A Keen Sense of Tradition

November 2, 2015 | By More

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Deryl Wright’s knife shop is neat and orderly. It’s what you would expect from a master of knifesmithing. Tight tolerances separate quality knives from mere hunks of steel in the archaic craft of bladesmithing. Detail is the name of the game, and Deryl is a detail oriented person. Observing the order of the shop — grinding belts hung neatly, drill bits arranged by size, clutter to an absolute minimum — you wonder if knifesmithing forged him into a detail oriented person or if he was drawn to it as extension of who he is, kind of a chicken or egg scenario. But when you visit with him for a while, it becomes apparent that it is a bit of both.

Precision is part of Deryl’s character. Perched atop cabinets in his knife shop’s kitchenette are symbols that attest to this. Competition archery and pistol trophies shine in the fluorescent  shop lights. Compound and recurve bows hang on a rack behind rows of fishing rods at the ready and ranging from light-weight fly rods on up to deep-sea tackle rated for tuna. Each rod stands at attention, and the G-Loomis insignia on all of them tells you their owner demands quality. Deryl has stored his fishing reels in padded cases, there are several cases, and the reels number deep into double digits. He tells the story behind the purchase of one saltwater rod and reel combo. He tells a story about how a tuna drug his boat three miles over a four-hour fight. He talks about a 100-yard bow shot on a deer, about the precision thinking that led to a killing shot. Though you’re tempted to call them campfire tales, Deryl has a presence, a matter-of-fact personality,  that tells you this is not a man prone to telling stories to impress. He doesn’t have to.

Deryl’s thick forearms end at a pair of broad and rugged hands. His hands look like what you would expect of someone that does manual labor; they’re suited for the fencepost or hammer. But Deryl’s meaty fingers move with surprising dexterity as he walks me through the steps of knife making. Barrel chested and built solid, Deryl stands over his work table and lifts a knife as he talks about steel. Any discussion of knives begins and ends with steel. Deryl turns the blade over in his hand and traces the knife’s spine with a fingernail. “If I’m going to make a knife I’m going to us the best material I can use,” said Deryl. “If you don’t use the best steel you’re defeating your purpose before you even start.”

Quality steel means the perfect balance, or as close as you can get, to a knifesmith’s dream steel — soft enough to take a keen edge but hard enough to hold that edge. The old simile “hard as steel” isn’t entirely accurate. Steel can vary in hardness and this variability is measured by the Rockwell scale, it’s a measurement of penetration steel allows by an indenting machine. “You can get steel too hard,” said Deryl. “I get all my steel 60 1/2 Rockwell. I don’t want it 59, I don’t want it 61, I want it 60 1/2 Rockwell. It gives the ability to hold a fine edge without it breaking off.”

To make a knife, as Deryl explains, you start with marking an outline on a steel blank then to cutting the form and drilling holes for handle attachment and lanyard, and then it’s off to the grinder. Deryl’s knives are the product of friction not flame. Gritted belts lick away steel one sparking atom at a time, honing and polishing and shaping as Deryl guides the metal. “If you grind one side of the blade more than the other you’ve got a knife that won’t cut a straight line,” said Deryl. After the blade is shaped it’s sent off for heat treating and then cryogenically quenched; the metal is  scorched almost white hot then plunged into nearly interstellar cold of negative 300 F. The knife is born from fire and ice.

Deryl’s interest in knives springs from utility. He is a lifelong hunter, though he says he doesn’t hunt much anymore, and an interesting mishap in the woods led him to knifesmithing. In the fall of 1969 Deryl was fortunate to kill a Wyoming elk deep in the wilderness. As he worked on field dressing the elk, his fingers fumbled and the knife plunged into two feet of snow. A knife buried in deep snow is a knife lost. “You don’t go to feeling around for a sharp knife in the snow when you’re 100 miles from anywhere,” said Deryl with a chuckle. But Deryl knew a knifesmith, fellow by the name of Jimmy Lyle; you may have heard of him.

