The Knife Maker
Dean Aragon was no different from other boys growing up in the lower valley. He was just as mischievous, just as curious and just as inventive when it came to creating toys to pass the time during the long summer vacations. Like most boys, he was naturally drawn to tools. He remembers spending entire days at a time figuring out how to construct knives using sticks and scrap metal. Unlike most boys, however, Dean took that curiosity a step further and has not only refined his methods for constructing knives, he’s learned the art of making them from scratch.
Inspired by a long time fascination of knives and fueled by movies like Lord of the Rings, Dean remembers how awestruck he was by the swords in the movie. “Every blade had a name and they seemed to have a soul,” exclaimed Dean excitedly. He recalls that he would make knives out of nails attached to a stick. Little by little, he became more resourceful and started making larger blades out of scrap metal.
One day, he found a railroad spike and decided that he could turn it into a knife. Before he even made it home, he conjured up a plan in his mind and knew exactly what he wanted to do with it. However, it took hours of research to figure out what type of steel it was and how it needed to be heat treated. Finally he heated it, twisted the flat end for the handle, added some artistic elements to it and shaped the sharp end into a blade.
Although he has improved his technique throughout the years, Dean has worked non-stop to get better and to really learn the trade. He taught himself everything he knows by researching, investigating and watching tutorials. But before being able to create art with his acquired skills, he’s had to master the basics. Doing so has taken many hours, sweat and even blood—literally. He has cut himself, burned himself and has ruined blades that he’s been working on for days because he strives for perfection. Although he claims that he has a lot to learn and improve upon, Dean can now comfortably say that his work is art.
Mastering the craft has required sacrificing his time and money in order to mature the skills necessary to realize his art. Because he has a full-time job, he is grateful that his wife, kids and family are so supportive of this time consuming hobby. Dean’s knives can take days, weeks and sometimes months to finalize because there are many steps that go into the process of making a fixed blade knife. Dean always had it in him to become an artist and it was only a matter to time before he created a masterpiece using steel and two slabs of wood. Each knife is drawn out and crafted with such precision that one would never know that it is handmade. He gives his undivided attention to each and every knife he makes and each one reflects his creative side simply because they are one-of-a-kind designs. He also draws custom designs based on the desires of his customers. He’s got hundreds, if not thousands, of his original drawings and sketches of different knives that he has drawn over the years.
The entire process all starts with those sketches drawn on random pieces of paper. The design is then transferred onto a piece of steel to use as a guide. The basic shape of the blade is cut out of the steel on a metal cutting band saw. Proper heat treating is critical because steel is hardened by heating it to a specific temperature for a specific amount of time. Tempering depends on the type of steel as well. The heat ranges anywhere from 350°F to 800°F for up to three cycles. This is needed to make a good blade that is strong, resilient and holds a sharp edge. Once it has been heated, the glowing red blade is ready to be pounded into the desired shape and thickness. After pounding the steal using an anvil and a hammer, the edges are smoothed and the shape of the blade is refined using a belt grinder. The art of shaping steel with hand tools such as hammers or forging, dates back to the earliest Iron Age, around 1500 BC, but is still successfully being used today.
The next element is the handle. Dean handcrafts them from a wide variety of materials including natural wood. The handle parts are cut and fitted and assembled using high strength epoxy to ensure that everything is secure and watertight. A full tang knife with two-piece slab handles, or scales, requires the handles to be attached to each side of the knife using pins pressed through holes in the handles. After the handle has set, it is ground to its final shape and hand sanded. The knife handles are then polished and buffed for a smooth finish. The final cutting edge is ready to be ground sharp enough to shave with and cut a piece of paper effortlessly. Finally, Dean’s signature is etched in the finished blade and a final polish is given to the knife.
Dean uses a variety of quality materials and grinds each blade freehand; without the use of guides or jigs. It takes many years of practice and experience to achieve this type of precision finish when done freehand. The finished product demonstrates the many hours of skilled craftsmanship that goes into a custom handmade knife. This is precisely why handmade knives by trained craftsmen are not “cheap.” Especially when a craftsman, like Dean, doesn’t have the tools necessary to make his job easier or faster. He must improvise by using a whole lot of elbow grease and rely on his talent.
Born and raised in La Mesa, Dean graduated from Gadsden High School in 1990. Back then, life was much simpler. As he has gotten older–now married with children of his own–his feelings about making knives have somewhat been altered by pop-culture. At one point he wondered if he even wanted to make knives anymore. With the recent wave of violence across the nation he worries, not that he would be shunned for making knives but, that one of his crafted pieces could potentially be used as a weapon rather than art or a tool like he intends all his knives to be. On the flip side, some of his knives may never get used at all. They’ll sit untouched within someone’s collection, displayed neatly in a glass curio. Yet, the reason Dean will continue to make knives is simply because of the passion he has for the art and hopes that they won’t be used for anything else.