Honing the Craft

June 2016
Written By: 
Hastings Hensel
Photographs by: 
Randall Hill

Local knife maker Steve Jones and his custom-made oyster shuckers and hunting knives

Perhaps knife makers, by their very nature, are humble people. After all, to make a knife requires a surrendering of ego—for it is a process in which you can’t think about much else other than, well, the process itself.

Perhaps that is why local custom knife maker Steve Jones out of Marion isn’t a member of a knife making guild, doesn’t have a website and is adamant about one thing: “My knives are not collector’s items by any means,” he says. “In all honesty, I’m not trying to make them collector’s items. I’m trying to make a knife somebody would collect and use. Don’t be afraid to take it out and skin something with it or shuck an oyster with it.”

His knives are not, for instance, as expensive as a Gil Hibben, the Kentucky master under whom he studied, nor as collectible as a George Herron, the legendary South Carolina knife maker who passed away in 2007 with a seven-year waiting list.

But upon holding one of Jones’ knives in your hands and feeling the polished smoothness of its wooden handle, you will know that he is a supreme craftsman. Then you skin something with it or shuck an oyster with it, and you keep doing so for years without much wear and tear, and you don’t care if it’s a collectible. You care that you have a fine blade at a fine price.

Indeed, you have the kind of knife an avid outdoorsman would make for himself—the kind of outdoorsman, by the way, who has a bear skin (from a bear he shot) draped over his living room sofa, and who wears an ivory elk’s tooth necklace from the first elk he ever killed.

“I’ve always enjoyed hunting and fishing,” he says. “So I’ve always had a fascination with hunting knives. When I worked for the wildlife department, a friend of mine who was a pilot, Alvin Poston, he made knives. He did it as a hobby. I would get a couple of knives from him from time to time, collecting several of his, and I used several of his. So that piqued my interest in collecting knives.”

After a career that saw stints in the Navy, at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, as the manager of a plantation, in his brother’s trucking company and as a big game guide in New Mexico, Jones retired to devote most of his days to the outdoors. But he was especially itchy to get back to elk hunting in New Mexico, and so his wife, Delia, in attempt to keep him in South Carolina, said, as he recalls, “’You’ve got to find something to do in your spare time. You like to collect knives. You’re pretty handy with your hands. Why don’t you try to make knives?’”

So he did a little reading and found out the basic tools he would need—a belt sander, a drill press, a band saw—and he got to work.

He recalls: “Back then I’m basically wandering in the dark. I’d get a piece of metal and was probably destroying more than I was completing.”

So upon another of his wife’s suggestions, Jones decided to travel up to La Grange, Kentucky, and spend five days with master knife maker Gil Hibben in an intense knife making workshop of no more than three other students.

He says, “It’s amazing how fast when you have someone of that talent they can take you from the designing of a knife to each process you go through, right on down to the heat treating. You leave there with several knives. I came back much more knowledgeable than I went. I was able to hone those skills he taught me, and I started doing better with my knives.”

But he didn’t master the art right away. In fact, he says, while showing off the first knife he made at the school, “You feel pretty good when you’re leaving, but you get home and your next knife doesn’t look anything like this.”

The process he learned, and that took him time to refine, goes like this: he takes a piece of metal—usually sourced from a supply company out of Florida or Oklahoma—and etches a design on it, usually inspired by what he’s seen in a magazine. Then, with a band saw, he cuts out his blade and grinds it down with a 72-inch belt sander, transitioning from heavy to lighter grit sandpaper. He then gets the blade heat-treated so that the metal hardens and sets. Then he fixes on his handles (typically stabilized hardwoods) with epoxy and shapes them with the sander.

Next, he etches his initials into the blade—a craftsman’s signature. Finally, he makes his sheaths with his leather stitcher, a tool he bought after tiring of outsourcing his sheaths to a shoe shop in Florence.

One day, however, he had epiphany: “I saw an oyster knife in a magazine that really struck my fancy, and I went online and saw what this individual was getting for them, so I said, ‘Shoot, there must be a demand for that. I can probably fashion one similar to that.’”

Today his oyster knives are exclusively sold at only three South Carolina stores, two of which are on the Grand Strand—Booty’s Outdoors in Murrells Inlet and Kudzu Mercantile in Georgetown. (The other store is Nichols Store in Rock Hill.) And true to his craftsmen’s spirit, he tinkered with his oyster design until he perfected it, notably changing from a sharpened point to a rounded one.

He laughs and says, “I made them with a sharp point to start with, and I gave them to a couple of friends, and they said, ‘Man, we have to quit eating oysters or quit drinking!’”

Earlier this year, Jones found himself fortunate to be able to make a few oyster shuckers with handles made out of wood from The Deerhead Oak in McClellanville, one of the oldest trees in America. His friend, Bobby Wilson, saw that some limbs had fallen during a storm and were being cleaned up by a road crew, so Wilson, a potter, gathered a few pieces. And after fashioning the knives, Jones donated them back to McClellanville for a history museum fund raiser.

It is the kind of thoughtful spirit—humble, yes—that allows for Jones to put his knife making in perspective. “It’s never been my idea of this being a business. And it’s not now. It’s a hobby,” he says. “Right now, being a hobby, I can keep up with the requests I have for them. This is something I could put down tomorrow and wouldn’t lose a lot of revenue. But it keeps me busy. It gives me something to do.”

In other words, it’s a hobby that can’t take up too much of his time. After all, he still needs that time to get out in the woods and skin something.