Mastering the Art of a Sharper Image

MERIDIAN, Idaho (KBOI) -- In a workshop smaller than some kitchens, Roger Smith spends his days crafting custom hunting knives.

He's quick to point out to a visitor that this isn't a hobby but a business, one he started way back in the early 1980's in Alaska.

Smith had been working as a loan officer and decided he was tired of the 9-to-5 grind.

So he bought a remote plot of land in the shadow of what used to be known as Mt. McKinley, now Denali National Park. And he set about making hunting knives because he had an inkling he could make some money at it.

"I would get some knives made. They were pretty crude, but they worked," he says.

He chose the brand Bloodworth, the name of a girlfriend, largely because his own name Smith didn't have the proper ring to it.

He would then drive into nearby Talkeetna, a tiny tourist magnet said to be the inspiration for the TV show "Northern Exposure," to sell his creations.

In almost no time he developed a reputation for quality, and a visit to a local bar sealed his fate.

"Almost everyone had a Bloodworth hanging on their pistol belt," he says proudly.

Fast-forward to today and his Bloodworth knives are prized by hunters from Anchorage to Augusta, Maine.

"The really unique thing about 'em," he says pointing to a finished knife, "this is all hand-made and there's only one like it."

His attention to detail even extends to the antlers and horns he turns into knife handles. And to prove it, he leads the way to a small shed in the backyard.

Reaching in, he grabs a curved ram's horn.

"When you cut into this, it really is beautiful coloring. It's light, soft green with red streaks in it. Very dense, very good for knife handles."

On a shelf above his workbench he keeps a supply of exotic woods that also come in handy. Because creating a custom knife is like piecing together a puzzle.

The process begins with a rude chunk of raw steel.

"They start off blocky like this," he says, holding a 7-inch flat block in his hand. And in less than 15-20 minutes, the metal piece takes on the shape of an actual knife.

If it's a custom order, Smith sketches out the desired shape to a customer's precise specifications.

Then he turns on a grinding machine and the sparks immediately fly around his feet.

The grinding causes the metal to heat quickly, so he's constantly dipping the emerging blade in a pail of water

His mastery is in knowing how to achieve a proper thickness, from one end of the blade to the other.

Smith picks up a finished knife and runs his finger along the tapered blade.

"The only place where it's 3/16 thick is right here," tapping the midway point. "Right where the guard's at."

After he's satisfied with the shape and thickness of the blade, he begins work on the handle.

He cuts the wood with a jigsaw, carefully following the tracings he's made with a soft pencil.

The whine of the machine fills the small room.

In an hour, he can have the basic pieces he needs to fashion a knife. But there's still more artistry to come.

The knife handles can be a series of colored bands, light and dark wood, say, alternating with the antler of a white-tail deer.

And he uses brass to create the guards that keep your fingers from coming in contact with the blade.

If you were to x-ray the handle, you'd see it hides a portion of the blade that's threaded to a steel rod.

"The end screws up and compresses it," he says, rubbing the brassy butt end of the knife. "A pin goes through the steel rod and locks everything together."

It's a neat trick. And it guarantees the knife will never come apart.

The next step is the polishing, and the machine raises a fine dust when Smith turns it on.

He jokes that knife-making is a far dirtier job than you would expect.

"I look like a coal miner most days," he admits.

But at heart, Roger Smith is a craftsman, even hand-sewing the sheaths that keep his knives well-protected.

He picks up one that looks decades old.

"This is all sinew-sewed," he says, running his hand along the stitching. "Then I scuff 'em up and then I make the fringe on there."

He embellishes the sheaths with pieces of turquoise and maybe even a buffalo tooth. Authenticity is required when creating period knives, a sideline that's proven quite lucrative.

And if Smith isn't starting from scratch, he's an expert in getting rid of them, because knife restoration is also in his wheelhouse.

He picks up a sizeable chef's knife, its blade smooth as ice and as shiny as the moon. It didn't arrive that way, but Smith saw the essence of a fine cutting tool under decades of pitting and rust.

"Like the bark on an old tree. The wood underneath it is still fine. What I do is bring 'em back."

If a knife can have a soul, Roger Smith will find it.

In wood and bone, in steel and flame.

He's a sorcerer without peer, toiling in the glow of a magic fire.