By Allen Crater
An old Faroese proverb warns: “A man without a knife is a man without a life.” While that may sound a little extreme, a decent knife is essential to any outdoorsman’s kit. What other single utensils can be used for game preparation, cooking, wood cutting and fire making, shelter building, tool construction, first aid and as a defensive weapon? None that I can readily conjure.
Knives have become a ubiquitous symbol of wilderness, drawing to mind legendary American woodsmen and explorers like Daniel Boone, Davy Crocket, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, or one whose name has become synonymous with big blades, Jim Bowie.
Michigan has its own storied history when it comes to knives. Early native tribes were using them well before any European ever gazed upon the shores of Gitche Gumee. And, during the early fur trading era of the 1600s, knives were essential tools and trading items for the Voyageurs who traveled Great Lakes waterways in birch bark canoes from the straights of Mackinac to the straights of Detroit and beyond.
In later years, Michigan crafters like William Scagel, Lee Olson and Webster Marble etched their names in the annals of knife-making history.
In 1899 from his shop in Gladstone, Michigan, Webster Marble developed one of the most iconic hunting knives in history — the Marbles Ideal Hunting Knife. Over the centuries, it has been carried by scores of people, including, at least as far as legend goes, the vaunted explorer, outdoorsman, conservationist and two-time U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt. Stacked leather washer handles and clip-point blades with a deeply fullered edge grind were Marble’s trademarks, setting the knives apart from other blades of the time.
Eventually, every major cutlery company in the United States, England, Germany, and Sweden began offering their versions of Marble’s most popular knives. Marble’s-pattern sheath knives ruled the market for decades.
That Michigan knife-crafting tradition continues today at Rapid River Knives, in the Upper Peninsula village after which it is named. Kris Duerson, Rapid River’s founder, and Matt Seawright, the company’s General Manager, cut their blade-crafting teeth at Marbles.
When Marbles discontinued their lifetime warranty repair and service, Kris started his own business refurbishing those knives. A short time later, he began designing and building a few prototypes. In the fall of 2000, Rapid River Knives was born in a barn with a single grinder, a single buffer, and a dream to create the finest quality knives from materials within the United States.
Since then, the company has hand-crafted over 250,000 knives and can be found at retailers in all 50 states and nine foreign countries. Today, Rapid River produces approximately 15,000 knives yearly and boasts one of the country’s largest and most prodigious showrooms.
What makes Rapid River Knifeworks products so unique?
The first part of that answer is materials.
Benjamin Franklin said, “There never was a good knife made of bad steel.”
At Rapid River, that means blades of forged carbon D2, A2, 154cm, and Damascus steel — tough enough for bone-hard jobs, yet precise for finer cuts — and solid brass thumb guards machined on a CNC.
As for handles, the sky is the limit in terms of creativity. In addition to all of the popular wood options, Rapids River knife handles are available in various unique materials, including shipwrecked wood, leather, pinecones, deer antlers, fossilized mammoth teeth, alligator jawbones and corn cobs, to name only a few. Customers can also use materials that have special meaning — maybe wood from a special tree off their property or antlers from a memorable buck they harvested.
The second part of the answer is the craftsmanship that goes into each handmade knife. Sheet-stock steel blanks are cut out with a waterjet, ground for style, and then prepped for the handle. Once fully assembled, they are satin finished and sharpened with a 120-grit belt by hand, then edge polished with a 1200-grit micron belt for shave-your-face results.
The handles start on the 36-grit belt for rough shaping before final shaping on an 80-grit. With the shaping process complete, they move to the 320 and 600-grit belts for final finishing and blending the thumb guard into the handle. Last, they are polished with 400-grit compound on a buffing wheel before moving the jeweler’s rogue (known in the shop as the black wheel), where 600-grit compound provides the final finish.
Once complete, Rapid River artisans personalize each knife with free laser engraving on the blade and handle.
All told, this intensive process is a true testament to American craftsmanship.
Rapid River offers a full range of knives for every outdoor use. There are traditional pocketknives, folding knives (including my favorite, The Yooper, featuring a handle of Michigan maple burl and deer antler), fillet, fin and feather, fixed blades, Bowie and kitchen cutlery including Santoku and double-edge fillet designs. In addition to cutlery, Rapid River’s pack-axes are some of the most durable and sharpest on the market.
Rapid River offers a lifetime warranty and free polishing and sharpening on every knife they sell. They will even sharpen and polish other brands’ knives for a donation to organizations supporting disabled veterans.
A well-crafted knife is one part tool and one part treasure, holding a special place for anyone who enjoys the outdoors. The artisans at Rapid River create heirloom pieces of practical art that can be passed down for generations.
So, follow the Faroese wisdom: get a knife and a life.