Artistry in steel: Knife show cuts many ways

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Frank Schultz
Sunday, March 24, 2013

— There’s something fascinating about knives.

The kitchen tool, the combat weapon and the folding knife nestled in a jeans pocket are all expressions of human needs going back to prehistory.

All of those, including modern stone knives made with ancient methods, were on display Saturday at the Badger Knife Club Knife Show at the Holiday Inn Express.

Art is another human need, and numerous knives whose craftsmanship and creativity rise to that level were on display as well.

Many of the knifemakers sat behind tables of their wares, many with price tags well over $1,000.

“A lot of work goes into it. It’s artistry in steel,” said Harley Paula Nelson of Cleveland, who displayed her collection with labels of the names of the knifemakers. She pointed to the “JS” or “MS” on the blade, denoting a journeyman or master knifesmith.

Ask anyone behind a table, and you were likely to get a story about how knife blades are made or the history of a particular style of knife.

Doug Ponzio, rural Beloit, is not a knifemaker, but he makes patterns in the steel that knifemakers then turn into knives. Ask him, and he’ll tell you how he can embed any pattern into the steel with the help of a forge that gets the metal to a glowing 2,300 degrees.

Ponzio proudly showed blades with the popular wood-grain patterns and one that said “USA” over and over again.

Ponzio, who spent years working at the Belvidere, Ill., Chrysler car plant, said working on a forge in a barn keeps him happy in retirement.

The variety of knives was astounding. There were stacks of bayonets and other military blades, replicas of historic knives and actual historic blades, such as an artillery officer’s sword from 1834, according to one seller.

Others displayed tables mounded with materials for knife handles: polished stone, bone, antler and ivory from a variety of animals.

One table had knives made of obsidian and flint and mounted on antler and wooden handles. Another had display cases full of shiny miniature blades—knives, swords and axes just a few inches long.

As many as 2,500 knife fanciers were expected to visit the show over the course of three days, said Bob Schrap of Wauwatosa, organizer and a founding member of the Badger Knife Club.

Schrap said the club has never had a problem with violence in its 20 years of holding the show in Janesville, despite the miles of sharp edges displayed on the tables. The worst that has happened has been an occasional theft, he said.

Bill Baran of Waukesha, another founding member of the club, said this show is one of the best there is, because of the people who show and attend.

“I don’t care if I make any money. I like talking to the people. It’s just a bunch of friendly people,” Baran said.

Ed Brandsey of Janesville is recognized as one of the best knifemakers, Schrap said.

Brandsey said he has so many orders to fill that it does not make any sense for him to go to knife shows anymore, but he enjoys displaying his blades at the local show.

“A lot of people collect this stuff,” Brandsey said, while others ask what one does with a custom-made knife.

“You’ve got pictures on your wall at home, don’t you? Same thing,” he said.

Brandsey has been making knives since before most people in the convention center were born.

“The majority of people out there don’t even know any of this exists,” he said.


Ask to pick up a weighty Bowie knife, and Janesville knifemaker Ed Brandsey will tell you that turquoise and Wisconsin River mussel shell are inlaid in the antler handle. And he’ll tell you about the days when members of Congress considered themselves well-dressed if they had a Bowie hanging from their belts.

Brandsey is a history buff, and he has a whale of a tale about John Fox “Bowie Knife” Potter, an East Troy lawyer and Walworth County judge who was elected to Congress in 1856.

Potter was involved in a heated argument with a southern congressman when he was challenged to a duel. Potter chose the place and the weapons.

Bowie knives, he said, in a closed room, and the one who makes it out alive is the winner.

The other congressman backed out, and Potter won himself a nickname.

There’s more to the story. If you see Brandsey, and he has the time, he might tell you how Potter’s Bowie knives were stolen years ago from the Wisconsin Historical Society museum and how he’d love for them to turn up. He has always wanted to make a replica.


Last updated: 7:54 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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