Making a knife with few tools
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I live in an old terraced house that has a coal cellar below the living room so I converted it into a small workshop. It’s a bit dark and a little damp in the winter but it suits me just fine. This is where I make all of my knives.



I have decided to take on a commission, something I rarely do for various reasons. This commission is for a keen hunter and he seems like a decent guy so we spent some time sending PM’s back and forward discussing the design and shape of his knife and what exactly he wanted. This is the design we settled on after a few discussions.



Martin has asked me to keep a sort of diary while I am making his knife and I must point out that this is not the only way to make a knife, nor is it the right way, it’s just my way.



The first step is to take the design and transfer it to the steel. This can be done in various ways and the easiest is to tape the paper to the steel and using a centre punch and light taps with a hammer you can make centre punch marks every ¾ of an inch or so. This is called witness marking and after it’s done you can take off the paper and join up the dots.



I just took the marking pen and a few vital measurements and roughed it out on the steel with the pen. You then have to cut out the steel piece that will become the knife. I could just cut of a rectangle with the knife on but I like to try and save some steel, you never know.



Now you have to rough out the shape leaving as little excess steel as possible. I do all my work with hand tools so I like to get as much off as I can with the Hacksaw as it is much easier than filing off the extra.



Now using files or a grinder or whatever you have, take away all the excess steel and try to make any decisions you have to make about the shape now. I use a flat file and a half round file to get the final profile and I have altered the shape of the knife butt slightly.



This is for comfort, aesthetics, and various practical reasons. A quick clean up and we are ready to mark out the bevels.



Because I work by hand and with files I mark out the bevels on the blade now. I use a vernier calliper locked off at the size I want and scribe the bevel with one leg while the other follows the shape of the blade. This is a bit tricky, a little care and practise make the job an easy one. Having marked both bevels I now lock off the calliper at 1.5mm or half the thickness of the steel so I can scribe along what will be the cutting edge. This gives me the centre line so I can file each bevel down to both lines.

That sounds a bit simple but it is essentially what has to be done. The problem is the bevels have to be symmetrical, flat and the angle must be maintained and has to be filed without damaging and scratching the sides of the knife. With a belt grinder or linisher and various grinding attachments this takes a couple of hours. I use a progression of files from coarse to smooth, after using each file I have to make sure the bevel is flat before continuing with the next. Then I clean up each bevel with a flat piece of brass bar and wet and dry paper until all the file marks and scratches are gone.



The hard thing about filing the bevels is holding the knife. I have tried various methods and I have settled on the method you see here. A big lump of wood held in a vice and a G clamp holding the blade down does it for me. It’s not fancy or expensive (There are knife vices available out there) but it does the job.



One of the minor things I like to do now is to file the choil in the heel of the blade. This is a small indentation between the ricasso (the flat bit between handle and blade) and the cutting edge. This makes sharpening the blade easier without messing up the knife. In some cases, especially with skinning blades, the choil is enlarged into a finger grip so the blade can be “choked” for fine work or when more control of the blade is needed.

Ground flat stock is great for making knives but the surface finish is not as smooth as I would like on the blade because it has been ground to guarantee flatness. The thing to remember here is the blades are 01 tool steel and will rusty if not cared for. Every mark on the blade will allow rust to get a hold more readily, which is why I like to give my blades a working polish. This isn’t as fine as a mirror polish but it’s close. The first stage is to work on the sides of the blade with some wet and dry taped to a tabletop. The table must be flat or the blade will not polish evenly. This step takes a considerable amount of time but it is best done now before the steel is hardened. I change the wet and dry as it wears down but I don’t throw it away, it can be used to polish the spine and bevels later.



One problem with doing the blade this way is you can’t easily wear gloves and it’s hard on the fingers. I always have trouble getting gloves to fit me anyway.



Now it’s time to drill the holes to fix the handles on. I start with the Lanyard hole, not all knives need a lanyard hole but on a big knife I think of them like condoms, better to have one and not need it than to need it and not have one. I will be drilling some more holes later to lighten the handle but I like to get the handle material cut and get a rough idea what the knife feels like.



One more little thing I like to do at this stage is to clean the spine up. I start at the tip of the blade being careful, as the tip is very fragile while the blade is in its soft state. I don’t go as far as the handles for reasons I will show when fitting the handles. I take out all of the file marks and deep scratches but I don’t go too far as it has to be done again after the heat-treating.



Martin has decided to have Tuffnol handles, these are cheap and are resistant to water, fats and most acids, ideal for a field knife that has to be kept clean. Before I carry on with the knife I want to get the handle pieces cut out and their fibre liners glued on. I have scribed around the handle twice to mark out the two handle slabs.



After cutting them out I will drill the holes for the pins using the knife handle as a jig to get the holes in the right position. After drilling one hole I will use a piece of brass pin inserted into the hole to stop the knife from moving. I could use small quantities of super glue but it’s a pain to clean up afterward.


I have fitted the pieces together to get an idea of the weight of the knife. I can tell that the handle needs to be lightened quite a bit so before I start the heat-treating I will drill some large holes in the handle in between the pinholes and that will take point of balance forward. Ideally it should be on the forefinger when gripping the knife or between the handle and the blade.



I have decided on black liners for the handles. The material is called vulcanised fibre and some of you might recognise it as the material they used to make gaskets out of. It adheres to the handle slabs and soaks up the epoxy resin. When it’s glued to the knife it becomes solid and hard so it can be polished to make an excellent contrast between blade and handle. After the glue is dry I will drill the pin holes right through again and I will drill some small shallow, blind, holes where the lightening holes will be in the steel. This gives good adhesion between the two pieces of handle material, the liners and the steel.

