L.T. Wright Classes Share the Secrets of Knife-Making
by Todd Swanson
Resolve to Evolve
How are those New Year’s resolutions going? Did you chuck ‘em already, like I did?
Well, I suggest a replacement resolution, a fun resolution, and a resolution that will enrich your life and renew your attitude. And what’s more, it’s one you’re sure to follow-through on …
Take a knife-making class at L.T. Wright Handcrafted Knives!
They say no knowledge is wasted, and lifelong learning is the key to staying sharp in later years. So for these and many other reasons, I believe I’m better-off for taking the Beginner’s Knife-Making Class at L.T. Wright Knives last summer. Months later, it is an experience that has stayed with me.
When he created this series of classes, L.T.’s goal was to show people who love knives that with a little coaching, anyone with a modest home shop can make their own quality tools: All a person needs is the desire, a few key tools, and a mentor to show the way. This simple conviction was the theme that resurfaced many times throughout the two-day weekend class. And the surprising part: Within just two days, you’ll agree.
A Cutting-Edge Knife Maker
If you’re new to the world of custom knives, L.T. Wright is the founder of L.T. Wright Handcrafted Knives (LTWK), a family-run business outside Steubenville, OH. Every knife that comes out of the LTWK shop is guaranteed handmade to a high level of quality. In fact, at any step in the process a knife that doesn’t meet their high standards “goes straight into the vice,” where the steel is broken before being recycled into fresh blanks.
LTWK takes orders for custom knives and produces several successful product lines, including a collaborative project with British knifemaker Gary Wines. Customizing their production models keeps them busy as well, often as promotions for high-profile customers like the NRA.
And the dedication to excellence extends to the peripheries of knife-making as well. To help ensure consistent quality, LTWK has expanded into creating Kydex sheaths for their unique custom and production products. They even make fire steels.
Maintaining not just quality but also consistency among high-volume handmade knives is the mark of a truly extraordinary knifemaker. So who better to learn from?
Living on the Edge
Like so many other experiences I’ve had since I began writing for WoodsMonkey, I had some trepidation about diving into a world I knew so little about.
I’m not the capable grease-monkey most of my friends are, and while I loved high school Shop class and occasionally fumble through projects in my garage, I’m not in any way competent in a workshop. I worried that this deficiency in my self-reliance skills made me unqualified to take any classes that involved shop machinery.
But within ten minutes of class, I realized two things: 1)the other the students, whether male or female,came from various backgrounds and were roughly of my skill level — some knew a little more, some a little less — and 2) I’m exactly the kind of person that L.T. is trying to help.
Fellow student Michele Marrinan agrees.
“I was worried about being so new to the world of knives,” says Michele, who traveled from Pittsburgh to take the Beginner class with her husband, Brian. “I didn’t even know how to use the steel-rod-thingy in my knife block.”
But L.T. and his instructors soon put Michele’s anxieties to rest.
“The atmosphere at L.T.’s shop was very nurturing,” she said. “They sincerely want you to learn, and they teach you in a way that makes you feel knowledgeable and capable.”
Another thing that put me at ease right away was the emphasis on safety. This message came loud and clear in two ways.
The first is that early in the introductions, L.T. made it clear that safety was of the utmost importance, and this priority was reiterated in the handout. He stressed the importance of safety gear, reminded us to always wait for an instructor, and warned us about which machines were most dangerous. (Hint: It’s one of the last ones you might expect.)
The second emphasis on safety was that our welcome packets came equipped with dust masks and safety glasses. We were also gifted with an LTWK themed shop apron to keep the sparks off, which I now use in my home shop, especially when I’m cutting metal or wood.
The Welcome Packet
There were a number of other goodies in the welcome packet.
Most exciting were the components of our knives-to-be: A rectangular plate of metal that would become the full-tang blade, two bricks of scale material, a brass tube for a lanyard hole, and two pins for fitting the scales to the blade.
The knife-making components were impressive, because L.T. didn’t skimp on any of the parts. The blade blank was versatile O1 tool steel, a high-carbon steel with good edge retention, preferred by many self-reliance experts. And the blocks of durable scale material were a resin-infused black canvas called Micarta.
