John B. Hege Custom "Perfect Field Knife"
By Gary Zinn
Photo by Jennifer Boleyn.
If you had asked me a year ago if I ever expected to own a custom made knife, I would have said, "No." I admire custom knives as examples of the best of the knife makers craft, but I had always thought of them as collector items. I am not a collector; when I buy a knife it is with the intention of using it for some purpose.
However, I now have my first custom knife. What happened was that for years I have searched for what I have come to think of as the perfect field knife. Several production knives that I have owned have come close, but none has ever fully satisfied me. I decided that if I were to ever have my perfect field knife (PFK), I would have to find someone to help me design it and then build it for me.
I live in North Carolina and I wanted someone nearby to build my PFK. An internet search led me to the website of the North Carolina Custom Knife Makers Guild, where I found a list of some four dozen members. I began researching those names and soon zeroed in on John B. Hege, from Danbury, NC. I chose John for my initial contact, because of the straightforward styling and clean workmanship of the knifes displayed on his website (www.jbhegecustomknives.com).
I sent John an e-mail outlining my concept and asked if he would be interested in working on it. He responded positively and said he would like to know more about how I planned to use the knife, any dimensional parameters about which I felt strongly and a sketch of the knife profile as I conceived it. I began my reply by stressing that my PFK would be a working knife, not a display diva. I explained that I wanted the knife to be simple, tough, compact and versatile.
I will discuss simple and tough together, as they are interrelated. I wanted a full-tang, fixed blade knife, which facilitates both simplicity and toughness. Mill the steel with a quillon to separate the blade and handle, attach a pair of scales to the handle tang and it's all good. There is no need for a front bolster, separate finger guard or other furniture. What could be simpler? Factor in the strength of a full tang and durable handle material and you have a tough knife.
Compact is a relative term. My PFK is not a small knife, but it is not a machete, either. Through decades of experience, I have concluded that a blade 3-1/4 to 3-1/2 inches long is sufficient for most of the outdoor cutting tasks I encounter. With that blade length, an overall length of eight inches gives room for an adequate handle. Handle length has been one of my pet peeves, as a number of the knives with blades of this length I have tried had handles that were too short for a full, comfortable grip.
The simplicity of the knife helps keep the weight down. Assuming a maximum blade thickness of 1/8-inch and no extraneous furniture, the knife should weigh a bit less than five ounces. I told John that I expect to carry the knife a lot and wanted its size and weight to be such that I would forget I was wearing it.
Versatility is a function of blade size and geometry, complemented by good handle ergonomics. What I want is a knife that will be efficient at field dressing and skinning deer, as well as cleaning small game, fish and doing any number of other cutting chores. The blade profile I chose is an upswept drop point with a continuously curved cutting edge. When I first described this to John, he said "Huh?" This is the key element of my PFK, so please bear with me while I explain.
A conventional drop point blade has a spine that is straight for most if its length, but then drops slightly to the tip. The edge of the blade will also be mostly straight, but then curve rather quickly to the tip. This yields a blade with what I call a medium-sharp point. There are many good examples on the market.
An upswept drop point is most commonly found in a skinner blade. In a classic skinner pattern the blade spine curves upward gently for most of its length, with a short, abrupt drop to the tip. The edge of the blade runs straight for about two-thirds of its length before curving quickly to a relatively blunt point. The Buck Model 0103BKS-B is a classic skinner knife.
My PFK has a somewhat longer, gentler spine drop and the edge curves continuously along its length. This gives a more sharply pointed tip than would normally be found on a skinner, with a more gently curved edge.
I like curved blades. They are very efficient for slicing, which is what I do most with a knife, and I cannot think of many cutting tasks where a straight edge is clearly better than a curved one. This blade has enough curve and belly to do a good job at skinning, while the longer spine drop and well-developed point have advantages for general use.
My blade profile was inspired by the Kershaw Model 1082 Field Knife. I own one of these and really like the blade geometry, so I used the Kershaw's blade as a model for my PFK's quillon, cutting edge, blade spine peak and drop.
However, I dislike two elements of the Kershaw Field Knife's overall design. One of these is a thumb rise milled into the knife's spine at the transition between the handle and blade. This gets in the way when I use a grip that involves resting the thumb or forefinger on the spine. I solved this problem by eliminating the thumb rise, specifying a smooth, shallow arc from the peak of the blade spine into the handle spine.
To be precise about blade length, I specified 3-1/4 inches of sharpened edge (linear measurement from the point). Then I asked for a 1-1/4 inch run of jimping on the blade spine, just forward of the handle. This completed the blade plan. Incidentally, after the fact I discovered that I had unknowingly created a slender version of a late 19th Century skinner/utility blade pattern called a Nessmuk.