 

I like to use spring clamps to hold the pieces together while the slow set epoxy does its work. I love spring clamps, they’re cheap and useful for all sorts of things, you will probably see them in a few pictures here.



Now it’s time to tackle the stamping and heat treatment of the blade. Firstly I heat the blade so I can stamp my makers mark into the metal. I have a corner set up with firebricks and a propane torch for the heating and a galvanised trough of oil for heat-treating.



I use my piece of railway track for stamping; this is a bit tricky as the blade will start to cool fairly quickly as soon as it touches the rail. Because of my stamp size and shape I have to stamp while the steel is hot in order to get a good stamp mark. It’s really a three-handed job so I couldn’t get a picture until afterwards. I then let the steel cool slowly, |I then heat the whole knife up again and let it cool slowly. This normalises the steel and relieves any stresses in the steel built up from working it.



I also had trouble taking pictures while I hardened the blade but what happens is quite simple. I use the torch to heat the blade until you get the required red hot colour you know by experience is about right. At this point the steel reaches critical temperature and becomes non magnetic. The steel will not harden properly unless it reaches at least this critical temperature. I will not go into details of metallurgy on this thread, it can be researched in many different places both on and off line. When the steel reaches critical temperature it is cooled rapidly to harden the steel. The first thing I do when the blade has cooled sufficiently is to rub a file gently over the cutting edge, it should feel hard or like you are trying to file glass. Some quench the steel in water, some use brine but I use oil. After stirring the blade around in the oil for a while it comes out blackish grey with oxides and stuff all over the surface that have to be cleaned off until you can see the steel again.



This is so you can see the change in colours while you temper the steel. I like to get the steel tempered as soon as possible so I only clean the steel up very quickly. I then hold the knife on top of one of the firebricks so that about ¾ of the spine of the knife is out over the edge of the brick but not as far as the point. The spine is then gently heated until the metal starts to change colours. What you are looking for in the ideal temper is a light straw colour along the cutting edge of the knife and the colours getting darker as you go toward the spine, which you want to be blue. Unfortunately not everything goes according to the ideal situation.




In this picture the spine has gone further than blue, which is ok, and although you can’t see it very well the straw colour comes back from the cutting edge a bit more than I would have liked.

Now its time to start the cleanup of the blade, I use the previously mentioned “lump of wood in the vice” method of holding while I work through the grits of wet and dry to get the blade to your required state of finish.



This is not quite there yet but a full record of this part of the build would be boring to say the least.

When gluing up the handle make sure you have everything to hand. I have found by experience to always dry fit everything together before you start gluing. Make sure everything fits well and there are no unexpected gaps. I put a small amount of epoxy on each pin and insert them into one of the handle scales. Give the scale a coat of epoxy and slide the blade onto the pins. Then I fill all of the holes with epoxy to ensure a good contact with both scales. A thin coat of epoxy is applied to the other scale and it is slid over the pins until it is in contact with the handle. Spring clamps ensure enough pressure is maintained while the epoxy sets. I usually use slow set epoxy but all I had was the fast set so pictures are few at this point.



The pressure will make the excess epoxy spill out of the sides and this can be filed down when it’s set but the ricasso joint with the handle will have to be cleaned up before the epoxy sets. Wait until the epoxy is at a rubbery stage, 2 – 3 hours for the slow set and 15 – 20 minutes for the rapid set. To clean the glue I use a lollypop stick sharpened like a chisel to get right into the corner.



Whatever you use it should be something that will not scratch the steel.



After I have used the stick I wrap it in cotton cloth and dip it into white spirits or nail varnish remover and go over the ricasso joint again to remove any smears or glue remains.

Once the epoxy has had a good 24 hours to dry I use a wood rasp and gently clean up the profile. The wood rasp will handle most non metallic handle materials.



Being careful not to over tighten the vice I hold the knife by the handle edges so I can saw off the ends of the pins and lanyard tube.



I now carry on profiling the handle but I stop as soon as I see the steel edge of the full tang handle. A rasp will in all lightly hood loose or blunt it’s teeth on the steel. Sometimes the rasp will catch the steel lightly and scratch it quite badly. Later when using a file the same thing will happen, this is why I only polish the spine of the blade. The steel in the handle can be finished with the handle UNLESS the handle material is bone or a very light un-stabilised wood. These materials will darken from steel and silicon carbide dust, so the whole knife edge must be finished before the handle is fitted. In which case the whole handle must be finished almost to size and extreme care taken when finishing the handle material.



Now comes lots of work with rasps and files, I had a cheap belt and disk sander but the motor is on the way out so I stick to doing most of it by hand. I start off by thinning the front and back of the handle down and leaving a decent amount of material in the middle to fill the palm of the hand.



The client is right handed so I plan to do some shallow finger groves in the left side of the knife handle to make a good grip.



Now it’s down to using lots of wet and dry paper going through the grits from 100 to whatever you want to finish with. I want to leave a good grip I will take it to about 800 the drop back a grit to 600. This will leave a very fine fuzz on the surface which improves the grip. I find polished tuffnol a bit slippery when wet and as this is a hunting knife it is liable to get slick with blood, fat etc.



Now that I have the basic shape to the handle I can start to clean up the edge of the tang. I left this unfinished earlier because it was bound to get marked and I would have to re-finish it. Not that it has ever happened to me before, cough cough. Lol.



Now I can start to go through the grits of wet and dry on the handle. I don’t want it polished and tuffnol doesn’t look it’s best at this stage but this knife is all about function, not looks.



At this stage I like to make a start on the sheath, which I am not going to document here. After the sheath is finished I will give the knife its final finish on the blade and handle before I sharpen it. So that is the end of our little knife diary / tutorial. I hope you enjoyed it.

 

 
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