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The Men Behind WK Knives

Walter L. Kneubuhler

Walter Lewis Kneubuhler was born on July 13, 1906 to parents Gottlieb and Mary Anna (Sweet) Kneubuhler. Walt had one younger brother, Glenn, and also a younger sister, Mildred, who dies during early childhood. Walt and Glenn were raised on a farm outside of Antwerp, a small rural community in northwest Ohio. Life on the farm was full of hardships and long hours of work, but Walt was a curious young boy and always managed to find a few spare hours each week to create something out of "junk" that he found around the farm.

Some of Walt's earliest creations were kitchen and butcher knives he would make for his mother. At a young age, perhaps around 10 years old, he began fashioning knife blades out of discarded crosscut saw blades and made his handles out of apple wood from the family orchard. At this point in his life, Walt did not create knives with artistry in mind, but instead created them for their function. It is apparent, though, even in these earliest years of his knives, Walt had the skill of a fine craftsman and the eye of an artist. Several of these knives survive in the David Votaw Collection, and as you will see in the accompanying photos, bear a rather strong resemblance to knives that Walt would create later in his life.

Walt spent his entire childhood and young adult life on the family farm in Antwerp, OH, and in the spring of 1924 graduated from the small, one room schoolhouse near his home. After graduation, it was time to find a good job and relocate wherever was necessary. It appears that the first place Walt took up residence once on his own was in Lima, a small city in west-central Ohio.

During the late 1920's, Walt lived and worked in Lima, Ohio. While there, his occupation was reupholstering and refurbishing streetcar interiors, and it was this profession that refined his skills in leatherworking and in use of various hand tool. Walt gained more than trade skills while in Lima, however. During his time there, a young girl named Ann Ginter, of Hicksville, Ohio, was introduced to him through mutual friends. The meeting proved to be worthwhile, and the two were married in Defiance, Ohio, on April 28, 1928.

It appears that during the years 1929 and 1930, Walt may have worked for the Auburn-Cord Car Company in Auburn, Indiana for a short time. By 1930, though, the new couple had moved back to the Kneubuhler family farm in Antwerp due to the nationwide lack of available jobs. During their years back on the farm, Ann and Walt had a son, Carl, but he died two days after his birth.

In 1938, Walt and Ann were able to be on their own again, and they moved to Toledo, Ohio. Walt had answered a help-wanted add for Osterman's Jewelers, was hired, and soon thereafter went to wrok in their optical department, repairing and sizing glasses. Walt worked as an optician for Osterman's and lived in Toledo until his retirement in 1968. Walt and Ann knew that they wanted to leave the city after his retirement, so in 1966 they purchased a home in the small rural town of Pioneer, Ohio, 50 miles west of Toledo. A large home was purchased, despite the fact that they had never had any other children, because the couple wanted ample room for their antiques and a large knife workshop. During the two-year period between the purchase of the house and Walt's retirement, the house was renovated, remodeled, and occupied by Ann's brother, Ed Gilespie.

During his years in Toledo, Walt began to develop an interest in black powder guns. It didn't take long for a collection of the guns to form in the Kneubuhler home, and soon Walt was attending black powder shoots and crafting the traditional accessories that were used with the guns. It was this new and loved hobby that introduced Walt to two very pivotal influences in his life, and later his career as a knife maker: LaDow Johnston and the town of Friendship Indiana.

Walt met LaDow "Doc" Johnston because of their mutual interest in black powder guns, gun accessories, and shooting. Doc was a lawyer in Toledo, but also had the hobby of crafting black powder accessories and early American items. Doc was very active in the National Muzzle Loaders Rifle Association, especially the organization's yearly shoot located in Friendship, Indiana. It was Doc who first introduced Walt to Friendship. They would both travel the 6 hours by car to shoot competitively and share in their hobbies with many other individuals who had similar interests. It seems that these friends and acquaintances at Friendship were among the first to take note of Walt's finely crafted items and were among the early encouragers of his knife making. Walt and Doc would continue to travel to Friendship for many, many years and truly value the relationships and good memories that came from that place.

Encouraged by this new-found interest in his hand-crafted items, Walt began seriously making knives while he was living in Toledo, when he was in his mid fifties. Doc proved to be one of Walt's biggest promoters, and was largely responsible for the creation of Walt's first WK Knife catalog. Even after Walt made his move to Pioneer, there wasn't a week that would go by without a phone call, quick note, or a visit exchanged between these two men. They really were the best of friends.

