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Knifemaker hopes to carve a niche at the Sturgis rally

Ben Barto, the official knifemaker of the Sturgis motorcycle rally
Ben Barto, the official knifemaker of the Sturgis motorcycle rally, sits behind a set of custom-made knives
inside his booth Wednesday at the Rally at Exit 55 at Black Hills Harley-Davidson.
August 02, 2015 6:00 am  •  


Ben Barto comes well-honed, he hopes, for what will likely be the biggest Sturgis motorcycle rally ever.

Barto, an artist from Rock Springs, Wyo., has made and sold western and wildlife collectibles at other events, including the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, but this year marks his first as a vendor where he has the distinction of being the landmark 75th rally's officially licensed knife maker.

"It was a lot of sleepless nights when we first got (the official license)," said Barto, showing a visitor around his 10-foot by 20-foot booth on Tuesday just outside of Black Hills Harley-Davidson's massive showroom at the Interstate 90 Exit 55 in Rapid City.

"We're jumping from the pan into the fire, but I think it’s going to turn out right. We’ve gotten a lot of good response from people," he said.

Barto developed an appreciation for wildlife, fishing and hunting with his father in the Wind River Mountain Range in Wyoming.

A self-taught artist, he began carving wildlife almost 40 years ago and started making collectible knives using deer, elk and bison horns about 15 years ago.

He and his wife, Sherry (also an artist), had attended the Sturgis rally many times as spectators, but once they got the official rally license, they hit the ground running in preparing for this year's rally.

He bought a pair of laser-engraving machines, one to etch designs on carved elk and deer horns, and another to engrave knife blanks formed from German 440 stainless or high-carbon Damascus steel.

"We took an extra two months of preparation just learning how to use the laser-engraving machines," he said.

A son, Justin Moser, who recently was laid off from a job in the Wyoming oil fields, brought his computer savvy to help set up the engraving machines, Barto said.

Barto buys most of his horns from Native American shed hunters from the Wind River Reservation.

Antlers come in three grades, brown, hard white and chalk.

Brown antlers are recent early-season sheds. Exposure to sunlight will bleach the antlers to white and more decay turns the horn to a chalk hue with cracks and tooth marks from small animals gnawing the antlers for calcium, giving a piece even more of an individual look.

Barto will sand down lumps, knobs and other surface irregularities, then apply a black or brown stain. Further sanding restores the lighter patina, while leaving the stain in cracks and other indentations.

Barto will spend from three hours to more than 15 hours just carving a handle. Laser engraving adds specific designs and lettering to the handle.

He will also inlay turquoise and other ornaments for more decoration.

Barto brought between one and two dozen of about nine different knife designs to display and sell at the rally.

A set of commemorative 75th rally steak knives had proven to be popular in this week's run up to the official start of the rally on Monday.

He also expects to be filling special orders for knives for the rest of the year.

“A lot of people are going to be buying these for Christmas presents,” he said.

His limited-edition knives include one featuring a combination of dark bison horn and elk antler laser carved into an eagle's head motif with a special display base. That piece is limited to just five knives, but each will be an one-and-only.

"Every horn is different, so the next four will look totally different," he said.

Barto plays off of his nickname "Bone Daddy" by dressing up in a skeleton costume and riding on a customized Harley-Davidson as the mascot for the Beartooth Rally in Red Lodge, Mont.

He rides the custom-painted bike when he visits customers in Custer and other areas of the Hills.

"It helps sell the knives," he said.

But will all the preparation and promotion be enough for his small business to deal with what could be more than 1 million bikers estimated to come to the Black Hills over the next week.

"I hope so," he said.

barto antler knives

custom sturgis knife from Barto Antler Knives

Sturgis Knife