About Buying a Knife
The intention of this page is to act as a primer for those considering the purchase of a custom made knife.
I have provided information that will help you become familiar with how custom made knives are designed. It is presented in two sections. The first bullet points some considerations for when buying a knife, the second covers the issues in more detail.
As you would expect of a craft often reliant on trial and error, self teaching and occasional instructional videos, if there are 100 makers, there are 100 methods , this is just one of them…
KNIFE BUYING CONSIDERATIONS
(A bottom up summary)
1) KNIFE DESIGN. Put simply, this is the most important part of the build. No amount of decoration, fancy materials or moody photography is going to recover a project from the poverty of a rubbish or inappropriate design.
A buyer needs to be clear about what they want from a knife. Do you want to use it every day or have a flash accessory or an artful demonstration of skills that will take pride of place in a display. All are completely valid, and don’t let anyone tell you a knife should only be this or that, its all personal taste and theirs has no more currency than yours. However, no single knife will satisfy all criteria (for very long). As with your handyman’s toolbox, select the right tool for the job and of course fill the box with as many tools as needs be. Most knife buyers have the flash ones that stay at home and a tougher ones for daily use.
Once you have decided you want a certain type of knife, here are some points to consider;
- Find a knife maker who is in tune with your desires. For example, it is pointless discussing with me the elephant ivory, three bladed folder you want. I do fixed blades. Most makers will have a tilt at any project and enjoy being stretched. However a project breaking their mold is something you would want to put a lot of palaver into before starting. Personally, if I was a customer, I’d look around till I found a couple of makers building along the general lines I wanted to pursue and approach them.
- There are laws relating to knife ownership in Australia. Many of these are specifically attached to certain designs. Some of those which attract particular attention are; mechanically or gravity assisted opening knives, starknives, push daggers, trench knives with knuckle duster type handles, balisong knives and others that can be opened by one hand, double edged knives and concealed knives such as blades in walking sticks or hidden in belts, etc. Also, ceramics (like those credit card style knives) that can’t be detected by x-ray are not flavour of the month. Consider where your desired design is going to fit into your local law structure. The actual and legal framework should be sourced from your respective State Weapons Branch or the Australian State and Federal Legislation on edged weapons.
- While we’re on the subject of laws. You may live in an area that has more relaxed or less restrictive laws than South Australia. However I make my knives in South Australia so I’m bound by the local laws that apply here. I will not under any circumstances make illegal knives.
- The cost of the knife will be directly affected by your choice of materials. Flash materials such as Damascus steel or custom made pattern steel bolsters, engraving, etching, inlay, carving, etc will bump up the price.
- How long and heavy should a knife be, this is especially important if you plan on carrying it significant distances. Steel is heavy, so a knife can stack on the weight quickly. A long blade is often a thick blade.
- I always like to include a finger guard of some description and haven’t been talked out of it yet.
- If its a kitchen knife, where I can, I like to make sure the spine is shaped so that the blade can’t rest with the cutting edge facing straight up. Ideally the knife will roll over on it’s side. This seems to be just my opinion but can you think of anything more likely to catch out the unwary than a slicing blade just sitting there on the kitchen bench with the cutting edge upwards like a booby trap. Yet a lot of kitchen knives will do this. If you think I exaggerate, take your favourite chefs knife and rest (or hold) it spine on bench with cutting edge up. Look down on the cutting edge and you’ll find it’s almost invisible.
- The length of a handle is usually around the distance from the tip of your outstretched thumb to just passed the middle of your palm. And speaking of handles, are you right or left handed. Sounds irrelevant but this will have application to how the sheath is constructed and the layout of a chisel ground blade. Make sure you tell the maker or they will assume the right hand.
- The design is a collaboration between maker and customer. Some makers will allow the customer full control however others will not be happy with that arrangement. I’d like to think the customer has the need, the maker has the skills.
