Near the center of San Juan Island, in an area known to some as ‘Hippy Heights,’ Dave Ber hand-crafts knives in his 200-square-foot shop.
The self-taught knife artisan began honing his craft in 1986. He outfitted his first blade with a simple wood handle. Crude in comparison to his work today, Dave never sold the knife. It wasn’t up to his standards. But the three-incher foreshadowed the elegant designs and exceptionally well-balanced blades he makes today.
Dave’s shop is one of three rustic wood structures on the 2.5-acre perch overlooking San Juan Channel where he lives with his wife, Lina Vander Houwen. It sits at the center of the three buildings, flanked by Linda’s cozy get-away and their home — a beautiful cabin originally constructed in 1988 before they bought the property. “It was just one room when we moved in,” Linda told me as we sat in their toasty living room. “Dave added the loft. The bathroom. This room where we are now. The deck. We just kept expanding as need be.”
Dave and Linda moved to San Juan in 1991 in search of sunshine. Before they retired, the pair spent their summers working in Alaska canning factories. Initially, they wintered in Bellingham. But they tired of the rain and the crowds.
Having begun his knife business on the mainland, Dave continued to spend his winters crafting new blades — just as he does today. “I’ve always made my knives during the winter. Now that means I make them November through June, when the San Juan Island Artists’ Studio Tour takes place,” said Dave.
Originally Dave sold his work at the Alaskan canning factories and trade shows. But now, the Studio Tour is his only scheduled event. “I accept commissioned pieces from time-to-time, but I think one of the things people really like is being able to come and see where and how the knives are being made. That’s a really special part of the tour,” said Dave.
The process is special indeed. It begins with sourcing ancient wood and ancient ivory — the gorgeous natural artifacts that give Dave’s knives such character. Using a variety of hard woods, including Rosewood and Dessert Iron Wood, and ancient ivory, including mammoth and walrus, Dave is able to create his signature colorful look.
“I want my knives to be colorful. Something people will remember. Nothing makes me happier than hearing someone is buying my knife for a specific purpose — whether that’s to put it on display or use it in the field. That’s one of my biggest honors,” Dave said.
He cuts his blades from Damascus steel, primarily using a selection forged with a twisted pattern that’s created by welding layers of steel together. The pattern eventually comes to life when Dave superheats the steal to 1,600 degrees and shocks it in olive oil. Other knife makers will use crude oils, like motor oil, to shock their steel. “I use olive oil because it makes the shop smell like fresh baked cookies,” said Dave. (And who doesn’t love freshly baked cookies?)
Dave makes an average of 35 knives a year, many of which will be on display during the Studio Tour. He can also be reached via: 360.378.7230 / [email protected]
San Juan Island Artists’ Studio Tour
This year’s San Juan Island Artists’ Studio Tour was slated for June 6 and 7 from 10am – 5pm. While the tour won't be happening as planned, you can learn more about the featured studios on the tour’s website.