Robert Waldorf Loveless, 51, is standing before a polishing wheel, buffing the blade of a hunting knife. It is midnight. On the radio, Bessie Smith wails Empty Bed Blues. Loveless, a big man with a voice to match, has been working for 12 hours. He's wearing jeans, a workshirt embroidered with Japanese characters, a Rolex watch and a cocked, locked and loaded .45 automatic Colt Commander pistol. A gaily striped cap—a facsimile of the pre-World War II Japanese Army summer forage model—covers his graying hair.
Loveless holds up the shimmering knife for inspection, flipping a set of homemade 7-power magnifying lenses over his safety glasses. His huge hands are covered with calluses, cuts, steel grit and grease, but he holds the seven-ounce object as comfortably as a surgeon holds a scalpel. His eyes travel over his handiwork, centimeter by magnified centimeter. Sighting down the cutting edge, he roars suddenly at the ceiling, "God, Loveless, you sure as hell have a lot to learn about making knives!"
The experts don't agree with him. In the opinion of hunters, guides, collectors and fellow bladesmen, Loveless is the best knifemaker in the world. And they proclaim their praise with reverence. Gene Hill, hunter and outdoors author: "A Loveless knife is like a Purdy shotgun—classic, elegant and unsurpassed." Ed Weinberger, friend, outdoorsman and collector: "No knife has the density, the feel of a Loveless. It's a work of art, and it's an extension of your arm." A.G. Russell, knifemaker, honorary president of the Knifemakers' Guild and custom-knife broker: "You can say that this knifemaker's grinding is better than Bob's, or that that one's polishing is better. But overall, he makes the best handmade knife in the modern world. When you hold a Loveless, you know that it's something very, very special."
Loveless fighting knives hang on the belts of many army staff officers around the free world, are used by Special Forces A teams and find their way into the boots of CIA operatives. His hunting knives are worked hard by Montana cowboys, Texas guides and Alaskan trappers.
July 13, 1980
But a substantial number of Loveless blades lie in the dustproof velvet cases of the collectors, who don white gloves before touching them lest a fingerprint mar their perfection. And that is a fact that pains the master.
In the booming custom-knife-collecting market, Loveless blades are almost worth their weight in gold. Over the past few years, several Loveless knives have sold for $3,000. Lovelesses are so much in demand that their maker is five years behind in filling the orders that pour into his shop. A few months ago he stopped taking orders altogether, sending the collectors into the kind of frenzied bidding that attends the death of a famous painter.
To those of us who buy a $15 sheath knife in a hardware store, it's difficult to understand what makes a hunting knife worth $3,000. It is a question that bothers Loveless as much as anyone.
The master of the cutting edge lives on the outskirts of Riverside, Calif., 60 miles and light-years southeast of Beverly Hills. Here pickup trucks pick up bales of hay and bags of seed instead of Bo Derek imitators. The pastel paint on the clapboard houses is washed out and peeling. The sign on the local liquor store is made of bare light bulbs, and across the road from Loveless' small decaying yellow house, a mongrel dog chained to a stained bathtub in a front yard yaps endlessly.
Now Loveless is having dinner in his tiny kitchen at one of those long Formica-topped tables folks rent for backyard wedding receptions. Before him are his .45 on top of a volume of Ansel Adams nature photographs, a television with a five-inch screen tuned to the news, a book called The Rich and the Super-rich and a Braun lighter that is included in the Museum of Modern Art's design collection. On a cracked plastic plate are a filet mignon and an Oriental noodle dish prepared by Loveless' Japanese wife, Yoshiko. It is a mad collage: East meets West, gun advocate vs. environmentalist, the meticulous artist vs. the patently shabby.
Loveless is given to sudden philosophical outbursts. Furiously gumming his steak—he has two sets of false teeth but they irritate him, so he usually wears neither—he blurts out, "Our lives are mired in detritus. Objects own us; they keep us from our creativity. The kind of American who acquires a lot of expensive things so that he can show them off to his peer group and thereby acquire more status is the kind of American that makes me puke.
"Why would anyone pay $3,000 for a hunting knife? They say, because my name is on it. I'm carrying an awfully big rep. If I were a gunfighter, I'd be hiding in a cave somewhere. But I wouldn't spend that much money for a knife if it were autographed by Jesus Christ himself!"
