Making a Knife: Design

Making a knife: Design

With all the tools covered, it's now time to delve into the knifemaking process itself. If you've missed any previous articles or wish to read them again, click any of the following links:

As with all projects, you start at the drawing board. I've noticed two basic flaws in beginning smiths: either attention to detail and perfection is lacking in the process, or it's lacking in the design. Usually one or the other, but not sure why. Whatever the case, let's eliminate both flaws, starting with design.

Why even bother drawing a design?

A lot of bladesmiths a lot of the time just start hammering at steel with a basic idea of what sort of knife they want to do. To be honest, I do this most of the time too (but I do go to the drawing board after shaping the blade). However, you shouldn't. Why?
Your first blade is not going to be very good. Your second blade will be better, much better, but still not very good. Each blade you make is practice for the next one. When you draw a design, you have a single standard to go against. Your job is to make a knife exactly like the one you drew. This is practice. It gives you an eye for design and for perfection, as well as a standard to live up to. It makes sure you end up with a beautiful knife, not a sharp piece of metal with a handle. Once you are able to perfectly replicate a drawing into a knife, you can work without one.
The second argument against designing one, is why not just follow a design downloaded (legally) online? Those are already good designs. I say sure, but to a point. Use other bladesmith's designs as a reference, but draw your own. This gives you an eye for good design, as well as making it creative, and yours. Doing it yourself makes you master of the entire craft, not just reproducing someone else's work.


NOTE: this entire process will be assuming the knife to be a stick tang, as opposed to full tang. This gives you further range of practice and also more on the art knife side of the bladesmith world, such as bowies. I recommend something like a "gentleman's bowie" (a slightly smaller version of the full length bowie knife) to start out with.

Where do I start?

Start with the type of knife you want. Skinning knife? Bowie? Combat tanto? As said above, I recommend a gentleman's bowie, though it is up to you. Then, type this into google images along with the word "bladesmith". Scroll through and spend a while looking at the different knives. Find your favorite blade shapes, handle shapes, wood colors, guard designs, etc. Keep them in the back of your mind, and get some paper.

I always draw mine with the blade pointing to the right, the handle left, the cutting edge facing down, and the spine facing up. This is what I will reference when I use direction.


Principles of design

There are a few basic principles I always follow, more don'ts that do's. These are:

  • No back-curving. With the exception of some Japanese or Arabian blades (which I don't recommend for your first knife), stay away from curving backwards. Don't let the spine go above the handle. Either straight, or forward curving. This doesn't mean the belly of the cutting edge shouldn't curve upwards, just the spine shouldn't. Clip points are fine. The reason behind this is knives tend to look better referencing what they do; they should point where they will cut.
  • The width (up and down on paper) should be the same thickness as the ricasso of the knife, assuming the knife will have a ricasso. This is for good "flow" from blade to handle.
  • The knife should flow from end of the handle to tip of the blade. They shouldn't look detached from each other. I'll explain more in detail how to do this later.
  • The blade should be as long or longer than the handle. There are exceptions, but stick to it until you get a good sense of design.
  • The pommel (end of the handle) should be wider and thicker than where the handle meets the guard or blade. This is both for looks and for practicality.

Drawing the Blade

I always start with the blade. The blade is the focus, and the handle works off of it. My personal method is actually to make and finish a blade first, then design the handle off of that, but again, start out by drawing. For your first knife, it's best to keep it around five or six inches max length. Visualize it and begin sketching.
Use pencil, and sketch it full-size. Do a lot of light strokes around the shape you want it, continually refining until you spot where you're happy with. Use some of those images from google for reference. If it's a common blade shape, nobody minds you copying it. Just don't copy other's full knives exactly.


As you get a good idea of what you want, sketch it in a little darker and sharpen the lines, erasing previous ones as you go. Keep in mind function mixed with aesthetics. It's ok later to refine it a bit to match the handle, as you'll see I did in this one.


Drawing the Handle

Start with your already-drawn blade. Place your hand over the paper, thumb over where the blade ends (handle side) and make a light mark on the other side of your hand. This is the minimum length you want the handle to be. I don't use measurements as it makes you think too much in a numbers mentality, resulting in a 'stiffer' blade design. 

Then, I make a few light pencil strokes, starting at the tip of the blade and following the "flow" of the blade. Often this means following parallel to the spine, but not all the time. Continue this line past the blade and into where the handle will be, and well past the end of that. Make it a single, uninterrupted stroke. I call this the flow line. Any and all lines of the handle will be in the same direction and flow, though this means you can also do "blossoming" lines off of it. 


Now I'm ready to start doing the handle. The lines are almost parallel to the flow line, and the deviations make it look natural. See if you can spot where the blade doesn't have a clean and natural flow.

At this point I began drawing in the guard. I save this for last in the outline, because it interrupts the flow from blade to handle. This interruption is necessary though, to keep the user's fingers from slipping forward and slicing along the blade. The guard is S-shaped, which helps in the flow look; the top part of the guard pushes forward, and the bottom, backward and down, encouraging the flow line. Guards are awfully tough if you don't have much experience, so for your first knife do something plain and flat, though a little longer in the front than the back (this emphasizes the "direction of destruction).

Here it becomes obvious what part is not in the flow; on the spine of the blade, a fourth of the way towards the tip, the downward curve is unexpected and 'unflowy', a serious flaw.

The design is fair, and it'll still make a decent knife, but it's not that much work to fix it. One pencil stroke in fact, turning the section into a false edge. At this point I also erase the flow line and extra unnecessary lines.

So now we have a nice clean design. If we were to draw the flow line again, the blade part might not even curve upwards much, but the line would still be clean and uninterrupted. Here is where I begin adding in details and features. The more time you spend making it look real, the more it'll refine your attention to detail. For this knife, the ricasso (portion of the blade between the cutting edge and guard) will be flat, with forge scale left in. The bevel and false edge will be "satin finished"; sanded to about 400 grit or so. The guard could be something darkened, maybe blackened copper or blued steel, and polished. The handle should be something dark brown, black, or really light colored. Deer antler is often similar to this shape, so I could use something like that. On the pommel (butt), I also added a pommel nut; usually a rod of copper or brass brazed or soldered to the end of the tang. This makes for good design, use (imagine getting whacked on the head with that), and adds a lot of strength to the knife. With a pommel nut, that handle is going nowhere.  

So here we have the finished design. None of this was copied from an online image, though you could quite easily find one that matched up pretty closely (as this is a pretty common knife shape). Tape your up in your workshop or on your workbench, and follow it exactly. If your knife follows the design exactly, it will be a beautiful knife.