The man behind President Trump’s $50,000 handmade knife

Feb 02, 2018
  • By Ian Cohen
  • Daily News Staff Writer
In addition to the 20-inch knife he made for President Trump, West Palm Beach resident Jim Barry has crafted, from top, a bowie and fighting knife with a mammoth ivory handle; a dagger with a handle made from an antique glass bottle found by the Jupiter lighthouse; a small knife with a walrus tooth handle; a fishing knife with a crab wood handle; a dagger with a mammoth ivory handle; a fishing knife with a dead coral handle; a utility knife with a crab wood handle; two small push daggers and a large push dagger. (Meghan McCarthy / Daily News)

Jim Barry opens the cabinet, reaches for the back shelf and pulls out a knife.

There, inside the handle, are two white chunks of bone.

Last year, after they were removed from his jaw during an oral surgery, Barry asked his dentist to save them. He placed both in a see-through peephole in the handle of one of his handmade knives. In black ink, he wrote on the handle: “Maker’s Bones.”

“You hear people say at the knife shows, ‘I really put myself into that knife,’” Barry says, smiling. “Well I literally put myself into this knife.”

Jim Barry holds a bowie and fighting knife with a mammoth ivory handle he crafted at his home in West Palm Beach. Barry presented a similar knife to U.S. President Donald J. Trump on December 31, 2017 at Mar-a-Lago Club. (Meghan McCarthy / Daily News)

EXCLUSIVE: Why Jim Barry made a $50,000 knife for the president

This is Jim Barry: fisher, hunter, steelmaster, sketch artist. He was a division head for Palm Beach County Environmental Resources Management, where he planned multimillion-dollar projects for Peanut Island, the Snook Islands and Munyon Island, led the effort for the preservation of MacArthur Beach State Park and commissioned the rebuild for the Juno Beach Pier.

And in December, he finished hand-making a 20-inch knife for President Donald J. Trump that he presented to Trump at Mar-a-Lago on New Year’s Eve.

“He’s a phenomenal artist,” said Dr. Ray Waldner, biology professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University and Barry’s friend for over 50 years. “It shows up in his artwork and everything that he does.”

Now, Barry is living in West Palm Beach and retired. But you wouldn’t know that from meeting him.

He’s 75, but he still bounces down the front steps of his home like he’s late for the school bus. He can still work for three straight hours on his wooden stool, gripping a semi-polished blade with both hands as it runs along the coarse sandpaper, the soft hum from his sandbelt machine filling his garage. Every now and then his neck will hurt and he’ll have to stop. Maybe just for the night. Maybe for a week. But he always comes back.

Jim Barry (left) visited Mar-a-Lago on New Year’s Eve to present President Donald Trump with a handmade knife. Barry’s wife, Letha, and Donald Trump Jr. also were there for the presentation. Courtesy of Jim Barry

“I’m at the twilight of my knife-making career,” he says with a laugh.

What started as a hobby more than 45 years ago has turned into a full-time passion. He’s a master knife maker. And his knives don’t come cheap.

He won’t tell you the price of the most expensive knife he’s ever sold. Or the cheapest. Unless you’re looking to buy, he won’t talk dollars. Most can’t afford it.

“I have to claim all these damn things for income-tax purposes,” he said. “and it kills me.”

Jim Barry, of West Palm Beach, included two pieces of his own jaw bone removed during dental surgery in the skull shaped handle of the large push dagger he crafted. (Meghan McCarthy / Daily News)

Barry was born in Alabama, but he doesn’t remember that far back. He and his mother moved to South Florida when he was 2 or 3 years old, to a new place for a new life, one with plenty of open ocean for shooting sharks and plenty of piers for catching jewfish — and none of the memories of a home without a father.

In 1943, his father boarded a B-17 bomber for a routine training mission during the war. Barry still isn’t sure exactly what happened, only that the plane crashed in South Carolina and the bodies fell from the plane, scattering in a preacher’s backyard. Barry was 14 months old.

“It was tough,” he said. But his mother made it work. She taught Barry honesty and proper values. “She was phenomenal,” he said.

Barry grew up on the Palm Beach pier in the 1950s. His jet black hair was cut short, and he had a thin face with high cheekbones. At 13, he would walk out onto the wooden pier, toss his fishing line in the ocean, wait for a nibble, lean backward, his boat shoes planted firmly on the wood, his jean cuffs rolled up, and reel in his catch.

He was skinny. He still is. But back then he lassoed 11-foot sharks and hauled them onto the pier with a long piece of rope, hanging them from their tails while tourists gawked. He sold them shark teeth for a nickel a piece.

“My wife can testify — all I ever did was take her shark fishing,” Barry said, laughing. “I don’t think we ever went out to dinner.”

His wife, Letha, smiled.

“Not much,” she said.

Now, Barry is less of a fisherman and more of an artist. He enjoys crafting something from nothing and forming cold steel with his hands, which is why he is so enamored by knife-making, even if it is an odd niche to settle into at 75.

“I tell people all the time, I feel like a dinosaur, you know?” Barry said, laughing. “People don’t do what I do anymore.”

Jim Barry presented U.S. President Donald J. Trump with this handmade knife on New Year’s Eve at The Mar-a-Lago Club. Courtesy of Jim Barry