May / June / July 1998
About The Blackpowder Journal
by Eileen Silva Kindig
"Warther's never advertise their wares, adamantly refuse to take mail or phone orders, employ absolutely no outside sales people and still manage to sell every knife they can possibly produce in a 12-hour day!"
To say that the Warther knife business is a low-profile operation is like saying that Howard Hughes was rich. The Warther's modern, fully-equipped shop is hidden away in the basement of a 1600-square foot contemporary, Swiss-style museum built in 1963. The Warther's never advertise their wares, adamantly refuse to take mail or phone orders, employ absolutely no outside sales people and still manage to sell every knife they can possibly produce in a 12-hour day!
"A lot of knifemakers pride themselves on being two years behind on orders, but we're never proud of being behind in our work," says Dave Warther, son of the company's founder, Ernest.
"That's right," Dave's son, Dale, chimes in. "That's why we don't do business by mail or phone. Besides, we like to meet with our customers so that we can find out their individual needs--such as measuring hands for custom-fit and grinding the knife according to whether the customer is left- or right-handed."
Warther knives run the gamut, from the utilitarian to the sublime. While the company's bread and butter is undoubtedly its line of kitchen cutlery, it also produces world-renowned specialty knives. A few of the famous owners of Warther knives include former president Gerald Ford, the Duke of Kent and the King of Bhutan.
Yet another thing that makes the Warther knife shop so different is that it runs smoothly and efficiently while hundreds of tourists troop in daily to watch knifemaking in progress. While Dave explains the 17 different operations required to make each blade, his cousin, Dick Hollinger, fashions knife handles and fields questions. Hollinger, who is totally blind as a result of an accident, has rebuilt most of the shop's equipment, beginning with a grinder that would otherwise have cost $17,000 to replace.
Collectors typically zero in on the Warther commando knife, which sold for $18 during WWII. Today buyers spend at least $100 for a standard uncased model and as much as $900 for an art-quality piece featuring a serpent with diamond-studded eyes. The current model utilizes the original design crated by Ernest Warther and offers blade lengths ranging from six to ten inches. The most popular choice is the eight-inch blade, largely because it provides the most graceful proportion of blade to handle. Buyers are also offered a choice of handles: Peruvian silver, brass, ebony, ivory or cocobolo.
The Warthers also produce about 100 numbered hunting knives a year. For these they use no dies or castings, but work each one individually out of the selected raw steel. Depending on how their specialty knives are used, one of six types of steel is selected--440C, D2, M2, A2 and D1. The blade stock (.062, .085, .092, .125, .187 and .250) and the heat-treating are also determined by use.
"Grandpa maintained--and we agree--that a knife is only as good as the edge it will hold. So, all our emphasis is on steel analysis, heat treating, method grinding and polishing. But the geometry of the knife is equally important. We believe that a knife has to be made to be used. We will never sacrifice function in the name of beauty," Dale says.
According to Dale, 440C is a high-carbon, high-chrome tool steed that was developed for use on jet engines. Although it isn't a true stainless steel, its vanadium content gives it a good edge and, if finished properly, it's highly resistant to staining. Dale says the reason so many steel companies are dropping 440C from their inventory is because it has to be hand-rolled on an old-style hand-operated mill. This is also true of 44B. Only 440A can be rolled by modern methods, he notes.
"The finest tool steel in the world is made in America," Dave insists. "We're real flag wavers."
Besides choice of steel, another family trademark is the smooth, jeweled finish on the blades of all Warther knives. The distinctive swirled design, known as engine turning or spotting, mimics the original finish Ernest Warther obtained by hand-polishing his blades with an oil stone. Today the Warthers cover each blade is a paste made of emery grit and oil, and use a teflon tube in the drill press to produce the overlapping rows of circles that make Warther knives easy even for the neophyte to recognize.
A renowned carver, Ernest Warther made just 25 carving knives during his life and his descendants have made only 38 more. However, the Warthers are planning to make 100 carving knives to commemorate the centennial of Ernest's birth. Buyers will be able to choose from either ivory or ebony handles, although the originals featured bone, ivory or mother-of-pearl. The mother-of-pearl model with stainless steel bolsters was the last carving knife Ernest Warther made and today is still used by Dave to carve miniature pairs of wooden pliers as souvenirs for the museum's guests.
Like their father and grandfather, Dave and Dale cherish quality above all else.
"Knifemaking is our profession," Dale says. "We're proud of the fact that we've been full-time knifemakers for three generations. Not too many people can say that."
The Warthers are members of the Western Reserve Cutlery Association of Ohio, the National Knife Collectors Association and the Knifemaker's Guild.
Dave says "We really enjoy our work." Much of that enjoyment derives from an appreciation of knifemaking as both an art and a science, and the knowledge that they are carrying on the life work of a genius--Ernest Warther. The Warther name has stood for quality knifemaking and peerless carving for over a century. Today, it also stands for tradition.
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