A niche for knives


IF THERE IS a secret of success for the lone wolf entrepreneur it's find an unoccupied niche and fill it better than anybody else ever can. It needn't be a giant niche catering to the masses. A small and cozy niche addressing the heartfelt concerns of a select few will do just fine.

A classic case in point is Chris Kravitt who runs Treestump Leather and Guns way off the beaten track on the Cave Hill Road in Waltham, Maine.

Kravitt has succeeded because he knew a niche when he saw one, and was prepared to occupy it. The Internet has made it possible for him to access the world from backwoods Waltham.

Back in the eighties, several knife makers were causing a stir by creating outstanding works of genuine art. To them knives were far more than utilitarian objects useful for cutting things. They were treasured artifacts of unsurpassed beauty. Today many of their creations are worth small fortunes.

An article in Blade magazine discussing these knives inspired Chris to begin carrying custom and collectible knives in his shop which was then in Ellsworth.

And then, Eureka! Chris doesn't mention bolts of lightening, but one day he realized that sheaths designed to hold such knives should likewise be works of art. He had made sheaths for years, but hadn't given them too much thought. This changed, and soon he began specializing in custom sheaths of transcendent beauty and unsurpassed utility.

Kravitt was well-prepared for his aha moment. He had discovered leatherworking as a teenager in Connecticut, and by the seventies was doing it for a living. All through the 70s he traveled the craft show circuit along the eastern seaboard selling a wide variety of his leather creations.

"If it could be made of leather, I made it," he says. "There isn't much that can be done in leather that I haven't done."

In 1976 he came to Maine for a summer job in a craft shop near Acadia National Park. He loved the area, decided to stay, and by 1981 had become the sole proprietor of Treestump Leather in Ellsworth. It was here in the late eighties that he developed techniques for fashioning the world's best sheaths.

In the early nineties, Kravitt's sheaths began getting national recognition. A journal called Fighting Knives (yes, really) called one "simple, attractive, carefully thought out and 110% functional." You can't do much better than that.

Another national publication, Tactical Knives, called Kravitt's "a superior sheath alternative...striking, functional, and well-made..."

“After all the free publicity, I was pretty well established as one of the top sheath makers in America,” Kravitt says. “Business started pouring in.”

Kravitt's really big break came when Field and Stream devoted four pages to his sheaths. This magazine's massive readership was told that Kravitt builds "sheaths for the ages" that will with proper care last a lifetime. The article introduced Kravitt to top knife makers all over the world.

"I am very proud and humbled to have been asked to make sheaths for some of the best knife makers of our time," Kravitt says. "They include the pioneers of the modern custom knife movement, such as Wayne Clay and Ron Gaston, as well as some of the greatest artistic geniuses like David Broadwell, Mike Sakmar, and Paul Jarvis, to name just a few."

Way more goes into making good sheaths than one might suppose. In evaluating sheaths, there are at least three major considerations: appearance, functionality. and durability. In all three departments, Kravitt's sheaths come out on top.

First off, they look great. Chris is a talented artist and his products are eye-appealing. Over the years, he has experimented with many visually-arresting, exotic materials. This has included several types of snake and reptile skin and even chickenfoot. The sheaths he makes for particular knives are cleverly styled to complement them.

Beyond beauy, a high-quality sheath begins with good leather. Kravitt says he uses 8- to 9-ounce hide from the right part of the cow. “Belly skin and parts surrounding the leg-to-body joints won't do,” he says. “Inferior leather stretches quickly and easily. A sheath made of such stuff loses its shape and snug fit.”

A good sheath accomplishes seemingly contradictory ends. It holds the knife securely in place, but also affords rapid access. When you remove a knife from a Kravitt sheath, you hear a distinctive popping noise. Every Kravitt sheath has a welt built into its edge side. These welts help provide the sheath stability and durability, but included in each is a camlock that helps hold the knife in place. Releasing the knife from the camlock provides the distinctive “pop.”

The welt in Kravitt's sheaths protects the stitching, which itself is special. He uses a tough, heavy, nylon waxed thread impervious to rot. The stitching is recessed into the leather, protected from abrasion. Kravitt uses a hand-sewn lock stitch in which both ends of a single thread are passed through the same hole in opposite directions. Should a thread ever be cut, the seam won't unravel.

In 1995, Kravitt was introduced to the sport of Cowboy Action Shooting. Top participants, he learned, can draw and fire accurately in less than a third of a second. To gain even a tiny edge, they need proper holsters. Immediately Kravitt saw another niche and began fashioning premium holsters. Today, he crafts some of the world's best holsters and gunbelts.

Sometimes it seems like Chris has spent a lifetime preparing for his present position. Growing up in Connecticut, he got his first knife when he was seven, his first gun three years later. His father, an avid sportsman, taught him the proper care and handling of these tools. Chris still loves the outdoors and is a dedicated hunter.

Kravitt isn't a knife maker, but he has designed a highly successful knife. Manufactured by Lamont Coombs of Bucksport, Maine, the basic six-and-a-half inch instrument—made of 0-1 steel, hardened to Rc 57-58— has beautiful cocobolo scales and comes, as one might expect, with a deluxe custom-fitted Treestump leather sheath.

If you enter Treestump Leather and Guns expecting to encounter a belligerent, tattooed, blood and guts, Hell's Angel sort of guy, relax. You're in for a pleasant surprise. Kravitt is a gentle, soft-spoken, bespectacled, grayish man in his mid-sixties. He has a keen sense of humor. Talk to him a bit, and you'll learn that years back he attended Goddard College with plans to become a guidance counselor.

In the shop, there is a sign that says “Go ahead and shoplift, we'd like to see if this stuff works,” but it doesn't seem at all threatening. Just kidding, I think. Get to know Chris a bit better and you learn he's a thoughtful, happily married gentleman who raises a few chickens and loves dogs.

“I'm well into my fortieth year as a professional leather craftsman, and I still love what I do,” he says. “I look forward to going to work everyday. I can still see my continuing evolution as an artist and my life as an adventure.”