(Was that an echo?)
HI! I’ve been dreaming about making knives for 5 years before finally being able to do something about it. I started three months ago, and have put in about 100 hours total, including setting up my shop., whenever I can steal time from my day job (CAD building design and drafting).
I’m willing to do whatever it takes to learn. Without being falsely modest, I’m good at what I choose to do and learn real fast. Even so, I expect to spend at least two to three years working through knives and up to swords (my real interest). I’ve done a lot of machine shop work and technical welding (TIG, MIG, titanium, alum, stainless, bronze, etc in the marine field), and feel at home with metal. I’ve used everything except a helical mill, and have some CAD/CAM experience as well. I’d rather work by hand though, just because that’s what turns me on.
So, the first two knives I made were file steel (Nicholson with the teeth ground off after annealing but before forging), and I quenched them in room-temperature water (about 85 degrees F here), then eyeball tempered them (until my intuition said take them out of the forge and stick them back in the water) . I whacked them HARD on the edge of the anvil and they didn’t break or bend and a new file just skated off the edge of the blade. I made handles for them and velvet-lined scabbards. They made a couple of well-appreciated gifts for my two best friends.
The next knife I made was out of a Toyota leaf spring and following the same process half of it just went ping! Off the edge of the anvil and stuck in the anvil stump. Totally depressed but determined to figure it out, I reread everything I had and talked to a friend who had some experience forging wrought iron fancywork. Three hours later I had a 24″ long oil quenching bath “thing” welded up and sitting next to the forge. I was going to try cold oil first, then warm, then hot, if the darn thing kept breaking. The first try on cold oil (85 degrees F new 30-weight motor oil), my leaf spring knife acted like the file knives- no ping and the file skated off it. It seemed a little tougher than the file knives, so I put 1-1/2″ of it in the vise and pounded on it with a 2-lb hammer until it bent 30 degrees and finally went ping and flew off across the shop. I figured this was pretty good as I wasn’t planning on using it as a pry bar or chisel.
I got inspired and pounded out an 18″ wakizashi blade from a 3-lb chunk of the leaf spring (I thought I should use pieces out of the same leaf spring until I knew more). After way more grinding than anyone with experience would have needed to do, it was ready for heat treating, and I was sweating when I popped the edge of the anvil with it, hard, at arm’s length. It bent slightly, and then the file skated off it, and I relaxed and bent it back to straight in the vise. I had made a (piece-of-shit, full-of-scratches, wrong-grind, funny-looking-tsuba-and-habaki) sword. I did get a hold of some sugi pine (some call this Japanese cypress- a very aromatic hard cypress with dramatic grain) for the handle and scabbard, and presented it to my kendo sensei for teaching me for 3-1/2 years at no charge. I was a little embarrassed that it wasn’t a good blade I was giving him. I wanted to do better so badly I could taste it, but I was just OK with that and figured I had to be patient.
That’s the little I “know” so far. I’ve included these questions in case you’re inclined to help a rank beginner out. I’ll start out with what I have in the shop so you can tell me if I need different tools or am using the ones I have the wrong way.
· Coal forge is a steel can lined with fire brick- inside it’s 14″ dia by 12″ high with a hole out the opposite side from the anvil side so I can run long stuff through. I’m using Australian coal. Size is from grit up to about 1″ max. A 2″ dia tuyere driven by a 2-speed cold-air hair dryer pointing straight up in the center of the forge creates a hot spot I can get about 6-8″ of blade yellow hot in 3 to 5 minute heats. It lets me do a lot of forging in a short time, consumption- burned about Ÿ of a 5-gal bucket of coal for the wakizashi blade over 1-1/2 hours of forging.
· A 2″ x 72″ Grizzly (I’m on a budget! Who isn’t?) belt sander/buffer, 1″ x 42″ Grizzly belt sander, 6″ wheel sander, a 6″ vise I can pound on, 6″ x 80″ Grizzly horizontal belt sander, Grizzly 10″ x 2″ wet wheel grinder w/ 6″ x 5/8″ dry wheel, Ÿ” chuck Delta 14-speed drill press, œ” chuck Grizzly drill press, 120 amp MIG welder, oxy-acetylene setup, a Beaudry 1896 model 150-lb power hammer that weighs about three tons (this needs 50-100 hours of work to get running again- but I got it for $100 and a 10-horse 3-phase motor for another $100), and lots of power and plain hand tools- grinders, sanders, routers, everything left over from my boat shop that employed 12 people.
