On a cool Honolulu afternoon, Keith Ouye sits behind a rickety card table adorned with dozens of razor-sharp knives. The weapons, most of which are equipped with a handy switch that sends the blade springing from the handle, shine against the overhead lighting. In a booth situated just behind the man and his glittering knives, someone is selling an apocalyptic machine gun that’s been equipped with a chainsaw near the muzzle. To the left, a series of World War II rifles and rust-covered bayonets are humbly offered up by their patron. This odd mix of Old World relics and souped-up killing machines repeats itself throughout the packed Blaisdell Exhibition Hall. This is the Honolulu Gun Show ,and hundreds of firearm enthusiasts have gathered to talk story and marvel over the island’s finest assortment of privately owned weapons.
“I’m Keith,” the man with the knives says. “I understand you want to write a story about a local knife maker?” In his 60s, with a head full of wonderfully graying hair, Keith appears more likely to pull out a Werther’s Original from his pocket than a handcrafted stainless steel blade.
“Uhh, yes,” I reply, trying to take in the surreal nature of my surroundings. We take a seat behind his booth, the knives still gleaming under the light, and get to talking. Keith, it turns out, hasn’t always been a knife maker. In fact, in a previous life, he unglamorously worked for more than three decades at the phone company until retiring in 2001. And when most retirees gravitate towards a life of golf, shuffleboard and early-bird specials, Keith’s opted for cold, hard steel with the occasional serrated edge.
“I’ve always been interested in knives and playing with guns,” Keith tells me, “and after I retired I asked my friend Stan Fujisaka to make me a big knife. He told me, ‘Eh, go make your own,’ and I told him, ‘If you teach me, then I will.’ That’s how it all started.” Fast forward a few years, and Keith had honed his skill to a razor’s edge. By 2004, using his garage as his workshop, he was receiving orders from all over the world for his handmade knives.
When it comes to crafting the knives, Keith is meticulous in his attention to detail. He does almost all of the work himself. The knives, he tells me, are labor-intensive and take a great deal of time to piece together. “I don’t take orders for my knives,” he says, “I take requests. I make the knives in groups of six, so it’s not a quick turnaround. I don’t like to give people a timeline, because I don’t like to feel rushed. It’s handmade, it takes time, and I’m retired, ya know? It’s a passion of mine and I look at it as an artistic endeavor.”
Specializing in both fixed blades folders, Keith makes knives that are ornately decorated. After glancing at the designs on the stainless steel blades and titanium handle, which range from a motioning grim reaper to a deck of cards being split by a bullet headed towards a skull, it’s hard to believe that these are the products of this white-collar retiree. But lo and behold, physical appearances are often misleading.
With the detailed engravings, some of the folder knives sell for upwards of $500. The more detailed the engraving and the bigger the blade, the more expensive the knife. Recently, Keith’s knives and handiwork have begun attracting attention overseas, with knife dealers from Russia, Germany, Austria and Spain clamoring to purchase his blades.
Moving forward, Keith wants to keep his operation at a pace that suits his retired lifestyle. “I’m making about 50 knives a year, and that’s keeping me plenty busy. I’m pretty much in my shop every workday, well, except for Thursdays, where I usually go to the firing range to kill a few zombies and let out some steam.”