Making a Good Knife

Favorite backpacking blade

Favorite backpacking blade

Since I review knives professionally I thought I’d post something here about what I think is one of the greatest deals available — knife making kits and knife blades. If you’re patient and skilled with your hands but don’t have the blacksmithing shop and forging tools (plus years of experience) needed to make your own blades, there are some really good knives out there, reasonably priced and waiting for handles.

The knife pictured here is the first knife I ever made, back when I lived in a city apartment and the neighbors wouldn’t tolerate the sound of a hammer and anvil at three in the morning. The blade came from Sweden and it’s laminated steel — spring steel body with a central layer of hard cutting edge. The specs I have forgotten long ago, but I do know that it isn’t stainless steel. Doesn’t need to be, because this particular alloy holds up. I’ve treated it badly over several decades and it has very few blemishes or signs of wear.

Customized sheath

Customized sheath

There’s some history in this knife, not even counting the hundreds of miles of backpacking travel and the several decades of intermittent camping it now records. I made the handle from a block of Brazilian rosewood my uncle left to me. He was a woodcarver himself, and worked for the foreign service in quite a few unusual places around the world. When coming back from some years in Brazil he got around the restrictions on the export of Brazilian rosewood by hiring a local fellow to build wooden packing crates for all his personal belongings–using Brazilian rosewood lumber that wasn’t supposed to leave the country.  The brass fittings came from scrap brass I liberated from a foundry where I worked out West — the toughest job I thought I’d ever have, until I went to work at tougher ones. There won’t be another knife that has this level of meaning for me, because I don’t have the parts for one. The things in this knife can’t be replaced.

Today knife kits cost a bit more but you can still get a great knife for about a third of the cost of a finished piece. All you need is time and talent, so this may limit the market a little bit. Winter’s coming up, though, and if you have a stove to crowd on a cold day there will be plenty of time. The Orvis knife making kit (until recently found on Amazon for about $60) includes puukko blade, brass bolster, reindeer antler spacer and curly birch handle block. Plus, you get materials for a genuine leather sheath.

I spent a few minutes looking through what is onsite today (1/22/2010) and there are a few interesting choices in the carousel, some for fun and some that are good working knives. Starting from scratch isn’t a bad idea either, since I’ve made some good knives myself from old plow blades and wagon springs and also worn out files. If you look into the backgrounds of well known knife companies like Buck or even the history of knife makers famous for their art and craftsmanship, you find that many times that’s what started the whole thing for them. They made their first knives from old files and kept going. That’s some of the best steel you’ll find, and in the process of doing that work you learn all the basics you need to know.

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