Pushing Yourself

So you've learned how to make a basic knife. You know your tools, the techniques, the science, heat treating, the lot. But, an interesting thing about bladesmithing, and likely many many other crafts, is no matter how much you know there's always more to learn. Eventually you may perfect some technique, or become an expert on patternwelds, but there's always something else in the knife world you could be better at.

Of course, there arises the question on whether you need to push yourself and learn something new. After all, once you become an expert, or at least highly competent at a particular knife, and maybe you can make a living doing just that, why try anything else? Well, the whole reason most anyone starts bladesmithing is to try something new, or get good at something cool (forging hot steel to make a blade? Who doesn't want to know how to do that?).

Another reason is, especially if you plan on doing custom projects, pushing yourself to do new techniques and styles will prepare you in the case you need to know them, for say a custom project or contest (forged in fire anyone?). New techniques or styles take at least two tries for me before I can start to get it down beyond a newbie level.

So how does one push oneself to learn something new? Hands-on instruction is really the best way to go, any mistakes you make will get corrected immediately, and you'll get all the information you need as you go. On the other hand, if you always got hands-on instruction every time you wanted to learn something, you wouldn't have subscribed to the Broke Bladesmith now would you?

My whole knifemaking career so far has been one long learning curve, occasionally doing the same style multiple times because I like them, and I've found the best way to learn something new is to have fun with it. I don't sit down and think "Learning how to peen a domed pin could be useful. I'll do that next.", or "Making a kris would refine my grinding skills. I'll practice a few of those." 
Far from it. That might be the result, but usually it's more along the lines of seeing some new piece by a bladesmith on a forum or social media, and suddenly get the desire to do something like that. Maybe it'll be a pommel cap on an antler handle, with the cap shaped to match the ridges in the antler. Maybe it's a sanmai construction bowie, or an integral forged guard construction. 

That's right, one of the biggest ways I've pushed myself and learned new things, is because of a single thought: "That's cool. I want to make one of those." Fancy people prefer the term "Inspiration". 

Second thing I do, is have fun with it. Doing a completely new type of knife I've never tried to do means I'm unlikely to get everything right, so I'm really just there to enjoy the process. I'm shooting for an end point, success, and at the very least, be able to say that I did it. Then a little later, I might just try it again, and the second attempt is usually a huge improvement on the first. 

The third thing, is commitment to perfection, which I'll cover next.

Pins and Peening

The handle is held in place by a combination of good fit, a strong epoxy, and for maximum strength, pins. Now it is true, especially with hidden tang construction, that you do not need pins (epoxy does the job just fine), but the increased security and strength is incredible, and plus, it really adds to the look. 


The pin material doesn't matter all that much, as it's in a small enough area where brittleness or softness won't be a big deal. My first few knives even used wood, which isn't a bad option. Brass, nickel, steel, copper, whatever. For pins, really the material depends on the right color combo. Usually, just match the guard material or color. Design, fashion. The fun stuff. For a standard, I enjoy something like brass or copper for the vibrant red/brown toned materials (especially if it has a lot of character; spalting, burls, etc.), silver colored for the black or whitish materials, or those that have little character. 


The diameter of the pin is once again mostly hinging on design. Slim, flowing knife? Thin pin. Bulkier camp knife? A little thicker could be appropriate. Full tangs also can merit a little thicker of pins. Usually if there are quite a lot of pins, I'll keep them on the thin side. In general, I hover around 1/8" thick. A standard size makes it easier to always get a good fit, and the lack of size variance generally doesn't matter all that much, especially as I can peen them over to make them appear thicker. 

Drilling Holes for the Pins

With full tang knives, I like to drill the holes in the correct places in the tang first, then place the tang on top of a scale, drill one hole all the way through both the tang and the wood, insert a temporary pin, then drill the rest. From there, I'll do the same to the other scale, fit it all up with temporary pins, then shape the handle. If I intend to peen, I then remove and replace with slightly longer pins. 

For stick (hidden) tang knives, I make sure all the pieces are as tight together as possible, and carefully drill through the wood in the spot I want. I usually only do one or two pins for a hidden tang. When the drill hits the tang, I let it press in a bit, then take it apart. I find it more reliable and a lot straighter to then find the mark left by the drill bit in the tang, and drill through that spot separately. This keeps it where I can see the progress, and oil or tweak if need be. Once I'm through the tang, I'll reassemble and finish drilling through the wood. 


