Knife Maker Heaven: A Recap of Blade Show West by Corey Milligan

Knife Maker Heaven: A Recap of Blade Show West by Corey Milligan

This past Halloween, a contingent of NWKW employees ventured to the 2019 Blade Show West in Portland OR- the West’s largest gathering of custom knifemakers, knife manufacturers, suppliers and mall ninjas.  The team’s goal was to meet with current suppliers and manufacturing vendors, acquire custom pieces to share with our beloved customers and revel with fellow knife enthusiasts.  The weekend was truly a pleasure and fantastic team builder. Though I did not secure victory for NWKW in the kitchen knife cutting competition, I feel certain I led the team in revelry.

The greatest part of Blade Show West is seeing the work and visiting with the many custom knifemakers that exhibit their work at the show.  Knifemakers in America over the last 30 years have elevated the work to the highest level of craftsmanship and truly fine art. At the show one can visit with some of the true masters of the craft like Bill Burke, David Lische or Mike Tyre.  One can also see the work of up-and- coming young guns born in the Forged in Fire generation.  Oregon and the Pacific Northwest are the epicenter of a generation of custom kitchen knifemakers that are the direct descendants of Bob Kramer, American Bladesmith Society Master Smith and the first custom maker to embrace the kitchen knife as a form of artistic expression and performance.   Mareko Maumasi, Don Nuygen and Ian Rogers are not only making some of the most beautiful kitchen knives the world has ever seen, but these “Lords of Instagram” seem to be doing something even more rare:  making knifemakers hip. They are so in demand it is a challenge to understand how one could even acquire one of their knives.

Each of the NWKW stores had a representative to select treasures to return home with.  Kit from our Park City store, self-proclaimed “knife geek”, was not at his first rodeo and lead the team in expertise.  Tomas, a Blade Show virgin and our Napa store’s resident knife guru, who was initially overwhelmed by the glory of all the knives to behold, brought his prodigious knowledge to bare to select some real treasures of modern knife design and construction.  Finally, the Jackson contingent was represented by, yours truly, owner of NWKW, Anthony, COO of NWKW and Blade Show Virgin, and Ned, the latest addition to the NWKW team. Ned has recently joined NWKW as our head buyer and director of product development.  Ned was the backbone of legendary Jackson Hole clothing brands Cloudveil and Mountain Khaki’s for 20 years. We brought him on board to add some experience and professionalism to our business. He is the first to admit that when he started, he didn’t know much about knives.  It’s safe to say Blade Show West blew his mind. He’s a quick study and his logistical skills allowed us to stay organized as we acquired the finest knives throughout the show. Ashley, G-fusion Knife specialist and darling of Instagram, provided much needed Yin to our overwhelming Yang.  The team was rounded out with Jonathon “Top Gun” knife sharpener and G-fusion knifemaker, and Jack, a Pinedale, WY native, and 17-year-old custom knife making protégé who lent their expertise in knife construction while learning about skills and techniques from the many master bladesmiths.

Arrival: It was luck that the night before the Blade Show just happened to be Halloween in Portland, OR, the Weird Capital of the USA.  Due to there being minors, Mormons and late arrivals on the NWKW team- it was left to our fearless COO, Anthony and myself to don costumes and sally forth into the night.  We encountered sushi, cocktails, fantastic costumes, a goth bar, cocktails, a leather bound punk rock bar, an “only white guys in the joint” bar and even one of Portland’s legendary $1 ballets.   What can you say? When the cowboys get to Rome, do as the Romans do.

Day 1:  Though we had to dissuade Kit from camping out in line the night before, most of the boys were there bright and early for the show opening.  Most of the first day was spent with the boys’ revelations of how awesome the stuff was. With the exception of Kit, who made many acquisitions for his personal knife horde, I had to break the seal with Tom Buckner.  We cleaned him out of several classic Loveless Style hunters that were flawlessly executed and well-priced. He also had a nice pocket knife and we ordered some pocket knives for future delivery. The day ended light on acquisitions but with the knife- worldview of many of our band greatly expanded and plans to clean the place out on Saturday.

Day 2:   The team showed up a little late to the show on Saturday morning because Anthony took them all out to the famous VooDoo Donuts.  I, however, was there right at opening because, not being a millennial, I have no interest in standing in line for a donut no matter what exotic ingredient is sprinkled on top.  I immediately purchased three of the four remaining knives made by American Bladesmith Society instructor, Mike Tyre. Though the price of these knives was dear, they reflect the highest level of material selection, flawless execution and impeccable design.  

Everyone arrived soon after, jacked up on sugar and caffeine and the knife-buying, feeding- frenzy began in earnest.  The Jackson boys quickly acquired several great values, beautiful pieces from Hamilton, Montana’s, Gary Rodewald, and Mike Clark Jr. from Monmouth, OR.  Both ABS (American Bladesmith Society) Journeyman smiths make flawless ABS style hunters and bowies. Even though I have been in the knife business for over twenty years.  I’m embarrassed to say I do not own a single custom knife. My frugal Scotch-Presbyterian nature has just not allowed a poor town cutler to keep a knife that he could easily sell.  That being said, a simple, elegant African blackwood, Damascus small bowie made by Gary Rodewald now sits on my dresser. I can’t seem to take it to the store. It just seems the perfect accessory for just the right cowboy dress up occasion.  