2)KNIFE MAKING MATERIALS. The choice of materials is usually driven by the intended use of a knife though can also be biased by the character of the purchaser. For example, carbon steels such as 01 can make a very sharp using knife but they require diligent maintenance which is a commitment not everyone wants to be saddled with. As another example of individual chauvinism, this time from a maker, I like putting fancy wood on my handles, mainly for aesthetic reasons. If you know what you are going to do with the knife, the selection of materials collapses down to certain fields that you can discuss with the maker. If you are buying a knife ‘off the shelf’, then be sure you understand the nature of the materials used in that knife. I strongly suggest you ask the person who made it, they will enjoy discussing their product. To most makers, being asked a question about their knives is like lying on a beach having their back gently massaged. I’ll expand on actual materials in the How a Knife is Made section below
3)FIT AND FINISH. This is one of the main reasons you buy a custom made knife. Of course the level of finish often reflects the intended use but some characteristics are expected regardless. The knife must be sharp (otherwise, as they say, its a hammer). It should have even grind lines. The ricasso should be symmetrical and purposeful. The tolerances of joins such as bolster to handle or handle to tang should be invisible. There should be a symmetry to the handle. (However some knives, such as culinary knives, occasionally have handles which are deliberately asymmetric in cross section. You will know if the asymmetry is intended or not because the maker will brag about it). If the blade is polished there should be no scratches, if it is brushed then all lines should have a uniform purpose ie. parallel with the blade or radiating from a design feature etc. Finally, does it look the goods. If not, why even consider it. If the knife doesn’t make you feel happy or satisfied then put it back down on the shelf and find one that does. This is the core experience of having a custom made knife. One of the absolute masters of fit and finish is Steve R. Johnson, view his site at the following link; www.srjknives.com.
4)DETAILS. Often makers add decorations, for example; mosaic pins, inlay, carving, etching, monograms, engraving, chasing, blood grooves, stone settings, texturing and sand or bead blasting. These may seem like accessories but are usually an essential part of originality. Do tapered tangs fit in here? Certainly tapered tangs are an obvious demonstration of the makers grinding skills but I argue the same weight distribution could be achieved more easily by drilling out the tang. Therefore I put them in the fancy details category. Every one of these details adds considerably to the labour of making the knife. Don’t expect them to be tossed in for free. Speaking of details, to see the genuine master of hand carved, detailed and themed knives, visit Arpad Bojtos at the following link; www.arpadbojtos.sk/knives his stuff is so good it’ll make you put on a hair suit, take vows and renounce sin.
5)SHEATHING AND PRESENTATION BOXES. Ideally they should be part of the overall colour and design package, not an after market accessory. Personally, I think I’ve got it right when the whole ensemble fits together. I don’t mean to suggest you can’t get a specialist sheath maker to do the job. Just ensure they aim to match the personality of the knife and not their own. For a while I didn’t make sheaths, because I didn’t fancy ‘wasting time’ on leather work. Luckily a wise village elder persistently pointed out to me that a knife without a sheath is completely useless. He was right of course and eventually I started making sheaths, and surprisingly, I actually enjoy the process now as much as making the knife.
6)DELIVERY. It would be an unusual maker who could deliver within a few weeks. Construction itself takes that long by the time you include glue curing, heat treating, drying time on handle treatments, etc. If you are commissioning a knife, be prepared to wait for it. Depending on the maker, you may also be on a waiting list, which is quite common. Most makers will add mailing charges at cost, which may include some packaging. It is usually up to the customer to account for any laws and taxes regarding receipt of the goods.
One final thought on buying behavior. Above, I describe a sensible, bottom up approach to knife appreciation. That is, you walk into a knife show knowing what you want. You consider the quality of materials, fit and finish, the overall presentation including sheathing, maybe the reputation and longevity of the maker, you ask the price and make a decision. Well, we’re all different, and I don’t recommend the following to anyone, I’m just describing my approach when I go prowling for knives. In all honesty I’m completely top-down, Shallow Hal. It’s WOW, look at that! Then, much later, in the sober light of morning, comes the details. But hey, we meet some of our best friends that way.
A good place to start is, “What’s this custom made knife for?”
If I was a comedian I’d say, “to admire”. I’m sure that’s the ultimate fate of many well made and beautiful knives. I know where this is coming from. I have constructed ‘working knives’ for myself to take on desert camping holidays, but somehow they just seem to stay at home.
