- Associated Press - Monday, April 17, 2017

HILLSBOROUGH, N.H. (AP) - Step into Hillsborough knife-maker Caleb White’s workshop and one of the first things you see are dozens of sketches hanging up on the wall - detailed drawings of everything from ornate daggers to basic field knives.

Growing up enthralled by tales of knights in armor and sword fighting, White always loved to draw swords and blades. But it wasn’t until about a decade ago that he realized he could actually learn how to make them.

“I’m a traditional artist, but most artwork isn’t useful for much,” White said. “First and foremost, it’s got to be functional.”

His handmade knives have a wide range of function, including for cooking and hunting. White has also started making traditional straight razors for shaving and plans to start working on fold-up pocket knives next.

These days, he spends much of his time in his backyard workshop, shaping, cutting, forging and finishing each by hand, using steel for the blade and wood, bone and synthetic materials for the handle.

It’s a time-intensive process; the smallest knives take 5 to 8 hours from start to finish; a more ornate piece like a dagger can take up to a month to get right.

A member of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, White says he’s noticed a resurgence of people who want to buy local products made by hand in the United States. Even though his knives cost more than the average one you might buy in a big box store, people are putting up the money.

“I made this with my own hand,” White said. “That’s a promise you’re buying. You’re not going to get that from Wal-Mart.”

White said it wasn’t until he was serving in U.S. Air Force that he appreciated how much knives are used as tools, rather than weapons.

Initially excited to learn how to fight with his military-issued combat knife, he soon realized the heavy, dull knife was more useful to pry open jars and crack rocks.

“It’s huge, it’s heavy, it wasn’t very sharp,” White laughed. “They’re useful for every day.”

His first teacher was a friend in Wyoming who had a shop and tools and showed him the basics of metallurgy.

Around the same time, White inherited a handmade dagger that his great-grandfather made by hand in 1917 and that he had been fascinated with as a child.

“I loved that thing,” he said.

That family connection combined with the new techniques he was learning got him hooked on the craft.

“That was the moment for me that I knew,” White said. “This is what God put me on the Earth to do, this is my thing.”

White still carries the first knife he ever made on his belt. It’s tiny, the pointy tip has broken off and the blade is blunt, but he still uses it to pry things open and scrape away excess materials as he’s working.

He jokes that the larger and more ornate a knife is, the less useful it is.

“The more useless a knife becomes, the higher you can charge for it,” he laughs. “At the end of the day, you’ve got to be able to make a living.”

The dagger that he worked on for a month has a carved handle made out of walrus bone, and it’s going for $2,100.

And that’s the low end of the price range for ornate daggers, he said. He knows fellow craftsmen who charge up to $50,000 for pieces they make that include jewels and precious metals.

At this point, White doesn’t have the budget to buy expensive materials. But he’s looking forward to working on new things, including knives with handles made out of stone and the folding pocket knives.

It’s taken White years of practice, careful repetition and mistakes to get to this point.

“I’ve taught myself most of this,” he said. “You cannot just learn from a book.”

He’s imparting the knowledge to more people, with a series of YouTube tutorials on knife-making basics, from epoxying handles to grinding bevels. He’s got an online following and has also started teaching some classes in his shop.

Next to about six finished knives and daggers with gleaming steel blades and carved handles, a small box lies on White’s workbench. It contains what he calls his “experiences,” the chipped and broken blades that came from heating metal up too much or cooling it off too quickly while the material is too brittle.

“Every time I fail at something, I take it as an experience,” he said. “It’s taken years of trial and error.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/2pabK82

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Information from: Concord Monitor, http://www.concordmonitor.com

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