Not All Knives are Equal

Custom knife maker Bob Braendle makes fine knives for chefs, as well as those who go afield. // Photography by Johnny Quirin
Bob Braendle at his shop making knives.
He works with a sheath.

Bob Braendle always has built things. Stereo components. Cedar strip canoes. Drift boats. Guitars. Amplifiers. Bamboo fly rods and fly reels. But he never really hit his stride until he started making knives or, as he puts it, “edged cutting tools with a handle.” That’s because not all knives are created equal, he said.

“I don’t make weapons,” the 54-year-old Rockford resident proclaimed proudly. “I’m not into broadswords and scimitars and that sort of thing. I want people to use what I make.”

Braendle always has built things for his own personal use. “I’m more likely to make something then I am to buy it if it’s possible,” he said.

Bob Braendle - Knives

But when he decided to use his creative talents to supplement his income — he’s spent most of his career working in the fly fishing industry — knives seemed to fit the bill.

“Knives fit my attention span,” said Braendle, who has a bachelor’s of fine arts in photography but exited his career in studio photography soon after it began because he found it too regimented. “A bamboo rod is 80 hours from start to finish. A canoe takes hundreds of hours. At some point in that process you say, ‘Gosh, I wish this was finished.’

“Most knives take five to 10 hours. I can make a simple knife in a day — cut the steel blank, grind it, heat treat it, drill the pin holes and have a handle glued on by the end of the day. I like the idea of having something tangible at the end of the day. It may not be totally done, but at least I don’t say, ‘Well, I made 25 phone calls today.’

Bob Braendle grinds a steel blade into shape.
Bob Braendle grinds a steel blade into shape.

“When I made my last fly reel, I stopped counting at 120 hours. How do you make any money doing that?”

Braendle began making knives about four years ago. He made about 50 of them — mostly giving them to friends and having the recipients critique them — until he thought he had the process down. Now, he builds five to seven a month, everything from simple cord-handled gentleman’s knives to custom pearl-handled pistol-grip meat cleavers.

“For a while, I was doing 10 to 12 a month, but it was absolutely nuts,” he said. “There was no downtime.”

Braendle’s catalog (rbraendleknifeworks.­com) contains everything from simple 3-­inch knives with a sheath that folks can carry in their pockets that cost $100 to
specialty tools that cost many times that much. He makes sporting knives like drop-point hunter/skinners, filet knives, trout and grouse knives, and camp knives that will do everything up to cutting down a small tree.

Bob Braendle at his shop making knives. Photo by Johnny Quirin

He makes kitchen knives too and has eight basic designs. Braendle builds knives for several restaurants and services them, sharpening them for his clients as needed.

But he really loves building custom knives, about one in 50 that he produces.

“I had a guy call who wanted a squirrel skinner,” he said. “The nice thing about custom knives is I can build anything you want. I can custom fit it to a guy’s hand — have someone come over and work on it until it’s right.”

The size of the blade is the determining factor in pricing, he said, but his biggest expense, believe it or not, is sandpaper.

Making knives is part art, part science.

“Heat treating is what makes a knife,” Braendle said, “that and the edge geometry. I always knew the geometry from making bamboo rods, but the heat-treating thing I’m constantly tweaking. I strive to improve with every single knife I make. My goal, every time I start a knife, is to make the best knife I ever made. Three years from now, I probably won’t be happy with the knives I’m making today.”

Braendle is convinced he’s found his calling. Knives are tools that everyone uses.

Bob Gwizdz is a career outdoor writer who lives in East Lansing.

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