L.T. took time to explain the virtues of these materials, as well as comparing and contrasting them with the pros and cons of other options. Even though I’ve written more about knives than any other WoodsMonkey topic, I was reminded that there’s always more to learn.
Something often overlooked but very helpful was the syllabus. This handout contained a welcome note, an overview of what would be covered over the weekend, and an equipment list. It also contained a diagram showing the parts of a knife, like a visual glossary, and a list breaking down each step of the knife-making process. This really helped to orient us, gave some structure to our note-taking, and showed us what to expect from each day.
There was even a Sharpie marker for tracing a wooden template onto our blade material.
A notebook, pen, and name tag rounded out the contents. If I could change only one thing about the class — and come to think of it, the only thing I would change —would be for the instructors to wear name tags too, especially on that first morning. That way when L.T. sent me to Mikey or Scott or Russ, I’d know where to go.
The Pros that Made the Cut
Apart from taking the plunge and signing up, the key to your success in class is the team that L.T. built. The pro knife-makers at LTWK may not have been master craftsmen when they first stepped through his door, but L.T.’s mentorship made expert apprentices of them all. But what makes them special goes beyond drill presses and belt sanders.
The employees that thrive at LTWK — the people who make the cut, so to speak — are the ones most like L.T. in nature: Inclusive and unassuming, patient and persistent, with a fixation on quality and an enthusiasm for sharing what they love.
For all these reasons, we students were soon comfortable with the LTWK crew. What you’ll find when you first wander into their shop is an unpretentious group of friends that invites you openly into the fold. It doesn’t hurt to be greeted with doughnuts, coffee, and a handshake, either.
The Sharpest Tools in the Shed!
Beyond all this, L.T. and his instructors are surprisingly proficient instructors. They never talked down to any of the students, but instead talked to us like we already knew each other. I’m convinced the reason is simply that that’s exactly how they really saw us. The impression I got was that the LTWK instructors saw us as kindred spirits, novices eager to understand the art of what they do for a living. And besides, what artist doesn’t like to know his unique skills are appreciated?
So while being a bit more knowledgeable would be nice, being a greenhorn student is no detriment. On the contrary, you’ll find that the more help you need, the more eager the LTWK instructors are to help.
The Shape of Things
If you’re like me, the biggest worry of trying something new is not knowing what to expect. So here’s a brief run-down of what you can expect from two days at the L.T. Wright Basic Class.
Bring a camera. The LTWK crew welcomes you to take pictures throughout the class, assuming you don’t put yourself in harm’s way for the sake of a photo.
Class starts early each morning, so no sleeping in that weekend, but for these couple of days it’s entirely worthwhile. Again, doughnuts are available for those who didn’t make it to a restaurant on time. There is a one-hour break for lunch each day, and on the hill above the shop is a long strip of fast-food restaurants to suit many palettes, so you have your druthers.
The class itself is hands-on. This might sound like a no-brainer, but I just want to emphasize that there is no step in the process where the student isn’t learning, trying, and doing. In fact, the knife you leave with is one you can confidently and truthfully say you made.
The instructors might demonstrate on one side of your blade or handles, but they insist that you do the other side, if not both. Everything you’ll need to do will be obvious to you, because the instructors explain and demonstrate each step of the process, and they stand by you as you work, watching over your form as well as your safety. But even when they’re helping you along, they’re teaching. Not one opportunity for learning slips by them.
Eric Raymont, a metallurgical engineer from Coshocton, OH, appreciated this approach:
“The instruction was really well balanced. They weren’t going to let you fail, but they weren’t going to do it for you either.”
The instructors helped me most with symmetry. And from what they say, that is pretty common. As they explained, doing one side of anything is pretty easy. Making the sides match is the real trick, and at the professional level, it’s what separates their work from the amateurs’.
But no need to stress about getting the symmetry perfect. The LTWK instructors won’t let you fail, but rather they’ll help just enough to ensure that you’ll take home a knife you’re proud of.
Bringing It Home
To illustrate how joining an LTWK class means joining the LTWK family, we were all invited to L.T.’s house for supper Saturday evening. I don’t know that they’ll always be able to do this, but L.T.’s big-hearted wife treated us to a buffet of delicious snacks, entrees, and desserts.
