In these days of instant gratification and disposability, it’s good to know there are still skilled craftsmen dedicated to taking the time to hand make quality products.
Dean “Hammo” Hamilton is a prime example of what I’m talking about. A brawny ex-soldier and former police office, Dean has had a lifelong passion for the outdoors. A keen fisho and hunter, Dean has developed an interest in knives, especially custom blades made using time honoured forging and metal working traditions.
After leaving the police force a few years back, Dean did a blade-forging course and embarked on a long period of experimentation, gradually building up the skills and knowledge to move full-time into custom knife making and start his own business, Skin’n’Bone Knives.
Sporting Shooter recently visited Dean at his workshop just north of Batemans Bay, on the NSW South Coast. After a brief tour of the premises, Dean explained the basics of what he does. “There are three ways of knife making,” he says. “You can buy a blade and fit it out to a customer’s requirements. Or you can grind flat steel to make a blade before heat-treating. The final method involves hand forging a blade from raw steel.”
Dean specialises in hand forging unique custom made blades. As well as working the metal, he meticulously hand carves handles from timber, bone and antler, fits bolsters made from hand polished stone or steel and makes his own leather sheathes. All the work is done in-house by Dean. By hand. The quality and attention to detail of his work is amazing …
Most of the blades are fashioned from discarded metal implements, often old farm machinery. Back in the day, saw blades, disc ploughs, leaf springs and chainsaw bars were constructed from high carbon steel, essential for producing blades that keep their edge. Most modern steel implements are inferior quality – they’re generally made to be used once and then discarded. This material doesn’t pass the grade for knife making.
“I love to take something that’s been discarded and turn it into a thing a beauty,” Dean says as he displays an ancient saw blade that he’s using for his latest batch of knives.
The handles on Dean’s knives are crafted from recycled timber, of which Dean has a plenteous supply. All the timber is carefully labelled and stored. Dean has a definite preference for Australian hardwoods with jarrah, Murray River red gum, iron bark and Tassie blackwood being particular favourites. In recent times, he’s been experimenting with Moreton Bay fig and palm root. The finish and patterns of these timbers is exquisite.
Dean works each handle by hand with a rasp and sandpaper. The final polish is with 2000 grit paper. The texture and grain of the timber is accentuated with French polish or tung oil. Some of the knife handles Dean showed us were without doubt works of art.
In order to maximise quality and finish, Dean uses a unique resin impregnating process which sees resin forced into the grain and voids of the timber, protecting the wood and giving the polished handle a rich, almost unearthly glow.
Deer hunters often request skinning knives featuring handles made from antler or bone. Dean also does his own freehand scrimshaw work on the bone handles at the customer’s request.
Most of the knives Dean makes are designed to be used; although some clients buy blades that they prefer to keep for display purposes or family heirlooms. Dean says he gets a great deal of satisfaction making something that he knows will be used by the owner out in the bush or on the water and that will stand the test of time for generations to come.
In regards to designs, Dean personally likes drop point blades – which he calls “bush knives” – a general-purpose blade equally adept at skinning and boning out an animal, cleaning a fish or for general use around a campsite. But he happily makes filleting knives, specific skinning blades and long knives designed for use by pig hunters.
The general process involved with ordering a custom made knife from Dean starts off with the customer detailing what he or she wants. Dean then does a fairly detailed drawing showing the specifications and design elements. This can be further fine-tuned if required. Handle and sheath requirements are discussed and finalised. Once the customer approves all those details, the manufacturing process starts.
To make a blade, Dean cuts a piece of suitable steel and heats it to about 950 degrees centigrade in his gas-fired forge. Once it has reached operating temperature, the steel is shaped by hammering it on an anvil – a process that hasn’t changed in hundreds, probably thousands, of years.
The process of turning a rough bit of metal into a blade is almost magical. When heated, the steel can be shaped and manipulated in almost endless ways. Dean makes it look easy but it’s doubtless extremely complex and precise. While he demonstrated the shaping of a drop point bush knife cut from the aforementioned old saw blade, Dean also explained how “Damascus” blades are forged. This process involves melding two metals together, heating and hammering the metals until they become one. Blades made using this process feature a characteristic wavy pattern in the steel – they look amazing but are obviously very time consuming to make.
After the steel has been shaped by forging and grinding, it’s “normalised” to relieve stress in the steel from hammering. This is done by heating the blade and cooling it by waving it through the air to refine the grain size of the steel. The blade is then placed in a bed of vermiculite and allowed to cool slowly over several hours. This is known as an “annealing” process. Then it’s off to the grinder to final shape the blade for heat-treating. All Dean’s blades are “differentially heat treated” to maximise strength, flexibility and edge keeping ability. As Dean explained, this involves heating the blade to critical temperature and then rapidly cooling it by dipping it in oil. After this process, the blade is “tempered” by heating it to a lower temperature to relieve the edge hardness slightly so it is not brittle.
Once completely cooled, the blade is then completed with further hand rubbing and polishing and the handle is constructed and fitted. Dean makes knives with either full or hidden tangs, depending on customer preference and design requirements.
The blade is then hand sharpened – and take it from me that Dean knows how to get a knife razor sharp! – given a final polish and matched to its custom made sheath.
The process of turning a rough lump of steel into glistening finished blade takes about a day. Dean makes about five or six blades a week and has no desire to increase production. Like all true craftsmen, he’s rather spend the time to do the job right than produce an inferior quality mass-produced blade.
As it stands now, about 60 per cent of Dean’s work involves hunting knives with the remaining 40 per cent aimed at fishing applications (such as filleting). Most of his knives are ordered by Aussies but he’s sold knives into America and New Zealand. As well as making his own knives, Dean can repair old or damaged blades.
A custom blade from Dean costs anywhere from $150 to $350 and up, depending on requirements and construction methods. As you’ll understand, Skin ‘n’ Bone Knives are highly sought after so you’d be advised to get an order in quick smart!
For more details and images of Dean’s amazing blade work, check out http://www.skinnboneknives.com. His Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/pages/Skin-n-Bone-Knives/286602084773136 – features images of his latest creations and you can email email@example.com.