Forging Forward: Bladesmiths Rick Dunkerley and Ed Caffrey
By Brian D’Ambrosio
Rick Dunkerley: "Damascus has a really organic nature, and that really goes together with Montana"
Lincoln’s Rick Dunkerley is fascinated by the flames of his forge and all of its twisting, searing possibilities. With more than 25 years of knife-making practice, the forge is more like an invitation from an old friend. What comes out of it still leaves him breathless.
“I provide a knife that will be passed down as a cherished family heirloom,” said Dunkerley. “You hope that such a knife becomes an honored and loved piece of art. There is a large collector-base of the Civil-War era, and I feel like that is like what I’m making now, if taken care of and passed down.”
Damascus steel is his favorite step of the bladesmithing process.
“I enjoy manipulating the patterns and controlling the pattern development,” said Dunkerley. “There are multiple ways to accomplish that, bending steel a certain way. I am also looking at it three-dimensionally.”
“I usually have a pretty good idea of what I want in a finished piece,” he added. “I leave my mind open to what the materials seem to want to be, rather than always forcing my idea.”
One of Dunkerley’s recent blades featured a mosaic Damascus cut, basket-weave handles, fighting Irishman patterns, and a raised gold Celtic-cross inlay. He is fastidious on the details, producing approximately 40 knives a year – each infused with fresh ideas and concepts.
Damascus steel is made with a wavy surface pattern produced by hammer-welding strips of steel and iron, followed by continual heating and forging. Such items were often marketed, but not necessarily created, in Damascus, Syria.
“Except for the simplest hunting knives, I do not reproduce any of my knives,” said Dunkerley. “All of my Damascus knives are one-of-a-kind and built only by me. Each Damascus knife is a single project and will never be replicated by me.”
Dunkerley was born in Sharon, PA, and graduated from high school in Hermitage in 1977. He spent four years in the U.S. Air Force, stationed mostly at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, where he trained guard, drug, and bomb-sniffing dogs.
He first started making knives in 1984 and, after moving to Lincoln in 1985, his interest in the craft increased. He made stainless steel hunters and utility knives until 1991, when he began forging carbon steel knives and fashioning Damascus steel. He celebrates his own uniqueness daily.
“The lifestyle here, being out in nature so much, it really opened it up for me,” said Dunkerley. “Damascus has a really organic nature, and that really goes together with Montana.”
Dunkerley joined the American Bladesmith Society in 1992. He has been a full-time knife maker since 1996, except for the 30 to 50 days each fall that he operates as an outfitter in Montana’s Scapegoat Wilderness.
His artistry demonstrates spirit and resilience, which are two of the foundations of originality. He has earned many awards for his one-of-a-kind approach, including the “Best Handmade” in 1997, courtesy of Blade Magazine; Krause Publication’s Wooden Sword Award in 2000; and the Oregon Knife Collectors Association’s “Best Damascus” in 2001 and 2003. His knives have earned more than 20 awards including “best hunter,” “best bowie,” “best folder,” “best art knife,” “best Damascus” and “best of show.”
“Collectors respect it because they have some idea of the level of the work it takes to win an award at a particular show,” said Dunkerley.
In 2002, he was chosen to serve on the board of directors of the American Bladesmith Society. At the 2007 Italian Knifemakers Guild Show in Milan, Italy, he was awarded the sobriquet of “maestro.”
Dunkerley’s knives have been featured in knife and art publications worldwide, including appearances on the covers of Blade and Knives Illustrated magazines. He shares his expertise in forging Damascus steel, instructing classes for entities including the Massachusetts College of Art, the Artist Blacksmith Association of North America, and the Western Canada Knifemaker’s Symposium.
Nonetheless, Dunkerley said that bladesmithing is less about the accolades and more about the process. He said that his primary focus will continue to be Damascus steel, particularly mosaic and composite bar blades. He is currently specializing in Damascus folding knives and making Bowie and Persian-style straight knives.
Painstaking point by painstaking point, Dunkerley carries on his signature labor.
“It’s funny because I will get visitors, and to them Damascus is fascinating,” said Dunkerley. “To me it’s repetition and hot, sweaty, and dirty work.”
