How to get started in knife making by Anthony Bear
Where it all began for me….
4 years ago my wife agreed to let me start a new hobby that has slowly grown into a craft that generates not just extra cash but an enormous amount of satisfaction. Knife making!
I was told that my first blade should be made only using hand tools so as to get the full experience of the art, and yes people it is an art.
I ordered a flat stock bar of 1095 high carbon steel from the States because there is no place I’ve found in the UK that stocks 1095, and while eagerly awaiting its arrival, I came up with the design concept and after much deliberating decided on a simple clip point design.
The steel arrived and I started at it. Well, being as I had never worked with this grade steel before, I soon realised just how big a task it was to be doing this project with just hand tools. Needless to say, the design was adjusted to a straight back and I managed to get through 2 files getting the grind just right. Then the time came for the heat treat and I had mashed together a little forge from an old heat store that had been ripped out of a boiler job I had done. It was a scary moment during the quench but then it all calmed down during the tempering cycle.
The next stage of sharpening and polishing was nothing but time consuming but finally it came time
to put the handle scales on but then I quickly realised I had forgot to decide on the material. In the end I decided that I was going to make some micarta. So more orders were made and the micarta was born and promptly secured to the blade followed by final sanding and shaping and at last the knife was complete.
I still look at this blade from time to time just to remind myself how much I have learned in just 4 years.
So that’s a very brief background to my first experience with knife making. Believe me, I could have gone on for hours about that first blade but I want this blog to be a little guide to help those of you who are not sure whether to have a go or are simply not sure where to start. Please understand, I am not saying that my methods are the only way, I am just passing on my knowledge.
At the start….
Design! Design is the best place to start in my book. I have made the mistake myself going crazy with a piece of leftover steel and ended up with a total mess of a blade with no practical application at all. So think long and hard about what you want to achieve: What’s the blades function? Who is it intended for? How is it to be carried? What is the handle material? Should it be a full tang or a rat tail (which is determined by its use)? Are you hoping to have a more traditional blade or a modern take? All of these factors lead to other questions but inevitably come together and, to be honest, after you’ve done a couple of blades, the questions don’t even need to be thought about as you will go into auto pilot with designs.
To go through these steps I will use a general purpose bushcraft knife as the benchmark to help you get a feel for the design process.
What’s the blades function?
General purpose bushcraft – This means that the blade will need to handle a wide array of tasks from whittling to skinning. Your blade needs to be not too oversized but not stubby like a carving knife.
The handle is very important with bushcraft work as there’s a chance it could be wet and so must be of a good size to avoid slipping and rubbing. It’s at your discretion with regards to the handle shape whether you desire a pistol grip or a straight. If you’re making the blade for a customer this is a big decision on their part as only they will know what feels good to them.
Who is the blade intended for?
When it comes to who will be using the blade it is simply a case of if the end user is male, female or a younger user such as a scout. The only reason you must ask this question is to be able to design the knife with the correct proportions. I personally ask my customers to give me a hand measurement so that the knife is totally custom to them. This also gives the customer more confidence in your skills.
How will the blade be carried?
Sometimes you will have a fantastic blade design and the look and feel will be totally perfect and then you might undo all the work by having a terrible sheath. The sheath is as important as the knife because, let’s face it, you don’t walk around the woods, knife in hand, and so you need to establish if the blade will be intended to be carried on the belt, if so which side? Some people like the blade edge facing forwards, some like it facing back. There are people that just like it running parallel to the leg, some like to have a slight tilt. I also have made blades with sheaths to be carried point up on a backpack and let’s not forget neck knives. Will the sheath need to incorporate a fire steel or a sharpener? This again is information needed for the final design. One last thing is sheath material. Personally I mainly use leather but I have made kydex sheaths. Kydex moulding, however, is an art in itself. Leather craft is another subject I will go into later.
What’s important is to make sure that your sheath doesn’t mess up your blade.
What is the handle material?
When I first started making knives I was, with a little research, amazed at what can actually be used to make a handle for a knife. You have woods, rubbers, plastics, fibreglass, leather, bone and other steels. As for a bushcraft knife, as stated before, the handle needs to have a fair mass to it so you may wish to stick with good old wood, but again, the customer will have the last say. In the more traditional knives you could possibly have a combination of wood and bone, also leather as spacers.
The key is to have an understanding of the knife being made and you can make recommendations accordingly. Knowing which wood to use is a good help in visualising the end result.
Full tang or rat tail?
Now then, lets be clear as to a full tang blade. These types of blade are designed in a way where you can see the blade material run through the handle material. A rat tail or hidden tang blade means that the blade material tapers down into the handle material which is the traditional method of securing the handle. After much back and forth with pros and cons of each design I have come to the personal conclusion that when made well, there is only a matter of preference. I could spend quite a while going over every aspect of each design but that’s for another time. For bushcraft knives in the traditional sense, you would be hard pressed to find a full tang design. However, the more modern designs are a 50/50 split.
So now the questions have been asked and the ideas are flowing nicely, don’t feel like the final design should come straight away. There may be one, two or three ideas put forward until the perfect one is discovered. Take your time with it because the hard part is over. Once you have the design its time to start playing with the tools.
Next time we get started with making the blank.