Saturday, May 28, 2016

Before you start

OK, so you want to make your first knife. Before plunging (and possibly getting lost) into the details, I think it make sense to have a look what steps need to be done to get the idea to the finished knife before you go out and get first tools or materials.

Here I just want to mention what I found was relevant to think about, I will post separate articles on each of the steps later. My main point here is to start the thinking and planning process. I was not as thorough and it would have made sense to consider some possible issues or limitations in advance.


Have a look at the space you have available. It may be a well equipped mechanical shop of some kind, it may be your garage, but also just a basement or even a room inside your house or flat. You do not need a whole lot of space. I have set up a workshop in part of our basement with a area of about 2x2m. More would be nice, but it can be done.

The questions you should ask yourself are:
  • Is it OK to produce and and noise there (always keep your neighbours in mind). Most of what you will be doing is either loud, dirty, or both
  • Is power provided (at first just for illumination and maybe for a drill)
  • If you plan on that - could you be doing your own heat treat there?
  • How is the ventilation? If limited, you may want to do the 'smelly part' (gluing, degreasing, oiling handles, etc.) elsewhere.
  • General safety (what are the local rules and what are sensible do's and dont's)


You will need quite a few tools and I will try to summarize on that, but the basic ones are:
  • Sturdy working bench
  • Means to keep and organize your tools (you can not have them all on the working bench)
  • A vise
  • Hack saw + bi-metal blades
  • Files
  • Wet sanding paper in grit 60 - 400
  • Flat surface for sanding (stone block or a tile)
  • Clamps (different sizes and shapes)
  • A drill (ideally a drill press + a small vise) + drill bits (HSS-Cobalt)
  • Epoxy
  • Some kind of wood finish oil - Tung oil seems a good choice
  • Metal ruler and calliper are a great help
  • Notobook, pencil, permanent marker (a thin and a wide one)
  • some more stuff :)
Knife design

You do not need to have a complete and in detail though-out design, but having a rough idea where you want to start helps to plan what tools you will need and it also helps you to estimate the budget. I have in mind basic features like:

  • Type of knife (shape and size of the blade)
  • Full tang or hidden tang
  • Handle materials (bolsters, scales or block, pins)
  • Sheath or no sheath


Depending where you live the availability and price of materials necessary for knifemaking will differ greatly. Do some research for knife making supplies, in particular for:
  • steel (thickness of 3-4 mm and width of about 35-40 mm would about right for an outdoor knife)
  • handle making (wood, pins, bolsters)
  • sheath tooling (leather, tools)

Developments in (mainly stainless) steels in the past years have give rise to steels that on knife fora are often designated as 'super' steels and there are endless discussions whether steel X is better than steel Y. First of all - there is no perfect steel - different steels will perform better at some tasks and worse at others. Today's 'super steels' are complex, high alloy steels that not only are expensive, these are also often very wear resistent (read - super hard to grind) and require complex heat treatment. My advice is - stay away from those. I am talking about steels like S35VN, Elmax, M390, HAP-40, S110V and similar.

I would actually suggest that you stay with simple carbon steels like 1075, 1084, 1095, O1, W2, 52100 or if that is your preference - simple stainless steels like 440C, AEB-L or Niolox. Not only are these considerably cheaper, they are easier to HT (see below for more) and easier to grind and also easier to sharpen. Still - with a proper HT you are going to get a knife that will match outperform (in particular the carbon steels) in certain regards the much more expensive super steels.

Heat treatment

There are many videos on youtube how you can do the HT with very simple tools. Simple carbon steels (for example 1075, 1084, O1) are relatively forgiving when it comes to the temperatures and thus you do not need a kiln with precise temperature control.

But if your location does not allow (or you simply do not want to start with you own HT), than do check for services online. Again - depending on where you live the options for outsourcing HT will vary. For example - if you only find HT services for stainless steels, it would make no sense to start making knives from carbon steel and the other way round. So check your steel choices against the available HT services before you buy steel for knifemaking.

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