Bladesmithing

All my blades start like this – as a bar of steel.  Width and thickness depends on the size of the blade I’m making.  The type of steel depends on the use of the blade.  Most of my current work is in simple carbon steels, and most of that is 1084.  1084 is iron with the maximum amount of carbon that can be incorporated into into the iron lattice.  Modern steel always has other trace alloying elements like manganse, chromium, nickel, vanadium, etc, due to all the steel recycling.  In the 10XX series of steels they are not high enough to have much effect on the steels properties.

Forging

Forging the bar to the shape of the blade is the first step.  With Modern steels the forging does not improve the qualities of the steel, despite what you may have heard.  Modern steels are PERFECT in the sense of not having any contaminants, and having even distribution of the carbon and other elements.

Before the modern era forging the steels helped drive out impurities and distribute the carbon evenly throughout the steel.  It improved the quality considerably.  The folding of the japanese swords was very important to the quality of the blades because their steel had a lot of impurities (it also made for very pretty patterns).  With modern steels folding and forging can only introduce impurities.  As Mastersmith Kevin Cashen put it “Steel from the mill is perfect.  Your job is to not ruin it.”

Rough Grinding

Heat treatment is pure science.  It’s all about the effect of heat on the crystaline structure of the steel.  When I started making knives I did heat treatment by observed steel colors in a forge, which is the classic method from antiquity.  Recently I have switched to a digitally controlled electric furnace.  The increased precision has made a noticable difference in the edge-holding ability of my knives as reported by my beta-testers.

I quench in industrial quench oil.  Not the urine of a red-haired b0y, or a goat that has eaten only ferns for a month, or the body of a slave, or any other silly method you may have heard of.  Industrial quench oils are designed for one purpose only: to remove the heat from metal parts, and to do it over and over and over again in the exact same way.  Like modern mill steels, the quench oils are the results of hundreds of years of effort to make the best possible material.  

Heat Treatment

Heat treatment is pure science.  It’s all about the effect of heat on the crystaline structure of the steel.  When I started making knives I did heat treatment by observed steel colors in a forge, which is the classic method from antiquity.  Recently I have switched to a digitally controlled electric furnace.  The increased precision has made a noticable difference in the edge-holding ability of my knives as reported by my beta-testers.

I quench in industrial quench oil.  Not the urine of a red-haired b0y, or a goat that has eaten only ferns for a month, or the body of a slave, or any other silly method you may have heard of.  Industrial quench oils are designed for one purpose only: to remove the heat from metal parts, and to do it over and over and over again in the exact same way.  Like modern mill steels, the quench oils are the results of hundreds of years of effort to make the best possible material.  

Finish

After heat treatment I go over the blade one more time with a 120 grit belt on the grinder, and then move to hand sanding.  Hand sanding gives me more control over the process and produces a nicer finish than by machine.  I usually sand down to 400 grit for a utility knife, but I have taken knives down to 2500 grit depending on the style.

Handles

Handles vary enormously in complexity and material. I love to carve handles, and I’m working on my engraving and inlaying skills. I tend to favor natural materials such as wood and bone, but I’m not oblivious to the virtues of man-made materials.  Put those together and you get my favorite handle material: stabilized wood.  To stabilize wood you dry it well and then impregnate it with heat-cured acrylic in a vaccuum chamber, then cure it.  The result is a very strong material that is much more dimensionally stable than wood and largely impervious to moisture.

Sheaths

My sheaths also vary a lot, from simple all leather ones to complex carved wooden ones with metal fittings.  My leather sheaths are all made from the highest quality tooling leather, and I carefully select individual pieces of wood for sheaths.

End Product

In the end this is what you get: a 6 inch hunting knife that chopped through a 2×4 twice and was still sharp enough in the section that bore the brunt of the chopping to shave the hair off my arm.  And this particular knife was made from 1075 – the most basic blade steel you can buy.  

Why can’t commercially made knives do this?  Beats me.  They have all the equipment.  It must be something about the economics of large scale knife making, and the market for really good knives.  In the end it has to be that the mass of people don’t want / don’t want to pay for a knife with this kind of performance.

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