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Rural Missouri Magazine

Artistry in Steel
Don Hanson creates cutting edge art for discriminating collectors

by Bob McEowen

The 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 Bob Glassman.

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.”

Don Hanson 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 initials.

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.”

Well-heeled 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 attention.

The handles 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.

“I don’t 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 makers.

“His type 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.

While 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.

“The ivory 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 character.

“It’s 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.

Don forges dissimilar metals together with a century-old power hammer to produce Damascus steel.

Although he’s 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 Damascus.

Many 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.

“There’s 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 kitchen knives.

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.

“Folders are 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.”

Don built a reputation making sunfish knives. His shop is called Sunfish Forge. Photo by PointSeven Studios.

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 company.

“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.

Don 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.

“I can’t 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.

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