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Hammer and Anvil 6: the mysterious allure of sharp knives

Posted by TuckGiles, 09 March 2011 · 386 views


BALSAM –– It has been some weeks since I updated the blacksmith’s blog, in part because I have gotten wrapped up in the actual craft and have not been as interested in writing about it as doing it. By doing it I mean making a knife from Damascus steel, a process that entails forge-welding layers of metal together, shaping a blade, and then finishing it.

In the three months or so since I started the process, I have spent many, many more hours on the knife away from Calerin Forge than I have in class under the helpful eye of David Burress. It turns out that making a knife involves a lot of filing and sanding. Robbie Shuler, who was the first in the class to finish his knife, said as much. When the blade comes off the forge for the last time, it’s essentially a lump of steel shaped like a butter knife.

To turn that steel into a blade, you start by filing out the ricasso, which is the section closest to the bolster and furthest from the tip. Robbie stood over me and guided me as I used a flat file to cut a line into the blade from the edge towards the spine. Establishing that line allows you to set the taper of the blade and makes the rest of the filing process easier.

Knife blades, it turns out, are fascinatingly symmetrical. They should taper evenly from spine to edge and from ricasso to point. I enjoy file work. It’s all about patience and seeing ahead of time what you want to end up with. I have spent a lot of time sharpening knives –– another action I enjoy –– but have never made my own or had an influence on a blade at such an early stage in its creation.

Did I mention I love knives? I also like steak and fire and watching sports on television. These are things I don’t necessarily advertise. I would rather advertise, for instance, that I am a writer, a naturalist, and a spy… okay, not a spy. Anyhow, the point is that knives are elementally fascinating to many men, in part because they are so useful and, in part, I suspect, because taking care of them has been a practice ingrained over thousands of years.

When I was a kid, my mother gave me a knife she bought in a gift shop in Finland. It was a replica of the knives the Finnish soldiers carried during the Winter War, or so she told me. At that age I didn’t care about the history. Just the fact of knife and war made me turn it over in my hands, take it in and out of its sheath, test the sharpness of the edge on my thumb over and over and over.

The same fascination gripped during the process of shaping the blade. I went to Lowes and bought a flat file and various grades of sandpaper. I’m pretty busy, so I didn’t work on it as much as I should have, maybe, but when I had time to sit on the front porch with a beer and sandpaper, I got lost in the project in the best way. I believe that some type of handwork is a daily requirement in the Waldorf teaching philosophy, and I understand why. Handwork teaches patience, but it also creates a relationship between human and object that translates into the world as a useful abstract. This is how long it takes to make a knife. This is how long it takes to make a knife by hand that you can buy for $19 at Walmart…

It took me weeks to get my blade where I wanted it. Robbie helped me sand out the last little nicks and blemishes, teaching me another valuable lesson. When you put that much time into something, don’t chintz at all. Make it as near perfect as you can. Once the blade is finished, it needs to be hardened.

You harden the blade by transferring heat to it through an iron that has been left in the fire. You lay the spine of the blade on the block and watch the heat transfer over, turning it smoky blue and then mustard yellow. Then you thrust it into a vat of used motor oil to cool rapidly. After a blade is hardened, it can’t really be worked, only sharpened.

Damascus steel is attractive because of the layers of high-carbon in the metal that create a pattern during the process of folding the blade on the anvil. The pattern is more or less invisible until you etch the blade by dipping it in a solution that eats into the steel and makes the pattern more pronounced, like maxing out the contrast on a Photoshop image.

It was a good feeling dipping my blade into the solution, knowing that I would see the pattern I had hammered into it for the first time. I washed the etching fluid off and there it was, like the lines of a topographic map of some deep shelf in the ocean floor. The blade was finished. The knife was just coming into being.

David likes to teach the old ways to do things, but his shop is full of new tools as well, and for a class like this, you can’t stand on ceremony. Making something by hand these days involves power tools. A dizzying arrange of them in fact. Power tools are something I didn’t grow up around. I was sort of a latchkey city kid, lost in books, sports, and imagination, and my father did not have a shop to speak of. I take great pride in pleasure in simple acts that many men wouldn’t even deign to take on, like hanging pictures.

So when David handed be a lump of brass and a sawzall and told me to cut a piece for a bolster, I didn’t know what to do. Tune in to the next Hammer and Anvil to find out if I’m typing with one hand or two…

If you want to learn how to smith or make a knife, email David Burress at [email protected]

Nice post,detailing the feelings of making the blade. but the contrast is not from differences in carbon, as migration evens that element out fairly fast.