News and Announcements

Interested in learning about blacksmithing? Read this!

--News & Announcements--
Upcoming projects:
Building a Frame Saw
Forging a Copper Kettle
Making a pair of leather work boots
Forging and Fletching a Bodkin
Flocking a drawer interior

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Knife to Remember

Since I first picked up the hammer less than a year and a half ago, the number of finished blades I have made is disparagingly small. Although time is rather limited, it is something that I enjoy more than just about anything else. As curious as it may seem, I have only made one truly memorable knife and accompanying cake spatula.

I had the idea for quite some time to make this set for a wedding, both of whom I have known for a majority of my life. About six months before the set date, I began to draft a handful of designs, none of which I was particularly settled with. As the wedding loomed nearer, I decided it was time to get to work.

The basic idea was to have a Damascus (1084 and 15n20) blade with carved antler handles. Besides this project, the only other time I have tried welding in the forge wound up having a failure during the final forging. While the process is theoretically very simple, in my small single burner venturi forge and hand hammers, it is exceedingly difficult to truly know if the welds are good. All that is needed is a flat, clean surface between the layers and enough heat/pressure to fuse the steels together.

Starting at 7 layers, the billed welded fine and so I drew it out long enough to cut into thirds, then cut it and stacked it again, making it 21 layers. One way I have always heard to check welds, aside from looking at the inside where it is cut for weld lines, is to strike it with something hard. If it has a pure, long note when struck, like a chime or a bell, it is generally good. If it sounds dead, rasps or rattles, it is most likely bad.

Over the course of about a month and a half working odd hours, I eventually got the billed up to 557 layers, the three extra used in the last weld to add some of the mass lost to decarb and grinding it flat.

Come Wednesday evening, three days before the ceremony, I was forging the final profile into the tip of the knife when the worst possible thing happened. About half of the billet split wide open directly in the centre. It was about 5 in the evening and I had to drive over 500 miles the next day to lower Maryland, where I would be for the final two days before the wedding at West Point.

Etching the blade and spatula in home made ferric chloride, which I will write about later, revealed the previous day a subtly, tight grained pattern that would compliment the antler perfectly. However, it was too late to risk trying to fix the bad welds, which infected the spatula less than an hour later. Left dishevelled with nothing more than ruined steel, I had no choice but to start over from the beginning. Obviously, I could not reproduce several months' work in 17 hours, so I had to turn to monosteel.

With a parent bar of 1084, I began to furiously forge out a knife from one end, a spatula from the other. And then it started to rain. Four hours later and dripping wet, I cut them from the stock, ready to be rough ground. Unfortunately, this was about the worst forging I have ever done, leaving behind relatively deep pits and a slight twist in profile and ripples on the edges.

In the basement, I flipped the switch to the small 2x42 belt sander with less horsepower than a hand crank and began grinding. Slow and tedious, the process progressed at a hopelessly slow rate as water began to pool around me. Two large cracks line the foundation, and whenever it rains heavily about a foot of water accumulates down there, some pouring down the concrete walls beneath the windows.

Come 10:30, I realize that I have to take an online water survival course that is about four hours long without which, the trip down south to Maryland would be useless. And of course, that is the last possible time I can go for the next several months. Battling the raging thunderstorm outside that came out of nowhere, I started the course, and of course, not twenty minutes later, the power goes out. Working on a laptop, I figured I could continue to keep working in the dark, but then I remembered the router was down.

Eventually, the power came back on and I pushed through the training as fast as possible, and went back down into the shop. A mix of files, abrasive stones, angle grinder, and sanding got the blade and spatula to where I was prepared to call it done. Not satisfied, but done enough to continue. With the rotary tool, I carved a few simple lines in the blade to give it life that the damascus would have done, but I was so exhausted that I could not get them straight. eventually, I called it a night and dragged in the forge to heat treat it. I could not wait to do this because the tempering would take several hours, and if I waited until the next day I would never be able to finish the scales.

A little after 2am, I had the lights off and the forge burning low with the knife resting in my tongs. Three quick normalizing cycles, the last of which to really hone in on what critical looked like in that lighting, and I quenched it in a steel cup full of canola oil to the sound of rain hammering the windows. The spatula came shortly after, and they went straight into the oven to temper once before I could finally sleep.

Cleaning my hands took the better part of half an hour, and even then they were still stained black in more places than not. I had also not eaten since about 7 that morning, so I scarfed down a quick meal while the timer counted down.


Waking at about 6:30 was the worst feeling. I have never been that tired, not even the morning after running a marathon October last. With a heavy reminder of all the work I had yet to do and the prospect of leaving in less than 6 hours, I got back to work.

To tackle the handles, I had a piece of antler from a friend out in New Mexico that was the perfect size. Cutting it in half with a coping saw took far too long, and when it was sitting in two half round slabs, I had the first clear glance at the inside. What do you know, the pith is almost as large as the antler. While this would be fine for cross sections, it had no hope of being used for handle scales.

In a flight of desperation, I hunted around for something else and found a board of purple heart. Perfect. The exotic nature of the wood would help offset everything else. Or so I hoped. In the back of my mind, I knew that purple heart cannot be belt sanded because the friction turns it black almost immediately. But of course, I did not have the foresight until it was too late. Resorting to hand tools, it took about three hours to shape and sand them to a reasonable finish. Looking down at the one (only a top scale) for the spatula, I realized that the entire thing was rather bland. In my head, I had an idea for some carving, but my chisels are less than ideal. Too much less, in fact. Returning to the rotary tool, I went to work, finishing all three pieces by sanding the backs flat and hollowing out the middle so it could hold epoxy better.

Usually, I would put pins through the scales and tang to handle shear better, but I did not have access to a drill press and did not want to risk it by hand. The time was about 11:30 now, and I still had to make the 8 hour drive. Sanding them to 400# and buffing them until they were a deeper purple, I finished them with boiled linseed oil. Never having worked purple heart before, I have no idea if this is the way to do it, and I did not have time to research.

For the blades, I regrettably did not have time to bring them up to a mirror finish. Instead, I turned to a running experiment I have been conducting with antiquing. I put an edge on them and buried the pair in a mixture of sawdust, wood shavings, and cooked rice saturated in muriatic acid, hydrogen peroxide, and a few other things. The process takes several hours, so it was into the car they went along with files, sand paper, and epoxy to finish them later.

By the time I arrived in Maryland, they were ready for the next step. While the finish gives them a certain look, alone it would not be enough. Filework is something I have had wanted to pursue after first trying it on the Knife in the Hat folder, and was perfect for the occasion. A simple staggered pattern with a full round needle file on the spine, marked in intervals by the width of a triangular file gave it a bit of extra visual lure.

Calling it a night at 11:30, I had to get up at 5:30 the next day. Embarking for West Point at 3, I epoxied the scales just before I left, but it was not done yet. The 110 degree inside of my car kept the epoxy from setting, so I had to drive holding the knife in one hand in front of the air vent for two hours until it was firm enough to set down.

Arriving at West Point, the set was finally done. After a two day whirlwind, I could sleep and enjoy the trip. The ceremony was lovely, and it was great to see old friends separated by time and distance. When the time came, the knife cut the cake and the spatula delivered it into the hands of the bride and groom. It was not the best work I have ever produced, but I am immensely grateful that I was able to finish it after so many things that went wrong. After all, it is the story behind the piece that holds its meaning.

Here's to a long and happy marriage!

1 comment: