Jimmy Dean, a lead lineman for Alabama Power, has a hobby that is demanding, exacting, painstaking and, on some days, just a real grind — and he loves it.
Dean is a custom knife maker, having crafted more than 160 unique knives (mostly hunting knives) out of his home workshop. His interest in knives cuts deep. Dean’s father was something of a knife collector and bequeathed his collection to Dean, who started collecting his own knives as a boy. About six years ago, though, Dean was browsing the Internet when he came upon a knife made from a railroad tie, and from that point forward, the glint of knife making has not left his eye.
For a year, Dean worked with his friend, fellow knife maker and knife-making mentor Chip Jordan, learning about knife-making equipment, techniques and materials. Dean and Jordan met for an estimated three hours per night for about three nights per week at Jordan’s own knife-making workshop; both men are also active members of the Gulf Coast Knife Makers Guild and would participate in monthly meetings.
Dean designs and makes knives based either on his own inspiration (for example, the railroad spike knife he saw on the Internet) or based on special requests from friends, relatives, coworkers or acquaintances. Knives from railroad spikes, Dean notes, are a more common request than one might think.
“One guy ordered nine knives to be made from railroad spikes,” Dean notes, adding that the spikes provide very good raw materials from which to fashion knife blades. “A lot of people who have ties with the railroad will bring me spikes. One girl brought me one from her fiancé’s grandmother’s farm that had a railroad that went through it. The spike was from that railroad and that land, and she wanted a knife made from that spike, I presume to give to her fiancé as a gift.”
Other memorable requests include a set of seven knives made for a coworker to give as groomsmen gifts, a request for a knife with a mother-of-pearl handle that a bride used at her wedding to cut her wedding cake, and a knife blade made from an old car spring. “It was from an older model 1950s or 1960s vehicle that had some sentimental value,” Dean offers, adding, “I never have and never will make two knives exactly alike. They are all unique, something you don’t see every day.”
Dean even made a knife for his mom for her 80th birthday.
“I start with the blade,” Dean begins. “I don’t order pre-cut blades. Either someone supplies the metal, or I order stock steel in 6-ft lengths.” After cutting and grinding the metal into shape, he bakes his blades at 1,850°F for four hours in a shop oven, then tempers the steel at 400°F for two hours, cools it down and bakes it again at 400°F for two hours. “It changes the molecular structure of the steel,” Dean offers. “The blade then holds the sharpened edge longer, making for a good knife.”
Next, Dean fashions knife handles, experimenting with different materials to see what weighs and feels best in his hands. Handles can be made from some rather exotic materials, from deer antler to water buffalo horns to woolly mammoth tooth, dug out of tundra in Alaska or northern Canada.
Once handles are attached, Dean turns to making knife sheaths, usually out of leather, including — upon request — stamps and leather working to imprint animal heads, owner’s initials or other characters or artwork on the sheath. Inside, all his knife blades are etched with the words “J Dean” near the handle.
A finished, custom-made J Dean knife might cost anywhere from $100 and up, and for now, Dean says he has enough knife-making business to keep him busy in his off hours. Orders come in via word of mouth only, though at some point, Dean may put up a website for his knife-making business.
“The plan is to give this more time and energy and effort after retirement,” explains the 60-year-old Dean, who, with 35 years of service at Alabama Power, has not set a retirement date but says it will probably be within the next few years. “I don’t want knife making to be a job, I want it to remain a hobby.”
Dean, born and raised in the small town of Reform, Alabama, is married with three grown daughters and six grandchildren, three girls and three boys. “I met a young lady 33 years ago, and we got married and made this [Theodore, Alabama] our home,” he says of his wife, career and marriage.
Starting in construction, Dean signed onto Alabama Power in the late 1970s as a helper and progressed to the point of lead lineman today. Among the highlights of his line work have been storm restoration and recovery efforts in Alabama Power territory as well as in Texas, Arkansas, Florida, the Carolinas and last year in New Jersey following Superstorm Sandy.
Back in the knife-making world, Dean gleans inspiration and satisfaction from a knife he has taken from drawing or design to a polished and finished product. “You take something, a piece of steel, and turn it into a workable tool that has a nice appearance to it,” Dean observes. “It’s kind of like an artist who steps back and looks at his painting. You appreciate that you can take a raw material and turn it into something that is both beautiful and useful.”