Bladesmithing. Have you ever wondered what what it would be like to hand forge a knife from just a bar of steel? Wonder no more and join my journey. . .
Just a few weeks back I had the gumption to take a two-day bladesmithing course from Joe Szilaski, an ABS Master Smith, who lives just an hour north of me in Pine Plains, NY. He only offers the course twice a year, so when I saw it pop up on his website again, I snapped to and signed up ($500).
Even though I am, KitchenKnifeGuru, I have to tell you the world of blogging and shooting videos in my kitchen is quite a long leap from the world of standing at an anvil banging on hot metal. Added to that, my shop experience and skills are a big fat zero and the biggest power tool I own is small, hand-held circular saw. So, was I bit apprehensive about my bladesmithing project? Yes. But most of all I was curious . . . and hungry for knowledge.
I soon discovered I had little to worry about and had hit a motherlode of bladesmithing know-how. Our fearless leader, Joe, had an impressive body of experience. Formally trained in metal work (1963) in Hungary’s foremost trade school, he learned European traditions dating back hundreds of years. After immigrating to the States in 1970, he followed a variety of professions, but knifemaking (and other edged tools such as tomahawks) remained a constant. In 2000, he became a member of the American Bladesmith Society (ABS), passing the same rigorous test as Bob Kramer of Kramer knives. And not long after, he entered the upper echelons to become an ABS Master Smith—there are currently only 130 in the world. (Below, samples of Szilaski’s work: Bowie knife with an Indian stag handle, an S guard of nickel silver, engraved top and bottom; pipe and spike tomahawks with inlays and engravings.)
My Bladesmithing Posse
I also wondered what kind of folks my fellow fledgling bladesmiths might be. Survivalists, serious knife nuts, high-powered ad executives? Turns out, like me, they were more knife nerds than anything else. And they all habored a secret passion of course. . .
One came from Queens, three from Westchester (including yours truly), and two more schlepped down from upstate New York. (One is AWOL from this photo.) We ranged from bowling alley managers to students to Bloomsberg photographers. Two were budding bladesmiths taking their third or fourth class with Joe. And believe it or not, when I introduced myself as the owner/operator of KitchenKnifeGuru.com, a couple blurted out, “You’re KitchenKnifeGuru?” (Never did figure out exactly how to take it.)
Lay of the Land
One thing I have garnered from this bladesmithing sojourn is that forging a knife consists of four different skills, some related, most not:
3) Heat Treating
Joe’s bladesmithing class has been designed to cover only the first three—and after two days, we will have barely scratched the surface. No exaggeration. But we’ll begin with forging. . .
DAY ONE. . .
Forging 101 and the Tools of the Trade
. . .which consists of a front room for most of the finishing work. . .
. . .and a large, fully-outfitted shop which, funny enough, used to be an indoor target range for bow hunters. (If you look real hard in the left corner, you can see a small target still hanging on the wooden-plank back wall.)
At the far end of the shop, four forges are firing away—each the size of a large microwave, blasting out yellow-orange flames from a deep orange hearth. Fueled by propane, they’re set to burn at around 1800 degrees, a few hundred degrees hotter than the temperature we’ll need to forge our steel. This is where we’ll hammer and bend.
Next to every forge are two anvils, one at each mouth, each sitting on a tree stump. (Interesting fact: Even though it’s just a big hunk of steel from a by-gone era, it can be challenging to find a decent anvil at a decent price these days.)
Contrary to what you may suppose, the hammers we’ll be using are pretty light—only a pound, or pound and a half—significantly lighter than your average sledgehammer. And Joe will explain that we don’t have to hit the steel very hard, more like tapping. If you hit the steel too hard, you risk deforming it or leaving a hammer print that then you must pound out. Plus, it’s not necessary—the forge makes the steel highly pliable.
Joe briefs us that the steel bars (sticks, really) we’ll be making our knives from are 1084 carbon steel (not stainless). One bar per knife (and we’ll only use the last third of it). There are, literally, hundreds of suitable steel alloys to choose from for bladesmithing, but 1084 is one of Joe’s faves. It’s easy to forge, simple to heat treat, and takes a very hard and resilient edge. I find it hard to image Joe’s gorgeous Bowie knife (shown above) starting out as a bar like one of these. But it did.
More steel facts: 1) The fundamental formula for all steel is iron (85 to 99 percent) with a dash of carbon (2 percent tops). You can add other alloys, but the basic recipe is always iron and carbon. Our 1084 steel has .84% carbon . . . as well as bits of other alloys. 2) When we forge, we are changing the grain structure of the steel from medium to fine. This finer structure, on a microscopic level, allows the cutting edge to be narrower and more wear resistant. That’s what makes a hand-forged knife so wickedly sharp.
Below Joe instructs us to overlap our hammer blows in a tight, regular pattern. We should avoid scattering or we’ll leave weaknesses in the steel that can appear as cracks later on when we heat treat. Guess what that would mean? Yep, starting over.
