The Subhilt Provides An Additional Element To Make A Knife One Of A Kind. These Makers Show What A Subhilt Can Be.
The subhilt adds a little extra. Its form is expressive and its function is useful. It takes its share of the spotlight and provides another avenue of artistic approach for custom knifemakers who choose to build it.
A few of the makers who accept the challenge of the subhilt put their finest work forward. They use bold, sleek lines, and high-quality materials to bring the best of the subhilt to the market, and the combination of aesthetic and utility blends in a delightful presentation.
Subhilts In Italy
Residing in a small town near Milan, Italy, Daniele Ibba has been making knives since 2004. He finds the subhilt a perfect approach to both usefulness and beauty as evidenced by his integral Medusa Gorgona.
“Although the knife has a clear artistic connotation, it was developed as a not-artistic knife,” he explained, “and the purpose of this subhilt is to have a stable grip, especially in the lunge, and consequently the possibility to hit the target/threat harder.”
Grip options are plentiful, and Daniele calls his subhilt pleasant to handle in any position, with the best control in the standard or reverse grips. The subhilt allows the user to always know where the blade and edge are located, and offers more protection to the hand.
In the Medusa Gorgona, Ibba collaborated with Lana Gorska and took home best in show from the September 2021 SICAC Knife Show in Paris.
“We are very proud of this,” he smiled, “because in every international show the competition is always very high and winning such a prize is never easy.”
The Medusa Gorgona is made from a single piece of 440C stainless steel hardened to a Rockwell hardness of 58-59 HRC, and is embellished with 13 mother-of-pearl inlays—four on the front of the handle, eight in the spine and one in the pommel. It also has 20 green diamonds, eight yellow diamonds, two blue diamonds, and three rubies—one round cut and two marquis cut. The fine engraving was done by Italian master Roberto Bruci.
“Lana and I had done many models in Plastiline® [a high-precision modeling clay] searching for the best ergonomic shape,” Daniele related. “Being a subhilt, it was not simple to reconcile design and easy handling. I do not have a [pantograph] or automated machinery, so it was very difficult to realize the handle and the slots for the mother-of-pearl inlays, but with time and patience I was able to achieve a beautiful result. Before designing the knife, Lana and I decided to engrave the mother-of-pearl with the mythological theme of Medusa.
“The story tells that she was one of the three sisters called the ‘Gorgoni,’ daughters of the Gods Forco and Ceto, and they had the power to petrify anyone with their gaze. So, we decided to make the name of the knife with the theme of the engraving, and Gorgona is like a nickname.”
An exquisite award-winning showpiece, the Medusa Gorgona stands out. Ibba’s price for a similar integral presentation without diamonds and extensive engraving would be roughly $13,000.
ABS apprentice smith Marc Aldrich has been making knives since 2013 after taking a couple of courses from ABS master smith/BLADE® field editor Joe Szilaski. Marc admires the work of Dave Loukides, Sam Lurquin, and Jan Hafinec which gave life to his ideas for a subhilt bowie with dazzling results.
His featured piece includes a blade of 80CrV2 carbon steel finished to a grit of 1500, a stainless subhilt with copper spacers, and a handle of artificial ivory accented with a copper pin. Marc made the sheath of hand-stitched leather with a quilted and copper-studded front panel, copper-studded frog and pigskin lining. A trace of a hamon is visible on the blade, and he explained that he chose not to etch the line but appreciates the discerning eye that catches sight of such detail.
“Of course, a subhilt adds retention and looks cool,” he offered, “but it helps if it is placed and shaped well. If we think of a knife as a sculptural object, the subhilt is another compositional, visual and tactile element we can use to add interest and function. I think my subhilt bowie is a mix between a bowie and fighter. Although not having a sharp swedge, the slender blade profile, added retention of the subhilt and excellent balance would make it formidable. The blade finish is actually bright and nearly mirror.”
Marc says his goal with every knife is to distill the lines down to their “pure essence.” His formula is “lines, flow, proportion and a tasteful balance of detail backed up with quality workmanship.”
The subhilt, he added, is an interesting subset of the bowie genre that is also seen in other knife styles. However, in all cases it must be properly spaced and integrated to avoid a clunky look and awkward handling. His price for a similar piece would run about $2,200.
When Robert Appleby started making knives 27 years ago, he did so as a self-taught craftsman. He studied the work of other makers in similar styles prior to launching a piece of his own, and contacted other makers in person or by telephone to exchange information and gain understanding.
Appleby’s featured subhilt is a Tom Maringer-styled-and-designed Haiku fighter. Exhibiting a strong Japanese influence, the takedown model is composed of 17 parts as a reflection of the 17 syllables in a Japanese haiku poem.
A customer approached Robert a few years ago asking to make a 6-inch version of the original Maringer knife. After gaining permission, Robert borrowed an earlier version from a gracious customer and studied it closely. Robert has since made two knives in this fashion. The featured one sports a 9-inch blade of 154CM stainless steel mirror polished and double hollow ground.
The habaki is forged 416 stainless, while the tsuba (guard) consists of four layers of 410 stainless, and the handle sports 416 stainless fittings. The subhilt is formed of approximately 60 feet of twisted 304 stainless steel wire.
The handle and blade are joined by a toggle or link, and a pin attaches the tang to the threaded toggle. A 10-24 socket head cap screw is fed through the pommel and threaded into the toggle. For pricing on a similar piece, contact Robert directly.
“In my opinion, a subhilt provides increased retention, a more secure grip and increased control,” Appleby commented. “I don’t see the subhilt as impeding any grip style, as the blade is also double edged, and the subhilt also provides more positive extraction from the sheath. Each spacer is marked by a series of dots, one, two, three, etc., to hold the upper right of the tang hole. As I fit them, only the top and bottom of the tang hole contact the tang so they are self-aligning, as well as the front endcap of the handle. Indexing pins are set into the handle and align the last spacer, handle and pommel.”
Subhilts For Rugged Use
Gary Langley built his reproduction of a Bob Loveless Big Bear subhilt for action.
“This was designed to be a fighter,” he said. “I have sold one that was going to be used to hunt wild hogs, though this particular piece resides in a collection in Florida. It’s pretty much a straight grip, but I suppose you could hold it however you’re comfortable with it.”
After building a new house, Gary started making custom knives in 1977. His new neighbor was Don Dollar, and it was Don who revealed fit and finish to Gary for the first time.
“Don showed me a few books and The American Blade Magazine [today’s BLADE®], and I was off,” Gary smiled. “I haven’t built a lot of knives compared to some, and this one is number 603. I’m 68 now and hope to get to 1,000 before I’m done.”
His Big Bear has a CPM 154 stainless blade and 416 stainless guard and subhilt with a mammoth ivory handle. Alice Carter did the engraving. Langley said this is the only Big Bear with a rear bolster he’s seen.
“I’m basically self-taught,” he commented, “and I’ve had a lot of inspiration, but have never taken a class or worked with anyone. [Steve] Johnson’s DVD on building a fighter was a big help—lots of trial and error! It’s not a simple knife to grind, and the things I learned trying to grind it have reshaped my process and equipment.
“The challenge on this blade with a rear bolster is to fit eight edges without a gap,” Langley concluded. “You just have to slow down. I would use my flat disc and rather than turn the motor on, I would turn it by hand so I didn’t go too far too fast.”
Depending on the engraving requested, Gary said his price for a similar knife would be around $3,000.
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