Rural Missouri - February 2018 - 8

THE MAGICIAN OF
Above: Horses gallop across
Hank's Damascus blade set in a
handle made from fossilized walrus
tusk. His signature "HK" appears
just between the running hooves.

Cedar Hill sculptor carves a name in knives

by Zach Smith | zsmith@ruralmissouri.coop

attending shows and performing demonstrations in Europe, but also supplying
the continent's blade smiths with his meticulously crafted metals. Among the
he patterns repeat themselves across polished steel surfaces. Wild boar world's famous knifemakers who do not make their own steel, there's a good
charge through tall grass. A team of horses are frozen mid-gallop, the chance they've crafted their blades from Hank's Damascus.
In Damascus steel, layers of different metals are forge-welded together
signature "HK" emblazoned between their hooves. The blades these
images grace are worlds apart from grandpa's folder but remain func- multiple times, which after some working by a blacksmith produces steel with
striations in the surface of the blade. The name, which has become a catchtional fine art.
To many these intricacies seem like magic, but in the hands of Hank Knick- all term for pieces with such a distinctive appearance, refers to where most
meyer such works of art boil down to vision, science and time. Whether it's a Damascus steel was produced.
"Western Europe got it mostly from the east - India in a lot of cases - and it
spear, a saddle, a sailboat or even his own stone home, the classically trained
was traded through Damascus, Syria," Hank says. "When you say 'Damascus'
sculptor likes to have a hand in their creation.
"I've always made things, and I've always liked functional items," the Cedar to a westerner, probably what you're going to see is the layered stuff."
Hank prefers to make his designs using steel and nickel shims in a piece of
Hill-based artist says. "For me, steel is just another drawing medium."
Hank retired in 2014 after a 45-year career at Fontbonne University, most structural steel tubing that is then filled in with steel powders and alloys. The
recently as the director of graduate programs in fine arts. He speaks with fond- pattern runs from one end to the other of the steel bar. After multiple turns,
ness of the profession that allowed him to mentor young artists and follow his twists and other manipulations it takes on stripes, zigzags, checks and other
passion. He also recalls being hired by his own professor shortly after finish- shapes alongside the central repeating design. Depending on the desired effect
ing his graduate degree at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. His new the quality of steel also differs - hard in some places, springy in others.
"It takes a particular way of thinking," Hank says. "What happens as you're
boss was St. Louis artist Rudy Torinni, famous for many of the Gateway City's
making these twists and turns is you're distorting what's inside the bar of steel.
public monuments.
Hank's first trade was bronze casting, primarily doing pieces
You can come up with a lot of complex stuff."
One particular pattern of a deer running, which Hank finished in 1993,
for Catholic churches, such as altar furnishings, tabernacles
recalls the painstaking details found in hand-engraved European shotand processional crosses. Working with ecclesiastical designguns. And the deer hasn't run off quite yet. One part business practice
ers is what initially led him to blacksmithing, forging railings
and one part forge work, Hank says an aspect of his production that
and other wrought pieces. But after attending a blacksmithing
helped set him apart early on in the business was making his quality
conference in Birmingham, Alabama, during the late 1980s, Hank
steel in large quantities. This allows him to make knives faster and
found a brand new craft calling to him.
Cedar Hill
reuse his designs on different blades.
"Any kid makes knives, but all I wanted to be was a cowboy,"
"I choose the subject matter the same way I do when I draw,"
Hank smiles, recalling his youth spent raising horses in the midHank says. "I like being able to make knives out of it because I
dle of suburban Webster Groves.
can sell the knife easier than I can the block of steel."
As with most early starts, Hank's skill at crafting one-of-a-kind
In the beginning of his blade-making career, Hank's knives
pieces developed, but his prior background as an artist, blacksmith
and metalworker helped speed that progress along. In a short time, Hank had sold for $500 to $600. Some later pieces have
earned his journeyman smith and finally master bladesmith status from the sold for tens of thousands of dollars. These
tend to involve elaborate embellishments
American Bladesmith Society after passing a series of intensive tests.
Passing the ABS certifications is essentially running the gauntlet of fine of gold, silver and amber to the handle.
Many recently completed works
knifemaking. After submitting five knives to a jury of judges, the maker submits one knife that is put through the wringer: the knife is used to chop a in this vein were collaborations
two-by-four board, shave and cut a free-swinging rope twice without additional between Hank and Quebec
sharpening. Then it's placed in a vise and bent 90 degrees. If it breaks, it artist Chantal Gilbert,
fails.
"That's the hardest part of the test actually, the bending part," Hank says,
noting the feat is intended to test the heat treatment of the metal. "You do
the journeyman part in carbon steel and then basically do the test
again in Damascus. It's substantial. It's not a nothing test."
As a knifemaker, Hank found himself not only

T

Above: Hank collaborated with Quebec artist Chantal Gilbert on
this knife, which features images of grape leaves in the blade and golden
grapes clustered around the handle made from 2,000-year-old oak pulled
from a bog in Belgium.

8

RURAL MISSOURI | FEBRUARY 2018



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