Introduction To The Broke Bladesmith

About three years ago I was surfing YouTube and came across a video on how to make your own knife from an old file. I tried it, with varying degrees of success. It was a simple deal, stock removal, no heat treat, using just a hacksaw and a file. Let me tell you, a couple hours of draw filing on the flat of a barely softened file is not fun. It wasn't until about two years later that I had enough tools and the tools were good enough that I could stop worrying about finding another just so I could fully finish a project. I learned a lot along that way, and many times I would labor to find or build one tool for a long time, only to learn afterwards a simple trick that could have gotten me the tool immediately. This book, written as a series of weekly articles, is to document these tricks and show how and where to gain the tools you need to begin bladesmithing.

Every Friday I'll release an article on a different subject, for example next week I might write one on grinders, and the week after on anvils, etc. There will be a description of the tool, what it does, and of course either suggestions for how to put one together, or where to salvage or buy one for low cost.

Now as you read the forthcoming articles, there are two main principles to keep in mind.
The first, is the equipment you see in professional bladesmiths shops are not the ones you need. To start out bladesmithing, you don't need a triple torch forge, you don't need a belt grinder, and you definitely don't need a power hammer. Professional tools like these just make the job easier and faster. Not better. Better relies on how much time, work, and skill you put into it. Professional smiths invest in this equipment because though they make $3,000 knives, they can't make a living if they can only produce one every three months. So, don't go and dish out a few thousand dollars for new equipment. Faster stuff often means it's easier to botch it up before you realize what you're doing. Once you are proficient with a tool, upgrade. Almost every option for a tool I will list can be scavenged for free, or bought for under $5.

The second, is that many tools are based more off a principle; it needs certain characteristics, rather than must be a certain object. For example, I might say "a solid fuel forge must be made from something that is ABC, and be able to do XYZ, and here are some common things that fit those requirements." As opposed to, "You need XYZ objects and put them together in such and such a way." This is for two reasons, the first, is that this book could not fit every conceivable process on building coal forges into one chapter. The second, is so you know how it works. You will know what a forge needs in order to gain heat. You will know how to improvise if something fails. Maybe you don't have access to any of the suggestions I list, but you have some object sitting in your backyard that could work instead. If you know what a forge, or any other tool, needs to have in order to work, you will know whether said object will work or not.


You don't need to spend $2,000 on a forge like this...  Photo credit: kschmada on YouTube

You don't need to spend $2,000 on a forge like this...
Photo credit: kschmada on YouTube

...When you can spend $0 on this  Photo credit: MrCoop on YouTube

...When you can spend $0 on this
Photo credit: MrCoop on YouTube



Knowledge is your first tool

You are not going to be a professional bladesmith overnight. You won't be "graduating" from complete newbie for many months even, without direct hands-on teaching from a bladesmith. The two knives below are an example of this. I made both of them, the one on the right being made a little under two years after the one on the left. Total commitment will speed up the skill learning, but there is a lot to learn so better start now.
Understanding what you will be doing and a general knowledge of how to do it is essential before compiling all your tools. Get your tools as you need them, in order of priority. I will be doing my best to order the articles in such a way. As I write these articles, I will be assuming you have a general knowledge of the process. If you haven't already, read up on the following steps in Bladesmithing:

  • Choosing the steel
  • Forging the steel to shape
  • Normalizing the steel
  • Grinding final shape
  • Grinding bevels
  • Drilling and shaping the guard, and fitting it to the tang
  • Fitting the tang into handle material
  • Shaping the handle
  • Hardening the blade
  • Tempering the blade
  • Sanding the blade
  • Fitting the components together
  • Peening the pins
  • Polishing and finishing
  • Sharpening

There is also sheathmaking, but I am focusing only on the knife itself. No need just yet to become a total expert in each of the above subjects, just make sure you know what each step in essence is, and when the stuff is done.

The two most helpful places I've learned these steps have been online, firstly different videos on YouTube, and second on a forum created by renowned bladesmith Don Fogg.


Using Instagram to gain knowledge

Most of you reading this probably came through Instagram, but this is important for future readers and current ones alike so I'm including this here.

Instagram is ideal for not just learning, through seeing master's work and getting advise on your own, but also with connecting with other bladesmiths, building friendships which are full of future potential. Not only other bladesmiths, but leatherworkers, woodworkers, and material suppliers, opening up possibility for trades. Instagram is ideal because it is image based and very simple. You follow a person, and their photos show up in your feed in chronological order. Simple comment system and a direct message option. You take photos of a project with your phone and can immediately post it, and get very quick feedback if you have any questions, which of course are better understood with a photo. Instagram has helped me tremendously, and is a huge boost to your skills and connections. Go make an Instagram account right now.

On using Instagram to show your work and ask for help, make sure to keep several things in mind. First of all, do not use a personal account you already have for posting your work. Other bladesmiths have absolutely no interest in photos from your party last night, or a group photo of you and your friends. If you already have an instagram account, make a separate one and use it only for bladesmithing related photos. I also advise keeping this account completely separate from other friends, so they don't interact on your page. Your bladesmithing account is for bladesmiths and the craft world only.

Secondly, do not use text-talk. Capitalize where you should and don't use abbreviations. Something like "hier is a pic uv my nife" is an immediate turnoff and no one will take you seriously. Replace that with "My most recently completed knife". The worse your text looks, the less intelligent you seem.

Third, find other bladesmiths on Instagram and engage them; ask questions about their work and, of course, be respectful. The Instagram knifemaking world is a community, where people know and help each other. Get into that community and engage other makers. I can't speak for everyone of course, but I personally love it when people ask for advice and help on their projects, and I'm sure many other smiths love it too.

And lastly, take the highest quality pictures you can. If I can't see your blade I can't help you make it better.

Now, good luck on your bladesmithing journey, and read up! Next week will begin with a tool or equipment subject.