Hands blackened by carbon, George Roberts hefts a flat, steel bar and explains how he plans to cut a knife out of this raw piece of surgical stainless steel.
After spelling out the finer points of metallurgy, he puts the bar back up on the wall among dozens of blades and half-finished knives.
For more than three decades, Roberts, the owner of Bandit Blades, has been handcrafting custom knives. For the last decade he has been working out of a shop in the MacRae subdivision.
His skill and craftsmanship are renowned throughout the North.
Recently they even garnered him some royal recognition.
When Prince William and his wife, Kate Middleton, visited Canada last summer, the Canadian Rangers presented the prince with a knife designed and built by Roberts.
It was the first knife of many that Roberts made especially for the Rangers.
This month the Rangers presented Roberts with a Royal certificate to commemorate the gift. That certificate, along with a picture of the prince holding the knife, is prominently displayed on the shop wall.
Roberts wasn’t able to meet the Royals during their northern visit, but he’s confident that if they ever come back, he’ll get an invitation.
“If he ever uses that knife, I’m sure he’ll want to know who made it,” he said.
While Roberts considers his knives to be works of art, he doesn’t want them to sit around gathering dust on someone’s mantle.
“I like every knife I make to be used,” said Roberts.
He’s confident the knives he is making for the Rangers will get a lot of use.
The Canadian Rangers are a lightly-equipped, self-sufficient, reserve unit of the Canadian Forces, which operates in the North.
Individual members of the Rangers, who are often avid outdoors people, had been coming to Roberts for hunting knives for some time.
Four years ago, the Rangers asked him to create a survival knife for them exclusively.
The knife that Roberts designed is tailored for their use.
“It’s made for extreme use in extreme conditions,” he said.
It can slice through everything from moose hide to sheet metal.
The knife can only be bought by a member of the Canadian Rangers, but even they still have to buy them for themselves.
Other than a World War II era No. 4 Lee Enfield rifle, a box of ammunition and a red hoodie, the Rangers are expected to outfit themselves.
At $350 a pop, the knives don’t come cheap, but they are still a good deal, considering the quality of materials and the amount of labour that goes into one of them, said Roberts.
“I’m not making a lot of money off this,” he said.
Creating a knife takes Roberts about 20 hours.
When he first started making knives three decades ago, he didn’t have a shop or any specialized equipment so making a knife took a lot longer.
Roberts would spend 100 hours or more sitting in front of the TV or at the kitchen table, grinding out a blade from solid steel bar, using only sandpaper and elbow grease.
“Back then time wasn’t an issue,” he said.
It was a craft born out of necessity for Roberts.
At the time, he was running a fishing lodge in Wawa, Ont., and just couldn’t find a good fishing knife.
The ones that were being imported from China were terrible, said Roberts.
“That old stainless steel just doesn’t cut it,” he said.
Without any formal training, Roberts learned to do, by doing.
Over the years he’s honed his skills. He even learned to work with leather so he could make his own sheaths.
After the factory where he worked shut down, he devoted more and more time to his craft.
In the late 1980s, he and his wife decided to move west. They bought a truck, put a bed in the back and headed out.
Part of the reason for the trip was to search out new markets for his knives.
At the time, the Yukon wasn’t even on their radar, said Roberts.
When they got to Vancouver, everyone told them the North was the place to find people that would truly appreciate his work.
They spent that summer living in a cabin in Dawson City and then decided to stay.
Over the years, Roberts’ knives have become extremely popular with all manner of outdoor enthusiasts. Through word of mouth, that popularity continues to grow.
“I’m busier now than I’ve been for five years,” he said.
While the knives he produces are functional, Roberts considers every one a work of art.
“I’m the guy that turned hunting knives into art,” he said.
Works of art don’t come cheap, but once you buy one you’ll never have to buy another, he said.
“These knives I’m making today are going to be around for generations,” said Roberts. “As long as you don’t lose it, you’ll have it forever.”
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