An Interview With Midwest Knife Maker Supply (updated 2020)
Travis is a Texas based bean counter by day, knife maker extraordinaire by night. I’ve never heard of knife making described as “cash flow neutral” – until now. Travis has been an active member and positive influence on KnifeDogs for some time now.
His style is fearless as he keeps trying new things and styles. A lot of guys make the same knife a thousand times. Nothing wrong with that really. You go to the dance with who brought ya but Travis makes a new knife every time. He isn’t in it for the money so he gets more creative license than some. He is in knife making because he loves it. Travis says, “A man can never have too many hammers”. I agree. He already has 19 hammers. Thinking he needs more of them makes him my kind of guy. Words to live by or at least something to get printed on a Tshirt.
– Tracy Mickley
Are you a full time or part time knife maker?
I am a full time accountant. I make knives for fun, and I want it to stay that way. I have no desire ever to do it for money that I have to depend on to live.
Generally, what kinds of knives do you make the most of?
I usually make full tang fixed blade knives for hunting and EDC, but as shop time becomes more scarce I tend to work on more interesting stuff like daggers or folders or “art” knives. Probably 2/3 or more of my knives will still be for hunting or kitchen use, but expect some cooler stuff too.
Do you forge, stock remove or both?
Both. I’ve mostly done stock removal, but I just got a new forge and am ready to do that again.
What made you decide to start making knives?
There has never been a time in my life that I didn’t WANT to make knives. I started actually doing it in earnest when I learned that I can make money at it, or at least be cash flow neutral.
Do you sell your knives? If so, how do you sell the majority of them via internet, dealer, shows, word of mouth, etc?
I started selling them in the Texas Hunting Forum, but have since moved to selling only via my email list. Anyone can sign up at www.travisknives.com. When I have a knife ready (or usually several) I’ll send out an email with a link to each knife. There is a PayPal “Buy it Now” button with each knife for sale, and the first to click and pay gets it. I can’t think of a more fair way to sell, since I don’t take orders and don’t make a ton of knives.
What advice would you give to a brand new guy just getting into knife making?
Just start making them. Get the best equipment you can easily afford (you can upgrade later) and go at it. Spend a lot of time on the knife forums, and talk to other makers. Seek out the best information from the best sources, and do your homework enough so that you can tell what the best sources are. And then keep at it.
Whose shop would you like to spend a day in and why?
I thought this would be a tough question but it really wasn’t once I thought about it. Nick Wheeler has taken a lot of time to put out some top level info sharing threads and videos. His level of fit and finish are at the absolute top of the game, and his style is one of the 2 or 3 I appreciate the most. He seems like he has a well thought out way of doing just about everything, and I think I could learn the most from him in the shortest amount of time I imagine I’d also really enjoy myself in the process.
Mike Quesenberry is also one of the best there is, and he’s been generous with his time and with sharing his knowledge.
Who has influenced you the most?
Oddly enough, my wife. She’s a graphic and web designer (www.carafry.com), and is the creative genius behind pretty much everything good I ever do. Most of my best designs are either hers or are strongly influenced by her eye for line and flow. She’s smart, pretty, and a great cook too. I definitely married up.
What do you like most about knife making?
As an accountant I do stuff with spreadsheets all day long. That doesn’t do much for me personally, and I need to be making SOMETHING. I like making knives in particular because there’s always something new to learn and master.
What do you like least about knife making?
It varies. I used to dislike polishing blades, but now I sorta enjoy it. I’d say it varies with the temperature of my shop. Right now it’s 97 degrees outside, and hotter in the shop. Forging seems like the worst thing in the world at the moment.
Do you make the sheaths also?
What is your Every Day Carry?
I had this really tiny two blade Camillus folding pen knife that I carried most days. Closed length is about 1.5 inches. It had yellow plastic scales that are horribly ugly, mediocre fit and finish, and funky shaped blades that had been over sharpened over a lot of years. I carried it because it was small and light, adequate for most tasks I used it for (cleaning fingernails mostly), and didn’t wear a hole in my pockets or my leg. More than that though, I carried it because it was given to me by my wife’s grandmother after her grandfather had carried it for years. Unfortunately this little knife disappeared one day. I usually carry something relatively inexpensive because they don’t hurt when they get lost.
