[from the March, 1999 issue of Knife World]
Once upon a time, a medical records clerk met a physician who, in his free time, made beautiful handforged knives in the style of the late, great William “Bill” Scagel. After watching the doctor at work in his smithy, she became so interested in this age-old craft that she went to school and learned to make blades herself. And so it came to pass that she herself became an accomplished bladesmith!
In a nutshell, that’s the Lora Sue Peterson Bethke story, but in the belief that our readers would enjoy learning more of this talented lady and her beautiful blades, here’s a few details concerning this extremely talented artisan. Before venturing any further into my narrative, let me stress the fact that Lora does not fit the mental image that many may have when they hear the term “female bladesmith.” She’s not big and muscular; on the contrary, she will nicely fit into a size 4 dress, and when she attended her first knifemaking class, she had to stand on a wooden box to use a beltsander! But use it she did, and in a most efficient manner!
Born in Grand Haven, Michigan, an intermediate number of years ago, Lora began working as an X-ray assistant at North Ottawn Community Hospital in Grand Haven following her graduation from high school. After a few years in the X-ray department, she transferred to medical records, where she works today. In 1992 Lora met Dr. Jim Lucie, who was Bill Scagel’s personal physician in the legendary bladesmith’s later years. Dr. Lucie and Scagel became friends over a period of time, and today the good doctor is probably the world’s leading authority on Scagel and his knives. Indeed, when Scagel was inducted into the American Bladesmith Hall of Fame in 1996, it was Dr. Lucie who accepted his plaque. By the time that Lora Sue met Dr. Lucie, the latter was a respected bladesmith who specialized in creating beautiful crafted knives in the Scagel style, and he owns a splendid collection of Scagel knives and memorabilia. Thus, Dr. Lucie is extremely aware of how Scagel knives were made and the unique details concerning these knives.
“On one occasion,” Lora remembers, “Dr. Lucie invited me over to his shop to watch him forge, and it really looked like interesting, if difficult work. Not long after that, I heard about Dr. Jim Batson’s Alabama Forge Council, and in 1996 I attended that year’s activities. It was there that I finally hit my first piece of hot steel, and I was hooked on the spot!” Upon her return to Michigan, Mrs. Bethke borrowed one of Dr. Lucie’s portable forges, and her husband, Chris, helped her to set up a smithy in the family garage. Incidentally, Chris is extremely supportive of his wife’s interest in bladesmithing, and frequently attends hammer-ins and knife shows with her.
“While I had a shop,” Lora reflects, “I really didn’t know much about making knives, so I enrolled in an Introduction to Bladesmithing Class at the American Bladesmith Society-Texarkana College School of Bladesmithing at Old Washington, Arkansas. My teacher was Dr. Batson, and he was an excellent instructor.” Lora is extremely enthusiastic concerning her time at the bladesmithing institution. “I love the school;” she exclaimed; “just being in Old Washington makes me feel good!”
Later, Mrs. Bethke attended laboratory classes taught by Jerry Fisk and Roger Massey. However, most of her training in the area of handles and guards came from Dr. Lucie. Thus, it should surprise no one to learn that Lora’s favorite style is the Scagel. She sold her first knife in August, 1997, but today she is approximately a year behind in filling her orders. It seems that each knife she sells motivates another order; she has no brochure, nor does she advertise, but the word has spread! When I asked her how her bladesmithing meshed with her hospital work, she laughed and remarked that knifemaking served to relieve the stresses brought about by her hours at the hospital.
While her favorite style is the Scagel, Lora hopes to make other types in the future, and a Bowie will probably be her next project. lf all goes well, Mrs. Bethke will probably test for her ABS journey—-er, person stamp within the next 12 months or so. And what, I asked Mrs. Bethke, is so unique about Scagel knives? Without any hesitation, she replied, “It’s the use of curves, some of them very subtle. There are almost no straight lines on a Scagel. Mr. Scagel’s knives are extremely comfortable in your hand. Long before the term ergonomic was applied to cutlery, Mr. Scagel was making ergonomically correct handles!” Incidentally, like Scagel - and Dr. Lucie - Lora puts the spacers on the handle one at a time, not in stacks. This is an extremely time consuming procedure.
As these lines are written, Lora’s favorite blade steel is 5160, while her primary handle materials are those used by Scagel himself: brass, copper, ivory, silver, and stag. Prices begin at $250 and go up to perhaps $500. She does her own leatherwork, which is excellent by most any standard you might care to use. If all goes well, there is an ABS master smith rating in her future, and in due time she hopes to retire from the hospital and become a full-time smith. But that’s down the road a bit. For now, her immediate goal is to make sure that the next knife she makes will be better than the last one!
And how does she view, if you’ll pardon the expression, her “fellow” bladesmiths? “I’ve never known more generous people,” she told me. “They have gone out of their way to make me feel welcome, and almost without exception they have encouraged me and provided me with advice and suggestions.”
This isn’t the end of the Lora Sue Bethke story - actually, it’s only the beginning. To contact this petite bladesmith, write her at Bethke Forge, Dept. KW, 13420 Lincoln St. Grand Haven, MI 49417. Remember, she currently has no brochure, and her specialty is Scagel-style knives, so don’t inquire about folders, hatchets, and the like. But, if you’re in the market for a knife that would have warmed the cockles of Bill Scagel’s heart, this is the place to write!
Copyright 1999, Knife World Publications