Late in the summer of 2016 I sat down with one of the more successful knife designers of our modern era, none other than Ethan Becker, and recorded our conversation as we worked through our series of “5 From The Grinder” questions. This post has been a long time coming, and I have to apologize to Mr. Becker for taking so long to get this transcribed. As is often the case, Ethan gave way more than I could ever ask and as such I have pared down and made a few tweaks for clarity. Even so, this might be our most extensive 5FTG yet. Enjoy!
First, in a few sentences, please introduce yourself and let us know what led you to making/designing knives.
My name is Ethan Becker, and I’ve been a woods-loafer since I was five years old, and did my first primitive camping experience with my brother. We had a typical tarp camp setup with a tree cut and bent over right out of Wildwood Wisdom, which was the book by Ellsworth Jaeger that I grew up reading myself to sleep with.
I’ve been hanging out in the woods ever since. I’ve been a backpacker and a hiker and a car camper, a rock climber and I’ve spent a little time caving and I love to hunt. The one outdoor bad habit I never got was fishing, and I feel kind of bad about that. Deficient, shall we say.
Other than that, I’ve been loving blades since I was a kid. I ran across an old picture of myself getting my first edged piece of steel on my birthday when I was 7, and the look on my face is pretty priceless! I was like “oooh, wow, ”And I still get that way every once in awhile. It happens less now because I’ve seen literally thousands and thousands of knives, and handled thousands and thousands of knives, and used hundreds of knives and I’m a little harder to impress now than I was then.
But I love cutlery, and what led me to making my own of course… I didn’t have what I wanted, which is what happens with most people who wind up designing and making knives.
My brother had a Gerber White Hunter, an early one. It had a very sculpted to the hand, cast aluminum grip on it, and it taught me a great deal about ergonomics (which is one of the most horribly overused and abused of all modern terms). And if you were holding it a certain way it was incredible.
As time went on, my mom had a set of Gerber steak knives, and they were the old Gerber Pixie, with a long handle on them. Very sexy they were. My mom put them in the dishwasher and in the old days… I think those knives were A2, and whatever was in the dishwasher ate the hell out of them. Mom was gonna throw them away and I said “hmmmm, no, give em to me.”
So I got them, and I had a Dremel, and therefore I was very dangerous. I resculpted the handle… a lot. I didn’t mess with the blades much because there wasn’t a helluva lot to do with them that needed to be done to it, other than sharpen them, which I was really bad at.
About the age of 11 or 12, I used to pass by a jewelry store that had a line of Pumas. They were right there in the window, and this was the knife that kept continually attracting my eye — the Puma White Hunter.
It is a very classic large German hunting knife, with a blunt, more-or-less spear tip with a bone cracker on the back and little tiny serrations which eventually sharpen out. And it’s a little weight forward and you’re supposed to be able to chop with it, which it really just does not happen. But I was very impressed with it and I saved my nickels and dimes. I got a quarter for chipmunks from my mom, and a lot of chipmunks died for me to get that knife.
It and the Gerber White Hunter taught me a lot. Then when I was about 14, I bought this blade, the Puma Hunter’s Friend. This knife for me has been one of the most used and most useful knives I’ve ever owned, and actually it led eventually to the Becker BK16.
So anyway, then I ruined a lot of Old Hickory knives with my Dremel. I was really deadly with that Dremel. I kept trying to find various combinations of how things fit in my hand and blade designs. And what I’ve come up with is the fact that blade design is relatively unimportant, provided that you get the blade and edge geometry – the actual shape whether it’s a quasi recurve or a drop point or semi clip point… doesn’t really make a lot of difference in the grand scheme of things. It makes a lot of difference to my eye. We are [just] drawn to things our eyes like.
One of the things people forget… we are living in a golden age of cutlery. There are more choices available at more price points than anybody has ever had in all of history. There are so many good knives out there. And the thing is, you want something that works, and fits, and makes your eye happy every time you get it out. You can do everything you really, really need to do with a broken rock, but I haven’t used a broken rock to skin a deer in I can’t tell you how long.