Note: peening takes a few tries to get right, and requires a lot of control and precision to do. My advice is to practice on scrap wood first. A mis-strike can ruin the entire handle, and at the very least merit re-shaping

Peening is the act of mushrooming over the top of the pin with a hammer, turning it into sort of the head of a nail. This makes the pin a permanent rivet. Proper fitting and peening can eliminate the need for epoxy completely, but I always use epoxy anyway. For starters, peened pins should only be put in once the handle's been otherwise fully finished; you can't do any further shaping or sanding with it in. 

First off, make sure the pin material fits the hole tightly; any wiggle could result in the pin crumpling down on itself. 

When you cut the pin material, give about an eighth of an inch (or less, depending how steep of a dome or how wide a mushroom you want) protruding on either side, maximum. Sand the tops flat and smooth. 

For the peening itself, it's important to remember to give light taps, take it easy, make sure you're precise, and go slow. Use a ball peen hammer with a smooth (many people even polish it) ball and face, as well as an anvil with a smooth face. The lighter the hammer, the easier and more precise. 

Balance the knife on its side with one end of the pin on the anvil. The pin should be vertical and the bottom end should be the only point of contact on the anvil. Think of the knife as only being there to hold the pin straight. If the handle itself is place on the anvil, you run the risk of damaging the wood. 

Start with the ball side of the hammer, lightly tap, using mostly the weight of the hammer. Tap in the center, then vary around the top. The indents will mushroom out the top of the pin. Do more of this if you want the top of the pin wider and flatter, less if you want it thinner and more domed. 

As you peen, flip over back and forth and try to keep either end of the pin the same. You don't want to do too much peening on one side, as you'll use up your extra pin length and have not enough to make the other side equal. Asymmetry is one of the signs of a poorly crafted knife. 

Once you've mushroomed out a good bit (I usually do this until I've got enough space underneath the lip of the head to barely fit a fingernail), flip over the hammer and use the flat face. Light taps, eliminating the indents on the top, then start varying all over, doming the pin. Eliminate any facets, and try to get a perfect dome. Be careful here, a mis-strike means hitting the wood, denting it, and meaning you'll have to carefully drill out the pin, remove it, re-sand the wood, and try again. 

Make sure the pin is tight on the wood, with no gap between the lip of the head and the wood. It should be perfectly circular, and smooth with no facets. Once again, it's tough to do on the first try, so practice is a lot of help. Once you're confident you've got it solidly peened, run over it with fine grit sandpaper to get it smooth (possibly unnecessary if you used a polished anvil and hammer). Clean up, polish if you like, and you're done. 

Handmade Knives in today's world

People who make knives by hand? That's gotta just be a reenactment thing. If I want a real knife I'll head to the sports store. Machines make better knives these days. What's up with handmade knives? Nobody takes them seriously, right? Right...?

Such is the statement and the general opinion we've all heard at least once. I mean, it does sound reasonable. People made knives by hand for the majority of human history, until the industrial revolution when it made sense to increase production rate by machine. Faster production, less work, sufficient quality. Average eight hours for a handmade knife vs a day or two's work machine work for dozens. 

On the other hand, we see handmade knives, even forged blades, becoming a boom in the last forty years. Many craftsmen make a full time living off of it, and shows like History channel's Forged in Fire are further showing an attraction to the craft. 

Why is this? What does the handmade knife hold that the mass produced one does not? 

I believe there are three main answers. 

The Process of the Craft. If you ask me, there's precious few processes cooler than the forging and making of the knife. From the raw bar of steel, to the forging of the red-hot bar of metal, to the sparks flying in the grinding, to the science of the heat treating, the perfect fitting of the guard, working of the wood, sharpening of the edge, it is a fantastically amazing process. The same thing that draws us makers to the craft, is often what draws the buyers to the craft. The appeal here is much greater than a machine stamping knife after knife of a plate of steel. 

The Aesthetic Quality. An example is Damascus, or patternwelded blades, which ties in with the first reason. The maker can use just about any wood, in an infinite variety of colors, he can personalize the blade, do damascus, switch up the materials, and has an insane dedication to beauty. Mass produced knives are cheap tools, handmade knives are pieces of functional art. 


Physical Quality. This is the sturdiness of the handle, the durability of the blade, the capability to hold an edge, etc. There are a few mass produced blades that have incredible quality, but they often have a limit that craftsmen can far surpass. An example of this are the some of the capabilities required for the American Bladesmith's Society Master Smith test; the blade must chop through a one inch thick rope in one stroke, chop through two 2x4's, and yet still shave hair, then must be bent to 90 degrees without snapping. 

