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Custom, hand made knives for hunters and collectors   

Custom handmade knives and high performance cutlery for hunters, collectors, and chefs

Michael H Mara  

(708) 330-5101   Cell: (708) 299-4631



This article was published in the SLO New Times newsweekly, in their Spring Arts Annual edition, 2004.


Published in New Times, San Luis Obispo, CA

Living on the edge

Atascadero knife maker Michael Mara takes a stab at creating functional art


            After barely escaping death from a falling Bay tree, knife maker Michael Mara carved out a new life for himself.

            While sitting quietly beside a creek near Sykes Hot springs in Big Sur, Mara heard what sounded like a rockslide.

            “I looked around but didn’t see anything and then I heard a loud cracking sound above me. When I looked up I saw the tree falling.”

            Mara managed to cartwheel himself out of harm’s way. He turned to look where he’d been sitting only seconds earlier and realized he would have been easily crushed to death had he not moved, quickly.

            “That was the turning point for me,” said Mara, who now lives and works out of his home in Atascadero. “It made me realize that life is very short, that life can be snatched away in a second.”

            That night, while resting at camp, he thought long and hard about his life. He returned several times to the site of the fallen tree and pondered the possibilities.

            “I had just gone through what I call my ‘Black Years,’ where most of my family died, sometimes more than one person a year,” he said.

            “I decided [knife making] is what I was going to do, or else I was going to eat out of Dumpsters. I just said, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to do this.’”  

            So Mara left the secure, if frustrating, corporate world of computers for the less secure, more personally rewarding, world of combining art and craft for his livelihood.

            It’s been two years since Mara ducked the hand of death and he’s put all his energy into turning his knives — known to his buyers as “Radharc Knives” — into functional works of art purchased by collectors, hunters, and regular folks.

            Mara’s knives, all handcrafted and unique, demonstrate a lifelong passion for silversmithing, woodworking, metallurgy, and design. He labors over every detail for each of his knives: the blade, ricasso (flat section of the blade), guard, handle and the buttcap.

He uses fine woods and metals, antler, and semi-precious stones for the handles, and recycles metals for many of the blades.

Materials for the blades, for example, have included old automobile parts, railroad spikes, and chainsaw chains, which he forges into Damascus steel that resemble wood grains with their unique patterns.

“I use good, high quality steels that have served their purpose, and I’m giving them a second life.”

            Damascus steel, he said, in which numerous metals are forge welded together into one solid piece of steel, goes back thousands of years, originating in India and  imported extensively by the Syrians, who developed a world renowned sword production industry, hence the name.

The technique results in layered steel blades (one knife had 512 layers) that evoke a sense of mystery and wonder and are superbly durable.

“It takes days, there’s so much work in forging,” Mara said.

And that’s just for the blades.

He also puts long hours into shaping semi-precious stones and the fine woods and bone products he uses to create the handles.

He uses about 60 different exotic hardwoods, including Snakewood, Cocobolo, Ziricote, Jatoba, Thuya and Eucalyptus burl, and Pink Ivory.

“I’ve got some of the hardest, most dense, finest quality hardwoods from all over the world.” Each knife possesses its own unique beauty. “I never do two knives the same, each one is different.”

When he gets up to speed, he’ll put in as many as 12 to 15 hours a day, working on 10-12 knives at a time. It can take up to one week, or 50-60 hours, to make one knife.

The Damascus blade on a knife he dubbed the “Melville Sgian Dubh”, named for his Scottish Maternal Grandparents, for example, was made with 512 layers of high and low carbon steels, the handle is made of Shesham Rosewood and Cocobolo, which is inlaid with Lapis Lazuli, Malachite and Sterling silver. The end cap is made of Blacktail deer crown, also inlaid with Lapis and Malachite. It sold for $400.

The knives sell on average between $300 and $600. The market is growing as more hunters and collectors take notice of Mara’s craftsmanship. Right now, Mara said, there’s a two-month lead time on orders, sold mostly through the Internet.

Mara studies constantly, seeking to improve the quality of his work, using technical resources such as the “Machinery’s Handbook,” a humongous tome with every technical detail needed for the mechanical industries. “It looks like a bible, and it’s really the engineer’s or inventor’s bible,” Mara said.

“I’m always experimenting, doing research and lab work, and developing new processes,” he added.

Knives are one of the first tools created by humans to survive, said Mara, who studies Zen Buddhism and keeps a statuette of Manjushree, the Tibetan Buddha of compassion who wields a sword in one hand, at his work bench.

            “We use knives every day,” he said. Without them, we couldn’t survive. It’s one of the earliest primal tools that remains an essential part of our life.

Mara ties his love for blades to his family history, which he says goes back to his ancient Irish clan of “axe-wielding foot soldiers who defeated the Vikings in 1014. Not many people defeated the Vikings in those days and we did because of our superior iron weaponry.”

He definitely feels an ancestral connection to the lore of the fighting, axe-wielding Irish. “I’ve always loved edged weaponry.” And Mara would rather live by the edge of a knife than be crushed by corporate culture — or falling trees. ∆

Managing Editor Stacey Warde is always edgy, with or without knives.



Michael H Mara   (708) 330-5101   Cell: (708) 299-4631

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