It’s no secret that in the blade world, performance is number one, followed closely by fit and finish. And it just so happens that Master Bladesmith Daniel Winkler excels in all three. Daniel Winkler of Winkler Knives has a passion for quality and performance in his knives and tomahawks, many of which have Early American/American Indian influence. His roots in Frontier-style survivalist grit are evidenced in his modern tactical designs as well. But how did he get started? How did a Boone, NC native grow from making forging his own blades with a car wheel and vacuum to a successful, world-renown Master Bladesmith? And what was it like on the location of Last of the Mohicans? Read on to find out…
[Information for this post was graciously shared by Daniel Winkler from his bio]
It all started in high school in the late 70s when Winkler began shooting black powder guns to extend hunting season. He found that he loved the feel of shooting the more primitive guns and was inspired to expand his passion and knowledge. Winkler decided to create historic accessories that aligned with the primitive guns he’d grown to love. He started making shooting pouches, powder horns, and knives. While attending events and black powder shooting matches, Winkler unintentionally gained exposure. People could see the forged knives, crafted shooting pouches, and powder horns he’d created and, of course, wanted to buy them. A dream, and a business, were born.
Winkler’s passion and resourcefulness were evident in his first shop. He made a car wheel into a forge using an old vacuum cleaner as a blower and a group of files, and a hand drill. While working full-time in the manufacturing industry in product development, Winkler continued to create. He attended events throughout the Eastern US, and the salary and insurance from his regular full-time job paid the bills, allowing him to use the money he made selling knives to improve his shop equipment and materials. The knives Winkler sold at these events initially had mostly bone, antler, and wood handles. At black powder gatherings, he was able to meet other knife makers. These knife makers encouraged and inspired Winkler to further increase his knowledge and skill.
Winkler became a member of the American Mountain Men and the Backwoodsmen, two stringent historical re-enactment groups. He developed his primitive survival skills and made treks into the wilderness alone and with groups. Winkler learned a lot about survival on these trips. Being hungry, wet, and cold brought him closer to his primitive inspirations. He also learned what it took to make equipment that would hold up effectively to tough use. Winkler says, “It only took one trip to realize that a nice looking knife with a slick round handle did not serve well when chopping wood for a fire or shaving fuzz sticks as it tended to slip during use. I also learned a really hard knife was impossible to sharpen in the field, and if your sheath was not secure, you might have to spend a weekend with nothing but a patch knife.” During these outings, Winkler made many lifelong friends and quite the customer following.
As Winkler gained more customers, he grew the brand of Winkler Knives even more. Working at his full-time job in product development under Karen Shook, Winkler learned about marketing and manufacturing from Shook. As their friendship developed, Winkler asked Shook if she would be interested in making the sheaths for his knives. Shook took Winkler’s designs and did her best to bring them to life. Winkler recalls one notable encounter. “A well-known knife collector took an interest in one of my knives. He asked if there was a sheath to go with it, so I reached under the table and handed it to him. It was one of my designs that Karen had reluctantly made. He looked over the sad piece of leather and said that this time he would buy the knife, but unless the quality of the sheath matched the quality of the knife, he would not be buying any more. This comment was one of the most important learning experiences in Winkler Knives history.” They took the critique to heart and began to study the materials and construction of historically accurate pieces in early American and American Indian museums. Shook gained the knowledge and talent to implement the new and improved designs. Soon Shook’s sheaths were just as popular or more so than Winkler’s knives. They were able to leave their jobs and invest their time entirely in Winkler Knives.
Winkler and Shook attended Knife Shows and Craft Shows across the country, further growing their following and sales. Gaining industry recognition, their work was featured in magazines. One of the most notable projects was their involvement with the 1992 movie Last of the Mohicans. They worked to create the pieces carried by the film’s main characters. Reflecting on his experience on location, Winkler notes, “[It was] pretty exciting stuff, but it makes you realize why movies cost so much to make. From a full-size waterfall inside an old warehouse to the spread on the caterer’s table, everything was first rate.” Winkler’s involvement in the project put his work even further in the limelight, as Winkler Knives was featured on the 1993 cover of Blade magazine. Winkler says that his work on Last of the Mohicans is still often a subject of discussion at shows and interviews, as his compelling work on the project is still relevant and significant.
Always seeking to grow in knowledge and skill, Winkler became involved as a competitor in Cutting Competitions put on by the ABS, ICCT, and BladeSports International. Winkler claims he learned more about steel selection, blade geometry, heat treating, handle material, and balance in the three years he actively competed than in the previous 20+ years of knife making. He says, “A knife that is not perfect in all aspects will not perform in competitions. While I was never a great cutter, I did place 3rd in the last ABS World Championship in Atlanta. I suggest that any knife maker that wants to make true working knives get involved with competitive cutting. It is a tremendous learning experience and proving grounds.”
The next phase of Winkler Knives started due to their involvement with Last of the Mohicans. In the early 1990s, a Navy SEAL attending a primitive skills class in New Jersey was asking around as to who made Magua’s Tomahawk in the film. He had been looking for someone to create a compact yet robust Combat/Breaching hatchet. He got in contact with Winkler, and after several discussions, Winkler adapted a full tang belt axe he was already making into a tool that suited the SEAL’s needs. He took it to his Command, and the Team approved the design. Funding was unavailable for the project then, so the SEAL carried the only prototype on missions throughout the first Gulf War. After that conflict, he retired from the Navy and went to work as a Game Warden. He kept his axe under the seat of his car during his time with the State of North Carolina. Then 9-11 happened. This former SEAL re-enlisted but this time with Army Special Operations. He was assigned to a Tier 1 Team and still carried his axe. Other members of his Team saw his axe and how effective it could be in the field. They contacted Winkler about making more. Winkler hand-forged and finished about 18 over the next year. Winkler honored the 10-year-old price he had originally quoted for the axe as a way of helping these men acquire what they needed to best do their job. Later, the same axe fell back into the hands of the same Team the now Army Operator had been on when he was a SEAL in the 90s. The SEAL Team again approved the axe design for their use but, this time, had some money to outfit the Squadron. Winkler was now faced with an order for many more axes than he could make by forging and grinding one at a time. At the same time, Winkler began designing a new standard-issue Belt Knife for the Navy Team.
Though the orders were much larger and demand higher, Winkler wanted to use his years of knowledge and success in making forged working knives and axes. Winkler tried several different strategies, from using an established knife manufacturer to delegating specific tasks to contractors. Still, Winkler was not willing to sacrifice quality or performance. Finally, Winkler got two Nicholas grinding machines from the 1960s. Learning to use the machines was a long process of trial and error, but he was able to streamline the method. Winkler explains the process, saying, “We were able to have blanks water jet cut by a contractor then make tooling for the Nicholas grinders and remove about 80 percent of the material on blade bevels and tapered tangs. All the blanks are hand-ground to finished dimensions from here using standard machines from KMG, Bader, Weurtz, and Wilmont grinders. We also set up Milling machines, Drum sanders, Drill presses, Sand Blaster, a Co2Laser, assorted other machines, and a Salt Pot Heat Treating setup. We hired some help, and off we went into the world of Limited Production Knife and Axe production. We spend a lot of time and effort training the guys to do various jobs in the shop so they can move from station to station and keep the product carts moving without much backup in one area. Most of our guys will specialize in one area but are capable of moving around the shop. Winkler Knives went from Karen and me to 10 people in less than 3 years.”
Winkler continues to produce for the Special Operations Community, with particular attention to access, secure carry, and comfort. In addition to filling orders for his special one-of-a-kind knives and tomahawks, Winkler stands as one of the top Master Bladesmiths in our region.