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Unique cutlery displayed at Northern Cutlery Collectors Club knife show

Knife maker Gary LeBlanc shows off half of a pair of ivory-handled knifes listed at $4,000. Ivory can no longer be used by artisans. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)1 / 3
"Doc" Hagen, at left, shows off his collection of knives to fellow collector Gary LeBlanc. Because the vendors only do a few shows each year, they use their down time to check out each other's merchandise. They say they frequently trade among themselves if they like what another vendor has made or collected. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)2 / 3
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Tim Cruff worries that making and collecting knives may become a lost art form.

"Today's generation feels OK if they have a cell phone," said the Fargo knife collector, vendor and science teacher. "My generation, you didn't leave home without a pocket knife."

Pocketknives, bowie knives, carving knives, filet knives, steak knives and knives made of obsidian were on display this past weekend at the Northern Cutlery Collectors Club- sanctioned show in Park Rapids.

"We've got the top-of-the-line knife makers here, known all over the country," Cruff said proudly.

One of those cutlery kings was Phil Hagen of Pelican Rapids. Known to all as "Doc," the retired dentist has been making hand-forged carbon steel knives for 40 years. He's even made a few dental tools along the way.

Hagen buys the raw steel, cuts his blades with a band saw, heat treats them and grinds in the bevels that will become the serrated edges.

He then assembles them after hand-making the spring mechanisms for blades that tuck into elaborate sheaths. For handles on his blade knives, he uses a variety of materials: skin from a stingray, horns and bones of various animals and wood.

One of his favorite materials is spalted maple. It's where wood starts to rot and picks up different hues from the moisture. The wood is stabilized in resin, resulting in spectacular arrays of colors and patterns. Hagen also uses pineapple and apple coral for handles that are almost pastel in color.

His knives sell for anywhere between $400 and $3,000.

"People still collect 'em but let's face it, the economy isn't the best for us right now," Hagen admitted. "People can live without them, but I do sell everything I make."

His protégé, Tim Pierce, has been making knives of obsidian, a volcanic black glass.

"This is sharper than a steel blade," Hagen said.

Grazyna Shaw of Clearwater makes her living buying and selling knives. "It is profitable," she said.

She inherited the business from her late husband and continues it.

" I buy and sell from makers and collectors," she said. "Their tastes change and they collect something else," she said of buying from collectors.

Tom Lawrence of Stewartville is one such collector. "You have to sell some if you're going to keep buying," he said of parting with his custom collection.

"I've been collecting since I was a child," he said. "They can appreciate in value. Certain makers float to the top."

Jim Poling of Alvarado "started making knifes in shop class behind the teacher's back," he said.

As an adult, he ran into that teacher.

"You think I didn't know what you guys were up to?" the teacher asked Poling. It's been a 28-year hobby for Poling, who uses different tempering processes to produce his knives. He thinks that shop teacher would be proud of him today.

Gary LeBlanc of Royalton displayed a set of hunting and fishing knives worth $4,000. Their handles were made elephant ivory.

"This was pre-ban," LeBlanc hastened to add. The harvesting of ivory was outlawed several decades ago when worldwide outrage stopped the slaughter of elephants for their tusks.

"This is some pretty high class stuff for Park Rapids," said Wolf Lake vendor Les Ristinen. "I wish more people could have turned out to see it. Doc Hagen is world famous."

Ristinen said the NCCC would try one more venue in Park Rapids and if that one is poorly attended, the organization will likely move its show elsewhere.

"We've been mainly dealing amongst ourselves," Cruff said. "Some of the more expensive knives are not moving like they used to. but the fact that you're around some really neat knives makes it a good day."