If you set out to discuss knives with George Roberts, be prepared to invest some time.
When it comes to the properties of various metals, exotic hardwoods, modern acrylics and animal byproducts such as ivory, bone and antler – and how to work with them – the man has an encyclopedic knowledge he’s willing to share at length.
Which may seem surprising for someone whose elementary teachers believed he couldn’t learn.
“I tell everybody I have Grade 18, because I went to Grade 6 three times and never quite made it,” he laughs.
His final attempt lasted only four days.
But that doesn’t mean the farm kid from southwestern Ontario wasn’t learning.
“For some reason I was one of those kinds of persons that could just look at stuff and figure out how to repair it,” Roberts says.
“I learned an awful lot on the farm. When something was broke, it seemed like it was brought to me, so I spent a good deal of my time repairing stuff.”
At 14, Roberts left the farm and headed west, soon landing a job steel-tying for the reinforced concrete used to erect the Calgary Tower.
“I was a fair-sized lad, and very knowledgeable by that time,” he explains.
“I always hung around with people that were five, six, seven years older than I was, so I was that mentality already. I never had much kid in me, other than running off from school and going fishing and hunting.”
To be fair, he wasn’t doing it just for recreation. His large, impoverished family badly needed the rabbits, deer and fish he brought home.
After his stint in Calgary, trying different types of work, Roberts returned to the farm.
“I found out I’m a hillbilly farmer,” he jokes. “That’s all I know.”
Working with different metals to repair farm implements, he observed that some were softer than others. With a bit of reading and talking with a local blacksmith, he began to understand what made them different.
“But always, when I looked at a piece of machinery, I could figure out right away why that piece of metal needs to be soft, or why it needs to be hard, because of its function.”
In the mid-’70s, an opportunity arose that would eventually lead Roberts to a 30-year career as a master knifemaker whose handcrafted Bandit Blades have fetched prices as high as $10,000 from international collectors.
A friend who was working at a summer resort in Northern Ontario stumbled across an abandoned fishing lodge near Wawa – in fact, the original Scuttlebutt Lodge used as a setting for fishing guru Red Fisher’s TV show.
The pair managed to buy it, and restore it for a fly-in fishing operation.
But the ever-observant Roberts noticed a problem.
“We had employees there cleaning fish, and I spent a lot of my time trying to sharpen junk. And I started to wonder, ‘Why? What’s going on here?'”
As a kid, Roberts had always been fascinated by knives, and was never without one or two in his pocket.
“When it came fishing time, it was nothing to go to the hardware store and buy a knife, and it worked. And all of a sudden, they didn’t work. You couldn’t buy a good one.”
The reason, he soon learned, was that most knives available were now being mass-produced offshore, mostly in China, from inferior.
If he wanted good knives, Roberts concluded, he would have to learn how to make them himself, the old way.
“So, back to my roots again, with the metal and stuff. More studying.”
It was during a hospital visit that he encountered stainless surgical steel and thought, “Whoa. That’s the stuff, eh?”
With no knifemaking steel in surgical grade available at the time, he realized he would have to improvise.
“I ended up going to a university in Vancouver and talked to a metal professor, and he said, this is what you want, right here. He gave me a textbook and gave me some numbers, and I followed that up.”
The Japanese-manufactured steel was hard to come by, and what he could get from US markets was quite thick.
“You would have to grind it down, or machine it down to get it to the thickness you’d need,” he says.
“The early knives were labour-intensive, to say the least. Nowadays, we can buy as small as 1/16, 62-thou in surgical grade steel.”
Then the US space program brought about a giant leap in steel technology.
“The last 15 years, as far as knifemaking goes – the steel that’s available – incredible! Today, we’re using this high-tech stuff that’s called powdered metal, and it is just phenomenal. It’s the best steel I’ve ever got my hands on.”
As a respected master knifemaker and founding president of the Canadian Knifemaker’s Guild, Roberts is always available to any knifemaker who has questions about how to tackle certain challenges.
The reluctant student from Parkhill, Ontario has become an eager teacher.
Besides hand-producing as many as 600 knives a year, from the popular 3.5-inch Little Bandit to the ornate Damascus-steel sword he is making for a collector in Norway, Roberts takes special pleasure from sharing the secrets of his craft with students in rural Yukon communities.
So far, he has helped over 200 people make their own first knives, including his favourite group of students, the women of a sewing club at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre in Dawson City.
As someone who works seven days a week cutting and grinding, sanding and polishing, and who readily admits being a perfectionist, Roberts sets a high standard for his students.
“Sometimes I get very, very, very upset when I know somebody can do something better, and they won’t take the time to do it. They won’t be meticulous.”
As for his own one-of-a-kind products – whether for field-dressing a moose, filleting a fish, carving a roast, or just displaying above the mantel – his attention to detail speaks for itself.
“It’s not just knifemaking as a passion, it’s an art form. And I saw it as an art form many, many years ago.”
You can learn more about Roberts’ work at www.banditblades.com.