of America’s finest knife makers. It’s hard to put a price on that.
Blade Profile & Grind
A 41⁄8-inch clip-point blade with a false edge sports a flat grind to a convex edge bevel for added strength. The ramped blade spine serves as an index for your thumb. “Plus it looks cool,” Foster says. “Nothing wrong with that.”
The Damascus steel bolster is forged of 1084 and 15N20 steels, in a mosaic W pattern. Traditional Damascus steel is stacked like a deck of cards. With mosaic Damascus, the end grain of the steel billet is exposed and polished to highlight what Foster calls a “firestorm effect.”
The 10 handmade nickel-silver pins function as rivets. They are clipped, ground off, then domed with a hammer and polished.