I met Caleb White at Blade Show last year and was impressed by the blend of function and artistry found in his knives. They have an attention to aesthetic detail that put them in a class that includes established and well-respected names in the custom knife industry. It is my belief that Caleb is on his way to becoming one of those well-known names some day.
Without further ado, I yield the floor to Caleb.
Hello, my name is Caleb and I’m a knife-aholic…phew, glad I got that off my chest. My obsession..er uh, passion for knives started a long time ago in a dusty old West Texas town far far away-Midland. If you’ve ever been there you know what I’m talking about: nothing but cows, cotton, pump-jacks, and oil rigs as far as you can see. You probably also know that knives are an everyday part of life in the world of ranching, farming, and rough necking.
Growing up I was surrounded by a culture of men who carried and used knives every day. My father, uncles, and grandfather used them, collected them and talked about them. One particular knife, made by my great-grandfather circa 1920 from an old file and some scrounged brass and walnut, was probably more influential in spurring my imagination than any other.
The beauty of that wavy bladed dagger and the utility of my first Case folding knife forever set my destiny to pursue the art of the blade. Of course, I’m also a fanatic for medieval fantasy and Japanese Samurai culture: both of which still greatly influence my imagination for the blade arts and what I like to create.
What knifemaker(s) or designer(s) have had the biggest influence on you? Do you have any mentors?
Before I answer you might want to be warned, this list is long and I can talk…a lot. So grab some coffee and strap in. The knifemakers that have been most influential in my life are Brett Bennett, Van Barnett, Bob Loveless, and pretty much the entire cast of the Art Knife Invitational. First among them though is Brett Bennett: this whole thing is his fault really. Had I not had the pleasure of being stationed with Brett in Cheyenne, WY I might never have found my true calling.
Long story short; he was my supervisor in the military and made the mistake of inviting me to his shop after I learned he knew how to make knives. Having never met anyone before that knew the craft, I was immediately enthralled. In all honesty, he didn’t so much invite me as I sort of forced my way in and made him teach me stuff. His precision style and attention to detail is a good contrast to my “ready, fire, aim” way of doing things, and to this day he is one of the most humbling and encouraging people in my life. He still inspires me to strive for a cleaner and more refined fit and finish in every blade I make. Once I stepped into his shop that first time and started moving metal, there was no going back for me.
Most recently I’ve had the honor of meeting and being mentored by Van Barnett. I’ve been inspired by his art work for years and after getting to know him through some online spaces, he began sharing some profound creative knowledge and encouragement at a time in my knife career when I was considering throwing in the towel. I am supremely grateful for every nugget of wisdom and guidance I can glean from someone who has had such a phenomenal influence on the custom knife world and the art-knife genre in particular.
While there are many more I could mention I’ll end with this: I am thankful to Bob Loveless for opening the way for all of us and changing the game for the handmade knife community. I’m also thankful to John Young for taking the time to stop and say hi and encourage a starry eyed and wet-behind-the-ears maker trying to stumble through his first two shows…oh, and for possibly having a part in S.R. Johnson and Dan Delavan stopping by my table to say hi. That pretty much made my Blade Show 2015 and ECCKS experiences worth every penny!
What is your favorite knife pattern or style from history?
This one is easy: my favorite knife pattern of all time is the quillon dagger, and my favorite style is the style embodied by the masters in Japan. The quillon dagger to me is the essence of perfection in craftsmanship. It takes a vast amount of skill to get right, and the challenge of symmetry inherent in a dagger is what sets it head and shoulders above any other pattern in my opinion. A well done dagger should be sleek, stylish, intricate, detailed and deadly.
On the other side of the coin is the graceful, organic and artistically passionate style embodied in Japanese blade arts. From fully fitted katana to the simplest kiridashi, traditional Japanese craftsmen commit themselves to the perfection of their blades. I’ve always found great inspiration from the deadly and romantic aspects of the Samurai culture. Besides, no one in the world can argue that the katana isn’t one of the most effective and elegant cutting instruments ever wielded.
