Interview: Chris Reeve

31st Mar 2015

Back in 2009 and 2010, KnivesShipFree published a monthly newsletter called From the Edge. One of its recurring features was an interview with a knifemaker or industry executive. We thought you'd be interested in visiting these conversations again, so we're presenting them here on the KnivesShipFree Blog.

This is our interview with Chris Reeve -- enjoy.

Interview: Chris Reeve

Quality, performance & pride

Often we know the knifemaker's work before we meet the knifemaker, and so it was for us with Chris Reeve. We'd held Reeve's purposeful fixed-blades and exquisitely crafted folders in our hands, and we knew something of the man's background -- born in South Africa, trained as a tool-and-die maker, raced motorcycles -- but still, we weren't quite sure what to expect when we sat down with him for an interview.

Because no one is born a knifemaker, we're always curious about the life experiences that draw a person to the craft, so that's where we started our conversation.

Reeve's story begins ordinarily enough: "My father always had a pocketknife in his pocket," he says, "and I always had tools around me." No surprise there -- the same can be said of many of us. It was his entry into the military, however, that began to bend Reeve's path.

"Military service is compulsory in South Africa. For the first nine months I didn't have a knife, and I found that I missed it. When I was to be deployed to the border with Mozambique, I decided I needed one.

"The knife I wanted was a Puma White Hunter -- about 60 rand, and my pay was 80 rand a month. So I thought, 'I know tool and die making, I'll just make one.'"

According to Reeve, he "bashed and crashed" and made his knife, and later he made another. It was at that point, he says, that "a whole world of making knives opened up to me."

A foray into motorcycle roadracing on the South African Grand Prix circuit -- as a privateer, without lucrative corporate sponsorships -- would put his knifemaking on hold for a number of years. By the time he left racing, he says, "the Rambo craze" was in full swing and he turned to making knives full-time.

"And 29 years later, here we are," Reeve says matter-of-factly.

We pointed out that Chris Reeve Knives today are renowned for their extraordinary quality, and we wondered aloud if that focus borders on obsession.

"It's not an obsession," Reeve shot back, verging on annoyance. "It's based on pride -- having a clear conscience, having pride in what I do. A product is either right or it's wrong."

He paused for a moment before offering an illustration from the days when he made his own parts for his racing motorcycle.

"Look, I learned on the racetrack, in a very graphic way, that you either make a part properly or you're dead. One day I neglected to make a part properly, and I knew it, telling myself that I'd make it properly before the next race -- and it broke. When it failed, catastrophically, I was able to...I handled it.

"People don't normally hold my view. But I want to tell you -- when you've looked your maker in the eye, you have a different approach to life.

"It's not an accountant's approach. For me, at the end of the day, I have the knowledge that I've made the best product possible. I want to stand on the top step of the podium, not the second step or the third step -- and it's not for the glory."

Clearly, for Reeve it's the pride.

It's equally clear that another source of pride is the people who own and use his knives. He chuckled about a recent testimonial letter, accompanied by a framed photograph of a hunter standing in the middle of an elk carcass field-dressed using only a Chris Reeve knife -- gratifying, to be sure, but perhaps too graphic to be displayed in the company lobby. He also spoke softly of a knife that had been all but destroyed when its owner was killed in a bomb blast in Iraq, the knife lovingly restored and returned to the American soldier's family.

So with a line of incomparable products, a mountain of awards and countless passionate customers, is Chris Reeve -- who's now a U.S. citizen, by the way -- finally standing "on the top step of the podium"?

"I constantly remind our people that even though we're at the top of our game, we can't rest on our laurels. We can't relax for any reason whatsoever," Reeve insists. "The next customer is entitled to the same quality as the last customer -- if not better, because we've learned something."

Awards and accolades, like those lavished on the benchmark Sebenza folder over the last 22 years, only serve to "give us the impetus to keep going at this."

"Our knives are never finished."