Some of the many quality handle materials used in knives. Photo by the author

These are the three capabilities that sets the handmade knife apart from standard mass-produced knives. Some craftsmen sell with more of a focus on one quality than the others, and likewise, customers pay the extra price for that quality because it is worth it to them.

Because the handmade knife has these superior qualities, many (not all obviously, but many) people are willing to pay quite a bit of extra cash for these, enough to make up for the extra time, work, and skill put in to the art. 

Of course it's not everyone who's willing to dish out the extra cash for these qualities. But there are plenty of people to whom it's worth it. Hunters for instance, require a good knife for field dressing, that can double for standard camp duties. Many will pay one $100+ for a knife that's comfortable, that's durable, holds it's edge, does it's job easily and quickly, and with a bit of beauty to boot. They're hunting or fishing for the sport, but they're willing to pay extra cash for it, just as they would for a better rifle. 

How about a chef? Having a knife that doubles the rate at which you can do your slicing and chopping, increases the amount of time per day you can spend at other jobs. Increasing production, increases payoff. If you keep a standard storebought chefs knife and instead pay an employee to save you time, it's a constant cost that over time becomes higher than the knife. So for the person who needs the knife for efficiency, it'll actually save them cash. Add in the beauty, the feel (making slicing a pleasure rather than a chore), and the knowledge behind the process, and the knife becomes well worth $1,000. 

Or what about a collector? Same deal as a classic car or motorcycle collector. They aren't exactly what one would call cheap in their purchase choices. Every bit of the knife, or every bit of the motorcycle, are worth it to the respective collectors. It's their passion. Just as it is ours.

Why does a handmade knife cost so much?

After surfing youtube and the forums for a bit, I read and listened to the answers to the oft-asked question: "Why does that knife cost so much? I can get one at Walmart for twenty bucks". Got to thinking and here are some of my thoughts. 

When asked this question, most of us (I say us but being a noob I neither sell much, charge much, or make much) give the answer as something along the lines of "It takes a lot of time, materials, and skill to do", just to boil it down. Belts, grinders, electricity, gas, whatever, and that's just the tools, not even the materials, and doesn't even take into account the time and skill, nor cost of living. 


This is a legitimate answer (If time and materials cost requirement were reduced somehow yet still maintained quality, you can charge less and thus increase sales, because your knives are cheaper than, but just as good as, Mr. Wackleby's knives. Selling five $200 knives in a week gives a better payout than one $800 knife a week) but it rarely seems to satisfy and puts a bit of a blemish on the art. 

What the asker hears is "Yeah, my knife isn't much better than the Walmart one, but I put so much work and time into it I'm going to charge twenty times the price anyway". To which, the asker will make an exasperated point, and the smith will answer with "You don't have to buy it, it's obviously not for you". The asker then leaves, with one or more remark demeaning remark in his absence, and the firm impression that bladesmiths are wacky people who practice an irrelevant craft, asking exorbitant prices for something you can get for a fraction of the price elsewhere. Today it seems more and more people are becoming aware of the forged knife (forged in fire for example), but this seems to retard that. 


If we put it analogous to another craft, say cars, when a person asks a Ferrari dealer why a given vehicle cost so much (up to 400K), compared to a 1k car he can get from Craigslist, the answer isn't because "We need to pay a lot of employees, pay for materials, advertising, equipment, etc. etc.". No. The dealer will answer "If you drove it, you'll see. Have you seen this finish? Look at these wheels. Feel these seats. Feel the gas and brakes. Look at these features. Now tell me, how does the quality compare to your beat-up craigslist car?".


Or what about firearms? Compare a .22 plinker from the local sports store to a professional grade competition .308 rifle. They're both target shooting right? How come one costs so much more? Because of the extra worksmanship, materials, etc.? Yes, but if I'm selling you this .308 I'm giving you details on the scope, the smoothness of the action, the precision, etc.


If you're a highschool student getting your first car, or buying your son his first rifle, yes you'll go for the cheaper one. If you're a rich guy with cash to blow and a fascination in cars, you'll go for the Ferrari, or a competition shooter and collector who needs the best rifle, you'll go for the best one you can get. The difference that's relevant to the buyer between the choices is price and payoff (whether it's aesthetic or function or both), not what the cost to the seller is. To the highschool student, heck no the extra price isn't worth the payoff. To the millionare, the extra price is worth it. 



