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Handmade and homegrown: It’s only natural

February 23, 2011
By Joe Hackett, News Outdoors Columnist
I have always had an affinity for locally produced products made with natural materials. There is a special allure to items that are procured from the landscape, or rustically recycled for other purposes.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed guideboat builders grub spruce stumps for rib material, and I’ve met horn hunters scouring deer yards for shed antlers, which they use to fashion into chandeliers or keychains.

In Saranac Lake, I often visited the late Jack Knight, and watched him pound a piece of black ash with a mallet, to separate splints of wood for the manufacture of authentic Adirondack packbaskets. 

Constructing a packbasket is incredibly labor intensive, but the final product is worth it. I still carry a packbasket that was made by Jack over a quarter of a century ago, and it remains none the worse for the wear.

The community of Saranac Lake has managed to maintain a long tradition of homegrown handmade products. Possibly, the most notable of all, are  the authentic Adirondack guideboats, long considered a backwoods taxi and the workhorse of the waterways.

Despite the passing of Saranac Lake’s Ralph Morrow, one of the region’s most esteemed boatbuilders, there remains a core group of local characters who continue to uphold the village’s boat building tradition.

There is something unique about utilizing such authentically produced homegrown natural products. For some unknown reason, it allows a person to mesh more easily with their surroundings.

It can happen while ensconced in an old pair of woolies, with a fur felt hat settled upon your noggin. Or when nestled in the comfortable confines of a cedar plank spruce rib guideboat, hauling on a set of black cherry oars with a black ash packbasket at your feet.

Settled in such a natural surroundings, we become merely a component of the natural setting, rather than an awkward intruder. We are part of the scene, as natural as the sun-dappled waters or the dark spruce woods.

No matter how hard they try, there is no way to achieve the same sense of place while decked out in Lycra and Gore-Tex, slapping water with a carbon-fiber paddle while confined to a streamlined kevlar canoe. It may help to arrive at a natural location sooner, which is often the point, but in the process we’ll always remain farther removed.

This notion holds true for many such items. There is no modern method to replicate the joy of casting a hand-tied fly with an old bamboo flyrod, as native speckles sip flies along a backwoods brook. Nor is there an equivalent for enjoying the pleasure of skiing a silent, champaign powder on a pair of skinny, wooden skis.

Whether such notions are considered old school, or old fool, there is no denying the fact that native crafts and natural tools allow us a return to our roots.  It is equally difficult to dismiss the fact that a piece of wood, stone or bone always seems to fit the human hand much more comfortably than a hunk of plastic or hank of nylon.

Naturally recycled

The concept of natural homegrown materials was on my mind after I stopped to visit with Tony Conway, a local knife builder in Saranac Lake. I visited Conway to see if he could salvage a rusted, old chunk of metal that had once been fashioned into a knife blade.

I got the blade from my older brother, who purchased it in Southeast Asia many years ago. Supposedly, it was manufactured from leaf springs salvaged from an old truck.

I presented the rusty old relic to Conway, who pinged the blade with his finger and quickly brought it to his ear. He recognized it immediately, and smiled.

“Yep,” he declared. “It’s fifty one-sixty carbon steel, and after proper tempering, it’s one of the hardest blades you can get. It probably came from the same source I use to forge my blades, recycled leaf springs. I also forge discarded chainsaw chains into a tough Damascus steel, which has a unique patterns of swirl.”

He handed the blade back  and instructed me to do the same. “Ping it and hold it to your ear. Can you hear that? That’s why we call it singing steel.”

Conway’s shop is located on a side street in the village. It occupies his entire garage and features a forge furnace, an anvil anchored to a couple of blocks of wood and a wide assortment of belt grinders, tools and numerous blades. It’s also cluttered with piles of scrap steel.

“I was green before green was cool,” Conway begins. “My product is all recycled scrap steel.”

Many of his knife handles also feature shed whitetail antlers, recycled again.

“I’ve been on my own for about seven years now,” he continues. ”I learned the trade while working for a knife manufacturer in Florida. I enjoyed it, and learned a lot, but I hated the city. I’m an Adirondack boy.”

It is easy to understand since Conway was born and raised in Lake Placid. His father was a guide and also owned a local sports shop. Conway comes to the trade naturally and looks the part, with a barrel-chested build that fills a blacksmith apron and bulging forearms. He is also an avid outdoorsman.

“In season, I’m a house painter by occupation,” he explains while slinging a six-pound sledge hammer onto a hunk of glowing steel. “Building knives is my winter’s work.” 

Today, most production knives are manufactured from billets produced by means of a power hammer. The blades are cut to shape with a saw, then ground into a finished product. The process, according to Conway, results in a blade that is, “Duller than a monkey’s toenail.”

Conway knives are made entirely from scratch using discarded scrap in a long and exacting forging process that requires numerous steps. It is a tedious effort, but it is authentic. 

“Otherwise, I can’t call my products handmade,” he says proudly.

It begins by hand-forging a billet, which is then hammered and ground to shape the blade.

“The billet is everything,” Conway explains. “Everybody likes knives, but how much do they really love knives? My knives are made with only the best steel, which really holds an edge.”

Billets are produced in a process known as drawing steel, where raw material is heated to temperatures exceeding 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit, and “quenched” in a process of immersion in oil to temper. 

The blades are then hammered to shape, stamped with his mark, ground again, tempered and ground again to a fine finish. A hilt is attached and silver soldered, handles affixed and carefully shaped by hand and then the product is polished again to a fine finish.

The end product is packaged in a custom leather sheath, which Conway also produces to assure the quality. 

Orders take about a year to be completed and command a price of several hundred dollars. However, the price doesn’t seem matter after you’ve held one of the blades in your hand. It fits just like a well-worn packbasket, or a favorite pair of old woolies.

There’s an old saying, “A man can never have too many knives, or too few rifles.”

Knives may be purchased locally at Blue Line Sport Shop or custom ordered by contacting Conway directly at 891-5707.

Article Photos

Photo by Joe Hackett
Tony Conway inspects a forged blade for straightness, before moving progressing into the next step in the knifemaking process.



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