Cafe Interview with Fred Carter
I'm not sure when I first met Fred, but I think it was back in the '80's at the Knifemakers Guild Show. Fred's knives have always been some of the finest examples of the knifemaker's art, and of course his engraving is just as stunning. Fred's work is super clean, perfectly executed, and beautifully photographed. Sit back and enjoy this interesting interview with one of the world's top knifemakers. Please welcome my friend Dr. Fred Carter!
Q. What's your name?
A. Fred Carter
Q. Where are you from?
A. I was born in Oklahoma in 1940 and moved to Texas when I was nine so I
consider myself sort of a Texan.
Q. How long have you been engraving?
A. I bought a copy of “The Art of Engraving” in 1981 so I guess that was
when I began my adventures into this art.
Q. What made you want to become an engraver?
A. Several reasons, first of I thought it might be something I would like to do and also I wanted to do knives that were 100% my own authorship. And last
but not least I could not afford to have my knives engraved at the time – so
if they were to be decorated I was going to have to do it myself.
Q. Are you a hobbyist or professional engraver?
A. I am hobbyist on one level and since I charge extra for engraving I
guess that makes me a professional in some sense – however, I don’t engrave
for others, I only work on my own knives. I have done a few engravings for
old friends to help them and repay them for their friendship.
Q. How did you learn engraving?
A. I am about totally self taught – at the time I began trying to engrave
there was little in the way of information. I bought James Meek’s book and
later Roger Bleile’s “American Engravers” from studying those two books I began to teach myself. I settled on studying Lynton McKenzie’s work as it was well illustrated, very clean and to me, very beautiful. I think that influence is easy to see. I still, to
this day, study his engraving and those two books.
Q. What was your biggest obstacle when you first started?
A. Other than not knowing much about what to do in general I would say
that sharpening was the biggest – I struggled with it for a long time and
was lucky enough to see some of McKenzie’s tools at a Knifemakers Guild show- I had
along with me small optical comparator used to measure my own gravers and was able to
measure the angles and heels on his gravers – my work changes a great deal after that.
Q. Are you a hammer & chisel and/or push engraver, or do you use
pneumatic tools, or a combination of hand and power?
A. I used a Gravermeister for years, wore it out a couple of times, today I
still use it now and then. Four years ago Steve Lindsay sent me one of his Air
Gravers to try out and that is what I use today. I use only the120 graver for all
engraving and shading and a variety of flat gravers for background removal.
However, I have always wanted to learn h&c.
Q. What are your favorite books pertaining to engraving?
A. “The Art of Engraving” by James Meeks and “American Engravers” by Roger
Bleile I have a number of other books but those two are all I really ever
read or even needed.
Q. Of the old engraving masters, whose work is among your favorite?
A. I could do a long list which would include pretty much everyone – I do
like Kornbrath and GustaveYoung probably the most.
Q. What's the worst engraving mistake you ever made, and how did you fix it?
A. The worst mistake was thinking that this endeavor would be easy, I
remember telling my wife that I should have this mastered in a few months –
many years later and still learning -- I think I will take that statement back. As
for engraving mistakes I once put a body on a raised gold butterfly
backwards – I managed to pry off the body and turn it around – if that had
not worked I was going to resort to the mutant butterfly defense.
Q. What are the majority of your engraving jobs (guns, jewelry, etc)?
A. I only engrave knives that I make.
Q. What type of magnification do you use (microscope, Optivisor, etc)?
A. Most of my engraving, for the last 10 or so years has been using a Meji
scope, before that (when I had better eyesight) just an Optivisor. I will say the Meji has done wonders for my engraving, especially shading.
Q. What part of engraving do you find the most challenging or difficult?
A. Layout is always a problem and my weakest point, other than the fact I
really can’t draw very well at all. I seem to understand some types of
scrolls fairly well so that is what I have concentrated on rather than more free flowing organic types of designs.