If I'm a high-end chef, heck yeah I'll pay the extra thousand dollars for a handmade gyuto. My living depends on getting the work done quickly, professionally, and precisely. The beauty adds a pleasure to my work, lightening up a dull day, and the feeling of a good blade (balance, feel, motion, whatever) makes it absolutely glorious to use. The handmade factor (knowing what you made was created in fire, hot steel and hammers pounding, sparks flying, the swish of the sharpening stone, etc., as opposed to blanks being stamped out a hundred at a time) gives you a knowledge of the blade, and a fascination to it. It's not a tool to get vegetables separated at a boring pace, it is so much more

From just a monetary standpoint, a chef may not have the extra hours (what is required with a $35 dollar blade) to do all the necessary cutting, chopping, and slicing in a day, so he'll pay an employee to do it (what, $15 an hour on the mininum?). That adds up. A lot. Spend $700 once, and you eliminate the need for that employee forever, and when you do the work yourself in just a fraction of the time, in just a few weeks it'll have paid for itself. 

But then, for a mom who cooks at home, a stainless $35 blade from Walmart is what she'll go for. It gets an insignificant job done, and it's easy to care for. Yeah having a really nice custom blade would be cool, but it's just not worth the extra $700. To the pro chef, it is. 


So basically what it boils down to, is we're telling the asker the reason we charge extra (because we need to), rather than the reason it's worth it to pay the extra cash (cause it's so much better in X ways). Instead of saying "It's worth $700 because it takes a lot of work, time and money to make", we need to be saying "It's worth $700, because let me just tell you about this sucker..."

Photograping Your Blades

Cheap and Simple Knife Photography

Photographs allow potential customers, friends, and other smiths to see your work. They're not as good as personally handling the knife, but obviously this is the next best thing. The only problem is the vast majority of photographs are very bad quality; both make the knife look bad and obscure the details, really degrading the look of what the actual piece is. Whether you're trying to sell, ask for critique and opinions, or just want to show off (because when we get down to it, bladesmithing is honestly pretty cool), good photos are essential. 

Note: I'm not an expert photographer; this is my personal findings, advice I've been given, and what my research has turned up


By and large, unless you're doing this professionally, the camera doesn't really matter. Due to my huge use of Instagram, I in fact use a good smartphone for most of my pictures. Photographs turn out better with higher quality camera of course, but what really matters is the lighting. This article is written assuming it's a basic camera or a smartphone with a high definition camera. 


Lighting is the key to a good photo. What you want is the full spectrum of light, but scattered. Outdoor pictures on a sunny tend not to be very good; for the following reason: light, of the full spectrum, comes from the sun, through the atmosphere, and onto any object in the ray's path. If it's shining directly onto the knife, the light is a little too much; certain areas with the sun shining directly on it will appear too bright, or darker areas and shade will come out just plain black. Or both. 

A detail shot in direct sunlight showing a closeup of the guard and handle. Way too bright in some areas, way too dark in others. Ew

Shooting in the shade, on the other hand, eliminates some of the light spectrum: the light is not coming directly from the sun, rather, it's reflected by the molecules in the atmosphere (which absorb all wavelengths save the blue spectrum), and then hits the knife (from there some more wavelengths are absorbed, creating the colors you see, and the rest is reflected into the lens of your camera). This results in photos that don't have the full color of your knife. 


Boring handle color and weirdly blue blade. Once again, ew

So, you need two elements for lighting. The full spectrum, and brightness balance. 

Sunny Day Shooting

This requires building a "lightbox". A frame of some sort (wood, PVC, metal, whatever) with tissue paper covering the sides. The tissue paper moderates the amount of light getting through, yet lets in the full spectrum. The larger it is, the easiest to work with. 

Indoor Lightbox

Once again, a lightbox, which moderates the amount of light getting through. There are many guides online which cover the different aspects of a lightbox, but the basics are a dark room, a soccer net-like frame, with tissue paper covering the sides and back. Full-spectrum lights in the back, positioned just right all around the box, so as to throw no shadows and get even lighting overall. This is what the pros use, and done right, will give you the best photos. The tough part however, is getting the right lights for it, and not all that easy to throw together in an afternoon. 

Outdoor Boxless Shooting

This is what I usually do. I wait until just before sunrise (I've usually got about a 20 minute window to snap the pictures), when the angle of the light gives a full spectrum without eliminating all but the blue. It's also not too bright (earlier it is, the darker of course, so as time goes on the lighting gets better and better). Complete overcast, yet not too dark of clouds, is just as good, and allows you plenty of time. The clouds act like tissue paper, scattering the light, keeping from being too bright, yet keeping the full spectrum. Of course, there are time constraints to both of these, but the lack of a lightbox enables you to take photos anywhere outside, so you can use bigger props (abandoned cars for instance) or any nature scene you like.

