Knifemaking is the art of producing a knife by combining several processes.
If you’ve never made a knife before, it’s going to be a long but fulfilling journey, filled with highs and lows, mistakes and triumphs.
In broad strokes, the steps are: design, fabrication, heat-treating, and finishing.
In this post, we’re going to see how it all comes together and learn the basics of how to make a knife. It isn’t a simple undertaking, but it is certainly not impossible. So just be patient and remember that practice makes perfect.
Let’s get into it! Here’s what we’re making:
The anatomy of a knife is important to know when learning how to make a knife. So, that you will be able to make the tool correctly. Here are the key parts of a knife:
This refers to the back part of a knife blade component. It is the part that connects to the handle. As a knifemaker, you can choose a full, stick, skeletonized, narrowing, or partial tang. The most popular tangs for beginner knifemakers are full and partial.
With a full tang knife, the blade extends into the handle at full length. This is one of the easiest knife structures to make. The biggest advantage of a full tang is the strong design, which is great because it allows it allows for enhanced leverage and force. The only significant downside of a full tang cutting tool is weight because it uses a lot of steel.
A partial tang does not extend the length of the handle and tends to be narrower than the handle. Partial tangs come in three common varieties.
A rat-tail tang, which looks like a push tang with a rod welded on the end that thread into a metal pommel at the butt. A push tang that extends only partway into the handle. A half tang that extends to the full height of the handle but not to its whole length.
While not as strong as a full tang, a well-designed partial tang knife is still a great choice for cutting chores that don’t involve hard use or pounding.
Once you are decided on the type of tang your knife should have, the next important part of the construction is the blade. The blade is made up of a tip, cheek, spine, grind or bevel, belly, heel, plunge line, ricasso, choil, blood groove, and jibbing.
The spine is the back of a knife. Jibbing refers to notches or gouges on the spine. The pointy end is referred to as the point or tip (it is where the edge and the spine meet).
The bevel or grind is the cross-section of a knife’s blade and it is a feature that boils down to your intended use. The most popular types of grinds are full convex, scandi, fully flat, hollow, and high flat. While a full convex grind is durable and holds up well to things such as batoning, it also has some drawbacks over a scandi grind as far as sharpening or honing are concerned. Hollow grinds are generally reserved for smaller blades like a pocket and multi-tool knives.
The point or tip of the blade is truly a matter of personal preference and your intended use of the knife. You’ve got several types of tips you can integrate onto your knife, including a drop, trailing, straight back, spear, straight edge, and clip point.
The handle of a knife is made up of tang, scales, rivets, and butt.
The most common tangs you can consider are full, skeletonized, partial, stick, and narrowing. Scales refer to the pieces on the sides of the handle that provide grip, holding power, and comfort. Knife scales can be made of different materials like G1o, micarta, stainless, steel, fiberglass reinforced nylon, aluminum, bone, or wood. The butt is the end part of the handle, which can be modified for different applications.
Knifemaking isn’t as hard as you would have thought. It is just a process that requires you to have the right tools, materials, and guidelines. So, let’s learn the art of knifemaking.
The tools you need are but not limited to:
The materials you need may include:
The construction of your new DIY knife depends entirely on the design that you will come up with on a piece of paper.
Templates are important in designing a perfect knife from a piece of paper on a steel bar. Patterns are also suitable for designing knife designs consistently. The first thing to do is designing a rough sketch on a piece of paper.
For this step, you need a piece of white paper and a sharp pencil. Start by drawing the type of design you want to create on the piece of paper. You need to keep on scaling the outline until you achieve your desired size. Once you have complete that process, go ahead and create a pattern. Then stick the outline you have created on the piece of paper on a block of wood. Cut and drill the outline on the block of wood to form a pattern.
Once you have the pattern figured out, the next important step is to overlay the design on the steel bar you’ve prepared. The quality of the knife depends on the type of steel you choose. For this process, I have selected 1080 steel (1.5 by 12, by 0.125 inches). This is a high-carbon steel that isn’t difficult to design, resists chipping, easy to sharpen, and holds a great edge.
Transfer the pattern that you have created to the 1080 steel bar by outlining the pattern on the steel bar using a sharpie. Then use an angle grinder to cut out your rough shape. After cutting out the rough shape, take it to the bench grinder and work it down closer to its final shape.
A bench grinder is ideal for removing metal, but it tends to generate a lot of heat. So, you must cool the blade every few seconds to avoid bunning your hands. Now, use a sharpie to mark how large you want the bevel to be. Start filing the outline blade. You can use a piece of wood to give you a hard stop from your plunge line (it is the line at which the grind starts). Continue filing until you achieve your desired grind.
At this point, the blade is still at its softened state. So, you have to get as much sanding and shaping done as possible. Sanding after the blade has been hardened is usually difficult. Get the finish on the blade to 400 grit.
