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For Estes, there’s never a dull moment

Kirk Estes has a unique hobby – he makes knives. But it’s not as simple as that.

Not only does he take a piece of uncut steel to make the blade, he chops the wood used for the handle and then hand-cuts the leather sheaths that protect the knife. The finished product is a piece of art.

But, don’t call him an artist.

He got his start in knife-making nearly 20 years ago thanks to a guy he worked with who collected knives and would often attend a large show in Atlanta. Estes had seen online a knife that was for sale at the show, and told his friend that if it was there to buy it and he’d pay him back.

“I got that knife and I started looking at it and said, ‘I can do this,’” he said. “That’s what got me started. That first custom knife was what started it for me. It was the simplicity of the lines and, I think most guys at some point in their life thought about making a knife. I just thought it would be cool to do so. I then bought some cheap steel and a grinder and after practicing for a few months, it actually started looking like a real knife. Over the years it’s progressed to where I can do them pretty quickly and have them look good.”

Being that he has had a full-time job with the Henderson Fire Department the past 25 years, not to mention a family, when Estes does get time to work in his shop, he can cut upward of 30 blades in one sitting. But with the handle and leatherwork, he estimates each knife has six to 10 hours of work into it. Needless to say, that wasn’t always the case. He said in the beginning, he could have more than 20 hours of work into just one.

“Besides YouTube videos, and Internet forums, I never had anyone to mentor me so I’m pretty much self-taught,” said Estes, a 1991 BCHS grad.

When making a knife, he works with very high-end steel, from which he cuts the blades. He has several shapes and sizes that have sold well over the years. He then sands them to a finished product but the most difficult part is getting the bevels of the knife (the curved section near the blade’s sharp cutting edge) identical on both sides.

“Over the years I started asking myself what it is that I would like to use,” he said. “I’m a hunter, so I like a good, quality knife. As time went on, my abilities evolved, especially when I’d see a knife that I really liked and I’d try and duplicate that look. A lot of it was trial and error and every knife is a bit different since I make them by hand. I make mostly hunting knives because that’s my biggest customer.”

In the beginning, Estes said he would take custom orders, but to him, that became work and that’s not what his hobby is all about. These days he makes a variety of styles and has done custom work but not on the blade, but instead the handle. He’s been able to use fire or police department-issued shirts, as well as denim, and incorporate that into the handle work.

The first knife he ever sold was to a friend. The fact that someone wanted to buy one of his finished products was the encouragement Estes said he needed to turn his hobby into something he could make a few bucks on the side from.

“The first few knives I made were for friends and everyone in my family who is a hunter and has the last name of Estes has one of my knives,” he said, laughing. “I started building up inventory and they have sold pretty well.

“The best way to become a millionaire making knives is to start with two million. Honestly, I don’t make a lot on each one. It’s really a labor of love. I love making them and sharing that finished product with others.”

To date, he and his wife, Kristin, have taken part in a handful of craft shows but by far the biggest has been Boulder City’s Art in the Park. There, the couple sold both knives and wooden bowls. In fact, once he retires, the plan is to increase the inventory of both products and for them to hit craft show circuit.

“If I’m not making knives, I’m turning wood,” he said. “I had a huge inventory this year of both. This was our third time at Art in the Park and having grown up here, I always looked at it as a higher-end show. Our first year we did it we got second place in the fine arts division, which was pretty cool and showed that we were doing something right.”

Something that brings people to his booth is when he sharpens knives, of which he did about 50 over the two-day show. He then showed his right hand and then his left, which has no hair.

That’s because before he hands a sharpened knife back to a customer, he shaves off the hair, proving its sharpness. Needless to say, that was a selling point for many.

When asked if he sees himself as an artist, Estes responded with a quick “no.”

“I told someone that I’m probably the only guy here who is not an artist,” he said of Art in the Park. “People have said I’m an artist but I’m not. I’m a baseball-cap-wearing, knife-carrying, gun-toting redneck.”

But his tone changed a bit.

“There’s skilled craftsmanship in the blade,” he said. “But I agree, the art is in the handle. I’ve made some pretty cool handles. I made one for my mom and dad’s (both longtime Boulder City teachers) 50th anniversary. It was the end-all-be-all knife. I used a piece of walnut from a tree on their property. I printed their wedding picture onto the leather. I put 30 to 40 hours into that knife. Everything I make, I want to see people use. But the one for my mom and dad, that’s the exception.”

Look, up in the sky…

Ron Eland/Boulder City Review

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