When I woke up this morning I didn’t imagine that, before the end of the day, I’d embark on a knife building project. As fate would have it, the Great Smoky Mountains Association – an organization of which I am a member, was giving away a Limited Edition custom Kephart knife made by Glen Brooks of Benton, TN. I had seen another knife of this edition at the Friends of the Smokies Evergreen Ball, but dropped out of the Silent Auction when the price crossed the $700 threshold. However, the knife has intrigued me ever since . . .
So I dropped a note to TTAK’s resident Knifemaker, William Woods, inquiring what he knew about the style. It’s not made by any major manufacturer, but seems popular among the artisan community. After a little back and forth, I seem to be beginning the process of making my own custom Kephart Knife.
Horace Kephart was an Outdoorsman and Author, best known for his books, Camping and Woodcraft and Our Southern Highlands. He’s a bona-fide legend in the Smoky Mountains region, and was instrumental in the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For more on Kephart and his knife, watch this video from Glen Brooks:
In the interest of following the train of thought between Will and me, I am going to quote portions of his answers to me and insert my own commentary.
Will’s first reaction when I asked about the possibility of making one myself was positive:
“As for making one yourself, I say go for it! A Kephart is a very simple design that I would recommend to anyone to start with. Full flat grind with super simple full tang handle construction is super easy. What type of metal working tools do you have access to? Belt grinder? Bandsaw? Angle grinder?”
I happen to have a fairly well-equipped shop. I’m a woodworker and a shade-tree mechanic. I turned a stock Jeep Wrangler into this rock-crawler and enjoy wrenching on it when it breaks.
Encouraged by Will’s response, we talked about the knife itself:
“(First) we need to talk steel. Carbon would be the traditional Kephart material but if you like to use your toys and put them away wet then stainless would make more sense. Also overall dimensions must be made. How thick do you want the blank? Overall length? Blade width?”
I want something utilitarian, not a showcase piece at this point. Something towards the stainless spectrum was my choice. For a good explanation of steel types, see Will’s excellent article here.
I pressed on:
“OK I suggest using D2. It just barely almost qualifies as a stainless steel but still has the edge holding ability you want in a bush-craft knife. Great corrosion resistance great toughness and every heat treater will know how to HT your knife properly.”
As for dimensions, I think I will listen to the wisdom of Mr. Kephart, who was never at a loss for words in describing his own knife (from Camping and Woodcraft):
“On the subject of hunting knives I am tempted to be diffuse. In my green and callow days (perhaps not yet over) I tried nearly everything in the knife line from a shoemaker’s skiver to a machete, and I had knives made to order. The conventional hunting knife is, or was until quite recently, of the familiar dime-novel pattern invented by Colonel Bowie. Such a knife is too thick and clumsy to whittle with, much too thick for a good skinning knife, and too sharply pointed to cook and eat with. It is always tempered too hard. When put to the rough service for which it is supposed to be intended, as in cutting through the ossified false ribs of an old buck, it is an even bet that out will come a nick as big as a saw-tooth — and Sheridan forty miles from a grindstone! Such a knife is shaped expressly for stabbing, which is about the very last thing that a woodsman ever has occasion to do, our lamented grandmothers to the contrary notwithstanding.”
“A camper has use for a common-sense sheath-knife, sometimes for dressing big game, but oftener for such homely work as cutting sticks, slicing bacon, and frying “spuds.” For such purposes a rather thin, broadpointed blade is required, and it need not be over four or five inches long. Nothing is gained by a longer blade, and it would be in one’s way every time he sat down.”
“Such a knife, bearing the marks of hard usage, lies before me. Its blade and handle are each 4 1/2 inches long, the blade being 1 inch wide, 1/8th inch thick on the back, broad pointed, and continued through the handle as a hasp and riveted to it. It is tempered hard enough to cut green hardwood sticks, but soft enough so that when it strikes a knot or bone it will, if anything, turn rather than nick; then a whetstone soon puts it in order. The Abyssinians have a saying, “If a sword bends, we can straighten it; but if it breaks, who can mend it? ” So with a knife or hatchet.”
“The handle of this knife is of oval cross-section, long enough to give a good grip for the whole hand, and with no sharp edges to blister one’s hand. It has a 1/4 inch knob behind the cutting edge as a guard, but there is no guard on the back, for it would be useless and in the way. The handle is of light but hard wood, 3/4 inch thick at the butt and tapering to 1/2 inch forward, so as to enter the sheath easily and grip it tightly.”
So there we are. The completely spontaneous “Project Kephart” has begun. I am going to be a first-time knifemaker. I already have wood selected for the handle, but more on that later. I’m excited to be learning a new skill. I’m excited to be handcrafting a blade that is a piece of history, and carrying it on my hip on the very trails and streams that Horace Kephart carried his own 100 years ago.