As mentioned earlier, Walt and Ann made the move from Toledo to Pioneer in 1968. Along with the move came Walt's intentions of making knives on a full-time basis. It was several years after his move to this small town the he met a young man named David Votaw. Walt met David for the first time in 1972, while David was working at the local grocery store. During those first few encounters, David had no idea who Walt was or what he was doing in Pioneer, but he soon found out.

David P. Votaw

David was born on July 9, 1949 and had spent his entire life in Pioneer, Ohio. He graduated from the local high school in 1967, spent a short time in the Army Reserves, and then returned to town for good. He married his high school sweetheart in 1971 and that eventually led to a job working for his in-laws in the grocery business. Since Pioneer is a small town and news often travels fast, David was soon able to find out who Walter Kneubuhler was and what he did for a living. On May 3, 1973, David ordered his first two knives from Walt-2 Colter's Hell knives, $70.00 each, one for himself and one for his brother Harold. Amazingly, David still has that orginal order slip signed by Walt.

After David had ordered his knives from Walt, he would periodically stop by Walt's workshop to see what this "knife making" was all about. David's job allowed his Wednesdays off, and on those days you could often find him in the company of Walt. Having been raised on a farm, David was taught that you don't just stand around and watch people work...you help. So, it didn't take him long to ask Walt if he could help him with some of the knife-making process. Walt had some leather that needed sewn, and that was the first of many things that he showed David how to do.

The fall of 1973 was the beginning of a long learning process for David. Knife making is a very long and detailed process, something you don't learn quickly or all at once. Thus, things were taken slowly, and David's education began with more basic skills, such as making leather sheaths. In the spring of 1974, Walt took David along with him to Friendship. Just like Walt had been years earlier, David was immediately hooked on black powder guns, knives, and the people that went along with it all. That would be just the first of many trips that Walt and David would make together to Friendship. They continued to make those trips and man their booth at the shoot until Walt's death in 1982.

David does not hesitate to state that Walt was a good teacher. "He loved to make things with his hands, and it showed," remarks David. "He could make anything from jewelry of fine quality to a rough hammered blade on his 300+ pound anvil." Although Walt was a remarkable teacher, he was from the old school of learning and did not hand out compliments. Just the fact that David was allowed to remain in the shop and working was the sign that he was doing all right. The friendship between the two men grew closer as they worked together, and eventually Walt began trying to pay David for some of his work. David would never accept any money, but after several years of working with Walt, he would accept a knife once in a while as a payment. That was the start of his collection.

It is noteworthy to mention that David Votaw was not the first apprentice that Walt had worked with. Walt's first apprentice was Dave McCollester, who worked with Walt on a part-time basis. The second apprentice, Eric Rowley, also worked with Walt on a part time basis. The final apprentice that worked under Walt's teaching before David came along was Mike Story. Mike worked with Walt full-time, and even though their teacher-student relationship didn't work out, Mike would work in conjunction with Walt on some knives later in their respective careers.

After Ann's death in the spring of 1980, David and Walt grew closer. They would sit many nights after working and talk about life and the future of WK Knives. Walt didn't ever want to stop making knives--it had become too much a part of his life to think of giving up. However, Walt knew that he wouldn't live forever and began making plans for his legacy to continue on.

Walt dies on June 14, 1982. he had undergone surgery for an intestinal blockage and never came home from the hospital. Walt's estate was settled that same year and he had two great nephews that received everything he had. Well, almost everything, that is. Walt had provided for the future of WK Knives in his will. He left to David all the tools and inventory of supplies in the knife workshop, the rights to the WK logo, and the WK Knives post office box. This was Walt's way of repaying David for all his years of hard work. But David reflects that Walt's friendship was the best payment that he could have ever received. "Walt was the grandfather that I never had," he says. David moved the entire contents of Walt's shop to a new structure that was built behind the Votaw's home, and this is the same location where it is still standing today. "The shop is set up very similar to the one that Walt worked in," says David with a smile on his face,"only mine is not quite as clean."

