Jim Litty has been building custom knives of all types for 40 years
Custom knife maker Jim Litty crafted his first knife in 1975.
“I remember because I was working in the maintenance shop of H.D. Lee Jeans Company in Lebanon, Mo., at the time. The next year I made another, this time from the saw blade of a power hacksaw and I engraved the year 1976 on it. One of the sewing machine mechanics told me I should go down to Vernon & Sons and get some quality tool steel to make the next one and take it over to be heat treated at Detroit Tool.”
A new craftsman was born and perhaps just in the nick of time as all three of those companies are now mere memories, a part of Lebanon’s long history of manufacturing. After a career in the trucking business, at times with his father, well-known local businessman Jammie Litty, boat manufacturing and construction, Jim Litty has returned to his first love, designing, creating and completing the manufacturing of custom knives, and has opened Jim Litty Custom Knives, located just west of Bennett Spring State Park.
“I’ve used a number of different steels, but my two primary ones are D-2 tool steel and S35VN steel. I do 25 stock knives, including paring, kitchen, chef, utility, fishing, fillet and lots of styles of hunting and decorative knives as well as custom work. I also have folding and lock blade knives. If someone wants something customized or even if they want to bring in their own design, we can work on it and together, design something that’s just a little bit different.
“I use high quality steel with a very high-quality heat treating process which makes my knives different than those that are mass produced. With this, you get a very durable knife that holds an edge much better than a production knife. And to me, anything that is made locally holds some real value. I’d rather have a locally made product anytime.”
Jim keeps about 50 different handle materials in his shop, offering customers a wide selection.
“I’ve got materials such as exotic woods, bone, horns and antlers,” Jim said. “I have everything from very high-end materials such as 100-year-old mother-of-pearl to man-made gem stone materials, to plain durable every-day working knife materials. The same is true of the sheath materials, which includes premium vegetable tanned cowhide and several exotic leathers, like sting ray and alligator.”
The interior of Jim’s shop reflects his deep devotion to the genesis of his family’s roots.
“The antique phone there on the wall was once in my grandparent’s home back when you had to crank it to ring up the operator and request the number of the party you wanted to talk to. If the batteries were low, as often happened, you had to request that other people got off of your party line because it would weaken the phone output to the point where you couldn’t get enough reception to hear your party. Can you imagine that today?” he asked with a laugh.
His shop also sports a pair of wooden chairs with seats made from hickory splits that were made by his grandfather in the 1930s and “lost” in his grandmother’s attic for many years. When not making knives, Jim enjoys life with his own family, which includes his wife, Pat and three grown children, Jessica, Matt and Jacob.
Jim bought forging equipment to bolster his knife manufacturing hobby back in 1983 but now, due to injuries from a serious automobile accident a few years ago, he does not do as much forging as he once did. He has returned to grinding as his main manufacturing technique.
“I make all that I can from U.S.-source materials,” Jim continued. “Some things, however, you cannot get here but I do all the work here in the shop, using all my own patterns. I don’t outsource anything. Everything from start to finish, including the design, grinding, and heat treating is done here as is the leather sewing of the sheaths. I even take pictures of the work in progress and have that put into a presentation that goes along with the completed knife. We also do custom engraving, including laser engraving so we can do custom logos as well.”
Jim concluded with a story about the family of the man who had sold his family the land where they would eventually build their current home and his shop.
“I had climbed the bluffs near here as a kid and it was the wife of the original owner of this land who came out here in recent years, looking for knives for her grandchildren. She was able to buy knives with handles made from walnut trees that once stood on their grandfather’s land. I like making something that I know the person is going to use for the rest of their life and then pass on to the next generation. That’s what makes it all so special.”