Be it a hard yakka working knife, or the other extreme, a magnificent art knife, it still needs a theme, a reason for being, a driving influence on it’s shape and character. This ‘intended use’, whether nominal or real will therefore be the starting point for all the design criteria including materials selection.
I sketch my designs in pencil on white paper. Once its close to finished, I’ll refine it on CAD, a computer drafting package. CAD allows me to easily and quickly fiddle with curves and lines without redrawing the whole design. Another benefit is that CAD does it all to scale. A simple print out acts as my template and the saved files are my library of designs. A word about CAD though. My wife is an architect so I happen to have free access to the software, otherwise it can be expensive to buy off the shelf. Secondly, CAD is a difficult place to think up a design. Pencil and paper are a much more creative space. Save CAD for refining a design.
How much input does the customer get. Well, how long is a piece of string. Once again, it is individual to the maker and the only way to find out is ask. I know one maker who gives the customer 100% control if they want or he will build on the strength of one word, like ‘Bowie’ or ‘Skinner’. I know another who makes a range of first class working knives from about five favorite, proven templates and other than colour selection, that’s the choice. And there is one very well known maker who’s stated aim is to make the customer’s dream come true. As an alternative example, I would suffer under any arrangement that turned me into nothing more than a knife factory. Dare I say, most want that happy middle ground where customer and maker work together in a way that gives them both a sense of accomplishment.
Get the design right in both your heads before the project starts. And don’t forget to discuss a sheath or lack there of. But then be prepared for the finished article to not look exactly like the drawing. It rarely will. Its hand made by a human being and they are unpredictable, skittish things liable to miss a design line by half a millimeter here and there or have a ‘better’ idea half way through the build. If you want something made by a machine there are plenty on the mass market.
The next thing we need to do is select our steel.
KNIFE BLADE STEEL
Welcome to the world of personal opinion. You could, without any trouble, find someone who believes the exact opposite of everything you read here.
I make my knives using stock removal. That means I start with a bar of steel and sculpt the shape of a knife into it. The alternative methods are forging, where steel is hammered into shape while in a heated, malleable condition and investment casting of dendritic steel, normally 440C.
It seems like an obvious thing to say but I’m reinforcing the importance of the main player in a knife. That is, the knife blade is made from steel. It’s really the only material that counts. All the other materials on a knife have bit parts. The steel has to be ground, sawn, sanded, drilled and heat treated. Often its dipped in acid or sand blasted for good measure. So, it’s substantially abused before the project is finished. Therefore, if you use cheap steel you will end up with a crap product. I only buy industry recognized steel from reliable sources. At the moment I currently favour RWL34, M390, CPMS35VN, 52100 and Damasteel stainless damascus. I’ve gone right off D2, so don’t use it any more.
Some commercially available knives are made from metals which don’t contain enough iron to be classed as steel, for example, talonite, Stellite 6-K and Vasco Wear. Others are made from special ceramics. Custom made knives using these materials are rare on the market but findable. Other knives are made from flintknapping stones and ceramics. That is, small chips are pressure flaked or struck from a larger mass until a knife is shaped. I once saw a knife blade for sale that was made by flintknapping material taken from the Hubble Space Telescope mirror. Custom flintknapped knives are usually made by specialists in that technique.
Steel comes in hundreds of different formulas, with codes mish-mashed by competing companies and countries. Only those that can be heat treated to a specific hardness are useful for knife making. That still leaves an extensive list of candidates which can be broken down to broad groups. Stainless steels with high chrome, Carbon steels with low chrome and high carbon, midway blends trying to be everything to all men and pattern folded steels often called damascus. You can also get laminated blends of the above which combine soft cladding with hard cores.
In general terms stainless steels resist rusting, therefore handy for culinary knives or those folk who know in their hearts they just might not be rigorous about maintenance. Most of my personal knives are stainless steel. It will pit and possibly rust if you treat it unkindly but you have to be pretty darned harsh. The trade off is seen that stainless steel will not sharpen as well or hold an edge as long as carbon steel. (Personally, I don’t agree). Either way, possibly this disadvantage has been addressed by the development of rapidly solidifying powder technology which produces stainless steel with a super fine crystal structure, for example, RWL34 from Damasteel or CPMS35VN from Crucible. Visit their website at this link for a detailed description of how it all works; www.damasteel.com I made all my personal kitchen knives from RWL34 and have no trouble keeping them ‘stupid sharp’ with just a weekly, two minute stoning followed by a strop.
