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I find that the more interviews I do, the more I like to find people who have a story. Most knifemakers have great stories so this really doesn’t make finding new knifemakers to interview any easier, but it is always an easy choice when I find some personal connection with a maker and see something “beyond the knives.”
One such knifemaker is Ernie Swanson. What immediately impressed me with Ernie is his open and honest pursuit of a dream.
Ernie is an up and coming maker and wants to make knives full time, so he’s doing whatever he can to make that into a reality. After speaking with some full time knifemakers, I know that this isn’t easy to do, and making the transition can take a long time. That said, many of these knifemakers at least have nights and weekends to spend in the shop, working on new techniques and perfecting their craft. Ernie drives a semi-truck all week, which keeps him away from his shop and makes life as we know it possible. This hasn’t stopped him from pursuing his dream and he continues to not only make beautiful knives, but to educate himself on more advanced techniques and make time for his fiancée and young family.
Many of us have goals and dreams, but “life” can sometimes make that very difficult to pursue. I found Ernie’s dedication and perseverance to reaching his goal personally inspiring, so it is with great respect that I share his story with you today.
Hi Ernie, welcome to the site! Let me start off by asking what got you into knives?
I guess it was growing up in the woods. Growing up I was taught to be an outdoorsman, hunting, fishing, trapping and many other outdoor activities. I have used knives for as long as I can remember and have always had one in my pocket, ever since my father gave me my first slip joint. I have always been comfortable using knives and when I was younger I had a small collection of cheap knives, mostly slip joints.
How did you start making your own knives?
Up until about two years ago I didn’t know much about customs except that they were expensive. I have always thought it was normal to sharpen my knives after every use.
After doing a little research and learning what customs are all about I decided I wanted one. Being the type of guy that makes what I cannot afford, I joined bladeforum.com and started asking questions, one of the members there “Joesouth” offered to send me some materials. I then started to make my first knife using no power tools. I sat on my porch and filed the bevels in.
Tell us a bit about your philosophy behind designing and making your knives.
Hunting and EDC pretty much sums it up. Nothing beats a well designed and built knife that people can use over and over. Hunting is the reason I got into making knives so I will always build knives for the outdoorsman. I am also working on designing some knives with multiple characteristics, the purpose of these knives is multi-use with ease.
I do eventually want to make fantasy and art knives, swords, and tactical knives.
I want to start forging knives soon. As I get all the equipment needed I will progress in that direction with hopefully someday making my own Damascus.
Awesome! You are tackling this head on, and I love your holistic approach to knife making. Speaking of which, you are also making some great leather sheathes, which took me a while to notice because I was so fixated on the knives. What got you into sheath making?
My belief is that a good knife should be paired with a good sheath made for that knife.
I figured as long as I am building knives I better learn to build sheaths too. After doing research, reading tutorials, and asking lots of questions I went ahead on my leather work adventure. I got a lot of help from the members of Knifedogs.com, Dave Cole of DC Knives and Leather gave me great advice and answered any question I had. I learned to stitch from reading a tutorial that was written by Chuck Burrows of Wild Rose Trading Co.
I enjoy making the sheaths just as much as making the knives.
I love your selection of handle materials. Some almost look like they are made from exotic stone. What kind of material is that?
The wood your referring to is dyed and stabilized Box Elder Burl. It is amazing wood.
I like to use wood as there are no to pieces the same. I use mostly Burls or spalted wood as they are the most unique, and add so much character to the knives. I am also starting to use G10 and micarta.
As you know I’m a big fan of wood handles myself. Those Box Elder Burl pieces are especially striking, beautiful stuff! I could never get bored with a handle like that.
When we spoke on the phone, I was amazed to hear that you were on the road 5 days a week. How do you find the time for work, family and knife making?
Its tough but we manage, I am out driving semi all week. When I get home usually on Friday I do not work. Saturday and Sunday I work from around 6 to 3, going into the house many time through the day to check email, forums, eat, and talk to the fiancée and children.
I have to admit; I am impressed. That can’t be easy and it’s inspiring to hear how you get it all done. As an up and coming maker, who are your favorite designers/which designers do you most look up to?
That list would be a mile long. There are so many makers out there that produce amazing work, all of them have their own style that cant be beat.
To name a few that I look up to work wise I would have to say; Bruce Bump, Ed Caffrey, Allen Newberry, Bill Coye, Tracy Mickley, Les George, Bob Loveless, Bill Moran, Ken Erickson and Todd Davison. These are all the makers that without ever talking to them I was blown away by their work. Some of them are fairly new to the game but I look up to them just the same as the guys that have been around for years.
I’m totally with you. Each maker has their own style, custom knifemakers remind me over and over how the knife can be a piece of art as much as a tool – even the simple designs. What is your “next step” as a maker?
Get Better… 🙂
I would have to say my next step is to get more of the tools I need and finish building my welded NWG that was designed by Tracy at USA Knife Makers Supply. Once that is finished I will be able to start hollow grinding and also make my flat grinds better.
I just got a heat treat oven so I am learning about heat treating. I want to build a forge and get an anvil so I can start forging blades.
I will always try new steels as they are the backbone of a knife so to speak. I have so far found a couple I am really happy to work with, and will continue to use them.
I am right now working on a few designs that I am going to do a small run of. If all goes well I will offer them all the time. One of them is in a pass around right now and will be my first official model.
Ahh, heat treats, new steels and forges… music to my ears. 🙂 Ok, last question; what is your current “EDC” knife?
A very special knife to me, last year I drew out a design for a slip joint and posted it on forums looking for advice. Ken Erickson was one of the guys to comment saying it was all wrong and asked if I wanted to go to his shop and learn how to build a slip joint. I jumped at the opportunity and went for the visit. During my time there (about 7 hours) Ken built a slip joint folder teaching me the way he does everything, then when he was finished He handed me the knife and said here you go. I was blown away, I didn’t know I was going to be getting a knife and it has been in my pocket ever since. I cherish the knife and my time spent with Ken.
That is such a great story! Probably my favorite answer to this question so far. I’m sure you will treasure that knife for years to come.
Thanks so much for your time. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Yes, thank you for the interview and your site looks really good.
Also I would like to thank a few people who have helped me in my start as a knife maker.
Joesouth, Ken Erickson and since there are too many to list………
All the Members, Mods, and Admin at Knifedogs.com
Thanks Guys, I could not have done it with out your continued support and help!!!!
Thanks for the kind words, Ernie! My pleasure, as always! I look forward to following your growth as a knifemaker and I am very happy to have snagged an interview with ya. Best of luck with everything you do!
Knifedogs is a closely-knit internet knife community that I have only recently discovered but was really impressed with because of the warmth and generosity of its members. Highly recommended for intelligent knife discussion.