‘Tis The Season To Get Stabby

Someone commented somewhere about how I was outfitting people with “stabby things.” I have to say that most of what I have published so far are cooking knives of some sort or another. This is a “stabby thing.”

It’s a commissioned work for R.B. who contacted me asking for “a double-edged letter opener.” With a commission so vague, it’s hard to miss, so I said “sure.” I had been thinking about doing something double-edged anyway.

Diamond-shaped cross-sections are really fun. It’s a tricky grind but I have done a lot of them, starting with a Fairbairn-style dagger in about 1978. Now, I can use my own twist high contrast damascus and it’s even more fun. The trick to doing a diamond grind is to make sure the outline of the blade is correct. Because, if it is, then all you have to do is bring all the edges back at exactly the same angle, and it will all line up neatly along the spine. In most cases I back off on the angle near the tip, so the tip doesn’t get vanishingly small; it needs to be strong and less slicy because it’s the stabby part. That makes the resulting blade a bit trickier to sharpen but that’s not my problem anymore, is it now?

I noticed a while back that Pennsylvania law has it as a felony to make a “dagger” but fortunately this is a letter opener. Also, Pennsylvania law is pretty vague about what collectors and knife-makers can or can’t do. My view is that I am covered under absolute executive privilege and besides the planet is going to be uninhabitable so people are going to need to open lots of letters.

When I completed it and was finishing the handle, I thought it’d be cool to make some kind of storage system for the thing. Obviously, some sort of Tactical(tm) scabbard would be inappropriate for a letter opener, so I asked my client if they’d be OK waiting a couple weeks while my subconscious chewed things over. I like being mysterious with my clients, so they can get a sense of surprise when they see the final object. Hopefully a sense of pleased surprise, not disappointment.

A Saya Nomi

After a week, the idea of the case above hit me; it happened when I was looking at the handle and thinking “that’s really pretty round, for something you ground freehand.” Ego made me get my calipers out and measure the handle: 1/2″ all around, with a few thousandths variation here and there. 1/2″… round. I can make 1/2″ holes really neatly with a Forstner bit… Here’s the fun part: that scabbard was ridiculously easy to make; it took a total of several minutes. I had been dreading inletting a scabbard Japanese-style because I’d have to start with making a new set of chisels for the job. (The Japanese use a special curved offset chisel called a “saya nomi” which allows you to cut and lever little chips out of the inside of the scabbard, in a ridiculously laborious process that is only appropriate for scabbards for fine swords or swordmakers who have an assistant. I’ll do another post on how the scabbard above came together so we can all laugh about it.

This way it’s really safe and protected and harmless-looking. Overall length is about 14″ with the letter opener inserted.

The letter opener is delicate-looking but don’t kid yourself: it’s 1095/15N20 twist damascus and it’s basically a spring with 4 razor sharp edges and a stabby tip. The curved-back place near the tang is about 1/4″ around, and it goes quite a way into the handle where it’s bedded with a lot of epoxy. The handle is ebony in front and boxwood burl at the back.

Apparently it was a pleasant surprise because my client asked me if I could make a similar (but different) one for their father. That’s an honor, indeed. So I’ve put that on my subconscious “to do” list and someday if I find myself hammering out something long and thin and stabby, I know what it’s for.

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Must resist the urge to get Tactical(tm)… Do you think a line of “relative stabbing knives” would be a hit for christmas? You know, for your uncle who shows up wearing a MAGA hat. “Ooops, did you walk onto that? You’d better go, now, get that sewed up.”

I am painfully aware that I know someone who could make me a really nice saya nomi. More on that, later.


  1. kestrel says

    What a beautiful letter opener! The wooden scabbard is really a nice touch.

    My letter opener is a miniature “samurai sword” (it does kinda look like one, has the curve and everything) but the scabbard for it is the sort that matches up with the handle, so that closed up it just looks like a curved tube of wood. I think it was to promote a now defunct company called Nationwide Samurai Sword. No idea what they did, besides make letter openers.

  2. Jazzlet says

    Gorgeous blade, lovely case, coming together to make a beautiul whole.

    I Use an old Swiss amy knife for opening letters, boxes, whatever. It too short, but I don’t have anything more suitable. I should look around for something for when I finally get my desk into what will be the library and I have some where to keep a decent sized letter opener.

  3. lochaber says

    that’s also pretty

    sounds like a lot of work for the sheath/scabbard. must be really special to warrant not splitting the wood, carving it out, and then reassembling them…

  4. cvoinescu says

    I tear letters open with my own bare hands, like an uncultured caveman. To me, a pointy letter opener would be pointless.

    This is a beautiful object, though.

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