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A cutting edge collection

I’ve never forgotten the day my dad gave me my first pocket knife, a tiny pen knife with a brown and cream antler handle. Its longest blade measured no more than two inches, I’m sure, and the shorter blade was so small I don’t think I ever used it.
folk tales – knife collector 2
Knife collector Jim with some of his prized possessions. Photo by Jeff Holubitsky

I’ve never forgotten the day my dad gave me my first pocket knife, a tiny pen knife with a brown and cream antler handle. Its longest blade measured no more than two inches, I’m sure, and the shorter blade was so small I don’t think I ever used it.

I treasured that knife and I still remember the setting sun on my face as I sat on the lawn whittling a stick long into the summer evening. Some moments a sentimental fool will never forget.

That knife was a milestone in the life of a boy who hadn’t started school yet. My dad trusted me to treat it like the real tool it was, and I did not let him down in that regard. I was more than proud I was considered, well, man enough to handle it properly. Remember, things were different then. I occasionally cut myself, but the injuries always healed. Why make a big deal out of nothing?

With these recollections bouncing around in my brain, I recently drove to see Jim, an avid hunter and angler man in the third act of life who has collected hundreds of folding, hunting, common and unusual knives over the past decade. Though Jim agreed to have me over and allow me to take pictures, he was adamant that I not use his last name. He doesn’t want the wrong people to know where he lives and keeps the knives. I get it.

“This is my little nest,” he says as he leads me into his tiny basement workshop which is filled with hand tools, pieces of wood, a small metal lathe, a bandsaw, all kinds of cabinets and, of course, dozens of knives. Jim doesn’t like to throw things away.

“I think I got my first pocket knife when I was eight,” he says. “I do a lot of hunting and fishing and whatnot and the knives I use for that are newer knives because, I don’t know, I just don’t want to use these older ones.”

They include pocket and hunting knives of various designs from the ’30s and ’40s, though some go back decades earlier, such as wire handled example patented in 1896. They come with all kinds of blades. Some longer, some shorter, some designed for gutting and skinning and some have unusual curves and angles and you can only guess what they were designed to do. There’s even a jack knife with a straight razor in addition to a regular blade. Likely for the man who wanted a close shave in the woods.

One common feature ties about 99 per cent of them together. They were manufactured by the Imperial Schrade Corporation in Ellenville, New York between 1904 and 2004 before production was moved overseas. Jim only collects the American knives and they come with names like the Old Timer and Uncle Henry. No Buck Knives or fancy European blades for him.

“What I like about the Schrades is that from the time they first brought them out to the last ones sold, you cannot tell the difference,” he says. “They kept them the same. They were a good knife, maybe not the best knife there is, but they were a workingman’s knife.”

Refreshingly, the collection is also reflects a workingman’s budget. The most Jim has paid has been about $200. Many were priced in $10-20 range, sometimes found in a can of junk at flea markets or gun shows or antique malls.

“The way I look at it is if you get into other brands, where do you start and where do you stop and as you can see, I ain’t got no more room.”

Three retail display cases are mounted in the centre of his collection. Two are more recent and include moulded plastic, but the third is the same as when the knives were stapled to its red velvet covered hardboard backing 70 or 80 years ago. Talk about new old stock. These knives have never left the case.

“I got it at a gun show and I walked out of there a lot lighter in the pocketbook,” he says. “The vendor’s brother had a hardware store in Stony Plain, I think, and that was his display.”

For anyone interested in dating their own old Schrade, Jim says to look for a plus mark on the blade, indicating it was manufactured after 1975. He is always on the lookout for the ones without the mark.

“This one is spanking brand new from before 1975, because after 1975 they put a plus sign,” he says, holding up a hunting knife. “It is stainless steel.”

Jim treats his treasures with a lot of care. If blades are rusty, he often puts them through a careful polishing process that makes them shine like a mirror.

When he finds a knife without a case – not an uncommon occurrence - Jim fashions one from leather. “Believe It or not,” he says, “an original case or sheath can be worth as much as the knife itself.”

He tells a story about one of his early finds and a novice collector’s folly. The hunting knife’s sheath was falling apart, so he decided to replace the original stitching with leather lacing. Big mistake. The sheath may last another 50 years, but its value to collectors is gone.

He also collects old axes, though not quite with the same passion. If he finds and interesting old axe head, Jim will make a new handle of his own design, and will polish the steel head to a mirror-like finish.

“It is about a 10-step operation,” he says. “I just use discs and keep working them down and then polishing compounds with different grits, right up to 800. It’s still kind of grayish when you get to that point and then I finish them off in my little lathe with buffers.”

He has also fixed up a variety of small hammers.

“I guess the handles are like a trademark of mine,” he says “They are not a useable tool, though. They are purely decorative.”

By that point in my visit, I must ask why he got into collecting in the first place. The answer turns out to be simple, the one-time machinist and home renovator just likes doing it and keeping busy.

“I will retire when I quit breathing,” he says. “I still drive heavy trucks. I didn’t get my licence for heavy trucks until I was 63 for God sakes.”

“I get a lot of enjoyment from this. I like to create things, but if it got to be too much, I wouldn’t enjoy it. It is just the way I am. If it was my job, I wouldn’t enjoy it.”

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