Interview: Mike Stewart

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 Mike Stewart of Bark River Knives -- enjoy.

Interview: Mike Stewart

Meet the man behind Bark River Knife & Tool

When Philadelphia-born Mike Stewart was a 14-year-old who loved hunting, his knifemaking philosophy began to take shape.

"I saw that skills matter more than equipment," he recalls, "but good equipment helps."

This month marks the eighth anniversary of Bark River Knives, Stewart's Michigan-based company that manufactures some of the finest sharps in the world, at any price. He's no longer that precocious teen traipsing through the woods -- "I've evolved," he says -- but his bias toward skills and functional tools remains.

In the late 1970s, when many mass-produced knives were being made unacceptably brittle, Stewart realized that a blade didn't have to be hard to be serviceable. "I found out that if I wanted better tools, I had to make them myself," he said.

And so he did -- but not without seeking advice. With admitted audacity, he picked the brains of some soon-to-be legends.

"Bob Loveless told me, 'Don't compromise what you believe in, but make knives that work.' And then he told me that we don't really know what works -- but we know it when we see it, when we use it."

Bill Moran was another of Stewart's influences. "Bill had patience," he remembers. "If it wasn't right, he hit it again with a hammer. Bill made knives that cut stuff.

"I decided that my job function was to make knives with visual tension, visual appeal -- but they had to work."

And so Stewart set out on an industry journey that included Pacific, Blackjack, Marbles and now Bark River. Today, after decades of knifemaking, has he managed to create the perfect tool?

"There is no overall ideal knife," he cautions. "The best knife is the one you have with you. With the right skills, you can do about anything with just about any knife -- and the right knife is the one you're most comfortable with.

"Everyone knows that I carry a Canadian Special, sometimes a Fox River. They're great knives -- for me, for my skills -- but they won't be right for everybody.

"You can't read a book or listen to me and pick out a knife that works for you. The only thing you can do is try lots of different blade patterns and sizes -- buy them, or borrow a buddy's knife -- until you find the ones you're comfortable with. You have to use them."

Beyond Stewart's elemental mindset and the success of Bark River Knife & Tool, he's a bit bothered that today's consumers don't understand the history of the knives they hold in their hands.

"No generation younger than mine knows this stuff -- and I'm 60 years old. People seem to think that hunting knives have been around forever, but the fact is that Webster Marbles designed and sold the first true American hunting knife in 1898, which wasn't that long ago. Everything that's happened since then has happened for a reason, and we have to introduce young people to the evolution.

"We have to pass it on. It's crucial."

One look at Bark River's product line shows that Stewart is offering us a chance to discover what works for us -- dozens of patterns and myriad handle materials -- along with plenty of knives that pay tribute to the history and "evolution" that he urges us to impart to the next generation.

Perhaps the most important thing we can take from Mike Stewart, however, is his passion -- not simply for the knifemaking business, but for his lifelong devotion to creating tools that work for us.