By Rob Kay
Ken Onion is arguably one the most influential contemporary knife makers in the nation. Credited with developing the assisted-opening knife back in 1998, he continues to innovate.
Although assisted-opening knives are often confused with switchblade knives, there is a huge distinction.
A switchblade is opened automatically with the push of a button, whereas the user of an assisted-opening knife must open it about one-quarter of the way (45°) before the mechanism releases the knife completely. When it comes to the law, the difference is significant. Because the blade of an assisted-opening knife does not open with the push of a button or by force of gravity, it’s not considered a switchblade.
In creating the assisted-opening knife, Mr. Onion was responsible for one of the most important advances in knife design in the last 100 years. It was a design that eventually required an act of the U.S. Congress and the signature of the President of the United States to make unmistakably legal.
Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Ken at his Kaneohe, Hawaii workshop. We spent the afternoon in a wide ranging, no holds barred conversation about his life and work.
Q: Were you always into knives?
A: When I was a youngster, growing up near Palestine, West Virginia we always used a knife for day-to-day tasks on the farm. I was so enamored by them I collected every one I could find. I was a poor country kid and couldn’t afford to buy new ones but there was an auction barn nearby. People would empty out grandpa’s top dresser drawer after he passed away, stick them in a box and run them on the auction on Friday night.
The whole community would gather there. I would go there with my hay baling money and go into boxes to see if there were any pocket knives. All I wanted was the pocket knives. I amassed a collection of these old beat up, ready to be thrown away pocket knives which to this day I adore. I thought about them – every knife has a story to tell. Perhaps that knife was carried in someone’s pocket for 30 years. To me that was pretty cool.
Q: How did you get into knife making?
A: One day, after I had gotten out of the Marine Corps, I was in Long’s Drug store in Hawaii with my wife. While she shopped I went over to the magazine rack and found Knives Illustrated. Until that point, I had been completely unaware of the custom knife industry and I thought I was the only one around who seemed to care so much about knives. Little did I know there was this entire subculture of knife making. That’s how I entered into the world of custom knives.
Q: Was there a particular person who influenced your craft?
A: There were two people. The first was a neighbor in West Virginia, Vernon Ott, a blacksmith who I learned a lot from as a kid.
The second was Stan Fujisaka of Kaneohe, Hawaii. I read about him in Knives Illustrated. His stuff was beautiful. The father of one of my wife’s friends knew Stan and introduced us. We visited him on a Sunday and I saw his shop and his custom knives. I was blown away. I asked him to teach me how to make them. His response was, “You buy a belt sander and I’ll teach you.”
A belt sander cost $2500—a lot of money for me but the next day I ordered one and he knew I was serious. The following Saturday I was in his driveway at 6.30 in the morning, ready to learn. We hit it off well, it was sort of a father and son relationship. He not only taught me how to make knives, he convinced me that what I was making were good enough to sell. I lacked confidence at the time and he urged me to sell my knives at shows. The first show I attended I had nine knives on display and sold seven.
Q: How did that lead to being a full time professional knife designer?
A: I got hurt in an industrial accident and wasn’t able to work. I was home one day watching a TV talk show which featured a bunch of young inventors. I started thinking about inventing. I wanted to make a knife as smooth as Stan’s or even smoother. I figured the only way I could even make it better was if it had an assist. So I had that word in my head when a friend came over to have a cam machined for her Harley. I put the concepts of “cam” and “assist” together and a light bulb went off.
Q: So that was the epiphany for your assisted-opening knife?
A: Yes. I went over to a manila envelope and started drawing. I spent the next 36 hours building two prototypes of an assist-opening knife. I showed it to Stan and he was floored. He told me I had to get a patent on the assist-opening mechanism. I got a patent attorney. The next step was to go to a couple of knife companies and show the design to them. They were leery of the concept. They told me it was a switchblade knife but technically it really wasn’t a switchblade. I’d studied the law and was convinced that I was right. There is a huge difference between pushing a button on the handle and manually opening the blade.
Q: How did you finally convince a company to manufacture your knife?
I spoke to one company that said they were interested in working with me but in the end they were too timid. Doug Flagg, who at the time was with Kershaw and is now with CRKT, approached me and said he wanted to build my knife. We negotiated a deal and for the next ten years I designed for Kershaw.
Q: What was the upshot of that?
A: It revolutionized the knife industry. We were taken to court by everybody. Everyone tried to prove it was illegal but they could never do so. People spent millions of dollars on this. Kershaw fought them and won every single time. A lot of companies tried to steal the patent too but they didn’t succeed. The patent proved the test of time. I’ve got about 47 patents in total now. It’s probably the single biggest class of knives sold in the country.
Editor’s note: This concludes first of a two part series of interviews with Ken Onion. Stay tuned for part 2, where Ken will provide tips what to look for when purchasing a knife.
Robert F. Kay, who lives in sunny Honolulu, is the author of How to Buy an AK-47 which is available on Amazon.
Photos courtesy of On Target staff, Ken Onion and CRKT Knives.
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Read more of Rob’s articles on OnTargetHawaii.com