Which shows do you attend to sell at?
I’m not a big show person, but did have a table with my brother Jason at Blade 2021. I’m thinking I’ll attend ICCE in 2022.
It seems every knife maker is working on a new skill, what are you working on that is new or you are just working to get better at it?
I’m really working on all the things that come with making stick tang knives. Fitting guards, shaping handles without a built in centerline, and other flourishes like frame handles and domed pins, to name a few. Dagger grinding too. And getting back into forging.
What has been the hardest lesson to learn about knife making?
Finding the balance between perfection and diminishing returns. No knife is perfect, and every maker has to decide what “good enough” means.
Do you have any knife making heroes? Who are they?
Bruce Bump, Mike Quesenberry, Nick Wheeler, and quite a few others. Each one for a different reason.
If you don’t take commissions, what is the best way to buy one of your knives?
The only way is to get on my mailing list. I got so behind when taking orders that knife making wasn’t fun anymore. I set up the mailing list so that I can make what I want, when I want, in order to reclaim the craft for myself.
How long have you been making knives now?
About 11 years.
Do you make anything else you sell?
I occasionally make leather sheaths for other knife makers. I have also done commissioned portraits in pencil and charcoal from time to time. I have made various wood furniture pieces like book cases, sold handmade pens and tobacco pipes, and a few other things here and there.
Do you have a quick shop tip to share?
Get a carbide faced file guide and learn how to use it.
What are you working on now?
I am working on finishing up a batch of hunters, and on a couple of daggers I’ve been building in my head for a couple of years now.
Have you gotten hurt making knives?
No stitches yet, but cuts and burns, oh yeah!
Most makers love their shop tools. Which is your favorite shop tool?
I have 19 hammers, and there are quite a few that I would like to have that I don’t. A man can never have too many hammers.
What is your design process? Do you draw it first or just go with the force?
I usually have a pretty clear idea what I’m going for. If it’s stock removal, I have all my knives drawn out digitally, and will just print out a profile, glue to my barstock, and bandsaw the profile. Or I’ll make a hard template and scribe the profile. Either way, they’re repeatable and consistent, and also easy to adjust as the design gets feedback.
How long does it take on the average for you to make a knife?
The simplest might only take 5-6 hours, but I’ve done a few that had over 60 hours in them before they were done. 9-12 is probably the most common range.
Can you give us an idea of what some of your knives sell for lately?
My knives rarely go for less than $250, and a few upcoming ones will hopefully go for around $750. Most are in the $275-$400 range. The most I ever got for a knife was $1400, and it was a pretty good deal for the buyer.
If you could only use one steel the rest of your days as a knife maker, what would it be?
There are too many, but it’d likely be W2 for carbon and CPM 154CM for stainless. There’s others I’d use for specific purposes, but if I had to pick, these would do.
Do you do any engraving or scrim work? How did you learn it?
I would like to learn to engrave one day, but no.
What other hobbies or interests do you have to “get away” from knife making?
The various zymurgical arts used to be my backup. (editors note: We have no idea what zymurgical arts are, we are hoping they are knife related and OK to talk about.) I’m a serial hobbyist, so the answer varies from month to month. Gardening has stuck around reasonably well. I read constantly, mostly sci-fi, historical fiction, or non-fiction.
Whose shop have you visited? What did you do there?
The best shop I’ve visited was that of Jim Clow, and over the course of several visits made a lot of damascus, learned to forge blades, finished a couple, and made some good friends.
What question would you like to ask other knife makers?
Do you spend your non-knife money on knife stuff, or try to keep it cash-flow neutral?
Have you ever had a batch of parts waterjet cut?
Thought about it, but not yet.
If you use a CAD program, which one do you use?
My wife does all that kind of stuff for me in Sketchup.
Do you or have you made Damascus steel?
