Well, to be absolutely honest, I made about 70% of a knife. I took an intro class from Elijah Kelly, a knife maker here in town. He is very accomplished and has an intro class where we start with a billet (the raw steel) and over four weeks create a knife.
The class was over four nights: pound the crap out of steel to get a feel for it, forge out the knife blank, tune the knife with an initial grind and heat treat it, grind it into shape.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Not in the least bit.
(I apologize from the beginning: these pictures are not great.)
I did it with my friend Asher and in the first night, we turned a piece of rebar into a railroad spike. This involved heating it, burning my hand, pounding and shaping it while it was cooling. From the time you take the heated metal from the forge until the point where pounding it won’t do any good is somewhere between a minute to a minute and a half. This is why you see demonstration blacksmiths move quickly. They’re trying to get the work done while they can.
So: the billet. (Picture above.) This is a raw piece of steel. Shown is not my billet. I didn’t get a picture of that. Elijah had selected that one out and then welded a rod to it so we could hold it while we forged. First we hammered out the blade and then took off the rod. Then, we held onto the blade while we worked out part of the handle. Elijah then took over and finished the handle. There were two reasons for this: 1) this was a fairly time consuming part in that the tang had to be lengthened and then curved. And 2) he used his trip hammer. This is a device that lifts a big long column of hardened steel and drops it, again and again. There is no safety here: your hand gets between the two pieces of steel and it’s instant jelly.
Elijah showed us how the trip hammer and hydraulic press worked and then he wisely didn’t let us use them. We were going to have enough trouble not hurting ourselves as it was.
We had been working with soft steel at this point. To over simplify things, steel comes in three states: soft, hard, and tempered. Soft steel is easily worked, easily ground but not worth much as a knife. A good club, maybe. But that’s about it.
To make a knife you have to transition that soft iron to hard. To do this, you take the steel, heat it up to the right point, and quickly quench the knife in oil. (Water, it turns out, is not good for quenching. The creation of steam gives a randomness to the process.)
At this point, any imperfections in the metal will suddenly show up.
Backtracking a bit, when we did that first coarse grind to get the shape, there was a fat bit of metal above the point that I didn’t like. I ground it down with a file.
When my knife was quenched, there was a bend at the tip—right where I had done my filing. No good deed goes unpunished. Elijah took it from me and tried to straighten out the bend and the tip snapped off. The good news is that the bend was gone.
Now, the knife had to be tempered. This would soften the steel to a point between hard and soft. It would make the steel touch: able to take and hold an edge but not so hard as to be brittle. I did this at home by putting the knife in an oven at 400F and leaving it for two hours.
The knife had to be ground to thickness and given an edge.
The edge came first. (Shown to the left.) We did this on a long belt grinder that would cut your finger off or expose bone, depending on how you misused it. I have a cut from this and a burn from the forge so I’m happy. Note that we ground the tip back in.
From there, we used the bevel of the edge and brought it back up to the back of the knife. This was hard—every time the belt touched the blade, it left an flat spot. That flat spot had to be taken out. It’s tedious, dusty, work. Frustrating, too, as it’s not always clear that you’re working on the right part of the blade.
But I did finish.
After that, it was a final polish. We had been using what is known as a flat grind, where the bevel proceeds from the edge directly to the back of the knife. It’s the favored shape for kitchen knives.
Four sessions, about 10 hours total.
I loved it. It was great fun. It was nice finding out my injured shoulder would take it and I got a knife out of the deal.
Asher wants to get a forge. I’m not that enthusiastic just yet. I want to know I can create something of excellence rather than just being able to say I made a knife.
That said, I made a knife.