Peter Atwood of Turners Falls, Mass. makes his living as a knife- and toolmaker. He produces limited runs of unique items every few days, which he then posts on his blog, Planet Pocket Tool. The name of his blog indicates his focus: small wrench-like tools. However, Atwood creates a wide variety of metal items like rulers, steel shot glasses, whistles, prybars, ring tools, and so on.
in 2000 I discovered the world of custom knives and I was instantly hooked. When I realized that I could actually make my own knives and gadgets, it got even better. And so it continues to this day. This is what I truly love to do and I hope I can do it for the rest of my time on this earth.
I specialize in small pocket tools and key ring knives although I have made many folding knives and even a few larger fixed blades over the years. But my main love is for the small stuff. I’m constantly working on new designs for gadgets, prybars, small edged tools and unique hand tools. My philosophy is if you aren’t carrying it then it isn’t going to be there when you need it. Hence the obsession with small tools that pack a big punch. Let’s face it, they are the ones that are more likely to be in your pocket or on your keys rather than languishing behind the seat in the truck or stuck in your toolbox in the garage.
Recently I interviewed Atwood via email:
John Baichtal: Your work seems to get snapped up literally within minutes. Obviously, this is your livelihood; do you make only what you want or what you’re sure will sell?
Peter Atwood: I make pretty much what I feel like making. I’m interested in exploring designs, not just making the same exact item over and over. This is why I constantly fiddle with designs and work on new stuff. I want to know what is possible with this tool set and I’m always pushing to invent the ideal tool with the maximum function. LOL, I haven’t found it yet which is why I’m still trying.
JB: I see a huge variety of alloys and finishes. How much of your work do you do in-house and how much do you send out?
PA: I send out for cutting, heat treat and industrial tumbling. With the exception of my turned items which are done at a local CNC shop I do pretty much everything in house and I do it all myself with basic shop equipment. I have no employees. This is one reason why my batch sizes are limited as there is only so much any one man can do. In addition to creating the designs and making the items I also have to do the photography, packaging, run the sales, answer emails, do the shipping, order raw materials and keep up with paperwork. It’s a 24/7 job and when you are going this kind of thing it consumes your entire life.
JB: When working in your shop, what metalworking tool do you find yourself turning to most often?
PA: My favorite tool is definitely my belt grinder. The 2×72 KMG is a wonderful machine and it is the workhorse of the shop. I have both vertical and horizontal units.
JB: What is the most difficult alloy to work with?
PA: They all have their quirks but titanium is generally more difficult to work than steel. I haven’t done any damascus work in a while but that’s another one that is very involved, especially with the finishing.
JB: Titanium has a mystique about it in popular culture. Tell me what it’s like to work with the stuff.
PA: The mystique that surrounds it is overblown IMO. It’s just another material. Titanium cuts easily on a metal cutting bandsaw with bimetal blade. However, it’s a pain to grind because the sparks and dust are very flammable even when using very slow speeds. Milling is a mixed bag because it tends to be very gummy. It’s funny stuff to work with but I do love it not only for its strength but because of the wonderful varied finishes that are possible with it.
JB: One of your recent blog posts shows you designing a tool on graph paper. Do all your pieces begin on paper? How do you decide what features to add?
PA: Yes, I design everything on graph paper first. I play with shapes and sizes to try to come up with tools that “look” right. I spend a lot of time fussing over drawings making tweaks and substitutions. When I’ve finally got something I’m happy with I do the CAD versions and then make more changes if necessary. Sometimes I’m designing with specific trades in mind and sometimes I’m just looking to try something different.
JB: For a guy whose site is “atwoodknives.com” you don’t seem to make many knives. What about making pocket tools fascinates you?
PA: I started out as a folding knife maker and have gradually become more and more focused on tools. As wonderful as fixed blades and folders are I’m more interested in innovation, not in making yet another Hunter in D2. I do not have particularly great mechanical gifts nor am I a trained machinist so coming up with the latest and greatest locking system or assisted opener is not what I am about.
JB: Of all the tools you’ve made, which one do you carry on your keychain?
PA: I tend to carry whatever is my latest creation. Right now I have a Ghost with Raw Bar finish on my keys and a new fixed blade design tentatively called Mr. Chubbs hanging on my neck for testing and evaluation.
Interested in buying one of Atwood’s tools? I’d suggest subscribing to his blog’s RSS feed because his sales are over in a matter of minutes!