Backgrounds and props

This is where it gets fun to experiment and play around. The right props and background lend to the viewer associating a particular use to the knife: a leafy outdoor shot with a camouflage hat or jacket and a rifle would be best suited to a hunting or skinning knife. A tactical vest with a few shells and a pistol for a tactical knife, or wood shavings/sawdust and a clean 2x4 for a utility knife. 


A rasp and a wood plane serve as props for a utility knife

Art knives are better off with no props; just a single-color background, to draw more attention to the knife itself. "Using" knives (utility, hunting, tactical, skinning, etc.) are more permissible for props, to make the viewer associate the blade with the task it's designed for. 

Of course, don't overplay the props, either by drawing too much attention to them (is the rifle a prop for the knife, or the knife a prop for the rifle?) or by crowding too many objects in the photo. 

As for backgrounds, the ideal is something in similar brightness, or a little darker, than the knife's handle. The camera will get the perfect lighting for the knife, resulting in a photo where the brightness is wrong for the background, or vice versa. Tan colors have worked well for me (interestingly, a straw broom so far has made among the best backgrounds). The color and tone of the background should match the tone and mood of the knife. Pretty simple. 

So there are the basics for you, like a lot of knifemaking, it's a lot of playing around to see what gives the best results. High tech cameras aren't really all that important; as long as you have high enough definition, the important part is the lighting. Like I mentioned, I like taking photographs quickly and easily, and without expense. This way I can upload them quickly to media, (my favorite being Instagram) and move them around online easily without worrying about file size. 

Bladesmith's Apprentice Podcast


The Bladesmith's Apprentice Podcast is a project I've been working on for a while now. The basic idea is a podcast; interviewing different bladesmiths from around the world, to learn from and discuss anything bladesmithing related, from damascus and hamons to woods, heat treating, engraving, forging, tools, history, culture, ANYTHING. I know many young bladesmiths like myself have always wanted to talk, ask questions, and get advice from certain bladesmiths, and this is the source to hear that. There are so many smiths, with such a wealth of information that's just passed on to a dozen people in their career. Not just skills in the craft itself, but hearing personal stories, how a smith got started, business questions, culture and histories of a particular blade itself, ideologies, what possesses these guys to be bladesmiths, and mindsets of how they get better. There are so many fantastic smiths that it's a shame so little of their story, skill, and knowledge gets passed on. Not just for beginning and upcoming smiths like myself, but advanced things like canister damascus, tool construction, and so on. Sort of like the Art of Manliness podcast I suppose, but for Bladesmithing. I've got big expectations, hopefully eventually blade shows, in-person interviews, and interviews with non-bladesmith folk (like leatherworkers, woodworkers, chefs, and material suppliers).

It'll be hopefully bi-weekly, but I'm pretty flexible for scheduling at the moment, especially as I can request and record new interviews. Before each interview I'll post about the given bladesmith, see what questions or topics you'd like to hear covered. 

I'm really excited for this, and published my first episode yesterday, with my good friend Jake Gatliff, serving as a prototype first episode. I've got a lot to improve on podcasting-wise (as you'll probably notice, heh) but I'm learning fast and have confidence that this'll really take off. You can listen to the podcast on Podomatic  or Stitcher; the Bladesmith's Apprentice. 

Creating a Hamon

A dagger featuring my very first successful hamon

A dagger featuring my very first successful hamon

The hamon (pronounced "huh-mown") is a Japanese invention, in popular culture most widely recognized on the traditional Katana. The development of the hamon, along with the Katana itself is attributed in legend to the swordsmith Amakuni Yasutsuna, around 700 AD. 

The hamon is a visual effect, showing up when etched as a wavy line across the surface of the steel. The hamon is caused by differential hardening; one part of the blade, the cutting edge, is hardened (via quenching in water or oil from critical temperature), while the other, the spine, is kept soft and tough, and so less prone to breakage. When etched, the acid eats away more at the soft section, and so shows up darker, and less at the hard section, showing up lighter, sometimes with a dark band where the two meet. 

