The quest for the "Perfect Knife"
An article by Joe Bergman from the "Clarion News"
"I’m always trying to build the perfect knife.” Bill Keeton says. But ask any of his local, national, or international customers and they’ll tell you that if his knives aren’t already “perfect”, they are as close as any you can find anywhere in the world. His clients include General Norman Schwarzkopf, golfers Fuzzy Zoeller, Paul Azinger and jockey Pat Day for whom Keeton made and donated a special knife to be auctioned at the Churchill Downs Derby Museum to benefit Day’s wife’s ministry, “Mom’s Closet”. Keeton is Christian and credits his expertise as a gift from God.
A local client, Mark Frazier of Lanesville says, “I bought a small patch knife from Bill and plan to get one of his hunters. It’s the best knife I’ve ever owned, mass produced or custom made. The quality and sharpness are top-notch.” Frazier mentioned Keeton’s faith as one reason he was drawn to him.
Keeton, of Laconia, is a member of the prestigious Knifemakers Guild, an international organization for creators of bench-made knives, and he has been making knives for 35 years. Retired now from management at Phillip Morris, Inc., he began by making a knife from a kit he purchased from a magazine article. Intrigued by the experience, he taught himself each step required till now he performs each operation of the knife-making process.
Starting with a flat piece of tool steel, Keeton cuts the pattern, shapes the three-dimensional contour of the blade, heat-treats the metal in his special kiln to a temperature of near 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and sub-zero quenches it in liquid nitrogen to a Rockwell hardness of 61. He shapes the scales or handles from raw hunks of India Sambar stag, ivory (the legal stuff), bone, antler, micarta and several kinds of wood including stabilized wood and Desert Ironwood (a wood so dense that it won’t float in water). Finally, he sharpens the blade to razor sharpness and polishes it in one of three finishes: satin, mirror finish, or hand-rubbed to create a beautiful, functional, one of a kind knife.
Though anyone who sees one of his knives would say he has mastered his craft, he says he’s still learning. “There’s no crash course for knife-making, it’s a constant learning experience. That’s what appeals to me.” Keeton says.
Not satisfied with some of the commercial equipment available, Keeton also makes a number of the tools he uses in his craft on a machinist’s lathe and he designed and built a special grinder with the help of a friend. He also makes the sheaths for each of his creations, wet-forming the leather to each knife and sewing them on a heavy-duty sewing machine he purchased just for this job and stamping each with the same serial number as the knife.
Metalworker, machinist, leather-smith, metallurgist, craftsman, artist. This is a man who has pursued his hobby/vocation to the nth degree. The inevitable question came up, how long does it take to make a knife? “That’s a question I always hedge on.” Keeton says. “I play golf twice a week and I may not make a knife for a week. The complexity of the model makes a difference too.”
Hunting knives, patch knives for muzzle loaders, fighting knives, pocket knives and filet knives for the fisherman are all included in his repertoire. He tries to keep a stock of his knives on hand and can personalize these or make you a custom designed blade from a number of special steels.... you’re getting a one of a kind, heirloom quality piece that can be handed down for generations. That said, these are working knives, and they are made to be used.