A Botched Kiridashi Knife and Other Stories

I was thinking about many different topics for this blog. Some of them were political. Notably about there not being acceptance of voting reality. Or maybe the about Moderna’s new vaccine– or an even more nano-particle vaccine that does exceedingly well in mice.

I tried. I really did.

But all of these things are tied together and whenever I pulled on one thread it unraveled back to things that depressed me and I felt like clutching my dog and weeping for my homeland.

No. It has to be better than that.

So I’m going to talk about failure.

To understand how something falls apart, you have to understand what the goals and intentions are.

kiridashi knife is a Japanese utility knife. (Though I have seen this knife in use in Chinese images.) They have different styles. Many of them are straight on both top and bottom with a steep, straight edge. The bevel of the knife is only on one side, like a chisel. It is used in wood carving and bamboo work. I have also seen it used in the kitchen.

The last knife I made from a file. I liked the heaviness of the resulting blade. It had a nice heft. There was some of the file steel left so I decided to use that.

The file was the back portion where the file tapers down to a point. This is where one would fasten a handle.

The last knife had a scale handle. This means it was two slices of wood with the knife blade sandwiched between. It was made with apple wood. I liked the look of the wood, though it’s a strange wood to work with. The apple wood I’ve been working with is from thick branches. Consequently, I’m working both with the outer section of the branch and the inner sapwood. This is an interesting combination. It means that some of the wood is hard as hell and cuts nicely while other portions are softer and have a tendency to turn granular. It results in a very nice look but is a bit difficult.

But I didn’t want a scale handle for this knife. For one reason, because it tapered to a point, there was no way to have scales all the way back. For another, I wanted to try to chisel out a seat for the blade.

After all,  I didn’t have enough opportunities to mess this up. I needed more.

My plan was to shape the blade with an angle grinder and then create the one sided bevel on the belt sander. Then, I would make the handle, fit the blade into it. Shape the handle and I was done, right?


Shaping the blade turned out to be the easy part. I’ve been using the angle grinder for a while now and I’ve gotten okay with it. The biggest problem is to not destroy the hardness of the blank by overheating. I was careful. Then, I heated the blade at about 450F for a couple of hours to lower the temper a little bit. Now, the blade was normal knife toughness and hardness instead of file harness and brittleness. This would make it easier to work with.

Putting the bevel on the blade was a challenge.

I had built a holder for it but it turned out I had made it too small. Or at least, not big enough in the right way. Most knives have a long bevel leading up to the point. But the kiridashi has a very steep, straight angle. So the bevel holder I had made didn’t have enough to grip. It took a bit, but finally I fashioned a set of clamps to hold it and put the bevel on. Clearly, I need to build a new tool.

I ended up with a very pretty blank. This is where things started to go wrong.

I first was going to drill into the end of the apple wood and fit the blade into the shaft that way. But the shape was so odd I didn’t trust it. Instead, I opted to cut the apple wood in half, chisel out the space for the blade and glue it back together. Using the Taymor Rule (From Julie Taymor where she says don’t try to hide infrastructure, use it as part of the effect) I decided to put an ebony powder epoxy to glue the two pieces together, giving a black line.

First mistake: the apple wood cylinder wasn’t even and I ended up a with an angle. Okay. I can adapt.

Then, I chiseled out the section and realized that because the two halves were uneven, I couldn’t chisel out half the section. There was some fraction of the space for the blade that could be in one section and then in the other. I remeasured and found, luckily, that the offset was close enough to the thickness of the blade that I could chisel out one side and not the other. Yay!

I glued the two sections together and scraped off the excess. I wanted a cylindrical handle– I’d seen pictures of this and liked the utilitarian look. But where the handle ended on the blade was uneven and the wrong shape. So I had to cut that out. I used a cylindrical sanding drum to cut it down to where I wanted it. I tried to protect my beautiful, shiny blade but I failed at it. There are a multitude of scratches and dings on the blade.

I also tried to use a brass rod as both ornamentation and to hold the two halves of the handle together. I messed up here, too. I didn’t get them lined up straight. I messed up a hole.

I finished the handle and tried to sand off the dings but they were too much. Eventually, I gave up and decided to chalk it up to experience.

Then, I discovered I had made a left handed kiridashi.

Because the kiridashi has a one sided bevel, there is a preferred side to cutting. Things cut are pushed away from the blade on the bevel side. One wants to cut with the bevel facing away from the wielder. Since I had put the bevel on the left side, the preferred direction of cut is to the left side. A right handed wielder is cutting with the objects cut being pushed towards the chest and face.

So: I had not only messed up the implementation of the knife I had also messed up its intended use.

That’s a pretty well failed knife.

You don’t learn to do new things without failure. Heck, people fail even when they know what they’re doing. (I’m looking at you, Star Wars Episode One.) What’s important is how to handle failure.

Bobby Duke, an artist whose work I follow, built a truly amazing sculpture only to have it fall and shatter while being photographed. (See here.) In that case, the execution and design was spectacular and the loss was from something stupid. A different kind of failure. He posted later how he was handling it and how he would take it make from it something even more awesome. That is a good handling of failure.

So what do I take from this?

In the case of the knife, I know what I did wrong– I have a few ideas how to mitigate my own inadequacies in these techniques. I’m still scratching my head on some of them.

More importantly, I want to make another kiridashi. I liked the knife, even though in all estimations it’s a failure. Some parts were pretty. The idea is sound. I just failed at it. That’s all.

Failing happens all the time. Denying it doesn’t change it. Denying it only makes it impossible to learn and to make something better. If you can’t fail, you can’t succeed.

Back when I was learning to fly, I found it difficult. I kept messing up. A helicopter pilot friend of mine said that was a good thing. She said I was learning all of the potential failures. I would recognize this if these ever happened while I was flying. If it all came easy to me, I would never learn beyond the normal case. I would never learn the failure case– the case that kills you.

I’m not enthusiastic about failing. I’m a human, after all. But I can learn from it.

And maybe I can learn to cut my tomatoes left handed.




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