Blade demonstrating the subtler, ghosty hamon, by Journeyman Smith Stephan Fowler

Blade demonstrating the subtler, ghosty hamon, by Journeyman Smith Stephan Fowler

Remember, a blade is most effective when it is tough (and so, soft) enough to take a lot of stress without breaking, yet hard (and so, brittle) enough to hold an edge without deforming. Differential heat treating increases the hardness of the edge, yet keeps the spine tough. This means it's both tough enough to take a beating, and hard enough to perform without losing sharpness. 

So, differential hardening produces both a physical (hardness-toughness) and an aesthetical (hamon) result. Pretty good yield with no drawbacks. Now then, on to actually making it.

Note: I've only made a few blades with hamons, and am by no means an expert on the subject. This is my research, personal findings, and advice I've picked up along the way. 

Differentially Hardening

As you know, steel converts to a very hard, brittle state, when it is heated to critical temperature, then the temperature is dropped to nearly room temperature at a very rapid rate, using a liquid like water or oil.

So to keep the spine of the blade from hardening, it just needs to be cooled at a slower rate than the edge.

The way to do this is an insulating clay; something that keeps more heat in the spine, for just long enough to not convert to a hardened state (known as martensite). This way the blade is quenched, the edge hardens, the spine retains enough heat for enough time to keep from converting from martensite, and you have a deferentially hardened blade. 

That's the science for you. On to the practical application. 

First of all there are the materials. Not all hardening steels will produce a visible hamon. Basic carbon steels, such as 1095, 1084, 1075 will do it, with W2 producing some absolutely gorgeous hamons. 5160, (of which springs are generally made of) will usually not yield a hamon. You'll have the physical properties, but not aesthetic ones. Files and rasps tend to be close in composition to 1095, but I've found it's hit-and-miss in results with them. 

As for the insulating clay, there are two basic clays that most smiths use (these are aside from traditional Japanese clays, usually a certain mix of clays and ash), Satanite, a clay used for the most part to coat forge insulation, and Rutland's Furnace Cement, a clay used to seal fireplace bricks. Some smiths use a mix of the two. I found the furnace cement at the local hardware store for three bucks, worth at least a dozen blades, so that's what I use (can't beat cheap+effective). 

For the quenching medium, whatever you normally use for quenching. Water works (it's also the traditional method), but I figure about a %50 fracture rate on my blades; water often cools too quickly and the thermal shock cracks the blades. I've since switched to largely an interrupted quench: quench in hot brine for three-four seconds, then finish off in warm canola oil. Different mediums will produce different yields.

Finally there's the acid you need to etch the steel. The standard medium that produces the best results is Ferric Chloride, often to be found at radio shack. Lemon juice is said to work, though I haven't gotten any results from this. My usual is boiled vinegar; make sure the blade is clean, immerse it in the vinegar, pull it out every few minutes to rub off the oxides. 

Applying the Clay



Tanto with applied clay, done in the traditional Japanese method, by Dave J Friesen

The thickness varies. I've personally gone for approximately the thickness of the spine where it covers, so if the spine is 1/4", the layer of clay is 1/4" as well. Too thick, and what happens is during the quench the edge hardens, but enough residual heat is left over in the spine that it spreads into the edge, overtempering and softening it. If the layer is too thin, the spine as well as the edge hardens. It's worth experimenting to see what yields the best results. 

Try to keep at least a centimeter of steel exposed between the clay and the cutting edge. This keeps residual heat from ruining the temper. 

As for the shape you apply it in, it's entirely up to you. The hamon shows up as a ghosty gray line, so flames or whisps are pretty cool. However, until you get it down it's tough to get details (again, too thin of clay will allow the steel to harden). You can go with the traditional Japanese waves, just slather it on, or create images. You can get some very interesting results.

Bladesmith Will Morrison applying satanite prior to heat treating

Bladesmith Will Morrison applying satanite prior to heat treating

So really, have fun with it. It's kind of tough to apply the clay exactly where and how you like, and until you get some practice the hamon is rarely exactly how you originally plan it, but you can still do some pretty cool stuff. 

Quenching and Tempering

There isn't much to say here that hasn't already been covered. Standard quenching. Heat to critical; where a magnet no longer sticks, plunge in oil or water (quench), stir back and forth in a cutting motion. Stirring side to side can warp the blade, and let me tell you that is no fun to try fixing. The clay tends to soak and fall off as the blade finishes cooling, which is ok. 

Temper as one usually would; 350-450 F, depending on the steel, for at least two hours. Again, time depends on the steel. There can be a misconception that having done differential heat treating, you don't need to temper. This can be true in the cases of certain steels, but especially for thinner blades and knives that are likely to come in contact with very hard materials, the edge is still very brittle and can chip. 