THE BEFORE PHOTO
This photo was taken in December 2005 to demonstrate the mirror polish in a blade made from RWL34 stainless steel. The reflection is of my back yard.
THE AFTER PHOTO
This photo was taken in January 2009 using the same pocket digital camera and as near as I could make it, the same view. To my eye the biggest difference is the Jarrah table, which could use a couple coats of oil.
This cooks knife has been used nearly every day by my wife since it was made. It has had no special treatment other than being washed in warm soapy water after each use.
The two photos above are included to demonstrate the ability of stainless steel to withstand consistent harsh treatment. The knife was made from RWL 34, one of the best stainless steels available. Compare these photos to those below of a carbon steel blade.
In general terms carbon steel is the material of choice for those seeking longest edge retention. The trade off can be a disaster for those who let their guard down and have their knife ruined by rust. In high carbon steels such as 01, this can happen quicker than you want to know. Also, these steels will stain if used regularly. That is, a working knife will acquire a patina of very visible marks. These marks are superficial and not structural or bad for the knife. Now, I quite like that look, it has an ‘olde worlde’ feel that can be an attractive feature for the right design, I’m just making you aware that it might happen to your knife. My favorite is 52100 ball baring steel but the sharpest knife I’ve made was a chisel ground 01 cooks knife, see below. Carbon steels make first rate knives but you have to look after them.
THE BEFORE PHOTO
A cooks knife made from 01 tool steel. This photo was taken in September 2006.
THE AFTER PHOTO
The same cooks knife in January 2009 after being constantly used in my fathers kitchen. Note the staining on the blade and dark patina on the mulga handle. This is one sharp knife. A fine, almost filleter style, chisel ground in carbon steel, its like a razor. It stays sharp and the edge requires little maintenance, all the benefits of this type of steel. You just have to live with the discolouration.
The two photos above show a carbon steel knife after roughly the same treatment as the RWL34 knife. I like the ‘olde worlde’ look of this knife and it is very sharp. The stains are not detrimental to the integrity of the blade.
in general terms the halfway blends are trying to balance the edge holding and wear resistance of carbon steels with the stain resistance of high chrome steels. I’ve only used D2 but others exist such as D4, D7 and M2. I know makers who swear by D2 but I find it unspectacular. I’ve read elsewhere it’s impossible to mirror polish without an orange peel texture and I can only but agree.
In general terms modern Damascus steel is produced by variously folding and cutting a laminated stack of mixed steels and then forging them into a bar. The result can be truly spectacular patterns within and intrinsic to the steel that are bought into prominent relief by light acid etching. It comes in stainless or carbon forms from many makers around the world. The most expensive of steels, it is often used on collectors knives. While many amazing attributes are claimed for damascus steel, it is really the aesthetic one which separates it from the pack. Wootz steel looks similar though has much finer patterns. This is the stuff of ancient sword making legend, like around the year 1100AD. As I understand it, wootz steel patterns were formed in a single melt by impurities and trace elements that individually changed character during the forging process. Some claim to have re-mastered or mimicked this technology. For an example of what I think is an extremely attractive modern wootz, visit the Angelsword site, at this link www.angelsword.com. I’ve never seen this kind of material for sale in bar form.
The photo above shows a blade made from Damasteel stainless damascus. This has been highly polished after etching and the top of my head can be seen reflecting in the edge, just in front of the ricasso (such is my rubbish ability with a camera).
This is a heavily (deeply) etched carbon steel damascus blade.
The raindrop pattern steel and degree of etching was chosen to match the highly patterned wood used on the handle.
