Knifesmith John Ftizen totes a lethal armory of his art. Right: Bowie and “Frankenstein” knives. Photo by Adam Finkle.
The moment you see John Fitzen, you know this is a guy from another time and place. A time when people shunned lawyers and courts and settled disputes with Bowie knives. A place where Rob Roy or keelboatman Mike Fink would feel right at home.
“Everybody knows me—that guy with the kilt and knives,” shrugs Fitzen, who is built like a tallish dwarf.
That’s the least of Fitzen’s visual impact. Take the accessories. His right hand sports at least three skull rings, plus a skull-motif bracelet; on his left, a couple of Iron Crosses and a knife-fighting wrist band of thick elephant hide.
Fitzen is proud of being a throwback—a master knifesmith who hand-forges Damascus blades that shimmer like a contour map of iron and steel. “It’s my art,” Fitzen says.
It’s an ancient decorative art that requires engraving, wax castings of brass, silver and gold for pommels and elephant ivory (salvaged from old tchotchkes) for handles.
In the folds and recesses of his leather kilt, Fitzen carries a foot-long fighting knife—beautiful in its ferocity, a stubby all-purpose “rhinoceros” blade, a slab-like “Mini Bully” folding knife—and, after rooting around, he dredges up a Goth-black Swiss Army knife, complete with corkscrew.
But Fitzen isn’t a Luddite. Like Indiana Jones, he knows what happens to the guy who brings a knife to a gun fight. Reaching behind his back, Fitzen unholsters an engraved semi-auto pistol. Its slide gleams with dark waves of Damascus steel. If Highlander should happen to appear in Salt Lake, he’ll claim this .45 as his own.
In the unlikely event the .45 jams, Fitzen is packing two stainless-steel .22 magnum derringers and a taser rides on his left hip. On the back of his belt is a telescoping fighting baton.
In all, Fitzen walks around with 13 pounds of fighting steel, and that’s not counting a skull-chain attached to his wallet that could double as a nasty mace.
“I’m not paranoid,” he says, explaining that his personal armory is simply a mobile sample case. “It sells knives for me. People ask me ‘Why do you carry all that?’ By the time I explain it, I end up selling stuff.”
In a Salt Lake shop, Fitzen makes his blades by hand, folding, forging and refolding up to 600 layers of iron and high-carbon steel into feathery layers for strength and a superb edge. His Skull Knives line sell for $200 upwards to $10,000, which makes sense when he shows you a blade forged from an alloy that contains nickel steel from a meteorite.
Above all, Fitzen is a master of sharpening blades—which, as the growing subculture of knife connoisseurs and collectors will tell you, is as important as the blade itself.
“I’m really known for my edges,” Fitzen says, as he sharpens a blade in his cave-like shop. “I get knives sent to me from all over the world to sharpen.”
Fitzen’s business is supported by a convergence of subcultures, including a growing demographic of young guys who are fascinated by blade lore, history and knife combat. They tend to gravitate toward Fitzen’s Bowies (a nasty weapon made famous by Texas legend Jim Bowie) and “Frankenstein” knives (a brutal blade that incorporates bolts reminiscent of the ones in the monster’s neck). Survivalists embrace Bowies as a basic tool: “These knives are like a Roman short sword. You can do anything with these knives—chop a tree down or shave with them,” Fitzen explains.
Another knife market is in the geekdom of Goth and fantasy addicts, who are drawn to the dark glamour of Fitzen’s art. He creates functional beauty that will eviscerate an orc or saber open a champagne bottle.
“A guy came in who said, ‘I’m the King of the Elves. I want to commission a sword from you,’” Fitzen recalls. “I said, sure. Unfortunately, I later found out he didn’t have the elvish magic to pay for it.”
Click here to visit his business, Skull Knives & The Razor's Edge, online.