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Mel Pardue: Knife Pioneer, Innovator & Legend - Interview

Interview by Larry Connelley, February 11, 2010

What is your full name?
Melvin M. Pardue

What year did you start making knives?”
In 1957, I started in the beginning stages of making knives. I built custom guns for 8-10 years. Professionally, my first knife was made in 1972.”

What was your inspiration to move from gunsmithing to knives?
“When I was eight years old an old man, Mr. Ira Cleveland, living down the road helped me make my first knife. To this day, I am interested in creating things with my hands. Mr. Cleveland helped me to learn knife making. In 1972, I meet Frank Centofante. It changed my knife making forever. I had picked up a Guns & Ammo Magazine with a profile of about 30 custom knife makers. Frank was one of the makers profiled and we happened to be both living in Tampa, Florida. For two years, I learned from Frank Centofante. I miss him since he passed away in 2009. Frank had started making knives in 1971 because his father had over fifty years experience with Camillus cutlery. At the time, equipment and materials were very hard to find. There were roughly 30 knifemakers in the US. Upon Frank’s advice, I applied to the Knifemakers Guild. My first guild show was in 1974. I have been to every guild show from 1974 to 2009 – only missing 2010. In 1976, I sold my land survey and civil engineering business to devote my full energies to knife making.

When you started professionally in 1974, what ratio of hobbyists to full-time ratio was there in the market?
“The first year of the guild show there were 30 members with Bob Loveless as president, the first guild show was held in Houston. I would say that about half of the members were full-time – so around 35 professional knifemakers in the US. Custom knife making has grown a lot since those early days.”

What is your educational background?
I have a high mechanical ability; holding a Bachelors degree in Engineering from Auburn University as well as being a licensed professional land surveyor.”

How has the custom knife industry changed in the last 35 years?
“Most people were making fixed blade knives; very few were making folders like Centofante. The biggest thing I have seen is the change over to folders then the art theme in the early 80’s. My interest was ultimately in folding knives.”

What was a landmark in your knife making career?
“The development of “tactical folders”. I was one of the four or five that were making tactical folders as far back as the early seventies. I have taught over 300 knifemakers how to make knives. I give a lot of credit to early knifemakers who helped me; Mr. Cleveland and Frank Centofante. I completely sold out of “tactical knives” at my first show; most were bought by other knifemakers. At that first show, I took 144 orders for tactical knives.”

What has been your most popular model?
“The boot knife style, dagger edge with a coffin handle. I practically lived off of the coffin handle folder for the first ten years of my career.”

What do you consider important qualities of a knife design?
“Ergonomics and practicality. If you get too far off of that it won’t do anything for the knife. At one time, 'Tactical Knives' Magazine did an article on the ten features that customers want in a knife. Everything made sense, so when I designed was became the ‘Gripitilan’ model by Benchmade. The 'Griptilian' has every feature they covered. It has become one of the best selling knives of all time!“

What is the difference between creating a design for a custom knife versus a production knife?
“The gap between the two is closing very quickly. The quality of the fit and the mechanics of a production knife have gotten to almost a ‘zero tolerance’. The separation is made because of the handwork. Each truly custom knife – has no interchangeability. A custom handmade knife is unique like your fingerprint. Production is designed for interchangeability of parts while a handmade custom knife is a handheld operation and hand finished by a single knifemaker.”

How have custom knives changed in the last 35 years?
“The price of machinery has come down quite a bit. It allows a maker to take much of the rough work out of production. That is a major step. The other is the exchange of information I feel the liner lock is the biggest thing to happen to custom knives. Assembly by screws while it seems like simple progression was a big step forward. Screws allow the quality to increase and the construction time to decrease. To my knowledge, I was the first person to use screws on a lock-back folding knife.”

What do you see as the future of upscale knife techniques, materials, workmanship or designs?
“Folders have really taken over the majority of knife sales and see it continuing. Some designs and knife patterns come into vogue then they slow down, after time they again see a resurgence. There is always a small handful of knifemakers that are at the forefront of super high-end of our art form. There are more knifemakers going into the high end of the art knife in the last ten years. There is also a practical group of collectors that demand high-end tactical knives with excellent blade steel and the like. Now we see semiprecious stones, fancy engraving in art-form knives in a collectible market. Mechanisms are the hottest thing out right now. Manufacturing has driven knifemakers to create proprietary designs in mechanisms. Two things stand out above everything else – the liner lock/integral lock and the axis lock. The axis lock is even stronger and ambidextrous while keeping the knife design intact. The axis lock is self-compensating. Bill McHenry and Jason Williams came up the original concept; I helped get them in touch with Benchmade. The axis lock mechanism knife requires CNC machinery, Benchmade bought axis patent. The axis lock is a dream for a company with the right equipment.

What would you advise a new knife maker and a new knife collector about custom knives?
“For the collector, research and do your homework. Basically, self-education, make sure the knife works properly and you must like the knife. Advice for the knifemaker – keep your day job, the market is saturated. You need to find an accomplished maker to learn from or attend a knife making school, hammer-ins or symposiums. Attending a class can cut the learning curve in half - if not more. It helps you find the right equipment and learn the basics. Breaking into custom knife making can be slow. The most important thing to do is be honest with your customer, never take a deposit on the knife and utilize good business practices. And one last thing, never let a bad knife out of your shop! That is the first knife that someone will pick-up.”

Looking back, has your career in knife making been satisfying?
“I love it! I am workaholic and love machinery. You have total control of the product. There is a lot of work in making knives – the glory of a knife show is nice but the majority of making knives is hard, dirty and hazardous. A central love of knives is core to my passion in this industry.”