Should I stick with the files and springs, or buy something of known qualities such as D2, D1, 1095, or? I hate stainless steel knives (although I never could afford a $400 ATS 34 boat knife), and even during my fishing days carried a carbon steel blade because it stayed sharp and cut. I considered making stainless laminated with a good thin carbon core when I get to that skill level. I prefer carbon steel. What should I try first and what skills and knowledge am I trying to develop here?
I’m including the full text of your letter here. It is a good reminder of what we all have gone through. After making knives for twenty years it is easy to forget about the things that used to drive me crazy. Thank you for refreshing my memories by relaying your experiences.
Material selection can be thought of in many ways. Many knife makers find a great deal of satisfaction in recycling used material. The most commonly used are: old springs, files and ball bearings. All of these materials can be used to make a good, serviceable knife. It is quite gratifying to know that you were able to take a piece of junk and make a beautiful tool from it.
The problem in using scrap steel lies in the identification of your material and whether it fits in to the plans and equipment you have. When 5160 was the new “hot steel” I had to try it. John Smith got a Timken bearing race for me to play with. I forged it, ground it and heat treated it, and nothing. It wouldn’t even harden! John called Timken, they assured him it was 52100. A few tests and phone calls later, Timken finally admitted that “well, maybe it wasn’t 52100 after all”. Sometimes they would substitute other materials when 52100 wasn’t available. It pays to know what you are working with.
I will usually use new steel bought directly from the manufacturer. I always request an analysis for that particular batch. Even new steel, of the same type, from the same manufacturer, will vary in analysis. On rare occasions, I will use some scrap steel. Especially if it has some sentimental value for myself or the customer. But mostly, I use new steel.
Even though it isn’t as popular as it used to be, I recommend starting with plain old O-1. It is inexpensive, easy to work and readily available. O-1 is a good steel to use while learning the basics of forging and heat treating, It doesn’t have any quirks or require special techniques. As your requirements, skills and equipment increase, you can then branch to other grades.
Should I invest in pyrometers/tempering ovens/gas forge/fancy oil bath equipment/cryo equipment or anything else I don’t even know about yet, in order to make heat treating more predictable? Or just keep developing my intuition? Or both? Should I try charcoal instead of coal? (I have a local source of mesquite charcoal fairly cheap here).
It is possible to make excellent knives with very simple equipment. The “learning curve” is just much steeper. To see how simple it can be, check out Tai Goo and the Neo-tribal Metalsmiths.
If having the highest quality, most consistent work is a priority, buy at least a kiln. You can “fake” everything else, for now. The heat-treating is the “soul of the blade”. If you mess it up, even if everything else is perfect, your knife will be a pretty, yet useless, tool. This is not to say that you can’t get good results without a kiln. It is just easier with one.
Getting the steel to its critical temperature, accurately, is the most tedious and frustrating part of heat-treating. You can learn to do it by eye. See the XXXXXXX issue of KI for a simple experiment on how to see the right temperature. This experiment also shows how important it is to get it right. Yet, if you miss the correct temperature by as little as 50F, you can really mess things up. A kiln is one of those investments you won’t regret.
For forging, you really don’t need anything fancy. The forging range for most steel is pretty wide. Your eyes are a good enough pyrometer here.
Compared to coal, charcoal is wonderful to forge in. It doesn’t have all those nasty things that make coal a pain. I’m referring to sulfur and clinkers. As your experience and budget increase, you may want to build or buy a gas forge. They are cleaner and more efficient than any hard fuel forge. But, a charcoal forge is a wonderful way to learn about fire and heating steel.
That is all we have room for this month. Next issue, we will get to the rest of your questions.
For questions or comments contact:
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