Knife Making Instructions and Tips
Well I thought that I would collect all the knife instructions into one thread since they were starting to get a little spread out. Please feel free to add to them. I know that there are other people here who are making knives as well and I thought that this would be a good place for us all to share ideas. I am going to start by reposting (hope the mods don't mind) our first few sets of instructions and then we can add to them.
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It doesn't take much to make a buffer. I've seen them made from old dryer motors. You can even make them from a wood lathe if you have one. The other option is to just keep sanding it with finer and finer grit by hand. I've done this down to 1000 grit and it works just as well as a buffer. It just takes more elbow grease.
When I was about 16 years old, I was given three old farm motors. I bought some arbor adapters for about $5 each and have been using them for over 20 years now. They work great. Just be sure to put thread locker on the set screws. You can even put a buffing wheel into a hand drill motor and then clamp the drill in a vise.
I thought that I should say a bit about buffer safety. They look harmless and a lot of people don't realize how dangerous they are. The unique danger with cotton buffing wheels is how "grabby" they are. They will literally grab your knife out of your hands and throw it right through you. One friend of mine had his knife get shot through the wall of his shop and into the next room.*
Hold the knife in a "break-away" grip. Don't get your fingers wrapped around it or worse yet, through any holes in the steel. It could break your fingers if the wheel catches on the knife and tries to pull it out of your hands.*
Be sure the wheel is spinning toward you from the top. Then use the bottom half or third of the radius. That way if it does get thrown, it will get thrown down and away from you. If you try to use the top of the wheel, it will get thrown right at you.*
Buff the bottom half of the knife, then turn it over and buff the top half. What I mean by this is that you don't want to give the cotton a 90 degree angle that it can grab onto.
Sheath making is a common curse for knife makers. You can sometimes find someone to make them for you or you can also buy them pre-made from Texas Knifemakers Supply.
Some of theirs are completely finished and others simply need to be stained and sealed. You can pick up leather dye form many places and there is usually a local store that has at least black dye. After staining I use a product called Leather Sheen to seal it. I've also heard of people mixing 50% water with 50% Mop and Glow to seal them.
Installing a Handle on a Full Tang
Full tangs with the guards already attached are a good way to start.
The first step is to protect the blades and your hands. Wrap the blades in masking tape. Don't use duct tape and don't wrap the handle. Stop at the guard.
Assuming that the guards are already attached, the second step is to prep the tang. Personally I sandblast the knife handle area where the wood is going to touch the steel. This cleans it and gives the epoxy something to bite into. If you do not have access to a media blaster, you can also sand it with a course abrasive. If you are careful, you can use your belt sander, or simply do it by hand with some rough sandpaper or emery cloth. Use something that is 100 grit or courser. I would use 36 grit.
Third is to cut the wood. Place the tang of the knife on your wood block and trace the shape. I use a scroll saw to cut the silhouette and leave at least 1/8 of an inch extra material on all sides. Then I turn the block on edge and split it in two. My scroll saw blade has an aggressive tooth count and has no problem doing this. You can also use a band saw or table saw, but the scroll saw does a great job and is safer.*
Fourth is to rough shape the two halves of wood. You only need to worry about the two sides of the wood that are touching the knife tang and guard. Simply use your belt or disk sander to flatten them out at 90 degrees of each other. Use a course grit of belt, no finer than 100 grit. You want to give the epoxy something to bite into on the wood as well.*
Fifth is to drill the holes in the wood. Use a pair of vise grips and clamp one wood slab to the tang. Drill through the holes in the tang and into the wood, being sure to pass clear through the wood. A drill press works well for this, but it can also be done with a simple hand drill and a bench vise. Just be sure to keep it at a right angle. Now remove the first piece of wood and clamp the second piece on the*opposite*(don't ask why I highlighted this) side of the tang. Repeat the drilling process.
Sixth is to sand the pins and tubes. This does three things. The first two are the same as above, give a biting surface for the epoxy and to clean it. The third goal is to SLIGHTLY*decrease the diameter of the pin. You want the pins and tubes to easily slide through the tang and wood. If it's a tight fit then there is not room for the epoxy and you can actually end up splitting the wood when putting it all together. Use your belt sander and course belt. Gently touch the side of the pin material to the belt and spin it in your fingers so that it is sanded evenly.
Seventh is to cut the pins and tubes. You can use a small miter saw, a hack saw or in some cases you can even use a pair of side cutters. Be sure to bevel the ends of the pins with your belt sander to make for easy insertion into the wood.