In general terms laminated steels have a core of very hard steel sandwiched by ‘softer’ more flexible steels, a technique that has been around for over 1000 years. The package is forged or welded together. The intention of laminating steels is to balance edge holding with flexibility. A hard steel which will hold a fine cutting edge is also a brittle steel. The softer, cladding steels allow the package to flex and spring which equates to toughness. So, the best of both worlds, with a sharp hard edge on a blade that will flex without snapping. Often the core is at RC 65 or thereabouts, which is very hard.
The steels used can be either carbon, stainless or damascus. Most laminates are sandwiched, that is, with soft steel on both sides of the hard core, however others are only laminated on one side, particularly Japanese style culinary knives. There are also some commercially made knives which have a core clad in many (10 to 30 per side) thin sheets of stainless steel, which, when ground into a knife shape, gives what they call a ‘damascus look’ steel. The purveyors claim that food does not stick to ‘damascus look’ knives due to the etched terrain, which breaks contact, letting the sliced item fall away. I haven’t used them so can’t venture an opinion specifically on that, however, I’ve put custom handles on a few of these and the customers are full of praise, saying they are the sharpest knives they own.
KNIFE EDGE HARDNESS
As above, the definition of a knife steel is one that can be shaped while soft (annealed) then heat treated to be made hard. This is measured on the Rockwell Scale such that RC 45 is too soft for a knife and RC 67 is too hard. Most knives will be in the range of RC 55 to RC 62. There are trade offs, pluses and minuses, as you would expect. You don’t get nothin’ for nothin’.
In general terms the harder the edge, the longer it will stay sharp. But, the harder the edge, the more brittle it becomes and the harder it is to re-sharpen. We strive to find a workable compromise. Then there is personal bias. Some folks like it hard and some like it soft. I usually go for RC 59 which is pretty well in the middle. I had one potential customer demand nothing less than RC65, which I think would render the knife almost impossible to sharpen in the field. However, after some discussion it became apparent he wasn’t looking for a solution to a particular problem. No, the actual reason was that he appeared to consider the high hardness reflected well on his manliness,…….hmmm.
To complicate the issue, a maker can, with skill, produce hard edges with soft spines, hard edges clad in softer laminates, unhardenable soft metals with hard cutting carbides, investment cast 440C knife blades with aggressive edges riddled by dendritic carbides and endless permutations there of.
KNIFE BLADE HEAT TREATING
I depost my blades with a professional heat treater with decades of experience. I nearly always ask for a hardness of RC59 to RC62, which I find is a good compromise between edge holding and ease of sharpening.
The heat treater tests for hardness using a tool that presses two fine points into the steel, on part of the handle which will be hidden. They write the result to one decimal place on the returned blade. There is error involved in heat treating, so the resulting hardness may deviate from your requested hardness by a range of one or two.
Many, many makers do their own heat treating. There are very good reasons for doing so. Some time in the future I might join them. However, I currently live in an area that has total fire bans for five months of the year ( due to wildfire risks). I really do not want to be earnestly explaining to my amorous cell mate how I’m actually innocent and shouldn’t be in this place.
KNIFE BLADE POLISHING
When the blade comes back from heat treating it usually carries a patina. For stainless steels this is light and easily removed by the next sanding grit. For some carbon steels it may take a bit more muscle. Also, the blade can sometimes be bent from the differential stresses of heating. This is especially common in carbon damascus, quite rare in plain stainless. The first thing I do is lay a reliable flat edge along the sides and repeat the straightening process until it’s dead flat. As the steel is now hardened it’s also springy. Unhardened steel will just bend under sufficient load and stay bent, hardened steel becomes a spring. Straightening the bends out of a spring can be frustrating at times, but absolutely necessary for a quality product. In truth, I’ve had occasions when a bend has got the better of me. When this happens its time to put the blade away and work on something else, come back tomorrow (or in one nasty case it was actually the next year) and worry it then.
Once you have the bends ironed out, sight along the cutting edge for straightness. Sometimes the blade will come back from the heat treaters with not only a bend but also a twist, happily likened to a propeller by your grinning knife making buddies. Twists are harder to resolve. You have to grit your teeth, apply a firm hand and hope no damage is caused.
