bolster of a Don Hanson III knife displays tiny faces, bugs and
even his initials. The figures are not engraved into the metal but
actually a part of the mosaic Damascus steel he makes. Photo by
Show someone a Don
Hanson knife and the first reaction is usually one of confusion. “What
is that?” they’ll ask as they begin to discern the tiny
images and even the maker’s initials that cover the blade and
bolsters of the knife’s handles.
Only when they realize
the images are not engraved on the surface but are actually part of
the metal do they ask, “How does he do that?”
Don makes one-of-a-kind
folding knives from Damascus steel and exotic handle materials. Each
one is a work of art and commands sky-high prices from collectors. Most
of Don’s knives sell for between $1,500 and $4,000 but he’s
made a few knives with solid gold handles that sold for as much as $8,000.
“For a regular
person that’s excessive but there are guys out there who are looking
for something unique to buy,” Don says. “These collectors
want them just as fancy as you can make them — gold, pearl inlays,
carving. The sky’s the limit.”
pauses to examine his work while polishing a blade for one of
his custom-made folding knives. Don crafts his knives from mosaic
Damascus steel that incorporates tiny faces, bugs and even his
Don makes about
40 knives a year at his shop, Sunfish
Forge, located at his home near Success, in Texas County. Sold as
Don Hanson III knives these custom folders are offered primarily through
dealers but also at knife shows and directly to collectors. Elegant
and slender, they are small enough to slip comfortably into a pocket,
but most are never used.
“I do have
a few customers who carry them,” the Intercounty Electric Cooperative
member says, “but theses are collector’s items. It’s
a work of art, although it’s still a knife.”
collectors value the workmanship and design that Don puts into each
of his knives but it’s the Damascus steel that draws the most
of this knife are made of fossilized mammoth ivory, at least 10,000
years old. Collectors typically pay $1,500 to $4,000 for Don’s
knives which are sold through dealers and at knife shows. Photo
by Bob Glassman.
For nearly three
decades knife makers in America have forged dissimilar metals together
to form Damascus, or pattern-welded steel. The process involves heating
various hard and soft metals to the point where they can be welded together
by hammering. The result is tough but flexible steel that, when etched
in acid, displays beautiful patterns formed by the different metals.
Damascus steel was
common from about 100 A.D. until about 1200. The process was resurrected
in the 1700s to make gun barrels and in the early 1970s custom knife
makers began working with Damascus again. Typically this steel displays
a wavy, layered appearance but the Damascus steel in a Don Hanson knife
is a cut above.
make just regular Damascus. I make mosaic Damascus,” Don says.
“When you’re looking at a finished piece it’s tile-like,
with images, pictures, intricate quilt-type designs. I do faces and
bugs and lizards, geometric shapes, fish.”
It’s the mosaic
Damascus which separates Don’s work from countless other knife
of mosaic Damascus is pretty darn unique,” say Bob Glassman, a
knife photographer and dealer who sells Don’s knives through his
Custom Knife Gallery of Colorado.
“I would say there’s maybe 50 people in the world that do
it like that.”
The beauty of these
knives doesn’t end with the steel, however. Don carves decorative
grooves into the bolsters and files scroll patterns into the liners
of his knives. Some knives feature handmade gold screws and each includes
handles made from exotic materials, usually fossilized ivory.
this "leg knife" is the right size for carrying, few
of Don's knives ever are used by the collectors who buy them.
“This is mammoth
tusk that’s been frozen for over 10,000 years in Siberia or Alaska,”
Don says as he picks through a box of ivory slabs.
that’s been buried for all these years absorbs minerals from the
ground. Some of it has fantastic colors,” he says. “You
get blues, greens, blacks. You can get really pretty browns with great
very beautiful material and it’s old, from a prehistoric animal.
I like that,” Don says.
It takes more than
Damascus steel and exotic ivory to make a collectable knife, however.
It must also be attractive and functional.
forges dissimilar metals together with a century-old power hammer
to produce Damascus steel.
relatively new to the highest echelons of custom knife makers, Don is
rapidly developing a reputation as one of the best in America.
“Don is probably
up there at about 9.95 out of 10. He’s a fabulous maker,”
says Glassman who displays the knives of nearly 100 artisans on his
Web site www.customknifegallery.com.
From the time he
first began making knives, Don says he’s strived for perfection.
“I’m looking for a knife that functions flawlessly and the
fit and finish is as good as I can make it,” he says.
Don estimates he
works about 40 hours on each knife, not counting time spent forging
of Don’s folding knives feature liner locks, in which a portion
of the knife’s frame slips behind the blade to lock it in
place. Photo by Bob Glassman.
lots of hand fitting,” he says. “You don’t just make
the parts and put it together. You’ve got to take it apart three
or four dozen times to adjust something, fix something.”
Like most knife
makers, Don began his craft making utilitarian fixed-blade knives. His
family operated a marine supply business and fish market in Florida.
His father also made knives and taught Don to make filet, hunting and
In 1990 the family
sold its business and moved to Missouri. That’s when Don became
a full-time knife maker. In time he progressed beyond making sheath
knives to producing folding knives.
a lot harder to make. You’ve got several different parts that
have to go together and it’s got to function,” Don says.
“It has to walk and talk. The knife needs to snap open and snap
closed. If it locks, it’s got to lock up tight.”
a reputation making sunfish knives. His shop is called Sunfish
Forge. Photo by PointSeven
For most of the
1990s Don made traditional folding knives with carbon steel blades and
bone or stag handles, copying time-tested designs. A favorite of his
was the sunfish, a large oval-shaped knife made famous by the Case knife
“I kind of
got known for those at the shows,” Don says. “They started
calling me The Sunfish Man.”
Don adopted the
sunfish motif for his business and began stamping an outline of a fish
on each of his knives. Although he doesn’t make many knives of
that pattern today he keeps the name for his business.
As Don’s knife
making skills developed he began experimenting with Damascus. With early
help from blacksmiths from the National Ornamental Metals Museum in
Memphis he learned the basics of forging. He taught himself to form
the mosaic patterns that make his steel so unique.
takes a moment from a project to visit with a customer on the phone.
While most of Don’s knives are sold through dealers, he does
accept orders directly from customers.
Since 1999 Don has
specialized in producing collectable art knives. His unique combination
of small, slender gentleman’s knives with mosaic Damascus steel
and other exotic materials have made him one of the top knife makers
in the country.
Don says he’s
sold knives to collectors in every state in the nation and to buyers
overseas. But there is one knife fancier he hasn’t been able to
convince yet. Although he’s made a kitchen knife and a couple
of tiny folders for his wife, he’s yet to make a knife for himself.
afford one of my knives. If I’ve got a $2,500 knife do I put it
in my pocket or do I sell it to pay bills?” he asks.
Instead Don reaches
into his pocket and pulls out a $35 Case pocketknife with a yellow plastic
handle. Although he says he likes the knife he carries he does take
a lot of ribbing for his choice.
“I get that
a lot,” he says. “I need to make myself one of my knives.”
For more information
see Don’s Web site at www.sunfishforge.com.
Don’s knives are available from knife dealers Jerry Schroeder,
(513) 574-3154, and Glenn Buffington, (636) 300-1482, as well as online
dealers The Custom Knife Gallery
of Colorado and Gary
Levine Fine Knives.