A Man and His Tools

WEATHERFORD, TX — After World War II, the hospital in Mineral Wells filled with wounded veterans, the bottom floor of the Crazy Water Hotel became a maternity ward. Artisan knife maker, Jack Crain, was born there in 1946. Growing up and going to school on the south side of Mineral Wells, Jack learned carpentry, hunting and fishing from his family. He developed the finer points of his artistic side in private.

“I remember painting a picture and then standing on the window sill and putting it out on the roof so my parents wouldn’t see it,” Jack said. “If I showed too much stuff like that, my dad would take me out and put me to work on his rent houses.” Well-prepared to earn his way in the world, Jack supported himself during the ’60s and ’70s as a cabinetmaker for national and international corporations. Meanwhile, he enjoyed hunting and fishing in Parker County and wanted to make knives for use outdoors. Jack started beating out knives for himself using a forge and anvil and then filing them. “It takes a long time to make a knife that way.”

Jack’s progression as a metal worker included a lot of mistakes, but no training. “I goofed up a whole bunch of times,” he said, “but you just keep doing what you enjoy doing and after awhile you get good at it.” To this day, when he messes up a knife, he takes a cutting torch or chop saw and cuts it all to pieces. But the knives he is proud of — like the Predator machete with its blade of stainless steel and handle of hand-carved birch hardwood — have sold for up to $20,000 and duplicates are trading on eBay for $2,900.

Working from his studio just south of Weatherford, Jack is known for attention to detail. “I’m a craftsman in the sense that I have to be able to do what I do real well,” Jack said candidly. “But I’m an artist in the sense that, for example, when the Hollywood studios contact me to commission a knife, it’s not like I’m the only knife maker between here and Los Angeles.” But he is the only one whose knives have appeared in about 20 movies, including Die Hard, Commando, Executive Decision, Roadhouse, War of the Worlds, and Tales from the Crypt.

Custom designing knives for creative use requires research and planning. For instance, the knives actually used in Die Hard II had to be made out of steel, aluminum or rubber, depending on the scene it would be used for. “Aluminum will sail through the air like the actor is real powerful,” Jack explained. The producer will send Jack a movie script, and as he reads it in his easy chair or, in nicer weather, out on his newly built deck surrounded by scrub oak, Jack will consider the kind of knife this movie calls for. One 24-inches long or only three-inches long? Should the blade slip out of a cross? He was even asked to create one with an attached silencer for Predator. Since Jack hunted and fished ever since his childhood — for a long time using black powder guns and now simply a bow — he knows the use of various blades and handles.

Jack collaborated with author Jerry Ahern to create the knife mentioned in The Survivalist books. Its handle has a twist top so its owner can store things inside. Jack may invest 70 or 80 hours in such a knife handle, starting by cutting a steel bar, hollowing it with a lathe and finally engraving the butt cap with oak leaves and flowers and embedding a decorative stone. He taught himself to carve, too, and made his first ivory knife handle in 1979. Sometimes, Jack carves precious resources — including jade, mother-of-pearl, walnut, black birch, ebony, hardwood from the Circassian area of the Caucasus  mountains in Spain, Alaskan mastadon tusks, legally- traded ivory and local deer horns — into handles. The craftsman does his work in the studio behind his forge, which he bought in 1981 when it was already 100 years old.

Melting metal is one of many skills Jack taught himself along the way. Achieving perfection in each and every detail was a process of discovery in the privacy of his shop. Jack taught himself how to make a fancy, medieval-looking, black-colored guard for a steel sword

by treating the guard with a military parkerizing chemical that turns black when he heats it. Lately, Jack’s been passing along such knowledge to his friend and apprentice, Donald Middleton.

His ancient forge is fueled with coal. Once heated until it glows bright yellow, 2400 or 2500 F, the metal can be positioned over the anvil, which is held in place with a vice anchored by posts buried deep underground. Using a huge sledgehammer, a strong man can beat on the metal without breaking it. When Jack makes Damascus steel, it takes him about 40-50 hours of hard work.

“You learn over a period of time how to manipulate the metal and stretch it and make it do what you want it to do,” said Jack, who started making Damascus steel in the ’70s. “You laminate soft and hard steel together, like they did about the time they were coming out of the Bronze Age into the Iron Age. There are 500 or 600 layers in a knife that is only about 1/8-inch thick. You get it hot, pound it out three times its length, then fold it, then pound it out longer, then fold it.”

He still forges Damascus steel, but more often forges out thicker pieces of 440C surgical stainless steel on a smaller anvil in the shop. Then, using the stock removal method of shaping the steel using a belt sander, Jack files down 1/4-inch-thick bars of steel to create the edge on his knives. With his drill presses, Jack creates grooves and holes for pins that will eventually hold down the knife handle. Before engraving the blades, he’ll sand blast using powdered glass to make a nice, soft finish on the metal. Finally, he hardens the metal by putting it into a heat-treating oven. “Before that step, it can be cut with a saw or band saw. After you heat treat it the steel gets so hard you can’t cut it at all,” Jack said.

Getting out in his shop, which he has outfitted with central air, is a joy for Jack. Never satisfied with the knives he makes, Jack is always trying to make a better one. His wife, Jane, once asked him what was the best knife he ever made, and he told her, “The next one.”

Written by Melissa Rawlins.