Herb Derr - Profile of a Custom Knifemaker

Pity the poor custom knifesmith, for his numbers are legion and his competition endless. According to an informed source, there are roughly 5,000 men and women in all parts of the planet making knives by hand. They are, without exception, wonderful artists and craftsmen, and they will sell you a knife for $100, $7,000, or a lot more than that. The competition among them is razor sharp, and to make their lives even harder, big knife manufacturers such as Gerber and Lone Wolf (to name but two) are producing fabulous knives using exotic steels and often employing custom smiths as designers.

For a knife maker to become successful, he (or she) must develop a distinctive look. One who has done this as successfully as anybody is a 54-year-old craftsman named Herb Derr. A Pennsylvanian by birth, Derr was educated in West Virginia (he was an art major, no less) and now lives there, in St. Albans.

He began grinding knives from plain steel as a hobby in 1990. In 1993 he learned the art of working Damascus, or pattern-welded, steel from a smith named Hugh Bartrug. A year later Derr went into the craft full-time and now turns out roughly 400 pieces a year, all of which sell quickly.

Derr has created a design that is conservative in line but flamboyant in color and texture. Some knife makers resort to odd and essentially unusable shapes to get the artistic effect they want, but all of Derr's knives can be used for just about anything you want to use a knife for.

Your eye is immediately drawn to his blades, which are 2,700-layer Damascus--alternating layers of tool steel and nickel that are folded, forged, refolded, and reforged until they form an elaborate bird's-eye pattern of bright and dark metal. After his blades are forged into their final shape, they are heat-treated to give them a hard edge and a soft spine that provides the best combination of good edge-holding ability and strength. They are also blued in order to heighten the contrast between the steel (which turns darker) and nickel (which remains bright) layers. The final touch is file work--small, decorative cuts on the spine of the blade.

In addition to his standard bird's-eye pattern, Derr can utilize multiple metals to create "mosaic" Damascus--say, an American flag, if that's what the customer would like. Does Damascus cut any better than homogeneous steel? "No," says Derr, "the tool steels we have now are very, very good. Damascus works about as well, not any better, but it looks a lot prettier."

Derr's handles are as eye-catching as his blades. Conservative in form, they employ exotic woods, bone, and horn. A typical handle consists of a nickel-silver butt cap; the main body, which may be made of staghorn, oosic (a bone taken from a very personal part of a male walrus), or another exotic bone (a walrus jaw or the legbone of an African waterbuck, for example); a thin nickel-silver spacer; an exotic-wood inset (black palm, box elder, California buckeye, to name a few) with a small cutout for your index finger; then a small nickel-silver hilt. In case you want to use his knives, go ahead. The handles are treated with a compound called Nelsonite, which makes them impervious to anything--water, blood, Vienna sausage--that you might encounter in the outdoors.

His sheaths are equally distinctive: heavy cowhide with exotic animal, bird, or reptile-skin insets. Derr does everything, including the fine leatherwork, himself. He operates what he likes to call a one-man assembly line, making batches of knives in stages. He typically puts in a full 60-hour workweek (occasionally taking some time out to teach Damascus-making), which can go to 100 hours when he's trying to get 40 or 50 knives ready for a show.

Although he describes his knives as functional art, Derr admits that probably only 10 percent of them are actually used, the rest being snatched up by collectors. I have one and I use it. Any knife that sharp simply begs to cut things. His prices are something of a revelation. When I bought a knife from him at the opening of the New York Knife-makers' Guild Show and he told me what it cost, I told him he was charging about half of what he could get.

"Yes," he said, "but I brought 40 knives to the show and I know that I'll sell all of them." And he did.

SHARP PRICES

Derr's prices range from $250 for a small knife to as much as $1,100 for a 16-inch-blade Bowie, and the waiting period is no more than three months, which is extremely short. You can contact him at 413 Woodland Dr., St. Albans, WV 25177; 304-727-3866. If you have to have one of his knives this minute, contact Knifeart at 800-564-3327; knifeart.com. You will pay more, but they are super people to deal with, and they usually have some in stock. --DAVID E. PETZAL