Leader Blues

Monday, December 22, 2008

TOP STORY > > Ward knife maker sharpens his skill

By JEFFREY SMITH
Leader staff writer

Tough times can lead to ingenuity. When Robert Spradlin was a teenager, he needed a knife for hunting and fishing, so he became a self-taught bladesmith.
Spradlin, a 30-year-old Beebe native who’s a diesel mechanic in Ward, was 10 years old when his father passed away. The family could not afford their house payments and had to move into a smaller rental house in town.
“We were living on my dad’s Social Security, and we didn’t have much,” he said.
“I’ve always liked hunting, guns and knives. It’s always been a passion. I could not afford a good knife and I had to make my own,” Spradlin said.
Spradlin began making knives when he was 14. His father was a carpenter and left an old bench grinder, tools and hand drills. With those pieces of equipment and a coal-burning stove, Spradlin turned old files, leaf springs and saw blades into knives.
After a long break, he returned to forging knives five years ago. He makes knives in his spare time at his shop on Pigeon Road.
He has completed the American Bladesmith Society’s introduction class to bladesmithing.
One knife can take him between two and 60 hours to make, depending on complexity and design. Each knife is a unique.
Spradlin shapes the blades, cuts the handles and stitches leather sheaths. He makes close to 100 knives a year.
“I look at it as art. It is functional. I never make the same knife twice. I am a perfectionist,” Spradlin said.
Spradlin also makes spears, tomahawks and hatchets.
He has made miniature knives that are an inch long. His largest piece is a 22-inch short sword.
When Spradlin makes a knife, he uses new steel to forge a blade.
He can also make knives by recycling old files, wheel-bearing races and thick, steel cable.
Used steel has metal alloys that give the knife’s edge sharpness and durability.
Spradlin can also craft a Da-mascus pattern into a knife using two different metal alloys of steel. During the forging process, the metal is heated and folded several times. The layering gives the blade a grainy swirl pattern. Grinding and polishing the blade enhances the design.
“I don’t use anything from China in my blades. I use U.S. or Canadian metals. I try to keep my material price down to keep the price of the knife down,” he said.
When Spradlin begins to forge a blade, the metal is heated to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit in a gas-fired furnace. The hot glowing steel turns into a soft plastic-like texture that is easy to form.
Spradlin hammers and reheats the steel to move the metal until he gets the blade to the shape and style he wants.
During the forging process, he’ll normalize the blade three times. In normalizing, the steel is heated, then removed from the heat and slowly cooled in a box of lime. This removes the stress of the metal from heating and working of the blade.
Later, Spradlin does a rough grind of the blade. Next, he gives the knife a heat treatment. The metal is heated in a small kiln and then dipped into oil. This gives the knife hardness and durability.
Spradlin does a final grind and hand finishes the blade. He then makes a hand guard and handle fitting, leading to the assembling and finishing of the whole knife.
Spradlin prefers to use mostly local, natural-made resources for his knife handles. The handles can be crafted from deer or elk antlers, sheeps’ horns and animal bones.
He also uses natural woods from Arkansas, such as a spalted maple, or exotic woods such as eucalyptus from Australia.
His knives are often sold at knife shows. He said the Farm Bureau has purchased knives from him and auctioned them off for charity.
“Most of my knives are sold by word-of-mouth,” he said.
People have asked Spradlin to recreate antique bowie knives and knives from the movies, such as “The Legends of the Fall” and “Crocodile Dundee.”
To keep the interest of bladesmithing alive, Spradlin teaches knife making at his shop on Thursday nights at 7 p.m.
The classes are free.
Students need to bring their own supplies, or Spradlin will sell them the materials. Class sizes range from two to 12 people.
“Arkansas is a good place to learn knife making. Most of the famous knife makers come from Arkansas. They are real friendly and would love to help you,” Spradlin said.
To learn more about his knife-making classes or to view a selection of his custom-made knives, call 501-281-0573 or visit his Web site at www.spradlinknives.com.