To underscore his point, Loveless brandishes his steak knife. It's one of those serrated-blade jobs with a plastic handle, the kind they advertise on late-night television. "This does the job," he growls.
But in the modern, orderly cinder-block shop behind the house, a set of 12 Loveless steak knives is being ground for a Connecticut art dealer. The price: $1,500. Such are the vagaries of a free-market economy, Loveless will tell you. And unlike the $2.98 variety he wields over his dinner, the Loveless knives will long outlast their owner. Two centuries from now they should still be slicing beef.
There are more than 250 registered custom knifemakers in the country, many of them ranchers, engineers or outdoors-men who make only a few knives each year as a hobby. There are perhaps 30 full-timers like Loveless who make a living at their craft. Knifemaking boomed in the late '60s, when the collectibles mania caught hold of otherwise normal folks, who began amassing everything from glass powerline insulators to cork beer coasters. The demands of knife collectors and speculators have driven the makers in a direction that Loveless hates.
When he conceived and co-founded the Knifemakers' Guild in 1970, he had no idea what the result would be. "We were suddenly 'discovered,' " he says, "and the shame of it was that the collectors drove the prices sky-high. Hell, a working cowboy, a hunter, even a guide, has a tough time affording my knives now."
Loveless separates handmade knives into two groups: "using" knives and "wall-hangers." He proudly makes the former variety; while many of the finest craftsmen turn out absurd-sized Bowies, scrimshawed push-daggers and elaborately engraved commemoratives for the outrageous prices that collectors are willing to pay, Loveless refuses to cater to that market.
"The test that separates a working knife from a toy is the pelvic joint of a buck mule deer," Loveless says. "You use one of those big, pretty Bowies that's been made for a museum, and the damn blade will snap off or get so dull that it won't cut the other hip. What's the point of a new knife in a museum or a cabinet? That's for history to decide, not the knifemaker."
For all his railing against the hoarding of objects, Loveless has an insatiable lust for calculators, cameras, watches, pistols, tape recorders, pens and miniature television sets. They are arrayed by the dozens in orderly fashion in his seven-room shop. Loveless is also a compulsive tinkerer, never satisfied with these and other objects as they are. "If I pick up a hammer to build a house, I'll start thinking about how I can improve the tool," he says. "I won't get the house built, but I'll end up with one hell of a fine hammer."
Despite the discount-store aspect of Loveless' shop, most of it, including $100,000 worth of machine tools, is devoted to knifemaking. Like most modern knifemakers, Loveless uses the stock-reduction method of making blades, in which the knife begins as a bar of [3/16]-inch-thick stainless steel and is ground away and shaped by motor-driven grinding belts of successively finer grits into a finished knife. It's a long, dirty process, though a matter of fine touch, and after a day in the shop, Loveless, his skin gray with steel dust, often looks as if he's come up from a coal mine.
There are a few men, like Bill Moran in Maryland, who hand-forge blades by the old Damascus method, heating metal and pounding it into shape on an anvil, building layers of steel and soft iron into a usable blade. But Loveless, firmly committed to high-tensile stainless, says, "Forging is an interesting exercise in history, but I want a stronger blade when I go into the woods."
Although his shop seems roomy enough for an apprentice or two, who could help Loveless catch up on his five-year backlog, he claims he can't afford such assistance, even though the average price of his knives has risen to $600 and he could turn out 20 knives a month if he pushed. But Loveless honors the prices in effect when customers placed their orders. Thus, a simple four-inch knife that has a current market value of $600 may have been selling for $200 in 1975 when Loveless took the order, and that's the price at which it will be delivered. Loveless shakes his head. "I'm probably a damn fool, but the customers ordered in good faith and sent in deposits. I can't ask them to pay the current tab."
Loveless also shares some of the blame for the backlog. He made only 75 knives in 1979 because he wasn't in the mood—knifemaker's block, as it were. Masters are like that. But it is not only that he can't afford an assistant; he probably doesn't want one. He doesn't make friends easily; he prefers standing bow-legged at his grinding wheel late at night, listening to blues and jazz, alone with his craft. He's a loner.