Joe grabs a stick of steel and shows us how to do it! He starts with what will become the tip. The tip is usually the most important part of any blade because it handles the brunt of cutting and institutes most slices. But before he does any real shaping of the point, he wants to start compressing the steel molecules.
He compresses the steel by smashing the end of the bar on the anvil (and with his hammer), which makes it smoosh out, and then pounding it back into shape. He explains that not only the molecules directly under the smashing get compressed, but molecules further down the bar are affected as well.
He inserts the bar back into the forge and heats it to cherry red (forging temperature) and then goes outside and dunks it, or “quenches” it, in oil. As you can guess, quenching cools the metal much quicker than cooling in air.
Quenching while you forge is part of a process called thermocycling that further compresses the steel. Joe teaches us to thermocycle throughout the entire forging process. Forging involves continually heating up the metal, hammering for a few minutes until it cools, heating it up again, and quenching. Over and over.
After Joe has done the smashing and thermocycling three or four times, he starts shaping the tip. The video below shows Joe finishing up the tip after having worked on it for maybe 5-10 minutes. (Notice how he chokes the hammer for maximum control.)
Now it’s our turn!
Tale of Two Knives
I realized early on that it was much too challenging to try to take systematic photos of myself and my knife going through many of the bladesmithing tasks. . .or impose on others to take shots. But it was possible to take sporadic snapshots of Scott, my forging-mate, and his knife along with some of my own. Sooo, now follow the bladesmithing journey of two knives, intermingled (mine and Scott’s)—from forging to grinding to semi-finishing to heat treating.
Here we are working on our blade tips. . .
Below you can see my tip is about done—it doesn’t have to be perfect. We can assuage a multitude of evils when we get to the grinder. (By the way, notice how no one’s wearing any gloves? That’s one of the main reasons Joe starts us with long bars of steel—to save us time having to fuss with tongs.)
Knife Design 101
Back to the blackboard, where Joe draws and describes the different types of knife designs we can choose for our knives. Everybody but me is doing some kind of hunting knife. Hey, I’m KitchenKnifeGuru, I need to do a kitchen knife. Unfortunately, my first choice, a chef’s, is politely nixed by Joe. Too much grinding time, even for a 6-incher. So it’s a paring knife for KKG. A little disappointing, but I’ll survive.
Joe pounds a steel cylinder into the softer hot metal to create a curved shape at the end of Scott’s handle. You can see he’s already done another curved indentation further up to help delineate the blade from the handle. This interface between the blade and handle, on a kitchen knife, is called the “bolster.” On traditional chef knives the bolster bulges out.
Time to double-check the size of the Scott’s handle. Earlier on, we put Scott’s hand on the anvil face and drew the chalk marks. Talk about custom. (Although Joe explains that most hands, and thus handles, run 4 to 4 1/2 inches wide.)
Handle with Care
The Daily Grind
Grinding is a totally different skill set than forging. While forging has a slow-paced, almost slow-motion, feel to it, harking back to times gone by, grinding has a fast-paced powerful machine running the show. Your skill and success depend entirely on how well you can harness the machine. And a powerful grinder can ruin your knife in no time flat. Nowadays, because the quality of mill steel has improved so much, there are many successful custom bladesmiths that don’t forge at all, but simply grind. It’s called the “stock removal” method and both schools of smiths tend to sneer at each other.
There are three basic grinding tasks we need to perform on our knives: 1) clean off the coating of gray/black developed in the forge, 2) refine the shape, and 3) thin down the thickness. (But first lets protect ourselves from inhaling too much metal dust!)
Task #1) All the gunk is almost off.
Task #2) Smoothing out the shape of the bolster.
Task #3) Thinning down the blade.
Keeping cool: Next to every single grinder in the shop, there’s a bucket of water which you must use continually. Grind and dip. Grind and dip.
Inspection. . .
. . .and some spit and polish the old-fashioned way.
. . .but still kinda thick, huh? It needs a special trip to the flat-bed grinder.
A flat-bed grinder is the ideal choice for serious thinning. Much easier to keep the grind nice and even. My elegant little paring knife will end up being half as thick the big boy hunting knives. Now I understand why Joe steered me away from creating a chef knife. We’d be grinding for hours. . .
Take note—we’re still not wearing gloves. There are different opinions about this, and obviously, it’s safer for your hands to wear protection. But it’s safer for the knife, to grind with bare hands. Because it’s so much easier to feel the temperature of the metal—which is crucial. If your knife gets too hot, you can ruin the steel so badly you might have to start over again.
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In this bladesmithing class, we won’t have time to actually create a handle. But we’ll prepare our blade for a future handle by sketching a design and drilling the holes we’ll need to attach the handle to the tang (the part of the blade that runs through/underneath the handle). Below is the process for Scott’s knife.