Once the blade is straight I like to finish the polish. This involves hand rubbing 800grit to 2000grit. For damascus blades, I stop at 2000grit and go to the etching. For all other blades I then move to the stitched buffing wheel and green chrome oxide paste or whatever your choice of poison is. A mirror polish means its a matter of standing there until you literally can’t see any scratches under a strong light. Don’t loose concentration at 2850rpm or the blade will end up bouncing around the workshop like a stray bullet. I’ve been told the ultimate goal is a ‘black polish’, being so well polished the blade looks black at certain angles. I don’t really know what that means but it is an oft repeated stanza from the knife making fable.
I once watched a folding knife maker demonstrate the quality of his polished flat surfaces. He described them as optically flat. For the experiment he simply laid one metal surface on top of another and without the addition of glue, water or trickery, he picked them both up by holding the top piece alone. The contact between the surfaces was so complete it formed a vacuum that held them together. I was impressed. As the purchaser of a custom knife a lot of these valuable finer points are hidden from you.
Here’s an example of a mirror polished blade. Hand rubbed to 2000 grit and buffed from there.
Its a right hand, chisel ground cooks knife made from RWL34 stainless steel.
(This is a different knife from the one depicted in the section on stainless steel, above. )
KNIFE BLADE ETCHING
Damascus blades are etched to bring out the patterns in the steel. Often makers also use etching to put artful designs into otherwise simple blades. Other makers use etching to bring out the sexy and desirable hamon line generated during differential heat treating, which is when a knife is heat treated so it has a flexible spine and a hard cutting edge. I haven’t done the last as its the provence of those who do their own heat treating, so I’ll talk about the first two.
A polished damascus blade looks pretty much like a polished blade. None of the fancy and expensive patterns are visible except under very close examination with a strong light and a powerful imagination. The patterns are formed by forging and folding steels with varying characteristics into a bar. When ferric chloride or a similar liquid cutting agent is applied to the blade surface these various steels are removed at various rates. Hard steels will eventually stand proud and softer steels will indent. The pattern becomes visible as a relief.
The result is immensely variable depending on etchant used, time immersed, post etching treatments and masking. My personal preference is to etch until the pattern is clearly visible but remains well polished. This is not a rule. The overall design must be taken into consideration and you may wish to etch until the relief is so pronounced you can run your fingernails along inside the grooves.
When the blade is removed from the etchant it has to be washed clean. I also like to give it a good squirt with WD40 or similar to stop rusting. Here’s another opportunity for personalizing the design. The blade is covered in a relatively tough, grey-black, oxide like patina. You can remove this to whatever extent you desire. I like to take it all off and polish the blade again, many others like to leave some of it on to give depth and character to the pattern.
It is possible to etch surface designs into a blade a number of ways. The two most common are scratching a design into a mask or by masking off areas not to be etched. Combinations and layers of these can be used to complicate the design.
The first requires the entire blade to be covered by a mask, usually a purpose made waxy substance but can also be a thick layer of nail polish. Anything that will prevent the etchant from attacking the metal. (Do not experiment on your project. Use a test piece). The artist then uses a scribe to scratch the design through the mask, akin to line drawing. Only these scratches will be etched into the blade. An accomplished practitioner can draft a complete picture using this method.
The second requires only the design to be masked off and the remaining exposed metal to be etched. By starting with a complete design and staging the removal of various parts of the mask during the etching it is possible to complete a basic picture.
There are many businesses which specialize in etching. Using computer controlled photo lithography, lasers, bubble tanks etc they can, at a cost, reproduce just about any black and white design or picture you wish, in exquisite, realistic and pin sharp detail.
An example of etching with ferric chloride. The steel is 5160 carbon damascus. I etched four times to impose artwork of redgum fruit and leaves above the swirls of the damascus. The multiple etchings give a depth of field to the design.
KNIFE HANDLE MATERIALS
There is simply not room enough to cover all the handle materials available. I’m not even going to try. I’ll be limiting this discussion to wood because I’m unashamedly biased.
