A self described regular guy, our bearded friend, "Uncle Wiskers" (no "h" long story), is most comfortable at home near the town of Ballentine, South Carolina, sitting outdoors in nice weather on an old bench that he made for his parents at the end of his porch, whittling peach pits with his favorite Wharncliffe blades. Picture him in front of a small folding table wearing jeans and a t-shirt and smoking a cigar. When JJ is not busy tending to his family's needs, the "honey-dos" for his wife, shuttling his two daughters from home to school to karate practice, you'll find him here sharing some of his time with us on iKC, where JJ heads up two groups the Case Seahorse Whittler Users and Collectors group and the J.J.'s Diner & General Store group. I encourage you all to visit both groups, and if you're not a whittler then JJ's Diner & General Store in particular, a place he envisioned as, "a place where folks could just chat about knives and anything else that struck their fancy, kind of like an old country store, of years ago." Step on in "hang your hat" and you're sure to feel welcomed by JJ and his staff, and don't forget to check out the hilarious menu at "the home of the road kill grill" where their motto is "you kill it - we grill it".
Over the years JJ has carved hundreds of peach pits and his wife always gets first pick. A few of his creations have found their way into a small display frame at home, and some are kept in a personal collection stowed in a cigar box. At Christmas time everybody gets a carving, and occasionally he may sell a few pieces from his "My Space" page or to the man he buys peaches from at the Farmers Market.
JJ started carving early in life but he tells us it was not until later that his keen interest in peach pit carving developed into a passion, "My first experience with pit carving didn’t end well. I was around 14 or 15 and sliced my finger open to the bone. It was only much later, after I got married, that my wife showed me a basket that her Grandfather had carved for her. I gave it a try and kept going from there. Carved oodles of baskets, before I started carving monkeys. I’ll carve other things, if I can “see” it in a pit. Hopefully, one of these days, one of my pits will inspire someone to try it also." I like the way JJ sees things in each pit, it reminds me of what Michelangelo, the great Italian Renaissance Master, said about his sculpture, "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free." The forms JJ carves are mostly miniature peach pit baskets, which take JJ about an hour, and he also concentrates on sculpting tiny monkeys, the carving of which may take upwards of eight hours to complete!
JJ is a user/collector and his preference for a Case Seahorse Whittler, or most any Wharncliffe whittler with a coping and pen secondary blades, is determined above all by the knife's intended use, it has to be a utilitarian knife for him to buy it. A Seahorse in a pouch on his belt and either a Rough Rider or a Case wedge back whittler in his pocket are a part of his everyday informal attire, and it's a stag Rough Rider whittler that accompanies him to Sunday meeting.
JJ came to knife collecting later in life, though he'd always had knives, and always used what he had, "When I was young, about the only knives I would see were slip joints like Stockman's and Barlows, along with Buck lock-backs. Carried a Barlow for many years, through High School and a Schrade Stockman, for the most part, afterwards."
"When I began working in the penitentiary, I had to stop carrying one on a daily basis. When I retired in 2000 I got back to carrying one and carried my old Schrade Stockman, till I found the Seahorse."
"I first saw an ad for the Seahorse in a woodcarving catalog and thought that it looked kind of neat. When I started carving more peach pits, I wanted a good pocketknife that would hold up to that kind of material. I got my first one at Lowes, sometime in 2002 or 2003, and fell in love with it. I was particularly impressed with the Wharncliffe blade. It was strong and stout and the point really helped with carvings. The pen and coping blades are almost perfect sizes for various detail work too. Being a user, I got another to have as a "spare". I liked the spare too much to think of really using it, so I got another. It kind of snowballed from there."
He has doubles of many of the knives he collects, sentimentally adding, "Many of them for my daughters, after I'm gone. I really hope that they wait till then. (Really hope they don't try to "rush it along" either.)" His two daughters both have small collections of various patterns that JJ gave them as gifts, though they have not as of yet formed a preference for a particular type of knife as their father has.