Since Walt's death over two decades ago, David Votaw has fulfilled Walt's wishes and has continued to make WK Knives. Although it is often long and hard work, David says that making knives gives him a satisfaction that he can't quite explain. "When a person buys one of your knives and then sends you a photo of the game they skinned with it, or when a person writes you a letter to tell you that your knife was the best gift that they ever received...that is what keeps you grinding and buffing in a cloud of black dust," David remarks.

Knife making for David has always been a part time hobby, and it is also a working hobby. "There is nothing leisurely about making knives," he says after more than 25 years of experience. For the last 15 years, David has owned and operated a hardware and building supply store in Pioneer, and thus usually only finds time to make knives in the late evening hours or on weekends. Also, over the last 5 years, David has scaled back the number of orders he is willing to take. He decided that he wanted to spend more of his knife making time with his family before his two children were grown and moving away from home.

David's son, Blake, is grown and now has a family of his own. He has shown some interest in knife making and has already made his own knife, with David's help of course. However, David isn't too concerned with the future of WK Knives just yet. He hopes to have at least 25 more years of knife making himself.

The Making of WK Knives

Walt was a man who lived far from the eye of the public. He kept several close friends and numerous acquaintances, but never wanted much recognition for the works that he produced. There have been numerous articles written about Walt and WK, and they have appeared in publications such as Muzzle Blasts, The Toledo Blade, Knife World, Guns and Ammo, Chevrolet Magazine, and Sports Afield. Walt even wrote a series of articles that appeared in Muzzle Blasts, but by no means did Walt ever look for publicity. He hated having his picture taken, enjoyed keeping a low profile, and always had more knife orders to fill than he had hours in the day.

Walt always worked at home--whether it was in the basement, an outbuilding, or garage. All WK Knives have always been completely handcrafted by their maker, from the treating of the steel to the stitching of the sheaths. Walt would never sell a knife without a sheath and prided himself on producing quality knives within a price range that most any person could afford.

Throughout his years, Walt used several different materials to make his knives. During his time in Toledo, Walt used 01 steel for most of his blades. Upon his move to Pioneer, Walt switched to D2 steel and also used a little stainless steel from time to time. Today David continues to use D2 steel in the making of WK Knives and continues in the same workmanship traditions that Walt began.

Many different materials are used to make the handles of WK Knives. Some of the most common are stag antler, ivory, bear jaws, wolf jaws, micarta, and wood. Sheaths are crafted out of the finest, durable leather and are standard with all knives. Over the years, however, both Walt and David have collaborated with other skilled artists to add some "extras" to some WK Knives.

There are numerous WK Knives, especially the Blackfoot Dag and Broken hand styles, which have intricate beadwork on the sheaths. This beadwork is done by Diane Chambers of Owensboro, Kentucky. She has worked in conjunction with WK for many years and he work can be recognized by her trademark--two misplaced beads within a color pattern. Walt met Diane and her husband David at Friendship, and a friendship of their own was born. David continues to be close friends with the couple today and still calls upon Diane for her skilled artistry from time to time.

Those knives that have carved handles, particularly Northwest Coast Knives, were crafted by Mike Story, an artist from Coldwater, Michigan. He, too, has a long history of working with WK Knives and marks his work with an "S." As you may recall, Mike was also one of Walt's apprentices at one time. John Alward of Allen, Michigan also did a limited amount of handle carving for WK Knives.

Much of the scrimshaw on WK Knives was done by Glen Stearns of Toledo, Ohio.

It should be noted that Walt, at times, carved some knife handles and did more elaborate sheaths himself. However, this work was rather uncommon and most amenities for his knives were done by the friends and fellow artists mentioned above. Many of these individuals also went to Friendship to trade and sell their wares. They all shared common interests in Indian artifacts, fine craftmanship, and good old-fashioned fun.

Walt Kneubuhler was very religious about marking any of his works. He even engraved and dated a Craftsman hammer that David is still using in his shop today. Over the years of WK Knife production, the pieces have always been marked, but the manner in which they have been marked has changed numerous times.

Walt marked his work in several ways. He stamped the WK initials and anvil on the blade, engraved the initials WK, or simply engraved an elegant K on the blade. After his death, David Votaw decided to institute a more standardized system for marking the knives he produced. The mark that David uses changes every five years, beginning in the year 1982. Examples of these markings can be found on the "Markings" page of this site.

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