Occasionally Loveless lowers his tired bulk onto a shop stool, pours coffee into a tin mug and considers his knives. He picks one up and slides the blade sideways over his thumbnail. If it isn't perfectly sharpened, the blade will slide off. He gently pokes the point into a big callus in his palm to test it. And he speaks in low purring tones of his craft:
"When a man picks up a knife, there's an old memory from the collective unconscious that surfaces. A knife is an atavistic experience. It was man's first tool and weapon. Man was chipping flint into cutting edges before he invented the wheel. No matter how sophisticated we become, a knife takes us back to the cave.
"I can see myself as a Neanderthal flint chipper sitting by the fire in the night. It was the first specialized labor in human history. Maybe I knew where the best flint was, or how to flake it better than anyone else. My lineage goes back before what we call the oldest profession. It's a craft at least 30,000 years old. When people wonder how a man can spend his life making hunting knives, they should remember that. It's a gloriously venerable occupation."
Turning one of his knives over in his hand, Loveless says, "If people think my knives are better than anyone else's, there's a reason. A knife is an extension of your experience. And I've had more intense experiences than most people. There's more character running in my veins."
If character built on hard experience is what it takes to become a celebrated knifemaker, Loveless has been working at his profession all his life. Born in 1929, he lived through the Depression on his grandparents' 17-acre farm near Warren, in northeastern Ohio. When he was 14, he altered his birth certificate and joined the Merchant Marine. In the waterfront bars of several foreign ports he witnessed some knife fights, which intensified his interest in these weapons, and he experimented with improving them. During the early part of World War II, he sailed in the Merchant Marine; later he became an Air Corps control tower operator on Iwo Jima.
In the early '50s Loveless attended the Institute of Design in Chicago, the last enclave of architects, artists and designers of the Bauhaus school. He studied product design and took a course taught by the famed architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Most of all he was indoctrinated in one of the Bauhaus school's holiest beliefs: form follows function.
Loveless went back to Ohio and studied literature and sociology at Kent State for a while but soon wound up sailing again, this time on a tanker homeported in New York. "I went to Abercrombie & Fitch to buy a really good sheath knife," he recalls. "We used knives hard aboard ship. I saw a beautiful Randall knife. Bo Randall was the man in knives in those days. His shop in Orlando was a legend. But the salesman told me that the Randall was only for display. There was a nine-month waiting period to get one. I thought to hell with it, it can't be so hard. I'll make my own."
Using a piece of leaf spring from a 1938 Packard, Loveless forged his own blade on the oil-fired galley stove of the ship. Pleased with the results, he presented his work to the head of the Abercrombie & Fitch cutlery department, who was impressed by this first effort. Soon Loveless was a full-time knifemaker, settled in Claymont, Del. From 1954 to 1960 he turned out more than a thousand hand-forged knives called Delaware Maids for the New York store, and they became one of Abercrombie & Fitch's best-selling handmade items, outselling the Randall blades. Loveless' early efforts, he admits, were copies of Randall designs. But in the mid-'60s he achieved the breakthrough that would make him the king of the knifemen and would revolutionize the design and crafting of sporting cutlery.
Randalls were great, heavy knives, with lethal if unwieldy six-and seven-inch blades. They were the knives that helped win the Island War in the Pacific. Novelist James Jones collected Randall knives and wrote about one in Some Came Running.
But Loveless felt that Randall's combat knives were too fragile and unbalanced for a hunter's fine work, in which the skinning of a trophy animal, particularly the delicate work around antlers, nose and eyes, is critical. As to how he hit on the solution, Loveless says, "Most creative work is done by not walking up to the front door of a problem. It's usually more productive to go round behind the barn and have a nap in the grass." The result of this theory of creativity was the Loveless four-inch "dropped hunter" knife.
"Dropped" refers, in this case, to the point of the knife, which drops away from the back of the blade, allowing the knife to be worked blade upward, sliding under a deer's hide, for instance, without damaging the flesh. After just a few years the design has become widely imitated by both commercial and handmade cutlers the world over.
On the way to his moment of genius, Loveless gave himself a thorough course in metallurgy. He was the first knifemaker to develop his own special-melt steel—a highly alloyed (silicon and manganese were the main additives) tool steel—instead of using the less sophisticated Swedish variety, which was standard at the time.
Loveless pared inches and ounces from the hunting knife, determining from his own experience and that of a number of hunters and guides that four inches was enough blade, that anything more would be too difficult to control precisely. His current designs have shrunk to 3¼ inches.