The next step involves drilling the pinholes, two for the handle scales and two for the bolsters. You must drill these holes before you heat treat the blade. The bolster holes must be of the same size as the brass bar. The good thing is that the brass fixing will not be visible. The rivets for holding the handle scales; however, will be visible.
Always keep in mind that there are variations in both the hold time and temperature for different types of steel. Most of these things may not be easy to achieve because we are going to be using relatively crude heat treating methods, such as a propane torch, charcoal forge, or a regular campfire among others. There are four unique steps in heat treating a knife, which include:
The term normalizing doesn’t describe the nature of the process. Instead, this process aims at uniformity in the composition of the metal. In simple terms, normalizing is an austenitizing heating cycle that is followed by cooling.
This process resets and redistributes all of the elements inside the steel to a normalized or uniform state. It also relieves stresses inside the metal caused by working the steel (such as shaping and grinding). This process in most cases should be done before quenching. But, if you are careful to not heat the steel excessively during the stock removal process and the steel comes normalized from the manufacturer, you can get away without normalizing.
So, how exactly do you normalize? Just heat the steel to 1500 to 1600 degrees Fahrenheit and allow the heated steel to cool in still air. Do this process two to three times. How exactly do you know that you have heated the steel to the ideal temperatures?
You can know whether or not you have heated the steel to the ideal temperatures with the help of a magnet. The nice thing about steel is that it is rendered non-magnetic around 1425 degrees Fahrenheit. So, if you heat the metal to a point where it becomes non-magnetic, then you know you are around the ideal temperature range.
But this is just a reference point because normalizing is done at around 1500 to 1600 degrees Fahrenheit and quenching is done at approximately 1475 to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit and not at the non-magnetic temperature level. Heat all sides of the steel as equally as possible while moving it back and forth over the flame if you have to.
This process describes the formation of martensite or popularly known as hardened steel by rapidly cooling the heated normalized steel in either water or oil. This is not a very technical definition to understand as long as you understand that our normalized steel is in a softened state and that a quenched steel is in a hardened state. You need the steel to be hardened in a knife so that the edge will stay sharp and will keep the knife from bending easily. If you put a sharp edge on unhardened steel, the blade will be dull almost instantly when using it to cut something.
Quenching is done by heating the steel to 1475 to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the steel type. Then quickly plunge the steel into a can of water or oil. The heating process for quenching is the same as normalizing.
Heat the metal to a non-magnetic temperature and back in the heat for a minute or two until you get a couple of shades brighter in color and then quench. Whether you use water or oil for quenching that’s up to you. But I would highly recommend oil heated to around 130 degrees Fahrenheit over water. The reason for this is to avoid cracking. Water tends to cool the steel way too fast, which can easily lead to cracking in the blade, especially if your blade is very thin. Oil has a slower cooling rate when compared to water.
Once you have plunged the steel into the oil, move the steel in slicing movements to prevent air bubbles from forming around the steel. For the blade to be hardened, you need to cool it below 900 degrees Fahrenheit in about one to two seconds.
After quenching, the blade is extremely brittle and could crack and shatter into pieces if accidentally dropped on the floor. You can toughen up the blade by bringing the hardness level down a little bit by baking it in your kitchen oven. The hotter your tempering temperature, the softer your blade is going to be. Each steel type has its tempering temperature but if you temper in the range of approximately 400 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit, you will get ideal results.
Tempering should be done immediately after quenching. Now you are ready to finish your knife.
The color of the blade should be black after tempering due to quenching in pre-heated oil. When finishing the blade, always start with a coarse grit to remove the black oil residue. Increase the grit size gradually until you reach approximately 1200 grits. You need to maintain attention to detail to get the results you have been imagining from the very beginning. You can always go back a few grits to get rid of any scratches that you missed.
Bolsters are relatively easy to make and attach. You can start with a 0.25-inch by 1-inch brass stock. Lay the stock on top of the blade and rough out the shape that you want. Cut two pieces of brass and clamp one of them onto the blade into position and do partially drilled holes through the bolster. These are important location marks.
Clamp the bolsters into the drill press vice at the same time. Use the location holes and drill through the location marks. Position the crude bolsters on the knife and push the brass pins through the holes. Then shape out the bolsters using a sharpie. Use an angle grinder and a flap sanding wheel to work on shaping the bolsters, especially the front edge of the bolster. You can shape the top and bottom on a belt sander.
For the curves, you can use the flap sanding wheel. Once the bolsters are in shape, you can go ahead glue them into position. Make sure you also glue the pins into position. Clamp the glued bolster and let them cure overnight.
For this particular knife, I recommend a pair of G-10 layered scales and an orange G-10 liner, but you can order a different material depending on your preference. Make a rough outline of the knife handle on both scales and liner, making sure that both colors face the same direction.