What is the next big thing in knifemaking? / What direction do you see the industry going?
I’m not sure what the next big thing will be but I would like to think that we will eventually see the sun set on the modern “tacticoolaid/zombie” kitch that has permeated every nook and cranny of this industry. Having lived the tactical lifestyle in a real way for ten years, I can say…it’s not that tactical. Clever marketing and overwrought machining has sort of cheapened the prestige of a real craft, and commercialized a very real niche in the industry that calls for heavy duty hard-use knives, made by master craftsmen. I would like to predict that before long we will see the resurgence of more elegantly styled tactical knives that are designed for utility from a realistic standpoint: artistry infused with function.
To me it seems too many makers have been caught up in trying to fit the same tactical mold, and it’s evident that individual expression is dwindling when you walk down the aisles of knife shows. Just because it’s made for hard work, doesn’t mean it can’t be pretty and stylish and a design all your own! Ultimately each maker has to decide if they are making knives for knife owners or knife users.
For the industry in general I see more and more reliance on digitally controlled machines and automated processes; even for the individual maker. Sadly, for most makers to keep up with the quickening pace of consumption and compete with the made-in-China/microwave commercialism rampant in the cutlery industry; some makers will be forced to adopt more semi-production styles of knife making to sustain a living.
Is there a knife from your lineup that you feel best exhibits who you are as a knifemaker/designer in terms of design elements, aesthetic or techniques used?
My Black Queen dagger is by far the most representative of all the things that inspire me, and embodies the elements of knife making that drive me. The double-sided blade is long and elegant with clay quenched and etched finished that I also cold blued for a semi-rustic look: smooth and svelte, with great symmetry. It took me the better part of a day to hand-file the spine straight and even up the plunges after rough grinding.
For the guard and pommel I chose bronze because it’s easy to work, and there are a plethora of patinas you can give it. It is also one of the most historic alloys in the history of bladesmithing. I chose to keep it simple, yet elegant, with a smooth transition into the sculpted and carved Gaboon Ebony handle. Gaboon Ebony is one of my all-time favorite natural materials and can have some very subtle yet beautiful variations in texture and tone. The carvings in the handle match what is to my mind’s eye one of the most graceful elements in design-the curve. Everything about the overall design originates at the guard and flows out to the tip, and back to the pommel; leading the viewer’s eye straight into the hand-filed and sculpted pommel nut, which I shaped to emulate the crown on a chess piece.
True to its inspiration, the Black Queen personifies the look of the black queen chess piece: formidable, graceful, deadly, and dramatically elegant. Now that I have the concept piece done, I can’t wait to finish the whole set!
What is your EDC and why?
My EDC is a small utility knife I made when I was first starting out called the ‘Brookie’. It’s not impressive, and in fact is sort of ugly. It was the third knife I ever finished, but has served me well since 2008. The inspiration for the knife stemmed from the need for a small vest knife my father and I to carry on our fly fishing outings. The knife is 6” overall with a 1095 blade and ugly mixed micarta handle. I carry it horizontally on my belt in a very rudimentary Kydex sheath. While it isn’t the flashiest knife I’ve ever made, it serves me well every day and the edge holds up excellently.
Over the years as my skills have progressed I’ve carried some of my nicer and morestylistic knives around with me for use, but in all honesty I usually end up giving them to various friends and admirers. I regularly find myself traipsing home and rummaging around in my nightstand for my old Brookie standby, after having given whatever knife I started the day with to a friend or someone I’ve felt led to share with.
When I design a new knife, I usually carry the prototype around for a while to try it out unless it’s a big field knife or something similar. Once I’ve vetted its usefulness out I’ll find a home for it with some unsuspecting knife aficionado. Heck, that’s half the fun of creating useful tools in the first place; the chance to be radically generous to people who may have never experienced what a real knife is!
You can view more of Caleb’s work at his website and online store, or you can follow him on Instagram. Keep an eye on him, he is among the best in his age cohort, and we will be hearing more about Caleb in the years to come.