Area knife-maker to show blades at Sheraton expo
BY ANDREA L. BROWN
STAFF WRITER, ARLINGTON POST / PIONEER PRESS NEWSPAPERS
Dressed like a frontier woodsman, local artisan Robert Rossdeutscher will be part of an international group displaying their wares in Arlington Heights this weekend.
Rossdeutscher will be among the 120 exhibitors from United States, Japan, South Africa and Europe at the First Annual Chicago Custom Knife Show Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Sheraton Chicago Northwest.
An Arlington Heights resident, Rossdeutscher has been making custom art knives since the early 1990s. He took up the craft after he ran into a master blacksmith who specializes in knives. He met the man while participating in a historical re-enactment of frontier woodsmen of the late 1700s.
"He taught me blacksmithing as an art," Rossdeutscher said.
Rossdeutscher grew up in Palatine in an isolated subdivision near Deer Grove Forest Preserve where he and his buddies spent much of their play time.
"I grew up in the woods, which is unusual for this area," he said. "I always had an interest in knives and metal work."
Rossdeutscher got his first taste of metal work while he was a student at Palatine High School and worked a part-time job at a local boarding stable. A blacksmith shod horses in the back of the barn.
"I used to go over there and watch him," Rossdeutscher said. "Finally he put me to work." He learned to make corrective shoes for horses.
The experience taught him "hammer skills," which is the ability to shape a piece of hot metal.
"I learned on a coal forge with a bellows," Rossdeutscher said. "If I ran that in Arlington Heights, they would run me out of town. I use a gas forge. It's much cleaner."
The process starts with a piece of steel, that may be round or square. Then he heats the steel until it becomes an orange color. At that point it is soft, like clay.
"You hammer it to shape and have it become what you want," Rossdeutscher said. "Forging is one of the shortest and also most fun processes.
"Once it cools you grind off everything that is not a knife," he added.
The piece returns to the forge for further heat treatment to make it hard but not brittle. After that, a handle is added, and the piece is polished.
Most of Rossdeutscher's knives are based on historical designs. Over the years, he has collected line drawings and photographs from museum pieces to use as inspiration.
The handles on the knives he produces are inlaid with wire, woods or fossilized ivory. Rossdeutscher is also perfecting a patterned welded steel design style called Damascus.
He uses a variety of finishes on the knife blades. But Rossdeutscher usually leaves a few hammer marks as a signature.
"Many times I like to leave a few just to prove it is handmade," he said. "I like the look of something that is handmade and well-used."
Rossdeutscher sells his knives to collectors, as well as hunters. Museums have bought his pieces for use in living history displays.
"Everything I make is made to be used," he said.
Forging knives is a part-time vocation for Rossdeutscher. He works full-time in maintenance and security for Sunrise Lake in Bartlett run by the Northwest Suburban Special Education Organization as an outdoor education center.
"I'm gaining my reputation and working at it part-time now," Rossdeutscher said. "When I retire, I've got a full-time retirement job to move into."
Meanwhile, he is fulfilling the third of three promises he made to the master blacksmith who mentored him 12 years ago.
Rossdeutscher agreed to three conditions: that he follow the master's safety rules, pay for his own material and "sometime in my life I teach someone else."
His apprentice lives in Minnesota and forges hardware for log cabins.
Rossdeutscher said he is looking forward to participating in this weekend's show not only to display his own work but for the chance to see other examples.
"I'm still learning," he said. "That's one of the humbling things about the show that is coming up is the talent. You have other people looking at your work in the same way. It's humbling and gratifying."
A member of the American Bladesman Society, Rossdeutscher is a journeyman smith, which required him to produce a knife that survives rigorous tests of sharpness and strength. The tests include slicing a rope in one swipe, chopping wood and shaving hair.
"You will not get a factory knife to do this," Rossdeutscher said. "You have to do it with a forged blade."
Ed Wormser of Northbrook is bringing his knife show to the Chicago area for the first time. He chose the Sheraton in Arlington Heights for its convenient location.
Acknowledging that knife collecting is not a huge craze, Wormser said it has a loyal core interest among a primarily male clientele.
"It's been popular for a long time, but I guess it's a little secret," he said.
He encouraged women to attend the show, especially if they're looking for an unusual present for a man.
"These are artisans from all over the world," Wormser said. "They really are using steel for a canvas. They carve. They engrave. They make beautiful handmade knives. They really are an exquisite piece of art."
The First Annual Chicago Custom Knife Show will be held noon to 8 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday at the Sheraton Chicago Northwest, 3400 W. Euclid Ave. (the northeast corner of Euclid Avenue and Rohlwing Road). One-day passes are $10. Three-day passes are $20. For more information about the knife show, log on to www.chicagocustomknifeshow.com.
For more information about Rossdeutscher, log on to www.rnrknives.com.
Andrea L. Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.