Billy Mace Imel Is A Rare Breed Among Custom Knifemakers
By Pat Covert
Photos: Rob jones
Integral Drop Point Hunter
There was a time when custom knifemakers didn’t use computerized machining equipment, instead made their knives the old-fashioned way. All by hand. Some still do, and they proudly call themselves the 100 Percenters. Billy Mace Imel is one of them. An avid hunter, the seeds for Imel’s career as a knifemaker were planted in 1972 while dressing a Caribou on a mountaintop in British Columbia. Disgruntled at the inefficiency of his hunting knife, which Billy says “went dull with every swipe,” he decided to right the wrong and started taking notes. He’d paid $16 for the knife — not a small sum at the time — but in his estimation it was $16 too much.
“I decided I would buy the best knife I could afford before my next hunt,” Imel tells Handgunner. “There was very little information on custom knives and knifemakers at the time, but I managed to find an article profiling a few of the known custom makers. The knife that intrigued me the most was an Integral hunter made by T.M. Dowell and offered at $280!” Billy, a tool and die maker by trade, decided it was time he made his own hunting knife.
“Three months later I took my first finished hunting knife to a local gun shop to have a sheath made for it,” Billy recounts. “The owner seemed impressed and wanted to know its price. By now I’d realized T.M. Dowell’s knife was greatly underpriced and I wasn’t sure I’d want to make another, so I blurted out $375. The shop owner answered, ‘Let’s start with two.’” Billy told the shop owner he’d do it under one condition. “I told him I would do so, but only if my wife Beverly would agree to handle the paperwork and all other business details. Had she declined there would have been no more Imel knives.” Beverly agreed, Billy started making knives, and they’ve been a strong husband-and-wife team ever since.
Integral Sub-Hilt Fighter
Lightweight Drop Point and “Banana Blade” Hunters
Wharncliffe Lockback Folder
Old School Cool
Like most custom knifemakers, Imel’s career started small as a part-time job and grew into a full-time one. It was a natural progression going all the way back to his childhood in New Castle, Indiana, where he’s lived all his life. “I’ve always liked to build things,” Imel recalls. “I remember ‘tearing down motors’ with my father when I was only five years old.”
Billy nearly cut his knifemaking career short at age 14 while making a homemade rocket. “I was stuffing fuel into the rocket casing when it exploded, seriously mangling my right hand and nearly severing my index finger. I am grateful for my mother’s insistence the doctor reattach my index finger. It may be stiff and bent, but I still have full use of my right hand.” In the years since, besides making knives, Billy has built a two-story log cabin, custom automobile, miniature steam engines and handmade flintlocks for muzzleloading rifles; and all the time he was a tool and die maker for 40 years, to boot.
Imel’s career as a custom knifemaker’s been one of satisfaction and accomplishment. In the early years his knife sales funded hunting trips to Wyoming, Colorado, Canada and Alaska — and aided in paying off their mortgage early. As he grew and matured, his success has been noted over and over by his peers in the knifemaking community. Billy was a member of the Knifemakers’ Guild for 43 years and served as secretary-treasurer for 15 of those. Recognizing the need for a full-time bookkeeper and records keeper, Beverly was hired as the Guild’s office manager. “I had the title. Beverly did all the work,” Billy notes.
He’s also been recognized in the firearms industry. In 1981 and 1983 Billy was commissioned to make knives for the speakers at the annual NRA convention — President Ronald Reagan and Vice-President George Bush, respectively. In 1985 he worked with a team of artists commissioned by Safari Club International to build a custom rifle commemorating Africa’s “Big Five” game animals — the first year a knife was added to the set.
WW2 Fairbairn-Sykes Style Dagger
WW2 Fairbairn-Sykes Style Dagger
By choice, the world of computers has passed this 100 Percenter by. None of the parts of his knives have ever sniffed a CNC machine. “With the exception of heat treating and engraving, my knives are sole authorship,” Imel emphasizes. “I have never considered using kit blades or having blades and parts made for my knives.”
Billy’s process is simple — and remarkable. He doesn’t draw designs for his new knives on paper. Rather, he “sees” the completed piece in the bar of steel and then proceeds accordingly. Once when asked how he made knives, Imel explained he just grinds away the steel until the knife appears. All of his grinding is hand held, done “by eye.”
In cutlery circles, Billy Mace Imel is most noted for his Integral knives. Unlike typical fixed-blades, Integrals are made from a single piece of steel as opposed to several. It’s an extremely difficult process allowing no room for error lest the whole knife be thrown out of kilter. His designs are simple and elegant, flowing like silk. Billy also makes folding knives exhibiting the same wraithlike stylishness of his fixed-blades.
For steel he prefers 440C and D-2 stainless for his Integrals but leans toward the latter for his hunting knives. For folders, the knifemaker switches to CPM154 stainless steel that is better for everyday use. Prices for Imel’s custom fare range from $475 for his handmade lightweight hunters to $6,000 for high-end art knives.
Billy’s outlook on life is simple. “I believe everything we do in life is another step toward whatever we accomplish. My interest in building things, hunting as my hobby and my vocation as a tool and die maker have all played a part in my becoming a knifemaker, something I never set out to do.” But we wouldn’t have it any other way, Mister Imel. 100 percent!
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