Q. What part of an engraving job do you dislike the most, and why?
A. Actually I like everything about it whether it is working seriously on
a knife project or just sitting at the bench practicing and trying new
things. For me it is therapy, totally absorbed in what I am doing and not
thinking about much else, time has no meaning – very Zen like I guess. I
love to see the graver move through the metal.
Q. What's your favorite part of an engraving job, and why?
A. I really begin to enjoy the work most after I have the initial cuts made
and begin the work of background removal and shading – the whole thing
begins to look like something and that is very rewarding.
Q. Do you like or dislike lettering, and why?
A. I don’t do much lettering and never paid much attention as it was not
needed on the knives I made. With the advent of computers and transfers I
have done a little more, but using transfers seems like cheating for some
Q. What kinds of engraving do you refuse to do?
A. I only do engraving on the knives that I make - I feel comfortable
knowing that if I mess something up that I can throw the whole thing in the
trash and start over – can’t do that with other peoples knives.
Q. How do you rate the quality of engraving done today as opposed to
50 or 100 years ago?
A. Today’s work is every bit as good and for the most part even better. I
am amazed and awe struck at what today’s engraving masters can do. Today’s
work makes me feel pretty humble and very appreciative of the magnificent
work being done.
Q. Do you perceive any part of hand engraving as a dying art?
A. I feel engraving it is growing and will continue to grow in quality and
popularity. If anything perhaps hammer and chisel engraving will decline
due to the expanded use of modern equipment.
Q. What country or countries impress you with their highly skilled
A. Of course the Europeans are wonderful but I also think the engraving
masters here are also wonderful too. I see work so magnificent and complicated that almost makes me dizzy trying to follow it, sure puts me in my place.
Q. What affect has the internet had on your hand engraving?
A. The internet has made me much more aware of the great engravers working
today; I enjoy seeing it but must admit I am overwhelmed by the intricacy
and mastery. It keeps reminding me of how little I know and how much there
is to learn – young engravers have much to be thankful for.
Q. What advice would you give to someone who wants to learn engraving?
A. I would say to start small – don’t try to do everything at once. Try
to master elements of the engraving one at a time, for instance practice
drawing smooth flowing scroll elements, maybe thousands of times until you
can draw them forward and backward. Concentrate on leaf elements one leaf
at a time or even parts of one of the leaves you are cutting, cut and
compare over and over. Concentrate hard on each shading line you cut, where
it starts, where it stops, how it relates to other lines, etc. cut each line
as if is the most important line in the whole work. Do your best to be a
harsh critic of all of your work, don’t ask your wife or mother, let the
enthusiasm die down and then ask yourself what could I do to make this
better – there is always something – if you can’t find room for improvement
you will never improve, easier said than done. Don’t practice on your
customers or your knives – if you are not sure, cut your design as a
practice plate, more than once if necessary.
::: Personal :::
Q. How many children do you have?
A. Becky and I have two children, both grown and on their own.
Q. What's the occupation of your wife/husband?
A. Becky made a wonderful career of raising our kids and supporting me
100% even when we were dead broke (more than once). She is an outstanding
quilt maker and spends most of her time working on her next big project. I
consider myself about as fortunate as any man could ever be to have her by
Q. If you have traveled, what was the most exciting country you
visited and what did you enjoy most?
A. I would have to say Japan was the most exciting – we made many trips to
knife shows in Tokyo we were privileged to make friends with Hiroko
Nakamura, the great pianist, and her husband Shoji, they showed us much of
the wonder and beauty of Japan.
Q. Do you have an interesting experience while traveling that you'd
like to share?
A. One day while out with our friends in Tokyo and decided to eat at a
small Korean restaurant we were ask if we wanted hot or cold food. Becky
chose hot and I took cold – she got a nice big bowl of noodles and I got a
dish of raw (horse?) meat with a raw egg on top, it is amazing how gobs of
soy sauce helps the food go down.
Q. What's the most interesting experience you had when meeting people?
A. I was lucky enough to spend two weeks with the great Swiss collector
Eric Meyer in the mid 80”s. Eric was showing me around and decided we
would visit one of his factories in Germany. We stopped by a very highly
rated restaurant in France and dropped in to say hello. The wait for a
table was months but not only did they give us some truffle pate for a snack
we had a table for supper – the fanciest meal this old Texas boy has ever
gotten in on.