The Kershaw knife's second shortcoming is that the handle is narrow and a half-inch too short. When I hold the knife, my last finger slips off of the pommel and the handle does not adequately fill my palm. I definitely needed to go in a different direction with the handle of my PFK.
After mulling this over for some time, something occurred to me: I used to own an Original Canadian Belt Knife, which I gave to a nephew. I recalled how ergonomic the handle of that knife was, so I thought, Why not?
I do not recall seeing this handle style used on other knives, except reproductions of the Canadian Belt Knife, perhaps because it looks a bit odd. However, it has merits that were covered by Cal Bablitz in his Guns and Shooting Online knife review Grohmann #1, The Canadian Belt Knife:
"The uniquely shaped offset handle is easy to grip securely, even when wet, and it is virtually impossible to grasp it in a manner that feels uncomfortable."
I have an inexpensive knockoff of the Canadian Belt Knife that I use as a beater. I traced and tweaked its handle profile and when I matched up the blade and handle sketches, everything just flowed together. Excellent!
There were two more details regarding the handle to be addressed. I do not use lanyards, so I said, "No lanyard hole in the handle."
More important was the issue of handle material. For a tough, durable working knife a quality synthetic material, such as G10 or Micarta, would be a good choice. Antler and bone are also proven materials. Hwever, I like the look and feel of wood handles, so I asked for wood handle scales, natural or stabilized.
That about covers the specifications, preferences and ideas I gave John. I left the choice of steel, blade grind, finish, and other technical details to his discretion. He is the expert here and I am the neophyte. I told him that if anything I proposed did not make sense, he should not hesitate to correct me. This was a valuable understanding, for I suggested a particular wood for the handle scales that John had used previously with disappointing results. He explained this and recommended another wood; I quickly agreed. Now it is time to look at the final product.
John likes ATS-34 stainless steel for working knives, so that is what he used. The blade is 3/32 inches thick at the spine and 15/16 inches wide at the belly with 3-1/4 inches of sharpened edge. It is flat ground with a satin finish. Yes, it's sharp. There is a 1-1/4 inch run of filed jimping on the spine just forward of the handle.
The handle scales are bokote, a naturally oily wood that is good for a working knife that may get wet at times. The scale pins are brass. I really like the look of the caramel and ebony grain pattern on the bokote used for my knife. It also feels good; smooth due to the fine grain, but not slick.
The handle design worked out great. It has maximum dimensions of 3/4-inch wide by one inch deep, with a depth of 11/16-inches at the throat (under the index finger position). The handle fills my palm and is still well-proportioned relative to the blade. I have held the knife in every way I can and the natural ergonomics of the Canadian belt knife handle style proved-out. It is secure and comfortable with any practical grip.
Further, the knife has a neutral balance. The balance point is one inch behind the front of the handle, so if I grasp the knife and open my hand it just sits there on my fingers. Sweet!
The knife is 7-15/16 inches long overall and weighs 4.3 ounces. The sheath adds 1.7 ounces, for a total carry weight of six ounces, which is excellent.
John makes his own sheaths. I asked for a simple pouch sheath and he executed it beautifully in a rich brown leather that complements the color of the handle.
John and I added a couple of small custom touches to this otherwise plain knife. I suggested red handle scale liners as an accent and John installed mosaic scale pins in the center of the handle (note in photo at top of page). In addition, John stamps his mark on all his knives.
Photo by Jennifer Boleyn.
It would not be useful for me to simply quote the price I paid for my PFK. There are too many variables that affect the cost of building a custom knife for the price of a particular knife to have broader meaning.
My PFK is a no-frills working knife without exotic materials or extra crafting beyond basic knife making. Accordingly, it fell in the low range of custom knife pricing. A knife with the latest miracle steel and Unicorn ivory handle, engraved bolsters, embossed sheath, etc., would cost much more. I'm completely satisfied that my PFK is worth what I paid and I am grateful to John Hege for understanding my concept and making it a reality.
I have had my PFK for eight months and it has met my expectations. It looks, handles and performs great.
Meanwhile, I became interested in Helle brand knives and recently bought two of them. (See Helle Symfoni and Alden Hunting Knives.) One of these, called the Symfoni, fits my PFK parameters. It is a fine knife and if I had bought it before I designed the PFK, I probably would not have had the PFK built.
However, I am glad things worked out as they did, because I am very happy to own both of these knives. I am now even considering having a second PFK built, identical to the original, except with a clip point blade.
Copyright 2014 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.