More important, Loveless found, in exploring an abandoned 19th-century technique, the strength and balance that would allow the smaller, thinner blade to stand up to the rigors of field use. The technique is called the full-tapered-tang method and was originally required to offset the weaknesses of steel softer than what is now available. Before Loveless, the tang of a modern steel knife was often ground down to a point half the length of the handle. The result of this was often an unbalanced tool with a weak handle mounting. Loveless refined the disused full-tang technique, tapering the butt end of the tang, which runs the length of the handle, down to one-sixteenth of an inch. Just as the Loveless blade was thinner and lighter at the tip, so the butt of the handle would be similarly light, concentrating the weight perfectly at the center of the knife. And the handle then became two thin slabs of material attached like halves of a pistol grip to the tang, instead of a great lump of stag or ivory and brass.
In the master's self-described "howling egotist" mode, which comes on him for brief periods daily, he'll enthuse, "The tapered tang is a beautiful concept. You have this full thickness where you need it—at the hilt, where the stresses are greatest. Meanwhile, your hand is controlling the tip of the knife through the length of the handle. When people say that a Loveless knife feels better than another, that's what they're experiencing."
Loveless also affixes his mark—an important aspect of bench-made knives—in a different manner from most other cutlers, R.W. LOVELESS, MAKER, RIVERSIDE, CALIFORNIA is acid-etched on the blade, not stamped on the knife, so there is no chance of stress fractures occurring. A few Loveless knives carry, in addition to his mark, the figure of a reclining nude woman. Loveless won't say why she's on some and not on others; he just smiles gummily, his eyes twinkling.
Another Loveless advance brings the sheath to a functional art form. "I hate to have to fumble around unsnapping one of those keeper straps that hold a handle," he says, "so I borrowed a design of wet-forming leather around each knife, sewing in a welt to keep the knife in place. Enough of the handle sticks out so that you can get it with one hand, and the damn thing will never fall out."
Add to all this the superior craftsmanship of Loveless' hands and his unforgiving eye for detail, and you have the state of the art in knifedom today. "One of my knives in its sheath is about the neatest package in all of design," he says. "I make one of the finest tools in the world. A knife is as personal and necessary a thing as a man ever owns, and, by God, I don't have to apologize to anyone."
In fact, if there is any apologizing to be done, Loveless figures that it is owed to him by customers who refuse to treat his work as something of utility, who put his knives in cases and "fondle and drool over them."
"Ninety percent of my knives aren't used!" he exclaims. "And, damn it, they should be out working. That's why I make them. When some old cowboy or guide comes back to me with a knife that's worn down to a nub and he says, 'That thing fit my hand better than any knife I'd ever had, and it worked longer, too,' that's fame. That's what I'm on earth for. A knife is a tool, and if we don't treat our tools with a certain familiar contempt, we lose perspective."
Loveless has developed some unique ways to foil collectors who only want to display his knives. In his shop is a collection of handle materials sent to him by customers. In fact, handles are about the only things on a Loveless knife you can specify. "I'm a bench maker," he insists. "A custom maker is a guy who'll tailor a knife to your specifications. I only make my own designs."
While he'll attach slabs of manatee rib, walrus ivory, rare woods and stag, elk and sheep horn to knives, Loveless' standard material—the stuff one will get unless one tells him otherwise—is a synthetic called Micarta, a close relative of fiber glass, made from layers of cotton cloth and phenolic resins. "All the so-called 'natural' stuff like stag and ivory eventually shrinks and cracks," Loveless says. "But that damn Micarta never does. Those handles will outlast the collectors and maybe get back in the hands of sportsmen and working guys a hundred years from now." Although Loveless does not say it, one senses that durability is not the whole reason for the plastic handles. He knows that collectors look down on so plebeian a material. It's the handle of a beer drinker, while ivory is the champagne of materials.
When Loveless began using his steel in blades, it rusted rather easily, and therefore it was polished to a mirror finish so that corrosion couldn't take hold in small scratches left by grinding. The polished look caught on with collectors to the extent that, as Loveless says, "When you gave a collector a new knife, he often whipped out a glass to check for scratches instead of appreciating what he was holding." Because of advancements in steel, the mirror finish is no longer necessary, although most makers still employ it for the trade.
