One Sharp Blade
East Texas knife craftsman designs hand-tooled blades sought around the world.
By John H. Ostdick • Photos by Earl Nottingham
A shaft of soft light reaches through the front window of Dan Harrison’s custom knife shop in Ben Wheeler and dances on the edge of one of his custom Mako knives as he moves it gently back and forth in his left hand to demonstrate its perfect balance. Harrison designed the straight-lined Mako, one of many patented styles, in the 1970s.
The rhythmic cadence of grinding steel from the back of the shop just about snuffs out the renowned craftsman’s gravelly voice and head-turning laugh — but not quite. Harrison is ruminating about how strange it is that for seven decades so many people — famous and not — from throughout the world have sought a knife from a guy in Texas.
“The doctors tell me I’ve got no discs left in my back from working standing up all these years,” he says as he moves slowly over to a nearby stool.
He picks at a haphazard pile of promotional materials and story clippings encased in plastic sleeves that document his years as a designer and craftsman. His well-worn camo U.S. Marines cap is pulled down tight on his head. Thick gray whiskers frame his mouth and chin, and a leather apron obscures a large portion of his denim shirt and jeans.
“I apologize for the mess, but this stuff just seems to get away from me.”
The shop is a relaxed sort of place where locals and curious passers-by can browse, buy or just jaw a bit. Two weekend ranchers pop in to have their knives sharpened. Harrison’s shop mate — gray-haired, bespectacled Karl Fielding — attends to their needs.
Fielding, a former truck driver, “showed up here from the North six years ago and has never left the shop,” Harrison informs me, loud enough for Fielding to hear. Fielding took to the trade. Today, he works in the shop daily, and his own custom knives are displayed here.
The distance from Prosper in Collin County, where Harrison was born in 1936, to Ben Wheeler, about 12 miles from Canton, is a little more than 100 miles, but his journey here zigzagged a bit.
The son of a farmer, Harrison started “messing around with knives” at 12. He identifies a nondescript knife on the lower shelf of a display case as his first creation.
“My dad bought an old hand-crank grinder to sharpen some of his equipment blades,” he says. “Being a boy, I naturally loved knives. I pulled out a piece of old junk steel and ground that knife.”
The second knife he made was for his mother, from a power hacksaw blade on a piece of his dad’s machinery. “It was good steel, and I ground her a kitchen knife out of it. It worked well. Her friends saw it and wanted one. I was in the knife business.”
Dan Harrison checks a knife as its final form takes shape at the grinding bench
In his teens, the family moved to Dallas, where his father operated a small store. At 16, he bought his first piece of blank steel and heat-treated it, ran it through the whole process.
“This Swede owned a steel company,” he says. “I went in, told him that I’d read 440 steel was the steel of forever and wanted to order that. He says, ‘Neine, neine, use sperka.’ He told me that was D2 steel, so I bought some. Knife makers aren’t real crazy about grinding it, as it’s tough to grind, but I continue to use it today. Every time they come out with a new steel, I’ll give it a try and test it against my D2. Nothing ever beats it.”
Harrison started exhibiting his knives at gun shows and gained recognition as a quality craftsman.
He joined the Marines at 17, receiving training in artillery and rockets. When he completed his service, he worked with his brother as an aircraft mechanic servicing executive planes in Dallas until he reached 21, the minimum hiring age for police employment. He then joined the Garland Police Department, making knives part-time to make ends meet.
As time went on, he began experimenting with other creations, such as bronze chess sets and aluminum dominoes that Neiman-Marcus carried. That attracted the attention of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Harrison says, who requested one of his knives.
His designs also caught the attention of Kershaw Knives. He worked as a head designer for Browning, and then as consulting designer for KA-BAR, Knives of Alaska and Columbia River.
“They all wanted what I was coming up with,” he says with pride.
Forty-two years ago, Harrison moved as a full-time knife maker first to Overton, about 11 miles from Kilgore, and then to a farm in Edom, where he built a shop. He created finite-numbered collections of custom knives for the companies.
