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Art Life: I know that your background involves many art forms, from drawing to writing. How did you finally settle on bladecraft?
Zack: Landing on knifemaking was a pretty natural conclusion for me. I have always been an artist. I started taking lessons when I was about four years old, and from that point on, I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t regularly drawing, painting, or sculpting. I have also always had a strong affinity for knives. My interest in them was always much less about their lethality (i.e. that they are weapons) than it was about the way that beauty of form and function can be brought together in such a satisfying way. The only reason I didn’t start making knives earlier than I did, honestly, is that it never occurred to me that I could. As soon as I found someone who could teach me how, I was in.
Art Life: How do the other art forms inform and influence your craft?
Zack: My experience in other art forms plays a regular role in my work. I use my ability to draw quite directly when I’m working out a design on paper. I very rarely take up the materials without having a pretty refined drawing of what I intend to make. My experience in jewelery comes to bear when I’m considering how to execute a design in terms of pieces joining together, and also when I’m planning embellishments. Working in sculpture has left me with fairly attentive hands. The knife (particularly the handle) is a sculpted, three-dimensional object, and in order to leave my shop, it has to FEEL good. And believe it or not, my education in painting helps me select and pair materials with the overall design and feel of the piece.
Art Life: How do you come up with a design for a knife?
Zack: My designs are inspired by any number of sources. The simplest is when I have a client who says “I want a nine-inch bowie knife.” That’s a particular style of knife, so I start with the most basic components of that style and then make it my own by implementing my personal design vocabulary. An entirely different path would be something most artists are probably familiar with. Namely, an idea pops into my head, and then I refine it down to something workable. Workability is paramount with me, both on the side of literally being able to make a piece, and on the side of the knife being a KNIFE, one of man’s most basic and most useful tools. Beauty is also tremendously important to me, but ultimately, if it can’t work as a knife, it’s not a knife.
Art Life: Describe the work that goes into making a knife or blade.
Zack: There are several major stages of work that go into making a knife. The first step is the forging. The steel needs to be heated up in a forge fire to about 1740 degrees and hammered into shape. Once the basic shape of the knife is formed, the blank (as it’s called at this point) is taken to the grinder. This part of the process can be likened to lapidary [ editors note: lapidary is the art of cutting, polishing and engraving precious stones ]. I use the grinder to remove material and crisp up the contours of the blade as I see it WITHIN the blank I’ve forged. Next, the blade is hardened and then tempered (the two of which taken together are called “heat treating” the blade). The blade is hardened by heating it up to 1475 degrees, and then dropped beneath 900 degrees in less than one second. This is done by plunging the hot blade into fluid–usually either water or oil. This makes the blade extremely hard, but also extremely brittle, so some of that hardness is tempered selectively out of the steel by applying lower and much more gradual heat to the hardened blade. After that, it’s time for handle shaping–starting with rectangular blocks of wood and metal–and construction. Next, the blade is polished by hand, and fitted together with the handle. And presto, it’s a knife!
Art Life: Within the blade making process you make and design every piece, from the blade itself, to the handle and even the leather sheath. What is the time process from start to completion of a project?
Zack: The length of time required to complete a knife from raw stock, through the sheath varies quite widely, moderated by the scope and complexity of the finished work. But as a rule of thumb, the simplest of knives might take a single day, while master Japanese sword makers may spend six months to a year on one piece. Generally speaking most of my knives take between one and three weeks of work to complete.
Art Life: What does the art life mean to you on a whole?
Zack: I find the art life to be incredibly satisfying. I like working with my hands and getting dirty. I like that I produce pieces that are beautiful and useful. I like that I’m a part of a tradition stretching millennia into the past, a tradition that I’m helping to sustain. Making knives is incredibly satisfying to me–and then the fact that others want what I’ve made and can really use them is the icing on the cake.
Zack Jonas can be reached at his website Jonas Blade.
For more information on Bladesmithing classes at Massachusetts College of Art click on Professional and Continuing Education and select the Bladesmithing class video.
To view the entire photoshoot of bladesmith Zack Jonas go to Featured Artist Gallery.