Pounding, layering and twisting hot glowing metal, Ray Black creates Damascus steel knives with unique and beautiful swirling patterns.
“These blades have 42 layers,” he said, showing a client’s set of gleaming steak knives he made at his shop north of Mackay. “You can make as many layers as you want. To make different patterns, you can change the tightness of the twist or draw it out at different lengths.”
Named for the ancient and modern capital of Syria where sharp durable swords and knives were handcrafted centuries ago, Damascus steel is made by forging and hammering together layers of hot metal to create patterns.
“It’s growing in popularity,” he said.
Black said clients have heard about his knives through word-of-mouth and told him they like the knives for their beauty, balance, durability and enduring sharpness.
He and his wife, Judie, make the Damascus steel knives in their shop next to their home in the Chilly area northwest of Mackay. Distinct and handcrafted, the knives look as if they should be exhibited in an art gallery instead of used at a dinner table or for hunting.
After Black crafts the blade and attaches a handle of antler and exotic wood, Judie sands it down with fine 600-grit sandpaper. She then polishes it to a mirror satin finish, makes a leather sheath for it, and engraves their business name, Pioneer Forge, on it.
“We have a true partnership,” said Black. “We don’t do mass production because we want to control the quality.”
Judie said, “It’s really time-consuming and takes a lot of patience, but you think of how beautiful the finished product will look and that keeps us going.”
To adorn the sheath, she often sews a cross-stitch pattern along the edges or sometimes makes deer tracks with a metal leatherworking tool.
Black said he asks for input from clients “so I don’t have to make all the decisions.”
He makes all sizes and shapes. A typical steak knife has a 5-inch blade and a 4¾-inch handle. He even made a tiny 2-inch-long knife that Judie wears as a necklace.
While the blades are one-of-a-kind, so are the handles. He blends antler with exotic wood and inserts a spacer of polished brass, copper or nickel near the blade.
Black uses stabilized wood that has been infused with chemicals to prevent cracking and to make it more durable.
“It’s impervious to acid or water or stains,” he said.
A machinist, Black made his first knife in 1979.
“I couldn’t find any knives that would stay sharp, so I learned to make my own,” he said of the stainless steel blade.
As he studied knife making, he became intrigued with the history and process of making Damascus steel. He read about techniques used by Bill Moran, a blacksmith and bladesmith in Maryland, who became known as the father of modern Damascus and is credited with reviving the ancient art in the U.S. in the early 1970s.
“I set up my forge in the early ’90s and started making Damascus,” Black said. “Since then, I’ve learned a thing or two.”
The Blacks photograph each knife they make in case a client wants to re-order.
Judie said each knife is unique, “and we almost want to keep them all but we don’t have the room.”
Black said, “We keep busy, but I don’t want to be so busy that it becomes a job.”