Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The tools - part #1 - basic tools

There will be many tools that will find their way to your workshop. But you do not need them all at the start. Here I would like to first talk about those that you will need right from the start.

If you are just starting on considering it, you have surely seen a couple of videos on youtube that are meant for the beginner. There is lots of good stuff out there. I personally found videos from several knifemakers very helpful (see a short, non exclusive list below), but I found that usually far from all tools are mentioned.  Since I was really starting from scratch I realized that those little things add up to a considerable budget. For that reason here is a more comprehensive list of items with their use and necessity 'grade' - at least as I found them to be.

If you already have some sort of workshop with basic tool, than you may really need very little to start, but for guys like me - living in a flat with just a small basement with limited space, it does make sense to consider what it is that you need and how are you going to manage it.

Safety equipment.

Do NOT skip this just because it does not sound manly or relevant - especially if yo are new to this kind of stuff and have little experience in using tools or working in a shop. You really do not need much to avoid unnecessary injuries and exposure. You are basically going to need 3 things + some nice-to-have

  • Safety goggles (about 10€) will keep you eyes safe from little sharp objects (steel while cutting, sand paper grit, wooden splinter, etc.). I would not turn a belt or disc grinder without having these on.
  •  Respiratory mask with filters - something like the half mask from 3M (series 6000 or 7000) or even full face mask (which will give better eye protection). The mask is super important. I wear mine always when I cut, file or sand stuff. Be specially careful if you plan using G10 (read up on the topic). I would add that with half mask the safety google will not sit quite as well. I currently use half mask, but consider getting full mask for this reason.
  • Working glows. It may feel clunky wearing these, but they will keep your hands safe from trivial scratches and bruises (which will still take days to heal - in particular if your hands were dirty and/or oily) - you hand will often slip when cutting or filing. How eager you will be to wear the gloves will depend on the temperature in your shop, but my advice is - wear gloves every time you can. Unless you will need more precision, just keep them on. It will also help your hands not to look completely wasted at your day job.
  • Should you be working with heat sources (kiln, gas torch) or tools that throw sparks (grinder) than it may make sense to get a fire extinguisher - in particular if you are working next to pile of cardboard boxes like I do :)
  • Also - prepare a small first aid kit to be able to clean a wound and be able to stop bleeding - you need to be able to access it with one hand - as most of your injuries will be on your hands.
  • I have recently got a face cover - 3M G500 that also has ear protection and it is excellent. In particular when grinding or working with angle grinder it offers full face protection and can be worn with the half-mask rather comfortably.

Basic safety set - goggles,respirator (half mask) and gloves.

Recent addition - head cover G500 from 3M

Notebook (an analogue one)

For me - this is one of the most important tools. I keep a log on what, why and how have I done things. I note mistakes under 'lessons learned' tags and also ideas (mine or from someone else) that have helped me to improve something. I would make a sketch or drawing of what I plan to do. I can always browse through my notes, find out how much time I needed to finish something and later may try to optimize the process. It also gives me a bit of feel that I actually did something - in particular in the stage, when I do not have any of my projects finished, but several at works.

I recommend A4 size with hard cover, so that you have enough room for some drawings and so that the notebook survives the environment.

The workbench

There is no way around. Without a stable workbench you can not start to make knives, unless you want to recreate stone age conditions. When I started I quickly realized that a decent, stable workbench is not cheap. I tried to find a used one, but nothing was available at reasonable price locally, so I finally decided to buy a new one. I got one from Powertools (in Germany) and while far from perfect (I naively expected more for 250€ shipped), I made it near-perfect with some added stabilization bars. Apart from the size (mine is 150cm long, 60cm wide and 92 cm tall) - the most important number is height - you want something around 85 - 95 cm, so that you do not have to bend when standing next to it and working. You will find that most of the work (because of the effort involved) needs to be done while standing and not sitting, so a bench of 80 - 85 cm tall may prove not tall enough. Also - the bench should have a wooden top board. It will allow you to mount a vice or other tools (or, as in my case - properly mount the articulated lamps)

Sturdy workbench with wood top. Yes, this is tidy in my book :)


I got mine, rather subtly build wise with 10 cm wide jaws, before I decided to take on knifemaking and I was concerned about its robustness, but I was pleasantly surprised that it works pretty well - even with added rotation base. In general - I would go with 10 or 12 cm large (wide) jaws and rotation ability around vertical axis. Horizontal rotation is a nice-to-have. I have not really needed it yet, but have seen on youtube that there is a legitimate case for it. One more detail - because of space constraints I have mounted my vise on separate board that I attach on the workbench with large clamps, so I can remove it when I need more space. Remember - that 150 cm long workbench is all I have.