Eighth is to test fit it all. Make sure it all lines up well with very little gaps between the wood and guard or tang. A small gap will not matter as it will get filled with epoxy.
Ninth is to tack it back apart and clean all the parts. I wipe all the parts down with alcohol and lay them out on a clean paper towel. Let dry thoroughly.*
Tenth is to epoxy it all together. I typically use one of three different epoxies depending on the knife/application. For knives that are 1/8 inch thick or thicker, I use JB Weld. It is water proof, resistant to very (relative for epoxy) high temperatures and it is easily available. For thinner blades, or for lighter color handle materials, I use Devcon 2 Ton epoxy. It is clear and more flexible than JB Weld. I will also use Devcon 5 minute epoxy, but only for specific reasons. It is not as strong as the other epoxies, but when you need something to cure quickly it fits the bill. The dangerous thing with the five minute epoxy is that it can cure before you have the handle fully assembled. This is especially true if you are new to putting them together. I have had good luck with some other brands of epoxies as well, but I have also had some pretty bad experiences with some. I try to stick with these three simply because I know they work and I can always find them. Use a piece of cardboard that is about one square foot for a work surface and for mixing the epoxy. After mixing the epoxy, use something stiff like a popsicle stick to spread it onto the mating surfaces of both wood halves. Be sure to use a toothpick to get epoxy into all the holes and set them aside (epoxy side up). Spread the epoxy onto the mating metal surfaces. Then lay the tang onto one wood half. Coat the pins and tubes with epoxy and insert them through the tang and into the wood. Then place the second wood piece onto the knife tang. Use vice grips, C-clamps or spring clamps to hold it all together. Don't clamp it too tight. you want to keep some epoxy in there, but there should be epoxy oozing out of all sides. Let cure overnight.
Eleventh is to shape the handle. Use your belt sander and files. I sand the profile first and then shape the sides for a good feel. Start with a course grit and stop around 100 grit.
Twelfth is to final sand the handle. I do this by hand once I am done with 100 grit on the belt sander. You can go as fine as you want. Personally I like to take it to about 300 grit and then use a cotton buffing wheel with rouge. This gives a nice high polish quickly.*
Thirteenth is to seal the wood. I like boiled Linseed oil. Give it a good coat and let dry over night. Wipe it off and give it a second coat. Let dry completely.*
Fourteenth is to remove the masking tape and sharpen the blade.
Antler and bone are a bit more tricky to use, but it sure looks good when done. There are two common ways of attaching it. The first is to split it in two and sand the halves flat. That works well for full tang knives like the two you just finished. The tricky part is not exposing too much of the porous middle when you shape the profile of the handle. Typically that just takes some playing around with different pieces until you find one that will work for that particular knife. You can purchase them though where they have split the antler/bone for you and have stabilized them by impregnating it with some kind of epoxy or resin. It simply costs more for that and you are not using the antler that you harvested. The second way is to drill out the middle and use a partial tang. These are often referred to as "rat tail tangs", "stick tangs", "partial tangs" or "through tangs" if they pass clear through the handle and out the back end. When using these you do not split the antler/bone. You simply drill a hole in one end. The hole only needs to be as big as the tang, but some people drill out the entire center and fill it all with epoxy. I think either way works well. I like to have the stick tang go at least 3/4 of the way through the antler when doing this. If you can get it all to line up perfectly, you can also drill through the antler and through the stick tang. This way you can epoxy in a pin that will aid in holding it all together. This has to be done before the knife is heat treated though.
Antler and bone tend to burn easily. Use sharp belts and don't let it get hot or even warm to the touch. Try not to sand it down too much and expose too much of the porous middle. Use sharp drill bits and don't force them through the material. What I mentioned earlier about under sizing the pins is very important with bone and antler. If you drive in a pin, the material will split or crack. If you use bolt style rivets, be very careful not to over tighten them. I have started sealing the bone and antlers with Lustra wax when done and it has been turning out nicely. You may want to check out jigged buffalo bone. It has had the porous middle part taken out and filled with a bone dust/epoxy mixture. It is called Imistag.*Imistag Scales - $12.88 : USA Knife Maker Supply
You do not need to use a sealer on it since it is plastic impregnated. For Dymondwood you simply sand it to about 320 grit and then buff it with a sewn cotton wheel and a rouge such as "JacksonCR White" (about 600 grit). Then if you want you can give it a final buff with a loose cotton wheel and "Jackson 51 White" (about 1200 grit). One trick is to have two sets of buffing wheels. Use one set for brass. Then tape the brass and switch to your other set of wheels for the handle. Even if your "wood buffs" get some discoloration on them from the brass you can clean it out. Take a scrap piece of wood and buff on a sharp 90 degree edge of the wood. Typically I feed the rouge from one end of the rouge stick onto the brass buffs and from the other end of the rouge stick onto the wood buffs. This helps keep the brass from transferring from the rouge stick onto the "wood buffs".
