Vic Hangas Ruana Knives Bonner MT

Discussion in 'Buck Knives' started by Makael, Dec 4, 2019.

  1. Makael

    Makael KnifeMaker / Craftsman / Service Provider Knifemaker / Craftsman / Service Provider

    Oct 17, 2015
    I just heard from Mike Hangas of Ruana Knives in Bonner MT. I guess Vic Hangas passed away Sat. This is sad news. Ive collected a few from these guys. Real salt of the earth people and always a pleasure to talk to. Just wanted to share.

    Local Knowledge: Ruana Knives
    in Local Knowledge, Winter 2016 | Written by Melissa Mylchreest | Photography by Jeremy Lurgio
    Sometimes, the best ideas come about by accident — quite literally.

    In 1937, after a tornado wiped out their farm in North Dakota, Rudy Ruana and his young family headed westward in search of work. With sights set on Seattle, they made it about halfway; their trailer broke down on the bridge in Bonner, Montana, a small town perched above the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers. “It was raining and cold, and they had their 2-month-old daughter with them,” says Vic Hangas, recalling family lore about the man who would eventually become his father-in-law, and the baby who would one day grow up to be his wife. “Right over there,” he says, gesturing toward the river and the old bridge. A good Samaritan drove by on a motorcycle, noticed their plight, and ushered them toward their night’s lodgings: a huge horse barn in town, owned by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. High-class it wasn’t, but it was warm and dry, and the next morning, Ruana set out to fix the trailer and get back on the road.

    “He was trained as a welder and a mechanic, so he asked around to find a welder’s shop to use,” Hangas recalls. He found one nearby, fixed his trailer, and was ready to be on his way when the shop owner stopped him and said, “You did pretty good work with that. Do you want a job?” With only $40 to his name, Ruana couldn’t say no. So he stuck around Bonner — and in short order launched a legacy, not in welding or machining, but in knives.

    Eighty years later, Hangas stands and reminisces in the very same shop where Ruana landed. His work-worn hands are busy with the leather blanks that he’s neatly stitching into sheaths. The adjacent room is full of homebuilt machinery that dates to the mid-1900s, and the air is thick with the smells of oil and metal. Just like his father-in-law, Hangas is a laconic, quiet Finn with an affinity for straight talk and quality work. Really, not much has changed since 1938, when Ruana bought the space from the mechanic and turned it into the home base for one of the longest running and most highly regarded knife-making lineages in the country.

    Mark Hangas, one of Vic’s two sons and the third generation of the Ruana line, works at the forge in the original shop building. Moving with the ease that comes only from decades of practice, he shapes red-hot blades with the power hammer that Ruana bought from the Missoula Mercantile in 1945. Mike Hangas, Mark’s brother, further shapes the cooled blades on a grinding wheel, throwing sparks.

    Catching the attention of hunters, soldiers, and collectors alike, Ruana Knives has spent three-quarters of a century quietly making a name for itself as a paragon of the craft. “When I went to work making knives with Rudy,” Hangas remembers, “there were only three people in the country doing it full time. One in Florida, one in Alaska, and Rudy. They were pioneers.”

    Ruana left home at 13, lied about his age to join the Army at 16, and worked there as a farrier, shoeing horses. Good with his hands, clever with metal, Ruana was perhaps inevitably bound to try making knives. Although he was stationed in Fort Knox, Kentucky, his first customers were in fact members of Montana’s Blackfeet tribe who were there working as horse breakers. When they asked Ruana if he could make knives that were stout and sharp enough to skin a frozen horse in winter, he was happy to oblige.

    When he landed in Montana a number of years later, he started listening to hunters’ complaints about the mass-market knives they could buy in stores. “A lot of knives back then, the guards would come off or the blades were loose,” says the elder Hangas. “But Rudy was what I always called ‘hell for stout,’ and he wanted to make something that would never fall apart.”

    Ruana eventually devised a unique design that included a cast-aluminum handle: Once the blade is forged, it’s suspended within a mold and molten aluminum is poured around the tang (the extension of the blade that runs through the handle). When the aluminum cools, it permanently fuses to the blade. “Once that aluminum is on there, it’s not going anywhere,” says Mike. “They’re incredibly tough.”

    Those qualities — stoutness, strength, durability, and reliability — long ago became the hallmark of Ruana Knives, and remain so today. “I take pride in making something that’s going to work and last,” says Mark of the blades that he began learning how to forge soon after graduating from high school. “If you take reasonable care of these knives, they should last your lifetime, and your kids’ lifetime, and maybe their kids’ lifetime.”

    It’s that kind of long-range vision — thoughtfully and intentionally making a tool to last for generations — that sets Ruana apart. “We get comments all the time about how nobody does this anymore, nobody makes things by hand, or emphasizes quality over quantity,” says Mike, and Mark agrees: “I refuse to rush anything,” he says. “It will take as long as it takes.”