She was very generous while we overran her home, a jocular party of hungry, grungy students that flooded the dining and family rooms and spilled onto the porch. Afterward, we enjoyed some fun banter and friendly ribbing over soda and cold beers.
This was when I began to see that the strength of LTWK Handcrafted Knives was forged in a family-fired crucible and quenched in sweat: Until recent years, the entire business was run out of L.T.’s house. We got a tour highlighting where all the equipment once sat in the basement, where everyone was stationed as their jobs evolved, while the first floor had been consumed by the offices and shipping department.
This is worth mentioning because it speaks volumes about the kind of place LTWK is and how it’s run: highly professional and value-centered. For me, this not only inspires confidence in LTWK products, it adds greater depth to the integrity of the superb knife you’ll take away from the class.
In fact, even the LTWK hat I bought at the end of class was sturdily stitched of tough materials.
To touch briefly on specifically what steps and tools you might expect to use during class, here is a short rundown.
- After tracing the shape of the beginner knife onto our steel, we removed most excess metal at the band saw before roughing out the blade profile with a 36-grit sanding belt.
- A row of drill presses equipped with different bit sizes enabled us to add holes for the brass lanyard tube and handle pins.
- The first of several flattening stages preceded stamping the blade with a pneumatic press and scribing the center lines for grinding the angles onto the blade. More flattening with hammer and belt grinders follows.
- The heat treat stage was a spectacle as Scott walked us through heating the blank with an acetylene torch, quenching in oil, and tempering the metal through slow reheating.
- On day two we began to move toward finish work by bead-blasting with fine glass beads and then smoothing this with Scotch Brite.
- Next came the scale preparation steps from cutting them to a rough shape, drilling holes to match the blade handle, and shaping and polishing the fronts before shaping the pins, gluing everything up, and clamping it in place.
- Then came the precision finish work like cutting and peening the pins, squaring and roughing the handle before rolling the handle on a belt sander to its final shape.
- Next comes polishing the scales on high-grit belts and the buffing wheel. The buffing wheel, by the way, was that most dangerous machine that L.T. had mentioned earlier, but with the guidance of an instructor, this step was a breeze.
- Finally comes finish up with sharpening the blade, cleaning up the spine, buffing the bevel and edge. After all this, there is nothing more satisfying that the final step: testing the razor edge by cutting paper.
Sound like a lot? It is. And it’s not. The LTWK instructors make this whole process easy and achievable for every student. And at the end, there’s an excellent JRE leather sheath to help protect and show off the fruits of your labors.
So, you don’t see yourself becoming a professional knife maker, and you’re wondering what’s the point? Well, I can tell you what it did for me and my fellow students.
It gave us an even greater understanding and appreciation for the skill that goes into crafting a quality knife. It is a small investment that can payoff big later by saving money on sharpening, on buying expensive knives, by making Christmas presents ourselves. It also better equips me to evaluate other knives I might buy or review. And best of all, taking the LTWK class allows us to indulge our hobby, not just for one weekend, but for many weekends to come. After all, teach a man to fish …
But there is more to it than that. Taking the Beginner class gives you greater confidence, and on several levels: I am more comfortable in my own workshop, and with a larger variety of tools; I no longer feel reliant on others to sharpen my knives to that crisp edge I always want by can never seem to get; and I have an improved opinion of my self-reliance skills.
Because of all these reasons, and perhaps most importantly, taking the LTWK knife-making class gave me more confidence in, and an improved opinion of, myself.
And I’m not the only one.
“My husband convinced me to take the Beginner class,” says Marrinan, “but I’m the one who can’t wait to sign up for the next level.”
Hone Your Self-Reliance Tools
The first Beginner’s Knife-Making Class for 2016 will be held March 19-20 at their shop in Wintersville, OH, just outside Steubenville.
Resolve to make better resolutions. LTWK will offer more advanced knife-making classes in time, and they already offer a Kydex sheath class. Tackle the Beginner’s class this year, and your resolutions for the foreseeable future will be easy to make and easy to fulfill.
For more information, email info@LTWrightKnives.com or call 740-317-1404.
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