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Northern Cutlery Collectors Club showcases unique knives

Lori Ristinen is Menagha's foremost scrimshaw artist. (Sarah Smith / Enterpirse)

Knife making is an art form struggling in a tough economy.

Handcrafted works of ebony, ivory, antlers and steel simply command prices higher than would-be collectors can afford for discretionary items these days.

Such seemed to be the attitude last weekend as vendors displayed pocketknives, bowie knives, carving knives, filet knives, steak knives, camp knives and their matching sheaths at the Northern Cutlery Collectors Club show in Park Rapids.

Sales were a bit slow.

"Yeah, the economy has taken a toll" on the hobby, said Hopkins vendor Jeff Hebeisen.

"People don't like to spend a lot of money on something they don't absolutely need," he said, "Thank God I don't depend on the income."

The retiree said his knife making "is a self-sustaining hobby. I sell enough to buy more supplies" to perpetuate the craftsmanship.

But for Hebeisen, the art of making the sheath is as intricate and time-consuming as forging the knife that will slide into it.

The cases are made of leather, snakeskin, stingray skin and other animal hides ordered from various suppliers. They're alsocarved from bone to match a knife handle, or a substance called micarta, which is an acrylic-like substance made of layers of paper.

Carrying knives is also a thing of the past. Gone are the days when kids carried pocketknives. Now they carry iPods. School officials wouldn't allow pockets full of potentially deadly weapons in classrooms.

"The craftsmanship is excellent," Osage resident Paul Joyce said. "It's a real art form. It's too bad more people aren't here to see these."

Joyce goes from table to table, closely examining each knife. Prices range from $50 to $500 and on up.

In the good old days, Hebeisen said people thought nothing of spending $750 for a dagger to hang on the wall as decorative art.

Stopping at an instrument that looks like a corkscrew in a sheath, Joyce pulls it open to reveal a serrated and deadly looking 3-inch knife that you hold like a corkscrew between your index and middle fingers.

"This is a push dagger," Joyce explains. "They were popular in the gambling and riverboat days. You'd hide it in your boot and pull it out if there was trouble. They had all kinds of murderous little instruments in those days."

Joyce goes from table to table commenting on the caliber of the work.

"And then there's Lori (Ristinen)," he said of Menahga's foremost scrimshaw artist.

"She's in a class all her own."

Ristinen is at her table making the delicate and repeated scratch marks on micarta.

She's sketching a ruffed grouse that will be a gift, she said. Ristinen has won numerous national awards; her etchings command top prices.

A small colored etching of a flamingo eye is priced at $3,600. It's stunning.

Ristinen said because of the Marine Mammals Act and other environmental laws designed to reduce the killing of rare species, many traditional mediums used for scrimshaw are no longer available for carving such as whale teeth or walrus tusks. Ivory cannot be imported under most circumstances; so many artists have turned to the micarta.

Carl Braafladt of Duluth is a collector.

"I buy stuff I like," he said from his vendor table. There's fairly active commerce being conducted among the vendors themselves.

When asked if he has trouble parting with something he really likes, Braafladt responded: "You let your children grow up and then you let them go so this isn't much different," he said.

But then he points to a hollowed knife.

"That's not for sale," he says. "It's too nice."

And whether the sales were sluggish didn't seem to bother many of the vendors.

"It's the people that make this hobby interesting," he said.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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