Loveless is starting to make blades with a "brushed satin" finish, which gives the blade a soft glow. "A brushed blade will stain some," he says, "but a sportsman doesn't mind that. It gives the knife some character. Mostly, it cuts 20% off the price and makes my knives more affordable to the kind of people who will use them."
Even though he prefers to work alone, Loveless' kitchen and workshop have become gathering places for friends and knife buyers. On a recent afternoon, a young man, a neighbor, showed up to have coffee and boast about how he'd found a canyon full of rattlesnakes nearby and was waiting to blow them away with birdshot from a .357 Magnum rifle.
Loveless raised his safety glasses, gazed steadily at the youngster and said, "Why, were the snakes bothering you?"
Loveless gave up hunting in 1970. "I've taken more than my moral limit of game," he says. "I've shot things I didn't eat. It was enough."
And Loveless won't sell a customer one of his fighting knives unless the buyer can prove to him that he's in some hazardous profession—the police or military, for example—that might actually require such a weapon. His awesome 8½-inch Big Bear combat knife is priced at $3,000 to discourage sales. "I don't like the vibes the people who want to buy fighting knives give off," Loveless says. "There's a deep streak of fascism in many Americans. They're frustrated and violent. A whole generation has grown up on the boob tube and Vietnam. I won't contribute to it."
On the other hand, Loveless has carried a handgun since he was 17. He wore his .45 when he married Yoshiko two years ago at nearby Mission Inn, the landmark hotel where Richard and Pat Nixon were wed. "I look into myself regularly for any hypocrisy about it, but I can't find any," he says. "I've never drawn that gun in 34 years. I'd never draw it to stop someone robbing me. Hell, a man can always get more objects. But if anyone tried to hurt me or my wife, I'd blow them away without a pang of conscience."
Loveless is visited at times by the CIA's technical division spooks who whisper odd and deadly requests. He takes such assignments if they are "interesting." He won't talk about any current work he may be doing for the agency, but he fondly remembers making a blade the size and shape of a pocket comb that fit into a CIA-issued passport case. When the case was thrown, the razor-sharp and specially weighted blade cut the case and sliced into whatever it hit. "Real James Bond crap," mutters Loveless.
In Japan, where he frequently travels with his wife, Loveless is regarded as a sensei—a spiritual master—of blade-craft. One Tokyo knifemaker paid $1,000 a month to study with him. But Loveless gets nervous being treated so reverently. "When they start that 'Zen master' stuff, I go like this," says Loveless, collapsing his toothless jaw until his chin touches his nose. He is convinced that this gets him off the hook, but, in fact, his facial contortions simply yield a reasonable facsimile of the Laughing Buddha and may even add to his spiritual image.
Loveless fully reciprocates the Japanese admiration. "I've seen cutting edges so perfect on Samurai swords that they seem to literally disappear into the air," he says. "There's not a flaw or imperfection on them. But there will be an imperfection in every Loveless knife. I won't challenge the gods.
"Besides, who would be worthy of owning the perfect knife? An actor? A Senator? A sports hero? If Einstein had needed a knife, man, I'd have made him a doozy."
After 26 years at the grinding wheel, Loveless has grown a little bored with making hunting knives. But he keeps forging—or grinding—ahead. The Gerber Legendary Blades Corporation, a quality commercial cutler, has retained Loveless as chief designer, a position in which he can put his populism to the test, to create an affordable top-notch factory knife.
He has also revolutionized the design of the jackknife, constructing his as a one-piece unit instead of using the layers with which folding knives have always been built. When the patent is granted, he'll be challenging Jess Horn, the king of the custommade jackknife.
Loveless wants to take a few months off to do "arty" black and white photography in Japan. He's designing the first camera, he says, "that will fit the human hand." Sometimes he speaks of having his ashes placed, along with those of his wife, in her parents' burial plot in Mito, 60 miles northeast of Tokyo.
But then he'll laugh, grab a bar of stainless steel and head for the grinding room. "Hell, they'll just find me dead at the wheel with a knife in my hand," he says. "Dead of a broken heart."
What would keep Bob Loveless' spirit intact is the certainty that in a couple of hundred years his knives would be in the hands of cowboys and hunters and soldiers doing their jobs. For him it would be a perfect world, where the collectors had moved on and a man and his knife were back to work.