Living on the edge
Atascadero knife maker Michael Mara takes a stab at creating
BY STACEY WARDE
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
“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
He uses fine
woods and metals, antler, and semi-precious stones for the
handles, and recycles metals for many of the blades.
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
“I use good, high quality
steels that have served their purpose, and I’m giving them a
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.
results in layered steel blades (one knife had 512 layers)
that evoke a sense of mystery and wonder and are superbly
days, there’s so much work in forging,” Mara said.
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.
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.
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.
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,”
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
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.