From Issue One of the Gear Patrol Magazine. Free shipping for new subscribers.
Portland is no stranger to industry. Oregon’s largest city is known for its shoe companies, breweries and outdoor apparel brands. But the business acumen of the City of Roses doesn’t end at Nike, Widmer Brothers and Columbia. Portland is also home to a knife-making industry that includes some of the biggest names in blades — Gerber, Benchmade, CRKT, Kershaw, Leatherman — as well as passionate, small-scale artisans.
Coast Cutlery was the first of the big outdoor knife makers to settle in Portland, in 1919. Twenty years later, Joseph R. Gerber formed Gerber Legendary Blades. Then in 1974, former Gerber employee Pete Kershaw left to form his own company, Kershaw. And, in 1994 Columbia River Knife & Tool (CRKT) was formed by Paul Gillespi and Rod Bremer, both former employees of Kershaw. Knife companies begat more knife companies, and eventually the city became home to around a quarter of America’s pocket knife brands.
As companies grew, so did the number of local parts suppliers and machining companies, offering a reliable and skilled vendor base to the industry. With a strong base of part suppliers, Portland became a viable option for burgeoning knife makers. Several companies like Benchmade — founded in L.A. by Les de Asis — have since relocated to Stumptown.
The city’s creative spirit also drives the knife industry, especially for the artisan knife-makers. “There is a freedom here that encourages people to explore and follow their creative ideas,” says William Tuch, who makes his pocket knives by hand. “When my studio was downtown I would walk the streets late into the night. The historic buildings, with their intricate details, served well for inspiring my designs. I don’t think I would have followed this path if I had lived anywhere else.”
Murray Carter, a knife artisan who lives just outside Portland, served as an apprentice for a member of the Sakemoto bladesmith family in Japan. After moving back from Japan to Oregon, he found that the greater Portland area was a good fit for his knife making style. “It’s easy to try new things…you don’t have a pressure for conformity here,” says Carter. “My outdoor knives are forged in a coke fire, quenched in water and honed to a razor’s edge by Japanese water stones — that’s not very conformist by Western standards, but it’s embraced here.”
The Oregon Employment Department estimates that in the last 10 years somewhere between 2,200 and 2,600 individuals have worked in the knife-making industry statewide. Thomas Welk, a spokesperson for Kai (makers of Kershaw knives), suggests that the majority of those jobs are in the Portland area. “Portland is in an ideal location for hikers, campers, hunters, anglers, kayakers, climbers, bikers, boaters — really any outdoor activity,” says Welk. And when cutting loose a knot or gutting the day’s catch requires a good blade — a healthy infrastructure in Portland is poised to tackle the task.
A selection of Portland’s finest.
Crater C33TX by Leatherman $31 Hootenanny by CRKT $36 Strongarm Fixed Blade Coyote Brown SE by Gerber $54 Saddle Mountain Skinner by Benchmade $132 Bird and Fish Neck Knife by Carter Cutlery $695
This story first appeared in Issue One of the Gear Patrol Magazine, 280 pages of stories, reports, interviews and original photography from seven distinct locations around the world. Subscribe now and receive free shipping on the biannual magazine. Offer expires soon.