Q. Besides engraving, what are your hobbies and interests?
A. Interest, just about everything – hobbies –competition model airplanes
in my youth – motorcycling – armature astronomy – target archery – fossil
hunting – photography - quail hunting - fly / bass fishing and some I don’t
Q. Where is your favorite place to be?
A. Anywhere with Becky – best place no matter where.
Q. What’s one thing of which you are most proud?
A. More than one thing! Getting through graduate school – being able to
support my family with my work- raising a couple of great kids - having the
opportunity to design the 100th anniversary knives for Harley Davidson -
actually making a living doing what I do.
Q. When you were a child, who was your hero?
A. Hard to remember that far back –Of course my father first of all - then
Sky King – Phil Ruzzito – any Yankee player of the 50’s – Bill Vukovitch and
other Indy drivers of his era – Howard Hill and many many others – I was a
pretty impressionable kid.
Q. Tell us something few people know about you.
A. Most think I am a staunch conservative- actually I am just the opposite.
Q. Where were you on September 11, 2001?
A. Here at home sitting in total non belief that this could be happening –
such a terrible day for all, still hard to believe.
Q. Do you have any pet peeves?
A. Sure, especially when people automatically assume that my beliefs are the same
as theirs – most of the time they are dead wrong.
Q. What is your favorite thing to do in your home town?
A. Just being home and messing around in my shop – nothing better.
Q. If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, who would it be?
A. Maybe James Randi or Richard Dawkings for people I don’t know. I would
love to dine with many old friends from days past there are too many to
Q. What one person was most influential in your life?
A. Geology professor by the name of Dr. Jack Watkins - my first year in college was
sort of a disaster until I met Dr. Jack, he inspired me, gave me confidence
and got me on the right track – I am forever grateful.
Q. Who (living or deceased) would you most liked to have met?
A. Robert Pursig – Joseph Campbell – Carl Sagan – Richard Feynman and many
of yesterdays and today’s engraving artist, not for them to teach me
technique but to learn more about how they think and approach their work.
Q. Describe what you would think of as a perfect day.
A. Any day any where with Becky.
Q. Tell us a good short, clean joke.
A. I love good jokes but can remember then long enough to tell them.
Q. Is there anything else you'd like to say to the folks reading this?
A. Let me stress that I am primarily a knifemaker and not an engraver. My
main interest and work is and always has been in making knives although engraving has
become a larger part of my work I am still mainly a maker. I don’t
pretend to be in the same league as most of the engravers featured but only
someone doing the best he can with what talent he has. Hopefully I can
encourage more knifemakers to give engraving a good try and for them to know
that they do this if they are willing to work at it. At the end of the day
our only true teachers are ourselves, others can show us and guide us but we
must ultimately learn by practice and determination. If you really want to
learn you can and you can do it alone if you have to. Finally, I wish you all the
best in whatever you seek and wherever destiny leads you. FC
A few more from Fred Carter.
Let me be the first to say hello Fred. I have always loved your knives. You have been an inspiration to me. I never get tired of seeing your work. I hope all is well with you.
Last edited by Andy; 06-20-2009 at 04:42 AM.
Thanks for a very nice interview with a humble and talented gentleman!
Beautiful knives and lovely engraving! Thanks for giving the interview.
Fred, I didn't know about your work until now.
You have made very nice knives. I mostly remember your "Zen" attitude from this interview.
Thanks for sharing, arnaud
Glad to have you on this side of the Red River! Excellent interview; thank you sincerely for sharing with us!! I always enjoy getting to see a pic or two of your work,
Great interview, and good to see you here, Fred. I owe you a debt of gratitude for your help with knife photography a few years back.
Dr. Fred Thanks for the inspiration... I have admired your engraving and knife work for as long as I have been learning engraving, thanks for sharing yourself with us...
Great interview Sam...
First class all around.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and artistry.