Bringing out the Hamon

Hand sanding is just about the most boring, long, and tedious processes in knifemaking. Unfortunately, it's also vital for this step. I've brought out hamons only going to 1500 grit, but the higher the better. A satin finish (grit lines from the sandpaper still showing) makes the blade look flowing, soft, and smooth. This isn't ideal for a hamon, as the grit lines can still show up, looking dirty and ugly, and building up with oxides, rather than flowing and smooth. The ideal is to polish, meaning the blade surface is completely flat, down to a microscopic level. This gives the utmost appearance and attention to the hamon. This also means you've got a lot of sanding to do. 

This is a full article on hand sanding, going down into the science of it and how to get a perfect surface.

Once polished, or as high a grit as you can get, it's time to etch. This is where the hamon becomes visible. While sanding you may have noticed a very faint light anomaly along the surface, where the hamon is, but etching is where it really shows up.  

I've already mentioned the acids; ferric chloride if you want spend cash and get a really nice result, lemon juice or boiling vinegar if you're just experimenting and fooling around. Make sure the blade is very clean (grease or oil will block the acid), and submerge in the acid. Every few minutes take it out and clean off the built-up oxides, then replace, until the hamon is about as clear as you can get it. 

Once you're satisfied, clean, wash, and complete the knife.

For your first hamon, and especially with unknown or substandard materials, it's likely not to be very prominent, or sometimes not even show up at all. There are a variety of factors as you know, including steel types, steel blade thickness, clays, clay thicknesses, quench material, finish, and the acid. Once you get it down however, it's a really stunning effect, both functional and artistic. 

-Caleb Harris, the "Broke Bladesmith"


Knife and sheath featuring a beautiful hamon, by JS Ben Breda

Creative Filework

Several years ago, I, a boy of 11 or 12 who was just getting into metalworking, stopped by a yard sale looking for tools, materials, anything interesting. This particular yard sale had a box of needle files, all of various shapes. I bought five or six, left, then came back later to pick up more. The owners gave the me the nickname of "The File Kid". 

I still have those files. Most of them, anyway (hard to keep track of those little things) . I never thought they'd be really all that useful, after all, I doubt I paid more than 75 cents for them, and they seemed even more useless after I got a dremel, but any artist who works in metals will tell you otherwise. Files in general are priceless, enabling you to remove material in clean, utterly precise swipes of motion. They're not fast, granted, but it's tough to make a mistake with a file. Once they dull, bigger ones can enter a new life as blade. Basically, if you see files for sale on the cheap stock up. You'll need 'em. 

Moving on however, this week's subject is filework. As you've come to know, handmade knives aren't just physically superior to most mass-produced blades (barring some higher-end brands), they are an art form themselves, falling between tool and art, or "functional art". Filework is a huge part of that, essentially carving different areas of the knife, particularly the spine near the guard, to make beautiful patterns. 


Really, all the tools you need are a sharpie, vise, and at least two needle files, one square and one round. The greater variety of files you have, both in shape and in coarseness, increases the ease and complexity with which you do the work. For the demo piece below, I only used one file, a half round. 


There's a large variety of patterns you can do, going from very simple to complex. Vines, branches, and ropes are common choices. Often it's just a sequence of marks, say a round indent, then a sharp triangle, then a round indent and so on. Look at online images for ideas, often just searching "knife filework" will get you what you want. Mark on the spine exactly where to file away at, and make sure it's consistent, with equal distances and sizes. I like to do one side first, then the other side. This helps me keep track of the correct sizes, and helps pace it so the left side corresponds to the correct place on the right. 


The first few strokes should be in a single direction (file a stroke downwards, lift, bring up, place down, repeat), and with the most minimal pressure. Pressing hard and making back and forth motions will cause you to lose control and mark up the spine in areas you don't want, resulting in your having to regrind the knife in order to fix. 
I file at about 45 degree angle. If it's too steep, the marks become too prominent when viewing the flat of the blade. Too shallow, and they don't look distinctly separate from the "raised" portion (the vine itself).

This is just a personal preference, but I prefer to do all the round indents (you'll notice the pattern is composed of half-circular indents and wedge indents) on one side first, then the other, and then the wedges. This helps me get into the groove of things (pun intended), and can moderate the sizes. You'll notice I don't match the sharpie exactly; turns out my filework is way more exact and I can moderate it in a more precise and uniform manner than I can with a sharpie. 