The smaller holes are for brass pins which are more decorative than functional. The large holes will hold the glue that does the real work.
Below is a spread of different types of wood Joe uses for knife handles. Cocobolo is one of his favorite because it’s super-hard and has a high oil content making it highly resistant to water.
DAY TWO. . .
Impromptu Sharpening Session
Sharpening your knife is not included in this class for the simple reason it’s pretty unsafe to mount a finished handle on a knife that has a sharp blade. Not much to safely grip. Buuut, one of our students, Scott, has already been creating kitchen knives using the stock removal method (grinding only, not forging) and has been having a hard time with the final step—sharpening. He’s found the steel on the edge so thin that before he gets a blade razor sharp, he often grinds chips out of it. He’s already ruined several knives.
So Joe has offered us a special tutorial on sharpening using an unfinished 7-inch santoku that Scott brought along. This is quite a bonus for KKG—watching a master bladesmith create a razor-sharp edge.
Talk about using a light touch. . .
Joe sands by hand at a high grit to remove the grinder scratches.
Then, he finishes with the buffer which will polish the steel to a shine. Strangely enough, the buffer is the most dangerous machine in the shop. If you happen to catch an edge or corner of the knife in the wheel, it will grab the knife out of your hand, spin it around, and release it Lord-knows-where. A genuine knife-throwing machine!
Grinding the Cutting Edge
One final grinding task remains that’s probably the trickiest of them all (if you don’t count sharpening). It’s to create the bevel of the cutting edge, the edge that will eventually be sharpened. What makes it so challenging is that it needs to be perfectly even on each side, yet come to a perfect point. To get it right, takes hours and hours of practice. Below, Joe draws a number of different edge styles (see Knife Edges 101) on the blackboard, but we will all go with the standard V.
On a dummy bar of steel, Joe shows us how to practice. The blue tape, which we would use on the actual knife as well, marks where the cutting edge should stop.
You don’t do it all in one shot, but take multiple passes, gradually grinding in more and more.
Scott practices. . .
. . .and here’s as far as I got on my dummy. Pretty lame, huh?
Needless to say, Joe ended up doing our actual blades.
Two pleased customers (and mine below). Now they look like real knives!
But mine, since it’s not a hunting knife, needs some finessing. . .
It’s finally come time for the grand finale—heat treatment. Heat treating cannot be underestimated in its importance to bladesmithing and to any style of knifemaking. Time and again I’ve heard expert bladesmiths say, “You can make a respectable knife from mediocre steel and excellent heat treating. But from excellent steel and mediocre heat treating, you can’t make anything decent.”
Joe explains that every steel you buy from the mill comes with its very own heat treating instructions. And they can vary greatly, some being much more complicated that others. One of the reasons he favors 1084 is that it’s simple to heat treat, but yields dependable results.
Quality heat treatment for knives involves two separate processes that are usually done in quick succession: 1) hardening, and 2) tempering. Hardening does just what you think it would do, makes the steel harder. But it also makes the steel more brittle, to the point that it’s basically unusable. It will crack, chip, even break in two at the drop of a hat. Thus, it must be tempered. Tempering reduces the internal stress, the cause of brittleness, and gives the steel back it resilience, toughness, and flexibility.
The process for hardening most steels is to heat up them up to forging temp and then quench them in either oil or water. For the hunting knives, Joe is going to do something a touch more sophisticated. He’s going to quench only the cutting edge of the blades and not the spine. This will lend the spine more spring and flexibility (excellent characteristics), without sacrificing any hardness for the cutting edge.
Almost ready. . .the quenching oil is in the long metal casserole pot with a lid.
Joe double checks the temperature. He has heated the oil up to 140 degrees, so it won’t be quite as extreme a change as room temperature. Remember, the knives are coming down from 1400-1600 degrees. Hot!
In order to maintain perfect control of the correct hardening temperature, Joe does each knife separately. Most of the heating is done at the door of the forge, not inside.
Scott’s hunting knife gets an oil bath, spine up, to concentrate on the cutting edge. Hey, who’s got the marshmellows?
Air cooling, after the oil quench.
Joe used this metal file to test the hardness, rubbing it against hard against the cooled knife’s glassy surface. Not a single scratch. (This will change after tempering.)
Tempering usually involves reheating the steel to a much lower temperature, around 300 to 1000 degrees. And then allowing it to cool down slowly to room temperature.
The tempering recipe for 1084 is: 1) Bake at 350 degrees for two hours. 2) Cool to room temperature. 3) Super-cool in freezer overnight. 4) Remove from freezer and allow to reach room temperature. Repeat three times at least.
Here are our four knives safely tucked into Joe’s tempering oven.
The second day has run so long that we all opt to finish our tempering at home. Joe has assured us a standard kitchen oven should work like a charm. Here’s mine in our oven at home. . .
Cooling down to room temperature. . .
My babelicious blade. Should I save my pennies to take another two-day class to create a handle?