Even though on the subtle side, this 100 mm vise does its job well.
The rotating base is very useful.

Hack saw

Since my presumption is that you do not have (or can not) use some sort of powered saw (band saw for steel cost upwards from 300€) - you want to get a decent hack saw. These do not cost much. Try to get one that has good provision to tension the blade and to set the blade under an angle to the saw (you need that if your make long cuts and the blank you are just cutting out starts to get in the way). Mine was about 20€ (something I consider 'no name'). But the real point are the blades. Most probably the one that will come with the saw will be far from the best you can get. For metal you want 24 teeth per inch (they do well with wood as well), bi-metal blades. Do not waste money buying them by piece - get 10 of them and get the best you can. They really make a difference once you start cutting out a blade from a steel. With a good quality saw you will be able to cut a knife blank with 10 cm blade out of 3-4 mm thick piece of steel in less than 30 minutes.

The hammer shown has a round end excellent for peening. The heavy duty scissors is
most often used to cut sanding paper.


You will need a few different files one way or another, but if you plan to file the bevels (free hand or with a jig), than you want the best files you can get. In my case these are Swiss DICK Precision files. I have several of them today, but the following ones would be the most relevant to start with (I am quoting the ID from the DICK web page for clarity for some cases):

  • 112300: 300 mm (12") flat file, Cut #1 (bastard in US naming convention). This is the main workhorse for the bevel grinding. I also used it to rough finish a blank after I was done with a hack saw. Consider 300 mm to be the minimal length, 350 mm would be even better.
  • A possible alternative to the bastard file would be a dreadnought file - it has curved teeth and should have less of a tendency to clog during filing. I did not try one yet though.
  • 200 - 250 mm flat file Cut #3 (medium cut file). I use this file mostly to smooth the edge of the blank out, or to work on ricasso shoulders for hidden tang knives.
  • 1166200: 200 mm round file with diameter of 7.8mm - this is about the right size to work around the choil area. The file gets thinner towards the tip which can be practical
  • 1156200 (or 1156250) Half round file in Cut #1. This file would allow you to contour the blank for a full tang knives. 
  • Set of needle files. The main purpose of these is to work on bolsters for hidden tang knives as getting a nice clean fit is what you are after. You will need to very thin flat files as you will be filing openings as small as 3x10 mm and the file must fit in that opening. You will also want a very thin needle file - see Project #1 and #2 for details.
My most used files. The 300 mm #1 file is not shown as it is mounted on the grinding setup.
The 3 large files are 1x 250 mm and 2x 200 mm.

Sanding paper

You will need sanding paper to sand non hardened (e.g. when flattening the steel before you start), hardened (removing scale after HT , finishing the blade) and wood (handle finishing). The metal sanding makes more sense with wet sanding paper as it allows to last longer and will give you smoother finish. I have started with Matador (black on blue backing) papers and while it is a nice paper, I found that it was looking grit grains what gave me some problems when finishing the blade. The I have learned about Rhynowet Redline sanding paper. The feedback from knifemakers was so positive, that I directly ordered 50 sheets in grits from 60 to 400. My first impressions are very positive and the paper even costs a little less than the Matador. Within my limited experience I do not hesitate to recommend this sanding paper.

My stock of Rhynowet sanding paper. I will be adding #600 and #1200 soon.


You have basically 3 options. Manual drill, hand held drill and drill press. All 3 of them will get the job done. I have started with the hand held Li-ion drill I already had. Power was not the problem, but if you want to drill holes at well defined positions under well defined angles, than even a cheap drill press will make a huge difference.

It did not take me long to realize this and I got the Bosch PBD 40 and it is a very capable tool. There are cheaper options, but here in DE this particular one got very good feedback and I am happy with it.


Easily overlooked, but you really want several strong light sources. In today's age you can get powerful LED bulbs. They are not cheap, but last long, consume little energy and, more importantly, do not get hot and thus do not want to grill you. I have in total about 40W of LED power divided in 3 lamps - one is on the ceiling and two are articulated lamps - one on each side of the workbench. I will get more sturdy lamps in the future (these were 10€ a piece and are meant for a writing table), but these do work, one just need to be careful with them. The most important feature is that they are articulated - I am able to get the light where I need it. On top of that I have a small lamp with a clamp - I often use this one 'free hand' to check for scratches when finish-sanding a blade (so that I can leave it clamped). Ideally I would like to get one more lamp from top-behind in the future.

Here you can see all 4 lamps.

There are many more tool you will sooner or later need. I will be posting a few more articles on this topic.

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