By Carol Stender
The Olympics might be canceled, but retired Barrett dairy farmer Bob Shervey already has his gold medal.
Shervey earned the honor at a Nordicfest in Decorah, Iowa. His event? He made a knife. But it’s much more than a blade and handle. The handle was hand crafted. And Shervey was able to do it using many of the tools he’s always had in his farm shop.
The award was the culmination of years working at a craft that hearkens to his Norwegian heritage. In fact, it was a neighbor’s purchase of some Norwegian belt knives that stirred Bob’s interest in knife making.
Iver Stamness is the neighbor who showed Bob the Norwegian knives he brought back from a trip to Norway. The knives would be gifts to Stamness’ grandsons, but, first, he wanted to show the special construction to Bob.
“They were really interesting,” Bob said as he studied the knives and carving on each piece. When Bob and his wife, Irene, traveled to Norway in 1997, they looked for the Norwegian knives when visiting a market and purchased several for family members. But Bob didn’t buy any more himself, he said.
His foray into the craft wasn’t intentional, but it seems there were plenty of opportunities that came his way to direct his path.
He talked about a chance meeting with an artist at the annual Flekkefest festival in Elbow Lake one year. As he watched the knifemaker, Bob talked to a retired Wisconsin dairy farmer. The two had a lot in common. Both were retired dairy farmers and they were interested in wood carving.
“I said, ‘Yeah, that Norwegian art is different than what we do here,’” Shervey told them.
The Wisconsin farmer’s son was a professional wood carver. Through that connection, Bob traveled to the Badger state and took his first carving class from the farmer’s son. After a week, he took another course, this time a three-day knife making class offered by a knifemaker in North Dakota. It was at that class that he made his first knife.
From that start, his interest in carving and knifemaking took off.
He traveled to Milan, Minn., for more classes and met a group of fellow knifemakers. Each time he got together with fellow artisans, he learned more techniques. While the courses were usually in the winter, the camaraderie with others of a similar interest was priceless.
He learned something from each competition and continues to use that knowledge as he works on his hobby.
“The judges give you tips and where you can make improvements,” he said. “Some judges will have some different ideas, but you get a pretty good idea of things you can do. And I finally got a gold medal,” he said. “You have to get eight points to get a gold medal. It’s fun to reach that goal.”
For him, it’s truly a joy to work with the wood.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands,” he said. “And this is a good hobby.”
He makes two knives a year noting that he doesn’t work at it steadily. And his work is focused more on the knife handles. He’s taken classes on making the blade, but he decided that, at his age, he didn’t want to make the blades. His interest was really in carving the wood.
While Norwegian masur birch is the best wood in making the handles, there are native hardwoods that also look nice, he said. Shervey will take a block of wood and saw it to 1.5 inches by four inches. A hole is drilled for the knife tang and fitting the blade, then he draws lines on the block, saws off what is not wanted and starts the carving of the handle. A disk and spindle sander, wood rasp and files, knife and sandpaper are used to shape the handle. He stains the handles to show the wood grain and seals it with a turpentine linseed mixture.
There are several styles of knives, he said. In Norway, different regions had their own distinct construction. But most knives made in the U.S. are a contemporary style.
“With a contemporary style, there is more freedom in choosing materials to incorporate into the handle,” he said. “The handle shape is also more stylish.”
In some handles, ebony is incorporated and silver is used in designing the final piece.
He has his great-grandmother Kari’s knife. It’s a traditional Telemark style with the signature straight blade with metal caps, on the handle. It was a factory made piece with metal caps and it was made with layers of birch bark staked on the knife’s tang. The knife is housed in a stamped leather sheath.
Bob made one using the same method and said it is a very durable material.
While family heirloom wasn’t a piece known for its looks, it must’ve done the job for the woman who hailed from Hedmark in Norway. The blade’s tip is broken off and shows hard use.
While Irene might not carve wood herself, Bob often seeks her opinion when working on a piece, he said. Her skill is sewing. And the couple enjoys learning more about their Norwegian heritage.
Some craftsmen sell their knives, garnering $500 or more for the piece, he said. Many hours go into the construction of the knife including time spent carving the handle. But he doesn’t look at selling his knives. He’s given them as gifts to relatives.
For Bob, it’s not about the sales, but the creativity in producing each piece.