When he got back to Arkansas, Deryl explained to Jimmy how he’d lost his knife and asked the talented knifesmith to make him a replacement. Jimmy agreed, but then asked Deryl what would later turn out to be a pivotal question: Why don’t you make your own knife? All of these blades, these tools, this shop can be traced back to knowing the legendary Jimmy Lile.  “Jimmy Lile got me making knives in 1970,” said Deryl. “Jimmy hooked me up with a supplier and I made knives for a few years and then I quit.” Deryl says he doesn’t really know why he quit. But then another world-class Arkansas knife maker named Bob Dozier contacted him in 2008 and invited him to a knife show in Rogers.     “I said ‘Bob, I ain’t making no more knives,’” said Deryl. “‘I’ve already got all the knives I’ll ever use, I don’t need any more.’” But Bob talked him into going anyway. “Mistake,” said Deryl. “I got some stuff up there and started making knives again.” And that led to where Deryl is today. “l learned a lot about making knives from Bob Dozier,” said Deryl. “I learned how to do it the right way.”

We move from Deryl’s shop into his home where a guest bed is used to display his work for me. There are knives and sheaths of varying sizes and shapes. Deryl makes the sheaths as well, each crafted to exactly fit a specific knife. The marriage of knife and sheath is flawless in each example, almost organic in perfection, and the assortment of blades and leather in front of us scream quality. The smooth and sensuous  knife handles from a variety of materials — African black wood, cocobolo, buckeye, stag antler, ram horn, buffalo horn — fit naturally to the palm and the knives’ heft and balance make them feel less like a tool and more like a natural extension of your hand.

But the form is due to function. “I don’t make knives to hang on the wall and look at, but I don’t criticize those who do,” said Deryl. His knives are beautiful, they are works of art, but part of the beauty lies in their cool pragmatism. Deryl’s knives are made to work, to cut through hide and meat. “All these knives are sharp,” said Deryl. He demonstrates by shaving off a pile of hair with nothing more than a gentle glide down his forearm. But despite his obvious talent, Deryl tends to speak with humility and respect for the craft when talking about his work. “It’s not me that makes these knives some of the finest cutting knives. It’s the steel. It’s the heat treating and it’s taking care of them after heat treating.” All of these are proven techniques passed down from masters. Deryl seems to understand that he is only a caretaker of this knowledge. This is a notable characteristic, and it’s a characteristic that comes into play for another interesting aspect of Deryl — his Native American heritage.

Deryl is a member of the Wyandotte Nation, a sovereign Native American Nation in Oklahoma. More than just a member, Deryl is on the Wyandotte Nation Cultural Committee and a Gourd Dancer. Gourd Dancers are the elder warriors of the tribe, and an invitation to the ranks is a show of respect. Other tribal blood flows through Deryl — Delaware, Seneca and Cherokee — But he has embraced his Wyandotte heritage. Deryl’s knifesmithing skills have been integral part of modern Wyandotte heritage. He has been commissioned to replicate knives taken from Wyandotte burial mounds now held in a museum in Ottawa, Canada. The knives can’t be taken from the museum and his replicas will be the used to share that culture with those that can’t make it to Ottawa. Deryl also crafted an incredible knife to symbolize the Wyandotte Nation today and presented to his chief and other tribal elders on the day of groundbreaking for a new Wyandotte cultural center. The knife is inscribed with names and likenesses of Wyandotte chiefs and the Wyandotte turtle emblem. Deryl said he counts the crafting of that knife as one of his most notable and proud accomplishments.

“There is probably a little bit of Indian influence in my knife making,” said Deryl. “It’s the reason I don’t make knives to put on the wall. He [the Indian] didn’t have knives to look at. He had knives to use.” Deryl’s Native American roots may have indeed influenced his knife making, but there’s more to his skill than Indian ancestry. Maybe a combination of genetics and culture fused in a man with ideal temperament for his craft. A malleable yet strong mind, exacting and deliberate, honed ever sharper by keeping the traditions passed down to him.

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