There is no better time than the Summer of 2020 to have a conversation about American Craftsmanship.
I jogged across Canton Street on a damp morning in January of this year to explore the ocean of booths at the Dallas Safari Club Convention and Expo. Hoping to beat the crowds and graze the wares of some of the finest firearms and sporting equipment under a single roof, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as a first-time visitor. What I quickly found were conversations with strangers as if old friends and handshakes as familiar as those given when closing out weeklong adventures afield. One of these unexpected conversations was with world-renowned knife maker, Jerry Fisk. Fisk and I spoke like old kin at a yearly fish fry, likely a nod to my upbringing in Mississippi and his stakes firmly planted in Arkansas, after which we agreed to follow up in-person back at his shop later in the Spring.
Jerry Fisk is a well-recognized name among knife and history enthusiasts, but the newest generation of hunters and outdoorsmen may not be familiar with him or his work in this age of disposable blades and digital marketing. Fisk is a living legend, literally speaking, and was officially designated a National Living Treasure in 1999. Working as a Master Bladesmith since 1989, Fisk’s list of accomplishments span pages, and his influence both official as a subject matter expert and unofficial as an icon permeates knifemaking worldwide.
Fisk knives are immediately recognizable for their graceful and timeless functionality and are routinely inspirations for other maker’s “Fisk Style” knives. Fisk has made knives for millionaire tech tycoons, covert military units, and blue-collar woodsman with utility being at the core of every blade that comes out of his shop. While absolutely at the industry forefront in terms of cutting performance, a Fisk Knife begins where the grind profile ends.
One of my favorite Fisk knives is a field knife made for a Railroad Trapper at the beginning of Fisk’s career as a bladesmith. The knife’s owner, now a grandfather, obtained the knife from Fisk prior to turning 18 and it served him daily out in the rain, ice, hot, cold, and humidity that comes along unexpectedly for folks that make their living taming the land. The owner once lost the knife for seven days after it was stuck in a log following a bear hunt. The owner tirelessly retraced his steps for five days to recover the invaluable tool. The patina on the knife’s flat ground blade speaks to the life it sustained during its partnership with the owner. The engraved brass bolster and wooden handle blend seamlessly creating a parallel story of grit and refinement.
My initial conversation with Fisk spurred an internal deconstruction of what makes a knife more than a cutting tool. When I open my shop drawer and unsheathe my Schrade Golden Spike, a flood of memories immediately fills my thoughts. My fingers recall the numbness they endured gutting a young six-point after a particularly cold and wet hunt the year the Mississippi Department of Transportation foolishly certified me to haunt the backroads of Alcorn County. There were thousands upon thousands of those same knives made and they are far from ornate but that one was given to me by my father and my experiences will be passed down to my boys through the piece. With some luck and extra shifts maybe, my boys will have a chance to own a Fisk knife to tell their stories.
It does not take very long to recognize that in addition to being an absolute standout knifemaker, if not the best, Fisk is equally talented as a teacher and historian. Fisk has a knack at explaining the history of knifemaking and pours over blacksmith texts and physical examples of early blades. Fisk has purchased 16th-century Persian pieces to disassemble and use to better understand what makes a knife functional and timeless.
When Fisk creates a knife, he considers that it may be dug out of the ground two thousand years from now and his expectation is that with some oil and stonework the knife can return to service. Fisk also incorporates historical artifacts into his work. In his shop, he has wood and steel from historical locations such as the World Trade Centers, USS Cole, the Statue of Liberty, the Alamo, George Washington’s homestead, and the list goes on. Fisk also incorporates natural elements such as fossilized bone and meteorite. Fisk’s wife keeps up with auctions and the rare materials market to set apart a few special knives each year that are so unique buyers wait for a decade at a chance to purchase.
As Fisk draws a large camp blade across his shop India Stone, he explains to me what makes a knife hold a keen edge. With hands outstretched, Fisk shows that one palm is medium and the other coarse grit, a few strokes knocking down the burr before we head outside to test cutting performance. Fisk is a rare breed in that he is an equally talented artist and teacher. Fisk travels to Brazil to teach knifemaking and has a long-standing relationship with Brazilian knife maker, Ricardo Vilar, a Forged in Fire Champion, who now lives nearby. Fisk takes apprenticeship seriously and spends much of his time passing down the trade.
As I pull out of the drive, I am left with a sense of hope for the future. The tall pines that line the road don’t seem to mind all that’s going on and have endured far worse seasons. Fisk reminds me of everything good about the past and worth focusing on in the future, quality, craftsmanship, and American determination.
Fisk is very active on social media, stop by and say hello and check out his latest work.