In the late 1970s, Harrison started traveling the world representing the knife companies.
“Designing for companies, you had to go to shows in Germany or wherever,” he says. “At the same time, I had 26 people working for me, and I had to supervise that operation. I worked about 16 hours a day, seven days a week for years designing.”
The demands eventually took their toll.
“I ended up with two heart attacks in a row, and my doctor said, ‘If you want to live to see next Christmas, you’ll quit and just make knives,’” he recalls. “So, I quit and just made knives.”
Semi-retirement didn’t agree with him, however. After Tyler-born Brooks Gremmels retired to Van Zandt County and established a foundation to bring Ben Wheeler back to life starting in 2003, Harrison was one of the artisans that Gremmels helped set up in town, with some of his original shop equipment. Now, he works eight-hour days, usually Wednesday through Sunday. His shop opens at 11.
While most of Harrison’s handles are made of wood, he often uses other material, such as bone.
Harrison pays homage to his time in the service by including military adornments on some creations.
Harrison’s most expensive creation is the wavy-patterned Collector Kris.
Harrison figures he’s made 300 “customs” a year during his career. He describes his process.
“I’ll start out by drawing out a blade on a piece of steel,” he says. “I cut it out, and then as I’m grinding it, I’ll change it until I get something I like. Sometimes people will come in and tell me what they want to do with a knife, and I’ll design one to fit their needs. That’s really fun to me.”
When Harrison met actor Sylvester Stallone, whose Rambo character was heavily connected with the work of acclaimed Arkansas knife maker Jimmy Lile and then later Kentucky’s Gil Hibben, the actor asked him to create something unusual for him.
“I came up with The Solution, that knife-ax combination down there,” he says, pointing out the item in the display case.
The Solution earned him Blade Magazine’s “American Made Knife of the Year” recognition in 1986, one of several industry accolades to his credit.
A representative for the Queen of England sent her armorer over to get something made.
“He made a trip to the shop, talked over options and then remained while I designed one for her,” Harrison recalls.
His mainstay is The Old Ugly, which runs about $325.
“I cut a blade out for a Bandera, which is my most popular knife [he designed the 3- to 3½-inch-blade knife more than 40 years ago], but I was just in the mood to change it one day,” he says. “I ground the tip down instead of up, and it worked well. I really liked that knife, but it was ugly. The name stuck. I’ve sold a zillion of those things over the years.”
The most expensive of his creations is the Collector Kris, a wavy knife he points to in his display case.
“That’s Damascus, 520 layers of steel,” he tells me. “A writer once called me a liar for saying I had power-ground one, claiming it was impossible. So, I took it to Dallas where this writer was at a show and presented it to him for inspection. All he could say was, ‘I’ll be damned!’”
Harrison’s made only 20 of these ultimate knives so far.
“Took me a week to develop the grind on that blade,” he says. “I can grind them now in two days, but it’s an intense process. You come across and leave a straight line down the center, and then your edge waves in and out from there. I have to feel the pressure in my hands, and then maneuver my hands to make it work.”
The knife’s cost? $10,000.
His wife, Carol, spent 40 years hand-stitching leather sheaths for his knifes and creating the artwork Harrison incorporated into his products. She retired last year. Harrison says that he intends to work until he is 90, and then go fishing.
He started teaching lessons a few years ago. “Lynn, that big boy in there [grinding a blade in the workshop], is a retired Dallas fireman,” he tells me. “He came down a year ago to learn. Now, he is here almost every day of the week. While I don’t do that all the time, I have equipment that he doesn’t have. He’s out selling knives now, making money at it.”
Even with 70 years of creative work under his belt, Harrison still has whimsical dreams he wants to achieve.
“I want to make medieval armor and battle axes, things like that,” he says. “I made one battle ax in my life. I kind of dream of setting my shop up to do helmets and the whole nine yards. But I’m 82, so if I’m going to do that, I better get busy.”
John H. Ostdick is a Dallas freelance writer.
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