I have, I will, but I don’t. I made a lot at Jim’s place, but I’m not set up to do it myself. I need a bigger shop before this can happen, since my space is also shared with a semi-pro woodshop.
When people find out you make knives and ask about it, what do you tell them?
I usually tell them that I have to make SOMETHING, and I make knives because I like them.
Where do you think knife making is trending in terms of style and popularity?
It’s hard to avoid the tactical market, but I think the broader market is getting more diverse. I think there will always be a place for well executed anything, but I think we’ll be seeing more international and historical styles too as the pace of globalization accelerates. The top end of the market will always be diverse because the collectors with that kind of money are interested in all kinds of stuff. The middle and bottom will likely always be oriented around knives for use, but that means different things to different folks.
What tools would you tell a new knife maker to focus on getting first?
Get a good grinder, the best you can afford, and make sure it has variable speed.
How do you set a price for your knives?
I just guess, based on prior experience. I usually aim a little high, and so far that’s gone ok.
Lots of hand sanding or machine all the way?
Are you a late night guy or early morning guy?
Late by nature, early by requirement.
Ford or Chevy?
Toyota. Don’t judge, they’re made in Texas.
Chocolate or vanilla ice cream?
Burger or fried chicken?
Which ever comes with beer.
Hunting or fishing?
I don’t do a lot of either these days, but I’ve been hunting a lot more since I moved back to the Austin area where I grew up.
Would you rather buy or swap something?
Depends. Swapping is good but harder to pull off.
Flat or hollow grind?
Carbon or stainless steel?
Big Mac or Whopper?
Whataburger. I’m from Texas.
Forging or stock removal?
Damascus or non-Damascus blade?
Folder or fixed blade?
Fixed to make, folder to carry.
Coke or Pepsi?
Dr Pepper. Again, Texas.
Man made (g10, fr4, Micarta®, or natural handle material (bone, shell, wood, antler)?
Depends on the intended use. It it’s actual use, synthetics are hard to beat. If it’s a collector knife, the prettier the better.
Hidden tang or full tang?
Leather sheath or kydex®?
Tastes Great or Less Filling?
Tastes great, every time.
Pocket clip on that folder or no?
I’m coming around to them.
Tactical or gents look?
I’m a lover, not a fighter.
Thumb stud or nail nick?
Thumbs if I’m buying, nick if I’m making. Flippers are cool too.
Bolsters or no bolsters?
How many different places have you lived?
13 houses or apartments, 5 countries, 2 states. 9 moves in the last 14 years.
How many pickup trucks have you owned?
3, all red Toyotas. I don’t even like red, but that’s what there was.
How many dogs have been in your life?
7, but the two I have now are by far the best of the lot.
How many knives do you own now?
No idea, lost count. I don’t own a single custom; I sell them all and spend the money on equipment.
How many years left do you have in knife making?
Hopefully a lot. I intend to stick with it ‘til I die, so I don’t want to be quitting any time soon.
How many kids and wives have you had (combined)?
One of each. Gonna keep it that way.
Just how big a boy are you? How tall are you?
6’ 220lbs. Should be about 200, unfortunately.
How many times do you eat pizza a month?
Too often. See above.
How many knives have you made sure never left your shop because you didn’t like them?
I won’t finish one I don’t like, and if I do finish it I’ll sell it or give it away.
How many kinds of knife steel are in your shop right now?
Counting all damascus as 1, I still have 8.
How many blocks of wood for handles are in your shop right now?
Dozens. Maybe hundreds. Who keeps track of that stuff?
How many unfinished knives are in your shop now and probably will stay unfinished for a long time?
I have about 10 heat treated blades that I’m working on, so some of those won’t be finished for a long time simply because of volume. I have a couple of outstanding damascus blades that are polished and ready to go, but that I still haven’t decided how to finish.
How many minutes does it take you to grind a knife?
I kinda get lost in the process, so I really don’t know. Depends on the size too.
What is the longest amount of time you have ever worked on one knife?
Probably 55-65 hours. I don’t track time very well, but it took a long time.