From Julius Caesar’s fate at the hands of backstabbing politicians centuries ago to the 2019 film Knives Out, which features murder suspects seated before a dazzling display of daggers, the knife and its bladed brethren have carved a permanent place in our collective culture.
But while the knife draws attention as a weapon, it is first and foremost a tool. From South Carolina’s lakes to its forests to its kitchens, knives serve a multitude of uses, and it seems a specific type of knife is designed for each purpose. Blade making also has a history in the Palmetto State, perhaps going back thousands of years.
For 1st Sgt. Eddie Lee of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, his history with knifemaking goes back two decades, to the rural western edge of Orangeburg County.
“I grew up in the little town of Springfield,” Eddie says. “Mr. George Herron used to live there. He taught me how to make knives and got me started.”
George was a legend in knifemaking circles. He was president of the Knifemakers’ Guild and founder of the S.C. Association of Knifemakers. In 2003, the General Assembly awarded George a Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award, which the S.C. Arts Commission describes as honoring practitioners and advocates of traditional arts significant to communities throughout the state.
Eddie proved to be a quick study. In 2004, he won the Knife of the Year award from the S.C. Association of Knifemakers.
“It was a double-grind dagger,” Eddie says of the winning knife. “It was a really big knife. I think the blade was about 6 inches long. I’ve only made three of that type, and I vowed I’d never make another one. It was pretty hard. I made it when I was still being schooled by Mr. George. That was about a year and a half after I got started. I made my first knife around the middle of 2002.”
A mentor to many knifemakers, George died in 2007. Today, many of his award-winning knives, which are still coveted by collectors, sell for upwards of $1,000.
“The craftsmanship is out of this world, and it still holds up,” Eddie says. “Mine start at $100 and can go up depending on the design. Handle material plays into that a whole lot. You can have a block of wood, or you can go up to ivory.”
A conservation officer who supervises Calhoun and Orangeburg counties, Eddie says it’s a good idea to carry a knife in the outdoors. It doesn’t have to be big, and the type of knife would depend on how it will be used.
“If you’re camping, a lot of people like to take folding knives because they don’t take up a lot of space,” he says. “If you’re not real comfortable with knives, I would recommend a fixed-blade knife because it comes in a sheath and it doesn’t have a lot of moving parts.”
Eddie makes a knife for skinning game that he says he also uses in the kitchen to cut meat. He also makes a fillet knife. It has a long, skinny blade and is used to cut fish.
“All of the knives I make are used by hunters or fishermen,” Eddie says. “The knives I make are for cutting. You can do all kinds of things with some of these tactical knives you’ll find out there.”
Tactical knives — think Rambo — can have a folding blade or a fixed blade. The blade could be double-edged for different types of cutting and can come with a bevy of other high-tech features, a modern-day version of the traditional Swiss Army knife.
A knife with an LED light in the handle is a long way from the earliest blades, which were fashioned approximately 100,000 years ago. Dr. Al Goodyear, a retired research professor from the University of South Carolina’s S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, says sharp edges could be created from flint and flint-like stones.
“You take a block of stone and start striking it with a hammer stone and break off edges,” Al says. “Not all of them are very sharp but most of them will be.”
Flaked from the stone, those sharp edges could be used to slice, scrape, and cut. Al says that in North America, people of the Paleoindian Clovis culture made beautiful, sharp, elongated flakes known as prismatic blades.
“We have found them at the 13,000-year-old Topper site on the Savannah River,” Al says. He led research at the archaeological site in Allendale County, which has yielded much information about the origins of humans in North America. “I also have some great examples of such blades from the rivers of Florida that are easily 6,000 years old.”
Also about 6,000 years ago, a rise occurred in metallurgy, in which metals are heated and shaped. Al says the desire at the time was to create large, double-edged tools such as axes. An edge could also be created by using obsidian, a glass-like volcanic rock.
