Ray and Nancy Fincher live on a beautiful horse farm in Cook Springs, which is about 20 minutes east of downtown Birmingham via I-20, but theirs is anything but the city life. When I pulled into the drive separating two pastures, Nancy had just finished feeding the Tennessee Walking Horses they have bred and raised for show and trail for the last 15 years. What began as a visit to a horse farm turned into a feature about a custom knife maker, her husband, Ray.
Ray has been a devoted bladesmith for the last 10 years, building custom knives in the workshops behind their home. Ray uses various types of forges to work the steel for his knives from the primitive coal-operated forges to hi-tech propane furnaces, depending upon the material of the knife, and the look and temper he wants to achieve.
"I’ve made blades out of cable, coil springs from a car and railroad spikes," Ray said. "The railroad spikes lack the carbon which gives the metal strength, so they are only good for making items like letter openers."
Ray even uses his wife’s cast off horseshoes to make creative items like steak turners for the grill, but high carbon steel is the metal of choice for knife blades.
The handles for Ray’s knives are even more exotic than the steels.
"One of the most desirable handles is the antler from the Sambar buck which is native to India, but I’ve used a lot of giraffe bone which closely resembles mammoth ivory," Ray said. "Probably the most popular exotic wood people ask for is desert ironwood which is found in Mexico and Arizona, and is prized for its beautiful burl grain."
Ray also said various maples and walnut from California are commonly requested for use in handles.
"The most exotic request for knife handle material has been Oosiks," Ray recalled.
Oosiks is what the Alaskans call the male organ of a petrified walrus. These are highly valued as knife handles. After researching this topic, the author found a prehistoric, fossilized walrus oosiks brought thousands of dollars with the bidding starting at $16,000 at a recent event.
Ray’s bladesmithing has been a natural extension of his life. After a short stint at Auburn University, Ray decided in 1957 to enlist in the Marine Corps.
"After I got out of the Marines, I hitchhiked to Florida to work on a shrimp boat," he said.
His prior scuba experience helped him earn extra income by releasing nets that got caught in the shrimp boats’ propellers.
"I began to realize I had a knack for designing things during that time because, with the help of Martin McWhorter, I developed a device for shooting sharks threatening to attack when I dove under the shrimp boats to untangle nets caught in the propellers and rudders," Ray explained.
Often the sharks would make attempts to attack because they had already learned to bite into the trailing end of the shrimp nets, allowing thousands of shrimp to pour out and be eaten.
That device was basically a 12-gauge firing unit, better named a "power-head," that could be attached to the end of a spear gun or a bang stick. If a shark got too close, the diver could either fire the unit from a spear gun or else make direct contact via the bang stick. Once the power head made contact, the 12-gauge shotgun shell would go off, thereby dispatching the shark.
"Today, sharks are highly protected, so that particular invention would be used rarely, if ever, today," Ray said.
To reflect his love of the sea and diving, Ray imprints a seahorse on each knife he produces.
After leaving the shrimping business, Ray moved to Birmingham where he started working for Automatic Sprinkler Company. Over the next several years, Ray worked for Automatic and other sprinkler contractors, traveling throughout the Southeast and learning the fabrication, installation, design and sale of fire protection sprinkler systems. Later when an employer wanted Ray to relocate to Atlanta, he decided to start his own sprinkler business.
"I owned my own sprinkler business, Fincher Fire Protection, from 1974 until I sold the company in 2003, and I’ve been working full-time as a bladesmith since," Ray said. "Our home is in Cook Springs where Nancy runs the horse farm, and I run the custom knife-making business."
Ray is also a big game hunter and this fact also made him realize how important a well-constructed knife can be.
"I harvested a 165-pound mountain lion on a hunt in Idaho, and I took a black bear with a bow in Canada," Ray said. "The black bear stared at me for six of the longest minutes of my life before I shot him."
When a customer asks for a knife, Ray first draws a template of the intended blade and handle. If the customer likes the design, Ray builds the knife.
"The secret to a good blade is the carbon content and the way it is heat-treated and tempered," Ray explained. "The carbon makes the steel hard, but you want the steel to be soft enough to not be brittle."
Some of the most beautiful knife blades Ray has forged are of Damascus steel.
"Damascus, once the different layers of steel have been forged together, creates beautiful, variegated designs," Ray said. "I use regular high carbon steel on most orders, but plenty of people want to see those unique patterns in the steel you only get with Damascus."
In Ray’s workshops, you find machines for each phase of knife construction from the forges to the anvils, to the sanders, grinders and drill presses. Then, you can see the wood-working implements used for the handle making.
"I’ve had a lot of fun making the knives," Ray remarked. "I enjoy blade-smithing because it gives me a chance to experiment with new designs and exotic steels and handles."
John Howle is a freelance writer from Heflin.