Question 1: What knifemaker(s) or designer(s) have had the biggest influence on you? Do you have any mentors?
I really had a good time thinking about this one. Certainly Pete Gerber. People forget how revolutionary the early Gerber knives were, and how important Pete Gerber was to modern knife design. And it wasn’t just his designs. Al Mar worked for him. Pete Kershaw worked for him. Blackie Collins worked for him, and a lot of the Gerber knives that are absolute icons were designed by Blackie Collins.
And Gerber was smart. He identified people that had good taste and good design ideas and was willing to put his name on their work, which is something a lot of people decided was an important thing to do later.
One of the people of course who heavily influenced the BK16 and the BK2 was Bob Loveless.
Loveless’ design aesthetic was really, really fine. He had and I bought a Loveless/Schrade collaboration. It was a four inch drop point utility hunter, and because it did not have a tapered tang it was kind of a kludge, but it was stunning in its simplicity and how good it felt in your hand. It really was a fine blade.
Really, I don’t think I’ve ever picked up a knife that hasn’t influenced my design aesthetic in some way, because every knife tells you something.
Jerry Fisk… A lot of what I learned when I designed the Bundok Bowie from hanging out with Jerry, and watching him talk to other people had a tremendous amount of design influence on that blade. Jerry is our national living treasure knifemaker. He is one of the finest craftsmen that is alive today. He makes tremendously useful knives and he also makes tremendously, incredibly beautiful knives. When you buy a piece of art that Jerry built, if necessary you could go out and do whatever you need to do with that blade. And he’ll make it right when you send it back to him all scarred up. But he has been a good friend for 25 years, is a delightful human being, and I love his work. Absolutely love it.
Question 2: What is your favorite knife pattern or style from history?
Oh man, I can’t answer that. Kukris… Bowies… I probably have more 3 ½ to 5 ½ inch utility hunters than any other single knife. I mean, I’ve got so many favorite pattern types, and so many of them work! There are so many ways to skin the cutlery cat and its so much fun to try and take all these designs and get the very most out of them.
I was influenced heavily, early in life, by the kukri, and I have here a blade that I bought when I was 16 years old, that I fell in love… lust really… when I saw it on a dealer’s table. It epitomizes to me what is wrong with most of the early kukris.
The steel is marginal. The handle is just a little small for my medium to large sized hands. The handles are perfect for Gurkas who are very small in stature. And it really is, from a manufacturing standpoint, kind of a disaster. But I knew there was something kind of really wonderful trying to get out.
It really introduced me to aggressively weight forward blades, and I realized how much power was there. This arc [the edge out near the front] does a tremendous amount of work. The whole reason for the knife to be bent, is to present this arc in a downward space. Something I learned from Jerry Fisk is that when you curve the blade down you tend to get power. When you curve it up, because the tip arrives much later [when swinging] it is traveling faster. So with the kukri… I just loved it.
At some point in my life, I had a brief love affair with Bowie knives, and all the bowie knives I bought in my teens were either too small to work the way Bowie knives are supposed to, or they were convex ground and I did not understand convex grinds when I was of that age. I just didn’t. And knowing what I know now, I’m embarrassed at how much I did not know, but there was nobody to teach me.
Question 3: What is the next big thing in knifemaking? / What direction do you see the industry going?
I was dreading this question. I really was, because I don’t know. Simple answer to that is I don’t know, but I will speculate a little bit.
The bushcraft knife thing has been extremely strong of late, and I see the people who have started a lot of bushcrafty type knife companies, and many of them are very bright… these guys are going to come up with a lot of really cool stuff.
Every body who knows me, knows that I think that scandi grinds are the answer to a question that probably shouldn’t have been asked, but other than that, these guys are going to eventually get to where they are making some really, really fine blades. Not that they aren’t making fine blades now, but I will say they will come closer to the aesthetic that I think they ought to have! [laughs]
Question 4: 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?
I’ve got to answer with two blades.