“The Mayans had wonderful blades made from obsidian,” Al says. “Nothing is sharper than ‘bottle glass’ — obsidian. In our day and age, we get stainless steel and sharpen it. Some of the knives today are very pricey and some are collectible. People love to collect things. It’s like a fine art to them.”
Robert L. Davis knows that from his own knifemaking. The Whitehall resident has been making custom knives in a variety of sizes since 1978. One model is known as a Bowie knife, named after Alamo legend Jim Bowie. The fixed-blade knife typically has a blade of 8-plus inches with a curved point. While originally designed to perform as a weapon, it served many purposes for the 1800s soldier or outdoorsman.
“I make Bowie knives with a stag handle,” Robert says. They are 13 to 14 inches long and cost $300 to $500. “People who buy a Bowie knife are probably just going to put it up on a shelf and look at it. The knives that run $100 to $200 are probably going to be on somebody’s hip because they’re going to use them.”
For fishermen, Robert makes fillet knives from 6 to 12 inches, depending on the size of fish for which the buyer will be using it. He says the steel in fillet knives is tempered differently for added flexibility.
“For hunters, I make a skinner that’s got a curved blade that’s specific for that activity,” Robert says. “Those are some of our best sellers. Some hunting knives have more of an upswept blade. Some are more blunt. Every hunter has different preferences.”
Robert says any of his knives can be used in the kitchen. He’s also made complete kitchen sets with steak knives, as well as individual boning and paring knives.
Anyone who has shopped for kitchen knives has been introduced to a seemingly endless array of knife types: boning, bread, butcher, cleaver, fillet, paring, santoku, utility, and more. A professional chef holds one type of knife dear, however, and its name is obvious.
“Your most basic knife that everyone should have is a chef’s knife,” says Maegan Horton, executive chef at Blue Marlin, a popular restaurant in Columbia’s Vista district. “You can use it instead of a lot of those other knives. You’re going to use it for all your chopping. You can do 10 inches; you can do 8 inches. It just depends on your preference. I prefer an 8-inch.”
The blade of a chef’s knife has a slightly curved, wedgelike shape. If you’ve ever seen a chef rapidly chopping vegetables, that’s the knife they were using.
“For a chef, the next knife would be a fillet knife or a boning knife,” Maegan says. “They have a thinner blade and are 6 to 8 inches. The blade also has a little bit of a curve to it. It gives you more control to make intricate cuts. For example, when you’re trimming a tenderloin, you obviously want to save as much as possible.”
The knives’ names reveal their subtle differences. Boning knives are designed for removing bones from meat and are a little straighter and sturdier than fillet knives, designed to deal with a fish’s skin and more delicate bones.
“For a home cook, the next knife would probably be a paring knife,” Maegan says. Paring knifes are good for peeling produce. “It’s probably around 3 inches. A lot of home cooks will use a paring knife instead of a chef’s knife to cut vegetables.”
A bread knife, which has a long, saw-like blade, can also be handy, but Maegan advises that the most important knife of all is a sharp one. Sharper knives are actually safer than dull knives because the cook doesn’t have to use as much force when cutting.
The at-home chef can keep knives sharp by purchasing a combination sharpener/honer. What’s the difference between sharpening and honing? Sharpening creates a new edge by stripping away some metal. Honing takes the edge that’s already there and realigns it.
A quick online search reveals multi-knife kitchen sets ranging from $19.99 to more than $500, as well as an individual chef’s knife selling for $925.99. The reason for the wide range of prices is comparable to that of blue jeans, according to Maegan.
“Obviously, it’s a brand thing, but you get what you pay for,” she says. “The quality is going to be better with a more expensive knife, and it’s going to be around longer. If you want to spend $800 on a knife, you sure can, but you don’t have to. You can pay $100 to $150 for a chef’s knife and you can make it last forever if you take care of it: don’t throw it in a random drawer, protect the blade, don’t put it in the dishwasher, or leave it in the sink. And keep it sharp.”