    Their customers, it turns out, are willing to wait. Even though their advertising is almost entirely word-of-mouth, Ruana maintains a consistent, yearlong backlog of orders. “We’re always busy, we’ve never been caught up, and honestly we never will be,” says Mike with a wry grin. Although the majority of their customers are now collectors, or those more interested in a work of art than a utilitarian tool, functionality remains the top priority for the Hangas trio. “Function is our primary purpose,” Mike says. “Our goal is to make a good cutting tool, something that’s sharp to begin with. Just because of the way the market is, we’re spending more time on the finish work now too, to make it a piece of art as well.”

    What’s clear, though, is that this focus on the art of the knife — the aesthetics, heft, and feel — is nothing new for the Ruana line. The general shape and design of their knives has not changed since Grandpa Rudy’s time — and neither has their process. They still use the same machines that he built. They’ve stuck with the same kind of steel since 1962. Their blades are still coal-tempered, a rare thing in this day of gas-fired forges. They still make sheaths of high-quality leather, stitched on a circa-1900 sewing machine.

    Back in the shop, Vic Hangas looks on with a slight smile while Mike demonstrates a cutting machine that Ruana built from scratch out of Model-T parts and pieces he fabricated. “Every time we start it up we hold our breath!” Hangas says. The thing rattles and whirs, is coated in grease and grime, but still runs as smoothly as the day it was made. “That cutter head has probably gone back and forth a millions times,” says Mike. “But it still works. And as we like to say, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’” The same could be said, it seems, about an 80-year-old legacy of craftsmanship, quality, and family tradition.

    Don W, Daniel, Sean1111 and 7 others like this.
  2. Makael

    Makael KnifeMaker / Craftsman / Service Provider Knifemaker / Craftsman / Service Provider

    Oct 17, 2015
    A great video.
  3. jbmonkey

    jbmonkey Platinum Member Platinum Member

    Jun 9, 2011
    shame. R.I.P.
  4. Makael

    Makael KnifeMaker / Craftsman / Service Provider Knifemaker / Craftsman / Service Provider

    Oct 17, 2015
    Vic showed me this sewing machine a year or so ago they use to sew leather sheaths. Quite a contraption.

  5. Makael

    Makael KnifeMaker / Craftsman / Service Provider Knifemaker / Craftsman / Service Provider

    Oct 17, 2015
    Here is a knife I had made with some help with for Vic couple years ago.

    I was in Ruana''s shop making a purchase and talking to Victoria Hangar. On the wall if the showroom was a newspaper article with a picture of a folding knife, brass and stag. He told me there were only three made back in the 60's and wish he had one of them today. On my next trip I stopped to visit but Vic was gone and both Mike and Mark Hangas were there. I mentioned the folding knife to Mike and he said he wishes he could build one and give it to his dad. They are pretty much a fixed blade company.

    I talked to Joe Houser about all of this and he was interested in helping on this folder. Meanwhile while on the phone with MtPokt we talked about this knife project. Both Mt and myself believe the Buck Federal body was just about a perfect knife to use. But the thought of ruining a serialized knife didn't seem right.

    Well Mr Hauser happened to locate a new unassembled Federal. Un sharpened and all. Parts kit.

    I met with Joe and picked up the knife and mailed it to MtPokt. He assembled the knife using scales hand picked from stag and performed a final polishing. As you can see in the pictures, he did a perfect job. When he had completed the knife he mailed it back to me and Joe sharpened the blade.

    This next wed I will be delivering the knife to Mike at Ruana so he can deliver to his father Vic.

    Thank you MtPokt and Mr Houser. You guys really made a great contribution knife.


    Here is the knife Vic put together back in the day. With help we tried to get as close as possible to what Vic had done.

    Modded Federal, pretty close match I would say. Awesome!
  6. Makael

    Makael KnifeMaker / Craftsman / Service Provider Knifemaker / Craftsman / Service Provider

    Oct 17, 2015
    Daniel, pjsjr, Lesknife and 3 others like this.
  7. zakjak221


    Apr 3, 2010
    Great Tribute Mike!
    Good read about dedicated knife people making quality knives in USA..
    Thanks for sharing...
    Makael and GPyro like this.
  8. BuckShack

    BuckShack Gold Member Gold Member

    Jul 19, 2015
    They have made some beautiful knives and likewise a beautiful tribute knife you guys made for them. Well done. :thumbsup::thumbsup:
  9. Daniel

    Daniel Gold Member Gold Member

    Oct 3, 1998
    Great stories!

    I have always loved and appreciated the several Ruana knives that I have owned and used over the years.
  10. cbach8tw

    cbach8tw Gold Member Gold Member

    Jan 9, 2006
    Ruanas are working pieces of art, like the classic look to their construction.
  11. Nrthfce


    Sep 17, 2014
    Wish I still owned half of the Ruanas I have obtained, sold, or traded over the years. More than a hundred, I would guess, have passed through my possession at one time or another. I believe I only own 4 Ruanas knives today and a hatchet. Prices got so high, I sold to downsize and keep just the ones I use for hunting and processing.

    R.I.P Rudy & Vic
    Makael likes this.
  12. Nrthfce


    Sep 17, 2014
    Follow-up, actually I found another Ruana that I had forgot about or didn't know I still had in my hunting pack. Yeah!
  13. _Jim_


    Nov 28, 2012
    That is sad news. Great article.

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