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Between making his own custom knives, functioning as the executive director for BladeSports International, and making time for his large network of family and friends, Jose Diaz is a busy guy. I managed to snag an interview with him and I was blown away by his passion for knives and commitment to BladeSports. In the space of a few emails I was invited to his home to learn the art of competition cutting from him personally.
I still feel like a fool for asking for a raincheck, but I hope to take him up on his offer some day soon. Either way, it is with great pleasure that I present an interview with the one and only Jose Diaz.
Welcome to BladeReviews, Jose – it is an honor to have you. Can you tell us a bit about what got you started making knives?
I have always been interested in metal smithing and knife and tool making. I didn’t get my start, though, until I met Ed Schempp. I guess I was just waiting for the right mentor, and he was it! Prior to becoming a knife maker, I was a wood carver, and my initial interest was to learn to create more carving tools. Ed Schempp told me that tool making was a type of freedom, and empowerment. I would agree with this.
That is cool. If you are going to learn how to make knives from someone Ed Schempp is one heck of a mentor. Can you tell us about your philosophy behind your knives?
I believe that knives are tools. I was taught to look at solving the problem of how to create a knife was to look at the work the knife is intended for. So I design my knives by starting at the edge, or working surface of the knife. The handle is the second thing that is designed. That is where the tool user interacts with the tool. The handle need not only to be comfortable, but be at the proper position to present the working surface to the task at hand. So I guess my knives are more about function than form.
I once had a critique by a prominent knifemaker, and he told me that his first impression of my knives was that they were ugly. Honestly, I didn’t take offense… I did, after all, ask him for his opinion. But I was disappointed that he did not pick any of them up.
When I designed the Frog Leg, I was proud. I felt that this knife accomplished the goal of functionality and ergonomics. But I couldn’t get anyone interested in it. One day, I asked a passer by at a knife show to pick up the knife. It was funny, because this fellow literally was walking by my table without any intention of stopping. I got the knife in his hand, and the first thing he said was “Oh!” Like he finally got the punchline of a difficult to understand joke! He bought the knife.
Another thing I try to focus on in my knife making is affordability. I believe that it is important to make custom knifes that regular working people can afford. I stay away from expensive handle materials, and multi-piece knives. I try to keep things simple and functional. Custom knives are a luxury item. I do understand that. But I think that once someone tries a custom knife that is well designed, they will be hard pressed to find a better replacement.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Your entire approach resonates with me, but the functionality and affordability factors really hit home.
I noticed by reading on your site and watching some of your you tube videos, that you are an avid outdoorsman. The video where you guys are camping in the Washington winter by sleeping in hammocks was especially interesting to a Southern boy like myself.
I have always been an avid outdoorsman. I love camping, fishing, hiking and hunting. I enjoy challenging myself physically and mentally in the outdoors. Winter camping is just part of that challenge. Staying comfortable in cold temperatures is a challenge, but can be done easily with preparation. My father is not an outdoorsman. He often asks how miserable I was during an outing. I tell him that it’s not about being miserable, but being comfortable and cozy in the outdoors that makes it so appealing. Many of my knife designs are inspired from my outdoor adventures. Designing the perfect tool for the outdoors is almost every knife maker’s dream.
I think that is a great perspective. Not only are you a fan of the outdoors, but I know you are also a big fan of frogs. You use a frog in your logo and a lot of your knives have frog-related names. What is that all about?
I love frogs. They are one of the most adaptable animals in the world. They literally live in every climate in the world. There is even an arctic variety that lives in Northern Alaska. They also taste good. I am from Puerto Rico. Ask any Puerto Rican about the Coqui. It is the Puerto Rican tree frog, indigenous only to that island. We as a culture are very proud of this little guy! That is where the frog in my logo came from. I just decided at some point to stay with that theme, and it’s worked for me so far.
It’s definitely a unique – I dig it.
Lets talk about cutting competitions. Now I know you make some competition cutting knives, and that you participate in the competitions yourself, but what I didn’t realize is that you are the executive director of BladeSports International, the premier competition cutting organization. What got you into competition cutting and how did you find yourself at the helm of this growing sport?
I have Ed Schempp, again, to blame for this. Ed is a renowned rope cutter, and has himself won many rope cutting competitions. One day I asked him about it, and asked him to teach me how to do it. The first time I cut the rope, I was addicted. He calls it the “Excaliber” effect. You accomplish something like rope cutting, then you look at the blade in awe, look at the cut rope and want to hold the blade aloft and yell!
I found that cutting competitions were a great test bed for knife design. I have learned so much about design, heat treatment and edge geometry participating in this sport.
Like every hobby I get into, it’s difficult for me not to become fully involved. The Board of BladeSports quickly recognized my zealousness (read obsession) and picked me to lead. One of the main missions of BladeSports, is to promote “knife as tool.” This is a mission I believe in, and try to promote in my own business.
Also, the hedonistic side of me loves participating in cutting events. It’s way more fun than it should be. We’re out there chopping up new 2x4s, unused water bottles, perfectly good golf and tennis balls. I should be feeling kind of bad ruining all these things by cutting them up.
This is the only sport for knife enthusiasts. I honestly believe that this sport has a bright future. I am proud to be a part of it.
Well that is totally awesome. It has inspired me to get more involved and I will be trying to feature more stuff on BladeSports in the future.
I’ve noticed that your competition cutters have a distinctive handle design. I am also really impressed by the youtube video of your Damascus competition cutter. Not only is it a beautiful knife but it looks to be very good at what it does.
Thanks for the compliments. I am proud of that piece. Fortunately the person who bought that knife lets me visit it from time to time. I designed that knife as worker, but I am glad you think it’s pretty. I do too.
The drop in the handle of that knife represents an ergonomic theory I have about the movements in cutting. It allows the wrist to stay in a relaxed position during heavy movements, and allows for further reach with hyperextension of the wrist, giving more range of movement. The forefinger area is narrow, again allowing for more range of movement at the fulcrum.
Knifemakers agree that these cutting competitions are the ultimate test of a blade and it’s interesting to see the kinds of innovations that come out of them. What advice do you have for anyone looking to get more involved in BladeSports and competition cutting?
Get ahold of us. We’ll get you trained in the safety aspects of competition cutting, which for us is the most important. We’ll travel to you if you cannot come to us. We just require a minimum of 5 students, cutting benches, materials to cut, and a place to hold the training and competition. We can get the training and competition done in a weekend. We’ll supply the instructors and even bring the knives.
Too cool, you guys are BladeSports are incredibly dedicated. I look forward to watching the sport grow and hope to get involved myself someday soon.
One last question; what knives do you like to carry every day?
I carry a variety of knives – it depends on the occasion. For more formal affairs: Ed Schempp/Spyderco Khukri. Shop time: carbon steel Opinel folder. Hiking/Backpacking: Frog Leg neck knife.
A knife for every occasion, I would expect nothing less. 😉 Thanks so much for your time Jose, is there anything else you would like to say?
I’d like to thank my collectors, and customers. The folks who have been willing to spend their hard earned money on my knives. I’m glad you’ve seen value in my product!
And to Ed Schempp: “I still blame you!” Thanks for your patience and time! I’m glad to know that I am still worthy of both. I am fortunate to have and honest and insightful mentor.
Thanks again for the great interview. You can learn more about Jose and his knives by visiting the Diaz Tools website. I also recommend checking out his YouTube channel. He has a nice mix of knife related videos and it’s being regularly updated.