Cut out the scales and the liner. Drill the handle holes before you attach the scales to the knife handle. Pin everything together and start removing the excess material on both the scales and bolsters. Use a belt sander and bring everything to size. Then glue the scales and liner into the handle. Do a lot of hand sanding on the scales and take it to the buffing wheel for final polishing.
Here’s the entire process from start to finish. With thanks to YouTube channel AVmake.
When making a knife, the process may slightly vary depending on what type of knife you are making. So, it helps to know the various types of knives you can make.
This is a small general-use knife that you can use for trimming things and opening packages. It is usually rounded on the cutting side and can be three to five inches long. The blade is sharp and straight and has an optimal cutting edge along the entire length.
Most paring blades are precision-forged from high-carbon stainless steel and they are full tang. They normally come with durable handles made from synthetic materials like polyoxymethylene. Another good thing about this type of knife is the full bolster that protects your hand for superior balance and safety.
A chef’s knife is uniquely designed for disjointing and slicing large cuts of meat and for general food preparation in the kitchen. The length of a chef’s blade can range from 6 to 14 inches.
There are two types of chef’s knives you can make, the German-style and French-style. The german-style design is continuously and deeply curved along the cutting edge. The French-style; on the other hand, has a straighter edge and curved tip.
This type of knife has a wide, rigid blade that is not flexible at all. It is about 6 inches in length and tapers to a sharp edge. This unique cutting tool is ideal for chopping, shredding, pounding, or crushing food ingredients. You may use it to crush garlic or to pound chicken breast.
The blade of the cleaver is heavy, thick, and well-balanced. It has a beveled cutting edge for chopping. A cleaver has a hole on the top for hanging.
There are two types of carving knives, classic and bird’s beak.
The classic type has a long v-shaped blade. The cutting edge is on one side of the blade. The blade can be made of stainless steel or steel. Steel blades are normally flexible and thin. The handle of a classic carving knife can be made of wood, brass, stainless steel, or aluminum. Experts in knifemaking often prefer a classic carving with a flexible blade.
The bird’s beak knife; on the other hand, has a long cutting edge and a curved spine like a bird’s beak. The blade of this unique cutting tool is often made of stainless steel, while the handle is made of wood or plastic. This tool is perfect for preparing potatoes, carrots, and other vegetables. The blade is also durable enough to stand up to harsh food acids, rust, and extreme temperatures.
This is probably the third most commonly used cutting tool in a professional kitchen. This knife features a long narrow blade for super easy manipulation around bones. A boning knife can be used traditionally when removing sinew. But, when butterflying a leg or tunnel boning a shoulder, you can use the tool in a dagger-like motion.
The tip of this tool is made to come into contact with a bone and remove the flesh. But the thing is, larger cuts of meat may need a bigger and more rigid blade that doesn’t flex too much. This is important to help prevent injury.
This type of tool is specially made for filleting fish, making it a handy choice for lake and river fishing. It features a curved, flexible blade that stays razor-sharp through hard, long use. Most models come with blades that are hand-ground and doubled tapered for superior edge retention. Most filleting knives have handles that are beautifully grained birch with silver fittings.
This is a knife that is specifically designed for preparing a game after a hunt. There are four important uses of a hunting knife, skinning, gutting, and caping. The blade of this type of knife is made of the spine/back, heel, ricasso, plunge line, choil, bevel/grind, edge, belly, point, and tip. The handle; on the other hand, is made up of the guard, quillon, pin/rivets, butt/pommel, and the lanyard hole.
You have finally learned how to make a knife. As you have seen, it is a process that involves at least eight detailed steps. So, our information is vital for your success because we have broken down the process into simple steps that you can easily follow. We have done a lot of research on your behalf to make sure that you have a stress-free knifemaking experience.
With so many steps to follow, making a knife may seem intimidating for some people. I will not dissuade you but encourage you to take up the challenge. The bitter truth is this, knife making is a time-consuming undertaking that is slow, multi-faceted, painstaking, and delicate. Sometimes it can be stressful when you don’t get the results you desire in a given step, especially during heat-treating. It requires skill and patience in designing, woodworking, and metalworking. You have no choice but to take your time with each step to avoid getting poor results.
There are quite a few challenges you should expect when making a knife for the first time. It is possible to mess up a workpiece when designing and heat-treating (especially during normalizing and quenching). You might forget to temper the blade immediately after heat-treating, which may expose the brittle hardened steel to breakage in case it falls accidentally.
Don’t be overconfident just because you have the right tools, materials, design, and instructions. It can be difficult even if you have an instructional video in front of you. You should always expect some setbacks, that’s how it is when creating something. Always remember this, “practice makes perfect!”
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