Wood doesn’t necessarily make a superior handle compared to other materials like horn, stone or composites. However it’s centuries old appeal can’t be denied. Often patterned, coloured, textured and unique even before the craftsman has started work. It can be carved, inlayed, dyed, laminated, presented as rustic or highly finished. A species of wood can be found to fulfil most requirements. For example, Lignum vitae made strong self lubricating bearing blocks, satinay from Fraser Island made shipping wharves impervious to the rigors of a marine environment, yew has a heartwood that can store and release energy quickly while being supported by the sapwood, making an ideal longbow. The list is endless and reflects somewhat on the variety which can be achieved on knife handles. Wood also warms quickly to the touch, most likely because it is such a poor conductor of energy. Good conductors like steel feel cold as they continuously draw energy from your hand whereas the surface of wood warms quickly as all the energy stays right on the contact between wood and skin.
For knife making purposes wood comes in three categories, seasoned au natural, laminated and stabilised.
Stabilised wood is natural wood that has had the water content of it’s cells replaced by hard resin. The global effect is to turn natural wood into plastic. The process involves removing the water content in a vacuum and then either letting fluid resin rush in to fill the vacated pores or doing so under pressure. Clear resin will result in a product retaining all the visual character of the original wood. You can however take the opportunity to add coloured dyes either prior to or with the resin which can produce great results.
Good quality stabilised wood will not shrink or warp on the handle. It is easy to work and polish. Some customers specify stabilised wood because they are concerned about natural timber moving on the handle, thus loosing the pristine look of their collectors piece. I like to think it has a main role in culinary knives or those knives likely to see continued and significant use. Large scale manufactures of kitchen knives, even the top shelf, have abandoned all but black plastic or stainless steel for their handles. As custom makers we can do better than that.
There are many rubbish examples of stabilised woods in the market. A custom knife maker needs to find a supplier who is equally dedicated and knowledgeable. Good quality stabilised woods are not cheap, often more expensive than the blade steel. As an extreme example, the most spectacular stabilized wood I’ve ever seen was a set of multi-dyed Marcian masur birch scales which took five years to make. They sold early 2008, for $250USD. And you know what, they were worth the price. (no, I didn’t buy them). Most stabilised knife scales are in the range of $50 to $150USD plus postage.
How about this for a set of stabilised and dyed knife scales. They were made and sold by Craig Stevens of Alaska during early 2008.
Photo is by Craig Stevens.
Stabilised wood has it’s benefits but just doesn’t come in the range of choices available from natural wood. Also, a lot of natural woods don’t require or won’t take stabilising. I’ve seen ‘stabilised cocobolo’ and even ‘stabilised verawood’ (a lignum vitae clone) for sale. What on Earth is that about? It either represents ignorance on the part of the purveyor or an attempt to take advantage of ignorance on the part of the customer.
There is one feature natural wood must have, it must be well seasoned before use. After going to all the trouble of shaping, fixing, polishing and buffing the handle scale, it is not a happy moment if they warp off the metal. Regardless of the wood species, I cut all my boards to scale dimensions at least a year before using them. This procedure not only lets the wood dry but relieves all the strains built up during growth, harvesting, seasoning, slabbing etc. If I buy wood already cut to scale dimensions I still keep it for a year before use. The purveyor may have seasoned it well however there is often a large humidity and temperature shock when the scales are flown over night from one climate to another.
Laminated wood made for knife handles is abundantly available in scores of different colour combinations. Not to be confused with common or marine plywood which consists of thin sheets glued together, the knife handle version has been completely saturated by resin, so is in effect another form of stabilised wood. The product is very strong, stable and can be quite colourful.
KNIFE HANDLE SCALES
It is often preferable to make them book matched. This means you take one block of wood and cut it length ways so that the pattern is mirrored on each side. If possible, cut the bookmatched scales so the end grain of each is mirrored as well as the handle side grain. That is not always possible but remember, its details like this that make a custom knife.
There are many exceptions. For example, for heavily quilted timbers such as top grade sapele, forget bookmatching and orientate the wood so that most is made of the glorious three dimensional figure. Also, many of the dyed and stabilised woods have no sense of grain direction, the same goes for burls.