Ed Caffrey: “I’ve chased the dream of becoming a bladesmith, and I somehow caught it”
Ed Caffrey began his knife making career, unwittingly, when he was 12 years old. Impeccable as his craftsmanship is, more remarkable still is that it exists at all. Caffrey did not choose knifemaking; knifemaking chose him.
“At 12, my best friend and I worked summers on farms, putting up hay, and saving our money to purchase new knives for the following trapping season,” recalls Caffrey. “Once we acquired our new knives, we couldn’t wait to put them to use. Our first catch that season was a 50-plus pound beaver. When skinning the beaver, my friend sharpened his knife four times, and I sharpened mine five. From that point, the search was on for a better knife.”
Caffrey searched around the shop on his family’s farm, scrounging for materials that he thought might form a first-rate knife.
“I even borrowed some of my grandmother’s butcher knives, trying to find something better,” said Caffrey.
At 18 years of age, he joined the U.S. Air Force, and shortly thereafter, married his wife, Cindy. Before long, his curiosity in knives resurfaced. He gathered a few hand tools, and using a picnic table for a workbench, made a few crude knives from saw blades and other things that he thought might make a decent knife.
After a tour of duty in Europe he landed in Blytheville, AR, where he met his first two mentors, joined the American Bladesmith Society, and began his quest to become a full-fledge bladesmith.
His landlord allowed Caffrey to build a small shed – no more than 12 feet in length – on the property he was renting, and as his first shop took hold, so too began his forging career.
Caffrey’s first knife sale came in 1989. He remembers the details with sincere intimacy.
“Up to that point, all the knives I had made were given to friends and family members,” said Caffrey. “One late summer afternoon, a gentleman walked into my shop while I was working on a small wire Damascus hunter. He introduced himself and told me that a friend of mine had shown him a knife I’d made. We chatted as I was working on the hunter, and out of the blue, he said, ‘I’ll give you $40 for that knife you’re working on.’”
“I stammered out, ‘What?,’ and he repeated his offer.” At that time, $40 represented enough money to purchase handle and guard materials for six more knives.
“It is one of those things that propelled me to where I am,” said Caffrey. “I took him up on the offer, and my career as a bladesmith began. Soon, I had half a dozen people wanting knives and it ballooned from there.”
Caffrey transferred to Great Falls in 1992. After purchasing a house, his priority shifted to building a shop to better his bladesmith work. In 1994, he achieved his Journeyman-smith stamp and began teaching bladesmithing at hammer-ins, and in his shop. In 2000, he achieved his ABS Mastersmith rating (the highest rating for a knifemaker). He retired from the Air Force in 2003.
“I went from being full-time military, to a full-time bladesmith literally overnight,” said Caffrey. “That was during the dark years, when there was little information sharing. These days, it’s all more open and the knowledge and skill of the business is shared.”
The real artistry is in Caffrey’s diversity.
“I produce knives from working-grade field knives to high-end collector-grade pieces,” said Caffrey. “The pieces include folders. Nearly everything I produce is forged, with mosaic Damascus being the current passion.”
Having produced knives for nearly 20 years, experimenting with most every option and material available, Caffrey said that “the toughest, best-cutting knives” can only be produced through the proper forging and heat treatment of the preferred steel. He has high expectations for the steel he selects.
“I would rather not try to impress people by offering every type of blade steel under the sun,” said Caffrey. “But I hate doing the same thing over and over.”
His choice of material is often influenced by the current state of the market. He chooses steels that “possess the durability, toughness, as well as the ease of sharpening that are a must. This way I can constantly seek improvement without having to start over each time I produce a blade.”
Caffrey also offers a wide variety of Damascus steel, from barstock for other knifemakers to exotic patterned mosaic pieces.
He teaches at hammer-ins and is available for individual classes in his shop. His commitment is admirable. The more he instructs, the more he gains knowledge of the craft, and the more he is grateful for his pursuit. Indeed, he still wears the smile of a 12 year old, its eternal sunshine.
“I have been blessed to teach all over the United States, Europe and Canada, and I have a lot of folks coming here,” said Caffrey. “I’ve chased the dream of becoming a bladesmith, and I somehow caught it.”