Tomas drew first blood acquiring a selection of chef knives from Blair Todd whose artistic flair is clearly demonstrated in his unique material selection, blade treatments and design style.  I could not resist spending a fortune on two chef knives created by Andrea and David Lisch that demonstrate the height of quality and design in modern custom kitchen knife forging. Young Bennet Snipes supplied us with several excellent drop point hunters that were too good of a value to pass up.  The days activities ended with the picking off of several more treasures and building of anticipation for the evenings events.

Kitchen Knife Cut-off

The centerpiece of the Blade Show West’s festivities was a kitchen knife cutting contest organized by Blade Magazine.  The contest format and judging were skillfully executed by three true legends of knifemaking, Bill Burke, Mareko Maumasi and Ethan Becker.  Due to some miscommunication amongst the NWKW team and their absent-minded boss, I had not been registered in time to compete in the event before it filled up.  I did bring a Chris Kidder Special, my go to for any cutting challenge. Its edge had been given the finest treatment by NWKW master sharpener Jonathon just in case skill, guile or luck would allow me to slide into the competition.  As luck would have it, one of the competitors showed up late and I was given a spot in the cut-off. A note on the history of kitchen knife contest history. I believe I was the first to organize a kitchen knife showdown in 2009 featuring the knives of Chris Reeve, Carter Murray, Bob Kramer and myself.  Fortunately, in that contest the knives cutting abilities were on trial not the cutting skill of the maker. (Read about the BREAD KNIFE SHOWDOWN.)

Blade Show West’s contest consisted of cutting different food products in unusual shapes in a short time. The only hard and fast rule was that if you cut yourself, you were disqualified.  As the contest began, I was shocked to realize how nervous I was. My son, Buck Milligan, had competed in three rounds of Food Network’s Chopped JR and emerged as the reigning Chopped Jr Grand Champion.  Meanwhile, I was in a dingy beer hall in front of a couple hundred knife geeks unable to steady my shaking hands. I don’t claim to be the greatest chef in the world, but I usually have some skills cutting food.  In round two of the quarter finals, we were required to fine dice an onion that was cut the opposite way you normally would to slice and then chop it into a fine dice. As the round began, I tried making thin slices, but time was quickly running out.  I decided to just vigorously chop the whole thing. That’s when tragedy struck. I felt it. It was like the slightest breath of a church mouse on my off hand middle finger which I used to guide the knife while cutting. I didn’t even have to look down.  I knew my dreams of repeat victory at the Blade Show had been dashed. The combination of my shaking hands, the several whiskeys I futilely consumed to steel my faltering nerves and Jonathon’s service to my wicked sharp knife all lead to my bloody demise.  In reflection, it is my fear that the middle finger that I produced to the audience may have been interpreted as poor sportsmanship rather than a demonstration of my disqualification. It was with shame that I accepted the consolation of my NWKW mates, for I did not well represent NWKW and the glory of the Chris Kidder Special.  Fortunately, one more whiskey bolstered my spirits and I enjoyed the rest of the competition with relish. The final victory was awarded to Murray Carter, ABS Mastersmith and titan of Japanese-style, hand-forged knives. He demonstrated his graciousness by giving the winning knife to an aspiring chef from the audience.

The night ended well with revels enjoyed by all.  The event was about as much fun as a knife enthusiast can have. It was highlighted by Bob Burke, thought of by many to be the greatest living knifemaker, giving an evaluation and pointers on how Jonathon could achieve an even sharper, scarier edge.  

Day 3:  Started a bit late and foggy as we shook off the pleasures of the night before. Several more great acquisitions were still to be made.  Kit’s weekend of knife glory was capped off with the purchase of a large selection of Medford knives. This Oregan based pocket-knife specialist makes the most rugged pocket knives in the world.  They will stand up to attacking zombie or monster trucks. If you want to see one of these in our stores, you will have to go to Park City, because Kit stridently defended his right to sell them all.  Ben Tendrick supplied us with some lovely, modern interpretations of Japanese knives and some titanium spatulas that will be the highlight of any stocking. One of the real highlights of the show was something that will fit into our Mtn Man Toy Shop catalogue.  I purchased 300 tiny brass tops made by Canada’s Focus Works Machining. I spent the weekend spinning this little wonder of precision on every table and bar I encountered. I think the longest recorded spin was 7 minutes. Our final purchase was a handful of lovely gentlemen folders and a couple fixed blades from Montana Bladesmith, Don Bell.  His skill in knifemaking is only exceeded by his Montana backwoods charm. He made clear that his joy for making knives far exceeds his interest in sitting behind a table at knife shows. For that reason, I expect to see more treasures sent directly to us in the future.  

At day’s end, we packed all our treasures into the trusty NWKW Suburu, confident that Jack and Jonathon, resplendent and bristling with his acquisitions bulging from every pocket and belt loop, in true Mall Ninja style, would keep the loot safe on their drive back to Wyoming.  As I sat on the plane home and contemplated the many highlights of the trip, I realized that the greatest acquisition of the weekend was not the many wonders of craftsmanship we had purchased to share with our customers. It was recapturing the zeal of those who have experienced it before and sharing it with our newer employees-  the true love of the craft and incredible skill embodied in all the knifemakers at the show. In our regular lives when we get a raised eyebrow telling people we have a career in knifemaking, it is good to know there is a brother and sisterhood of folks out there who appreciate the profound, simple pleasure of making tools unsurpassed in craftsmanship and function.


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