This is an article on the knife making process written for a local advertising lift-out - Big Boyz Toyz.
Do you want a chef’s knife made from the leaf spring of your first car? Or do you want a hunting knife with an antler handle that will suit your left hand? Sure! This is the domain of the custom knife maker.
With our society’s obsession with readily available, mass produced items, we have lost touch with the creation process. Not all knives are created equal. In fact when it comes to hand made knives - no two are ever the same.
There are many steps in making a hand forged knife; the whole process can take from a few days for a basic chef’s knife, to possibly weeks of work for an intricate Damascus blade. (This is a beautiful patterning made by layering and joining different types of steel together.)
It all begins with… a pencil. Planning is everything. Firstly you need to know the purpose of the knife as this will determine the shape, size, materials and over all look. No matter how beautiful or intricate, a knife is still a tool, so all knives should be practical and useable. This must be remembered in the design and material choice.
There are so many steeltypes that can be used for the blade, but to make a good blade the steel needs to have a certain carbon content. Other than that, the materials used for the hilt can be almost anything, limited only by your own imagination, budget and ability to source it!
The most important step in the whole process is the forging of the steel. It is heated in the forge to approximately 1000 degrees Celsius, to a bright orange colour, and then worked with hammer on the anvil to draw it into the desired shape. This heating compresses the crystalline structure inside the steel, and can be customised giving you tightly compressed crystals at the edge where you need it hard and more relaxed crystals at the spine where you need it flexible. This step alone can take a few hours and is what sets a forged blade apart from a ground blade.
The knife is then annealed which means heating it up to a non-magnetic heat, then cooling it in the slowest way possible. This relaxes the steel, making it soft and ready for grinding.
The knife is given a rough grind to refine the shape made in the forge, then a series of polishing grinds using progressively finer grits. This can be done by hand, but most makers would use a belt grinder. At this point, any decorative file work can be added and all the hilt components are made. This is also the time to reheat the blade to add your “maker’s mark”.
It then needs to be annealed again before beginning the tempering and hardening process.
This is the second most important step. The blade is heated in the forge to non-magnetic stage again, and depending on steel type, it then needs to be quenched in oil, water, or even liquid nitrogen until it is cool to touch. It is then heated up to a low heat to achieve its purpose hardness. For example, an axe would need a hard edge, but soft spine, whereas a filleting knife would need to be highly flexible. This is controlled by the tempering temperature: the higher the temp, the softer and more flexible the blade; the lower the temp the harder but more brittle.
Then comes the final polishes, usually by hand, with progressively finer grits followed by a buffing wheel.
All the components are then assembled and fixed in place to create the whole, finished knife, and if needed, a sheath or scabbard will be made.
So, quite a journey, and at any stage along the way, it can all go wrong and you have to start again! The joy of a hand created item. But the trade-off for all this painstaking work is a truly unique knife with its own story that can suit your purpose perfectly. One that will last hopefully several lifetimes and it can be passed down as a family heirloom. Now that’s not something you can buy off the rack.