By John Balch
MURFREESBORO – It’s very likely Larry Cox is in his shop right now, slowly working on his knives.
He’s out there every day possible, standing at a scorching hot forge which blows back his gray hair every time he opens the hatch to retrieve a glowing piece of steel. Or he may be on the press, with the hydraulics loudly wheezing as he patiently draws out multiple stacks of metal. Eventually, how long exactly he’s not really sure, there will be an end product that is nothing short of a work of art.
Cox is in no hurry, and that’s good, because the intricate Damascus steel knife blades with mosaic patterns he prefers to create take a long, long time.
Cox is retired and having fun and knife-making to him is more or less a hobby. But, the unique knives he produces in his little shop down by the Murfreesboro City Park are starting to get some major attention.
His work has appeared in the last two issues of a monthly trade magazines and his recent entry in the International Custom Cutlery competition in Texas was surprisingly named “Best Damascus.”
“That blew me away when they called my name,” Cox said. After all, he still only ranks as a Journeyman Smith with the American Blade Society.
Even the casting producer for the History Channel’s “Forged in Fire” – a competition show where bladesmiths show their skills for cash – has come calling. Cox watches the show and would certainly be a natural contestant, but he won’t be answering the casting call.
Apparently, Cox knows his own mettle as well as he does knife metal. The show films in New Jersey and “that would require me getting on an airplane, and like I told my wife (Kay), I ain’t getting on no airplane.”
Cox, a pipe welder by trade who worked 15 years at Master Kraft in Nashville, got into knife making around 2007. He has admittedly benefited greatly from his proximity to two of Arkansas’s most prominent knife-makers, James R. Cook of Center Point, an Arkansas Living Treasure, and Jerry Fisk of Nashville, who holds both a national and state Living Treasure title.
Cox said he has attended many “hammer-ins” with the two master bladesmiths and both men have been encouraging of his work. It was Cook who administered Cox’ first journeyman performance test, which he passed but let his certification lapse for personal reasons. His second test was administered by another area master bladesmith, Charles Stout of Gillham.
The journeyman test has nothing to do with pretty patterns or fancy gripes. The student’s knife is put through a physical test that includes hacking through a 2×4 of wood then, without repairs, being able to shave the hair on the arm and cut six inches off the bottom of a hanging one-inch hemp rope.
If the knife passes those tests, the edge is then removed and the knife is placed in a vice. The student is then required to bend their knife to a 90-degree angle. If it breaks, the student starts over. If it survives, the physical step of the journeyman rank is complete.
As Cook told this reporter in a 2007 interview, the student is “very proud to ruin’t that knife.”
Cox keeps his bent knife hanging in his shop as a reminder. “They want you to show them you can control the metal,” he said.
Cox feels he found his niche in working with Damascus steel and mosaic patterns around 2010 and really has been concentrated in that area ever since. He has even created his own design he calls Ghost Flame Damascus where only the lower half of the knife blade is patterned and appears to disappear like flames midway.
“I’m the only one that does that,” Cox proudly said of his creation. When Cook saw the work, he concurred.
Cox said he has also competed in, and won, three cutting events in Little Rock three years ago. One of his big “hackers” can make it through a 2×4 in just seven seconds.
“It’s not all about looks and beauty,” he said. “It has to do what it’s supposed to do.”
Cox said the main reason most knife-makers don’t work with Damascus steel and intricate patterns is because it’s so time consuming and is not profitable. Making the knives involves forge welding up to 300 layers of steel and nickel that are cut, stacked and restacked, turned and compressed over and over before being hammered out and fined tuned into a hair-shaving, wood-cutting work of art.
And that’s just the blade, even more work and detail goes into the guards and handles.
“The Fisks and Cooks out there, they are doing it for a living. They don’t have that kind of time to spend on one knife. Me, I’m just out here having fun.”
But, making a sale helps pay the bills and Cox said he is good with his customer base, which right now includes a couple of locals and three collectors. The knife that took the ICC top prize in Texas sold almost immediately to a collector in the $2,500-$2,600 range.
“I did work my butt off on that knife,” Cox laughed.
Now Cox is back out in the shop, working on a set of five kind of different knives, including a European-style dagger, he hopes to eventually submit to a panel of judges as part of his quest for a master bladesmith rating.
“Hey, I’ve come a long way since I first started,” Cox said as he stands outside his shop and passes along one of his business cards that prominently features his Ghost Flame Damascus design.
“We’ll just have to see what’s next.”