Forged in steel

By Pat Sunderland


Forged in steel | artist, People in the News, Fort Uncompahgre,

Photo by Pat Sunderland John York demonstrates the use of a longbow for members of the Old Spanish Trail Association. A chuckwagon dinner was served at Fort Uncompahgre in conjunction with the OSTA's annual convention in Grand Junction.

A lover of history, John York volunteers at Fort Uncompahgre once a week. As a docent, he shares the history of the original fort, which was built by Antoine Robidoux in 1828. The Indians and trappers brought furs to trade for sugar, coffee, beads and other goods brought in from the United States and Mexico. The pelts were also exchanged for guns and knives, with the simple butcher knife being the blade most favored for all-around use.

John has hunted and trapped throughout his life, so he understands the value of a good knife. He is also handy with both metal and wood, and fashioning knives has been a hobby of his for several years. He read with great interest an interpretive display at the fort, which explains that in the 1820s, both men and women carried butcher knives wherever they went as tools for day-to-day activities and to use as weapons if needed. Sheaths were either partially tanned hard leather or rawhide held together with brass tacks. The knives were worn close to the waist and held in place by either a belt or a cloth sash.

Using the rough outline on the interpretive panel as a guide, John decided to create authentic replicas of the trade knives that were sold in bulk at the fort at that time. He came up with a finished product that's about authentic as it gets.

"They didn't have 50 different varieties of knives to sell; they went with the butcher style." The handles were held on with brass pins, he says, and the more pins, the better the quality of the knife.

During a recent visit to the fort, he pulled one of his butcher knives from the sheath attached to a sash around his waist. "The blade is razor sharp," he said. "It can cut through a thicket of tamarisk and clean it out in about 10 minutes.

"For this one, I used mesquite wood for the handle, just for the fun of it. It's a pretty accurate reproduction, I think."

Hanging from a cord around his neck is a "neck knife," with a shorter blade that's always within reach. "This is handy to have when you're out working," he said, pointing to the deer antler tip. "And it's just about indestructible."

Not all his knives are fur-trading replicas, but they're all equally indestructible. In fact, John offers a lifetime warranty with each knife. He's been making knives for four or five years now, and not one has ever been returned, although he did issue his own "recall."

"My earlier knives were not ground in a way that made me happy," he explains, "so I refined my sharpening technique to get them razor sharp. My new grind has three different angles. These knives are so sharp, you can shave with them if you want to."

John explains that he got serious about knife making a couple of years ago when he bought a small forge. Before he had a way to harden raw steel, his knife blades were made from used saw blades that had already been heat treated and tempered, all American made and some over a hundred years old.

Now he can also use high carbon steel, including leaf spring steel for really heavy blades that are .204 inches thick or more. Because he doesn't have state-of-the-art (and super expensive) equipment, he uses old school tools that often leave a mark. "I like to view such marks and scars as adding chacter to the knife," he says.

For the handles, John uses elk or deer antlers or wood species that are durable and good to look at. John says his favorite is desert ironwood, but it's rare and very expensive. Hickory, Osage orange, mesquite, walnut, pistachio (when he can get it), maple, pecan and cherry are also suitable for handles.

He points out a butcher knife with a large handle crafted from an elk antler. He saw a similar knife at the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose, leading him to speculate this kind of knife would have been a suitable gift for Chief Ouray.

In the fur-trading era, knife buyers had to make their own sheaths. Each of John's custom-made knives comes with an equally unique handcrafted sheath.

"I have fun with the sheaths," John says. "Some I rivet, some I saddlestitch by hand, others I wrap with rawhide. It depends on the look I'm after."

Each knife is engraved with the model number and John's initials, JWY. For custom orders, John will add a personalized inscription.

"To me, these knives are a form of artistic expression because no two are the exact same. I have similar models but because each one is handmade, they're all different," he says.

John does not maintain a website, because he views knife-making primarily as a hobby, but he does sell his knives at Fort Uncompahgre, Gallery de la Luz in Delta, Pioneer Town in Cedaredge, the Gun Depot in Montrose, Tombstone Mercantile in Tombstone, Ariz., and the Benson Museum, which is also in Arizona.

Priced at $50 to $150 (in cash, not pelts), the knives appeal to folks who appreciate one-of-a-kind American-made products. John says he especially enjoys the challenge of custom orders.

"If I make a few bucks, I can buy another hide or more steel," he says.

John also makes arrows and longbows, but doesn't sell the bows because they're such a time-consuming endeavor. A bow he made out of locally-grown serviceberry to replicate an Indian bow is on display in the fort's trade room. Native people would have also used local wood for their arrows, but would have likely traded for obsidian for points -- at least until they got their hands on steel. "They would use that over stone any day," he says.

He regularly uses a longbow for hunting, spurning those "mechanical arrow-launching devices with wheels."

"I don't call those bows," he says.

For archery season, he purchases raw shafts, then adds steel arrowheads forged in his back yard. It took 20 years, he jokes, but he finally succeeded in getting an elk with a homemade longbow.

John is quite at home in the rough-hewn wooden structures that make up the fort, but recognizes that the traders, trappers and Indians who lived in that era endured unbelievable hardships. He's content to spend one day a week at the fort engaging with visitors and the rest of the week pursuing his many other interests.

John retired as a fire chief in Parker and moved to Delta with his wife Demeris 12 years ago. He is the co-owner of Cascade Bicycles in Montrose, and in addition to working there one day a week, spends as much time as he can riding his bike and staying fit at Bill Heddles Recreation Center. He considers himself "semi-retired," because he is also employed by the National Fire Academy to grade research papers. For that task, he relies strictly on modern technology.