A knife is a utilitarian object. You can use one to cut an apple, filet a fish, whittle a sculpture, or remove a splinter. For Dennis Conkey, a New York native and longtime St. Augustine resident, he hopes that the beautiful and functional knives he makes will be put to use.
“It’s a tool,” the 59-year-old says. “I don’t make art knives. I make working knives. I want them to be used in the kitchen and for tons of other things.”
Born in Poughkeepsie, a city in the Hudson Valley between Manhattan and Albany, Conkey has always been fascinated with the way things work. Perhaps a curiosity that stems from growing up the son of an electrical engineer.
When Conkey’s father retired from IBM, his parents moved to St. Augustine. Conkey followed south in 1981. He worked as a mechanic for over 20 years and then spent 10 more years in marine metalworking.
“I got really, really tired of it,” he admits. “It’s a hard way to make a living. Eventually, the economy tanked and nobody wanted the skills I had.”
About five years ago, Conkey, who now spends most of his time taking care of his 93-year-old mother, got into knife making. It wasn’t as much a conscious decision as it was the universe providing a way for him to pass the time between doctor visits and running errands with his mom.
“I’ve always had a thing for metal,” Conkey explains. “I started doing a little blacksmithing — making a forge for myself — and decided to try and make a knife for my son. I went down to see Dan Holiday, a leatherworker in town, to talk about different leathers, and he said, ‘You need to go talk to John about this.’”
John Bouvier, the owner of Bouvier Maps and Prints on Aviles Street, became an instant mentor and good friend — guiding Conkey to read, study and if nothing else, be persistent.
“I’m pretty much self-taught,” Conkey says.
He estimates that he has made around 150 knives over the past five years.
“It’s my passion. When I sell a knife, I just start thinking about the next one that I’ll make. I’m not motivated by money.”
Conkey says he doesn’t get a lot of time to himself, but for the past three years he has made it up to Atlanta for Blade Show — the world’s largest gathering of knife enthusiasts.
“You’ve got this huge arena with all of these like-minded people that you get to talk to,” he says. “It’s so cool to see all of these vendors in one place.”
Over the past few years, Conkey has invested in his work by buying a grinding machine and learning how to work with different types of metal including carbon steel and Damascus — a type of steel that was used centuries ago for manufacturing sword blades in the Middle East.
He buys his metal from a purveyor in New Jersey and exotic woods and alumilite resins for his handles from a guy in Georgia. Relying mostly on custom orders and selling finished pieces at Bouvier Maps & Prints, Conkey’s work ranges from paring and prep knives to cleavers and hunting blades — costing around $100 and up.
“I’ve always worked with my hands,” he says. “That’s what I’m good at.”