First, the BK16 because it is literally the knife I have wanted since I was 14 years old. (Read our review of the BK16 here). Of all the accumulated knowledge that I have gotten since then, screwing around in the woods over the last 60-plus years… this is the one I really, really want to have with me.
Everything I didn’t like in the Puma [Hunter’s Friend, mentioned earlier] is reflected in how I designed the 16, and everything I liked is reflected as well. You’ll notice the handle on the 16 is a lot more conforming to the hand and the blade is a little bit wider, allowing it to have a better, slicier grind. Of all the knives I’ve designed I think this is one of the very best. It reflects my design and design aesthetic.
Secondarily, the BK4 Machax, which has recently been discontinued.
[Many years ago], I got this Case made, KA-BAR design machete that came in an aviation survival pack that I picked up. I have used and abused this thing horribly over the years. Its 1095 steel… it was painted at one point… it came blued then was painted and it was stripped again… and it’s been used, and used, and used… as a gardening tool and a just about everything tool. And this handle was quite comfortable to me. So when I decided to combine this knife with the kukri, I ended up with the BK4 with this contoured handle as opposed to just a plain flat like on the Case.
You can think of this blade as a “safety hatchet.” This [curved edge near the front] is like a hatchet head, and it has a sharp handle essentially. So instead of glancing off when you hit [below the head] it doesn’t glance off and try to hunt for bits and pieces of you. And you can clutch up on it and it can be used to do small stuff. It makes a tremendous draw knife. I’ve had a couple of customers who built log cabins for a living and I got a couple of nice letters from a couple of those guys [about the knife].
So those are the two blades I think that really represent a lot of me… early design me and later design me.
Question 5: What is your EDC and why?
If I leave my bedroom and I have shoes on, there is a Swiss Army (Victorinox) Rucksack in my front left pocket.
One of the reasons that I carry it, is I live in the woods and I have a garden, and the knife lets me have a pruning saw with me all the time. I used it earlier today actually to move a branch out of the way while I was relocating a sprinkler.
And it has a sorta screwdriver and a cap lifter… and the world’s best non-motorized portable can opener… and a pair of tweezers…. And a working wood drill [Ethan holds out the awl].
The advantage to the Victorinox Swiss Army Knife is that these little awl’s can be sharpened and they will drill a hole in a piece of wood. They’re not real exact, but if you are trying to lash something to something else, building some kind of trap or something, they work.
The steel is not great, but it sharpens really easy, and its pretty toothy! Now it doesn’t hold an edge for very long, but I know how to sharpen a knife, and its the original multitool, not that I have anything against the Leatherman I carry in my bag.
My secondary EDC… if I leave the sidewalk I have one of my own neck knives, the BK11. I have a little piece of bicycle inner tube over the skeleton handle partly because it makes it a little easier to deal with, but also it makes wonderful firestarter. There’s a lot of BTUs in a piece of rubber.
Now I have this in what I call a MacIntyre rig [wrapped around the sheath]. I saw this trick from a Practice What You Preach weekend that Dave MacIntyre (winner of Alone Season 2) was at. Again, this has a piece of bicycle inner tube, and a button flashlight, compass, a magnesium and ferrocerium rod, a couple of Tinder-Quiks that have been squashed flat and vacuumed, even though they are pretty waterproof anyway. Also there’s [an old hotel] card key in here, and its got a reflector on one side and a piece of diamond coated brass shim on the other side to sharpen the knife.
I can do absolutely everything I need to do with the BK11. I’ve skinned deer and other animals. I’ve used it to baton with. It’s actually a very sturdy little blade. I’ve driven it into end grain white oak to where it won’t pop out and gotten over 45-degrees of flex before failure.
If you go over 30-degrees when you’re bending a knife blade… you should stop! [laughs] It’s like, if you’re batonning things… if it’s hard to baton… burn it! Baton something else for the kindling. Don’t wear yourself out being stupid.
Mr. Ethan Becker it was a pleasure talking to you sir and thanks so much for your participation in our “5 From The Grinder” series!
Be sure to check out the following links fore more goodies:
Official Becker Knife & Tool Forum: BladeForums
KA-BAR: Official Website