After filing in the wedges, the filework is all roughed in. I went in afterwards and deepened the rounds, to give a more flowy look. This is something I do quite a lot; leave room for tweaking as I go. The trick is to keep a constant angle while filing; if it's convex, even slightly, they'll reflect light unevenly, catching the viewer eye's attention to the filed portions and away from the raised vine, where it should be focusing.


With the filing done, it's time to give the filework a finish. Wrap the sandpaper (220 grit or so, then moving up to at least 400+. I only did 320 as this is a demo piece) around the round handle of the needle file, and use it to work the rounds, then the file's blade itself for the wedges. Once you've brought it up evenly to the finish you want, you're done! 

Overall, there are hundreds of possible patterns you can use, and you'll find they can get exceptionally beautiful when polished or when the steel is sandwiched with other metals (in a full tang or folding knife construction) to make even more complex patterns. 

Some absolutely stunning filework by bladesmith Alistair Bastian, showing a fantastic glimpse of the possibilities

Tang Types

The knife is one of the oldest tools known to man. As metals and alloys such as bronze became widespread, knives became thinner, cleaner, and more effective. You soon had the problem of how to hold it without cutting yourself, and so variations of handles became more and more common, the goal being to attach a handle that's comfortable, aesthetically pleasing, and not going to break on you. 
In modern times, fixed blades have come to have two basic construction forms, Full Tang, and Stick Tang. 

Left: Full tang knife, Right: Stick tang knife. Both by the author

The tang is the bit of steel that extends past the blade into the handle. Full tang simply means it follows the two-dimensional shape of the handle, with the grips (or scales), sandwiching this tang. Stick tang is a, well, stick, extending into a cavity in the handle. Both types are secured with pins, epoxy, both. With a stick tang, the tang can be peened (mushroomed) over the pommel. 


The same blades as the two photos above, without wood to show the construction

As with so many things in knifemaking, one construction is not superior to the other. They're different, have strengths and weaknesses, but it's important to be able to do both. 

Often when I hear or read of the differences between stick and full tang, the full tang is described as stronger, more reliable, etc. . Technically, that's true, but it's not the whole truth. Yes, a full tang knife generally has more mass between blade and handle, meaning that if increasing amount of pressure is put on both a stick and full tang, the stick tang will deform first.

However, a stick tang (if made correctly, of course) can handle a lot of stress as well before it breaks, and by the time you apply enough to make it break, you are A: unworthy of being entrusted with a knife, and B: very close to the same stress it would require to break a full tang. The pressure it takes to break a stick tang is more than any such knife is meant to be used. Just about any hard hitting blade, be it katana, longsword, claymore, kukri, etc., is usually a stick tang. 

For the most part, strength is not a deciding factor on whether a knife should be stick or full tang. So what is? 

Most of it hangs around what the traditional standard is (katanas for example, tend to not be full tang), what your particular design calls for (aesthetics, what it would look best with), and some functional and assembly issues. 

The first two are pretty simple. European chefs knives tend to be full tang, Japanese ones tend to be stick tang for example. Choose whichever looks better, pretty simple. 

The third centers around the guard. Full tang knives, provided they even have a guard, have a slot that corresponds to another in the guard, so the guard slides on perpendicularly to the tang.  This means at least one side of the guard has to be flush with the blade, usually the spine side. This slims your options for guard design by quite a bit. Stick tang knives allow for a wider variety of guards, which have a slot and are slid up the tang to be flush with the ricasso. You can see the differences below.

Now as a side note, there is a way to have a full tang looking construction but still be stick tang: called the Frame Handle. This is usually used where a full tang is wanted aesthetically, but the artist still wants a two-pronged guard. The blade itself is stick tang, the guard is slid up against it, then a plate of metal, the same thickness as the guard, is cut out so the tang fits inside it, and the sheet frames it in the shape of the handle. 

Work in progress by the author, showing the construction of a frame handled dagger. A guard would be slid up against the shoulders of the blade, the tang inserted into the frame (copper in this case), then the scales (wood) sandwich the copper and steel tang

Summary: There is no right or wrong way. There are tradeoffs, but that's about it. Personally, 4 out of 5 knives I do are stick tang, but that's largely because I prefer a bowie style knife. There are widely differing opinions on whether a particular blade should be full or stick tang, but if you ask me the deciding case is usually style. What does it look better as. It's good to get a feel for both, be competent at either stick or full tang. They're different processes, and it takes some practice to get the different skills down, but it's well worth it.