Most makers add a liner between the tang and wooden handle scale. These are usually made from a vulcanized rubber fibre material that comes in cards or sheets. Unfortunately there are not many colours in the range and we’re limited to white, black, red and brick. Not exactly spoilt for choice. Using a liner is not necessary or mandatory. It is really a colour feature but I find they provide a more reliable glue contact between the tang and scale. I have no empirical data to back this up but I feel the liner material bonds better with the metal surface than naked wood does, and the wood bonds better to the liner. So I consider the liner part of the glue-up package.
There are so many routes to sharpening a knife and it is so wrapped up in personal bias, fable, mythology, likes and dislikes, I just do not want to go there. It is impossible to talk about sharpening without starting a brawl. It has been said that no man will admit he is a poor lover or rotten driver, well stick sharpening on that list.
In a few words. I use a 300 grit belt on the grinder to put on the relief angles. Using the slack part of the belt above the platen, carefully, letting the belt do all the work, make the edge until you can see a very fine bead forming. Flip the blade over and repeat for the other side. I then take the blade to a super fine Arkansas stone and hone in the primary cutting edge. Increasing the angle slightly from that used to put on the relief, push the blade until a fine bead is raised, flip over and repeat for the other side. I then gently remove the bead by pulling the blade backwards over a flat piece of leather well coated in titanium oxide. When removing the bead it is critical that you don’t round over the fine edge you’ve just made.
Using the grinder to put on the relief edge is really for the experienced and I strongly advise against it if you are not. Not only can it be very dangerous it can also ruin your precious work quicker than you want to know. If you have little experience with a knife makers belt grinder, stick to proven methods using stones, diamond plates, ceramics or similar.
Here’s the selection of sharpening stones I use. From left is a double sided diamond plate with 250 and 600 grit, used for coarse shaping the relief bevels, ie starting the edge. The gray stone is a super-fine Arkansas oil stone, milled flat and sold out of Germany, it feels like slippery glass and is the ultimate in Western style fine finishing stones. The black stone is a hard Arkansas oil stone, sold from USA. The flat and hard backed leather strop has a thick coat of green titanium oxide wax, good for removing the final burs.
Good Arkansas stones can be quite expensive but are an heirloom quality tool that can be handed down through generations. If you are after a cheaper alternative consider a man-made waterstone at far right. This example is double sided, 600 grit and 1200 grit.
A good tip given to me by a professional chef is to rest your stone on a damp kitchen cloth like this blue one, to stop them sliding on the bench, it works really well.
How sharp should a knife be? There is a groundswell of opinion now revolving (at least in Australia) around a commercially available device that gives the result in BESS units. This device essentially measures the amount of force required to cut a known thread and gives the answer in grams. Anything approaching 100 BESS thereabouts is pretty damned sharp. Anything under that is nuts sharp. Peter Bald set the record at a couple of knife shows around 2018 with his cooks knife at 25 BESS, which is unbelievable.
An odd characteristic I’ve noticed about sharp is with kitchen knives. I went through a period where I made my own kitchen knives as sharp as I possibly could. Take a seedless green grape and drop it onto the blade from around 25cm and it would part neatly in half and end up on the cutting board below. Guests would grin politely and wonder if they were in the house of a mad man. However if I then used that knife to prepare a salad, the food would be tasteless. Slices of carrot and other vegetables would have plastic-like polished faces robbed of all flavor. So now, I maintain all my kitchen knives just sharp enough to shave hair and that’ll do. Except for my meat knife, which is as sharp as I can get it.
In general, make a knife as sharp as you can. A sharp knife will glide through a cut using much less force than a blunt one and this allows you greater control, which in turn makes the operation safer. Using less force also reduces the chance of a slip, that is, you’ve been pushing that blunt knife hard and it suddenly bursts through the cut in a rush and the momentum carries the blade into some part of you or a bystander. This is not a good result.
Make ’em sharp, not only is it safer, its also more pleasurable to use. Everyone knows there is a great deal of satisfaction to be had in using a good tool.
If you want to learn more about sharpening, fine a copy of ‘The Razor Edge book of Sharpening’ by John Juranitch. The author backs up his ideas with decades of research and experience, a rare commodity in this age of free opinion.