Several Years ago I bought a knife from a fellow named “JOE”, who had, just turned pro. He made very pretty Damascus knives at very reasonable prices. The one I bought had an 8″ x 1 1/4″ blade and a desert ironwood handle. Yesterday I decided to see how well it would work. It had very short, chisel like bevels so I filed them a little higher. Then I tried to sharpen the thing on a water stone. I have no trouble getting near razor edges on my Swiss army and Cold Steel knives, but I just couldn’t get JOE’s knife sharper than an axe edge.
Knowing that the American Bladesmith Society tests knives on 2 x 4’s I decided to try it. It must have taken 50 whacks to cut half way through! I turned the 2 x 4 over and started whacking and the pretty desert ironwood handle split and came off! Imagine if I had been stuck in the deep woods and relying on JOE’s knife!
I do a little amateur knife making. So far I’ve mostly forged Scottish dirk blades for the people in my living history group. I use auto body rasps and leave the blades a little rough. Since they didn’t have belt sanders in the 17th century, I don’t either.
But, if you want to make knives for using rather than as costume pieces, how do I avoid having them be pretty and useless like JOE’s? Do wood and horn handles need steel ferrules? Do knives need convex edges, and do I need a belt sander to produce them? If I do Damascus, what do I put in it? My O-1 knives seem to hold edges pretty well, but they’re small and I don’t attack 2 x 4’s with them.
I would appreciate any suggestions.
I’m sorry to hear you’ve had such a hard time with JOE’s knife. Poor quality work from one maker reflects badly on the trade as a whole. It used to be that a Damascus knife was seen as a sign of quality. But then, very few of those knives were ever tested or used. Now that more Damascus knives are being used, it has become apparent that just because a knife is made of Damascus it doesn’t necessarily mean that the knife is any good. Actually, it is a good idea to be more skeptical of Damascus bladed knives than straight tool steel ones.
The most important consideration in determining the tool quality of a knife is the heat-treating. Any steel that will harden can be made in to a serviceable knife. The great variation one sees in the cutting and strength qualities of a knife is influenced by the heat-treating. Try to find someone who is really good to show you how. Or, failing that, read a lot of basic heat-treating books and ask a lot of questions.
What to put in to Damascus is a “loaded” question. There are so many variables and each one effects the other. For simple forging and heat treating set-ups, I prefer to use 85% W2 and 15% ASTM 203E. It makes a good blade that etches easily. With gas forges and salt bath heat treating furnaces I prefer 75% O1 and 25% L6. This mix is capable of out cutting the W2/203E mix by 100%. But, it is more difficult to get just right.
Wood and horn handles don’t really need steel ferrules. They can help strengthen the handle, but are not necessary. A band or collar around each end of the handle can greatly strengthen the handle, but are a lot of trouble to make. The best thing you can do to strengthen the handle of a hidden or stick tang knife is to keep the tang as wide as possible where it enters the handle material, not just the guard. A great number of knives break just behind the guard not on the blade. Japanese swords are a good example of how this should be done.
Convex edges are not needed to have a sharp knife. Check out straight razors. Yet, convex edges do help greatly in the strength department. In general, you should try to make both the blade and cutting edge as thin as possible for the intended use or abuse of the knife. A thinner blade will always cut better than a thick one, all else being equal. But, a slightly convex edge will add support to the edge and help keep it from chipping out. For chopping purposes, a convex knife side can add great strength at the expense of some cutting ability. It all depends on the use of the knife.
You can make convex edges and knife sides without a belt sander. It is just faster and easier with one. Just use your files, before heat-treating, and stones, after heat treating to blend convex surfaces in with your flat surfaces.
An economical way to learn a lot of this information is to attend a quality seminar or conference and ask a lot of questions. The two best I’ve found are Jim Batson’s Alabama Hammer-in (spring), and The New England Bladesmiths Guild Ashokan conference (late September).
Contact Tim Zowada at:
4509 E. Bear River Rd.
Boyne Falls, MI 49713