JJ doesn't buy knives based on their rarity, collectibility, or potential resale value years down the line, brand new whittlers chosen for their blade design and layout, with a good back spring, fit and finish, handle material and price are what he looks for and they're all keepers. The high arched back supporting by its strength the sharp flat bottomed point of the Wharncliffe blade works best for carving the tough peach pits into the tiny figures of monkeys or minute baskets that JJ makes. They don't call Wharncliffe blades (first introduced around 1832 by Joseph Rodgers & Sons in Sheffield, England for their patron Lord Wharncliffe) "wood splitters" for nothing.
Bone, stag, or wood are JJ's preferred knife handle materials in a brown or natural finish over any dyed colors, but he also has a whittler in a bright yellow composite material that he appreciates for the ease of finding it should it ever fall out of his pocket. Durability in a handle material is also important to JJ for as he says, "As a user, the fancy pearl handles have a nasty habit of breaking if they're dropped."
As for the metal in the blades, JJ had this to say, "I always preferred stainless when I was younger, because of the corrosion factor in pocket knives. When you're young, you don't think about all the cleaning that is required of carbon. Now I can use both, however I use a Bulldog Wharncliffe whittler, a good bit, that's carbon."
Case is the US made brand JJ stands by, but he's not averse to buying knives made overseas and feels that Rough Rider are the best of those. Most of JJ's knives are stored in their original boxes, some inside old cigar boxes, some in display frames, and around 25 of the ones he uses most in a knife roll. At one time he used to carry 10 or 12 knives in his "whittlin' bag" that he kept handy. To maintain his whittlers in top condition JJ uses the old stand by, Rem-oil, and sharpens his blades using Arkansas oil stones also keeping a set of diamond impregnated cards in medium, fine, and extra fine with his carving gear, and finishing each knife off with a sound honing on the back of old belt blanks, after all, "A dull knife will cut you worse than a sharp one" he likes to quote.
A few other knife patterns have found their way into JJ's collection, some basic pocket knives, a couple of "tactical" knives and fixed blades, and utilitarian working knives, as he says, "I'm still known to pick up another pattern because I like the looks or the way it feels when I hold it." His passion for collecting is born out of a respect and appreciation for the knife itself, "I like looking at knives (spend whatever time I can, checking out the photos in the iKC media library), but I really like to be able to hold one, roll it over in my hand getting the feel for it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a new purchase or not. I still reach into my pocket, for my whittler, and find myself running my thumb over the handles, getting to know the jigging, or the texture of stag."
Speaking of the look and feel of a knife, JJ reflects, "I have learned, (the hard way), that I want to hold and check out a knife before purchase" and so he acquires his knives, preferring to keep the price at or under the $100-150 range, in person from dealers, sometimes even traveling up to around 200 miles for a show. Buying knives on the internet and getting burned by inferior quality and impersonal service, let alone things like a 10% restocking fee on a returned knife, have left a bad taste in his mouth and the two words he has to say about the experience are, "NEVER AGAIN", in capital letters no less! He did get his Bulldog whittler at an auction for a good price, $50.00 and would do it again, for the right knife at the right price. After he fell for the Seahorse pattern, JJ found that the Rod Neep Wharncliffe Whittler pages on the internet helped to educate him on the history, variety, and value of examples of that pattern, and that's a source he likes to return to. Every couple of years or so JJ also likes to visit the Smoky Mountain Knife Works to pick up a knife or two and to enjoy the museum there.
His most unusual knife? A Hen & Rooster four bladed whittler.
Though JJ currently belongs to four other online knife groups, as well as four whittling/carving groups, he considers iKC to be his "home", a place where he can "hang his hat" and where he has met many friends. We are all very lucky to have him here and you should all go and grab a seat on the porch of "JJ's Diner" and sit and whittle away the hours in pleasant conversation on the topic of what else, knives.
All photos courtesy of JJ (Smith III)