A visit to Steve Johnson, Manti, USA

In 2012 the Bybjerg family vacation was set to go to the US in an RV starting in Denver, Colorado and finishing in San Francisco, California. As our road trip would bring us very close to the famous knifemaker Steve Johnson's home in Utah, I took the opportunity to ask if we could pay him a visit.

When I started to make knives in 1999 I studied quite a lot of American websites, and especially www.knifenet.com and I became familiar with Steve's beautiful knives. I've been a fan of his subhilts and exceptional finish ever since. Some years ago Center Cross Instructional Videos published a DVD where Steve shows how to build a subhilt fighter from steel bar to finished product with a lot of good advice along the way. Of course, I had to have the DVD (being a fan!), but I never started to grind a blank myself.

Steve's career as a knifemaker began in the 1960s where his scout leader was the well-known knifemaker Gil Hibben. Gil is known for bowies, art knives and big knives (knives for Rambo!). Steve took a break from knifemaking to become a teacher, but he still received orders for knives, so when he had finished his education he had enough orders for a year's work. He took a chance and picked up knifemaking again and hasn't looked back ever since. His wife Dorothy and a couple of his sons have also participated in the family knife business. For a while he worked with Bob Loveless, the two of them had close to a father and son relationship.

Around 2 months before our vacation I sent an email to Steve asking him if we could pay him a visit, crossed my fingers for a positive reply - and got it! We set up a date for a meeting in July. It turned out that Steve has Danish ancestors as his maternal grand parents had immigrated from Denmark some time in the 18th century.

The Bybjergs showed up at Steve's house which was very nice and well-kept (which I had expected - when the man is careful with his knives, he is probably also careful with everything else). We had a chat with Steve and Dorothy and went to the workshop. His shop is an annex to the house, not very big, but well-equipped. When I told him which machines I have (quite a few...) he compared me to Bob Loveless who was also a tool-lover. I took that as a compliment!

In the first room he had books, a table for packaging, a copy mill and an old Bridgeport mill. In the middle room he had a split workbench with vises and hand tools, compressor, press for pins etc. In the back room he had a Bader belt grinder with quite a selection of grinding wheels, incl. a nice set of 14" wheels which he uses for both big and small blades. He also had a large Jet metal bandsaw, two disc grinders which he uses to align the handle of the blade after tapering and for cleaning up the ricasso, and a large polishing machine.

Steve then showed me how he grinds the bevel of a blade. He does not use and never has used any fixture of any kind ("maybe when I get really old, he said"). He starts with a 50 grit, at the moment his favourite is the Cubitron 967F from 3M, after this a Trizact CF 337 from 3M A45 (corresponds to 400 grit). For finishing he uses cork belts from Klingspor 400 and 1000 grit. He gave me a couple of samples that I have tested with a good result. The US standard belt is 2x72" (1829 mm), so somewhat shorter than the European 50x2000 mm. Since my belt grinders are home made I can make the belts fit one of my machines without rebuilding it. Steve also uses the same polishing compound for all processes: cork belts, disc grinder and polishing machine.

At the top of his production Steve made around 90 knives annually. Today, he makes 60-70 knives, some of them are existing knives where the owner wants a new, exotic handle of mammoth tusk or similar. His prices are 500$ - 5000$ and the knives are bought by collectors worldwide.

After a couple of hours of demoing and shop talk we left Steve and continued our vacation, richer in experience!