The size of steel is just as important for a new knifemaker as is the type. This is especially true if you do not have a belt grinder. Removing steel by hand can take a lot of time if you have excessive amounts to remove. My favorite size is 1 inch wide by 1/8 inch thick. The vast majority of knives that I make come from this size of stock. It is amazing how many different sizes and shapes of knives that you can make from it. Even many knives that need 1.25 inch wide steel can be made from 1 inch wide material with only slight changes that people never even notice.*
As for the type of steel, I prefer ATS-34, D2 and CPM-S30V. These are all easy to find and are air hardening steel. That means places like Texas Knifemakers Supply can heat treat them. Some places will not heat treat steel that require a type of quench bath (water, dry ice, oil, etc...). A2 would be a good choice but it can be a bit pricey and it is not very stain resistant. If you take good care of your blade, that is not an issue. I find that many (most) people are so used to stainless blades though that they will rust the knife if it isn't stain resistant.*
The finish of the steel, as shipped to you, is something to consider as well. I pay the extra fee for "precision ground". That means that they started with a piece of steel thicker than 1/8 of an inch and ground off the mill finish so that it is exactly 1/8 of an inch thick. More importantly though is that all the little pit holes have been ground out and the "mill scale" has been removed. To me this is well worth the price. D2 usually doesn't have too bad of a mill finish and neither does ATS-34 once you get past the dark outer surface. CPM-S30V though can have a terribly pitted surface. Out of the three steels that I prefer, I have only found D2 in precision ground.*
I do not recommend CPM-S30V for beginning knife makers since it is hard to sharpen, expensive to purchase, expensive to heat treat, hard to grind and is a real bugger to polish. However once the knife is completed, it makes for a really great blade that gets a fine (sharp) edge and holds it better than the other steels that I use.*
D2 tool steel is probably my over-all favorite. It is more expensive to purchase than ATS-34 but is the same price to heat treat. It holds an edge better than ATS-34 but not as good as CPM-S30V. Although most people honestly wouldn't be able to tell the difference between D2 and CPM-S30V. With 12% chrome D2 is technically not a stainless steel, but it is very stain resistant. It is commonly used as planer blades in sawmills. The draw backs to D2 are that it is harder to sharpen than ATS-34 and it doesn't get as fine of an edge.*
ATS-34 is what I would recommend for the first time knifemaker if not D2. It is inexpensive and makes for a great knife. It is easy to grind and sharpen. Polishing it is easy once you get past the dark mill finish. The dark outer finish on ATS-34 can be a real bear to remove by hand. Even though ATS-34 doesn't hold an edge as well as D2 or CPM-S30V, it is still at the top of the pack. It is a premium steel that most production knife companies charge extra for.
Heat treating can be done by Texas Knifemakers Supply for $5 a blade if it is under 10 inches long. They do charge more for exotic steels such as CPM-S30V which can be as much as $25 a blade. Typically though the shipping there and back costs me more than the heat treating.*
Drawing Your Knife
As lonehunter said earlier, grinding out a knife is easy. You simply remove everything that doesn't look like your knife. That can be tricky though if you can't envision what you want it to look like. I find it extremely helpful if I first draw it out on a piece of paper.
I suggest that your first few knives are full tang style with no guards. Many people find that these are the easiest to make.
So gather up a piece of paper, a sharp pencil (I prefer mechanical), a ruler and a good eraser. Next you will need some things to trace. It wasn't until recently that I got a set of French Curves (not that kind). For years I was simply tracing household items to get the shapes and arcs that I wanted. Many of the items were various coins, mugs, bowls, spoons, plates or other knives.
The first thing I draw is the outline of my steel so I know the boundaries that I am working in.
Next measure and mark a line where the handle and blade meet. The type, shape and size of knife will dictate where this line goes. Play with some knives that you like and see how large the handles are. Typically around four to five inches makes for a decent handle size.
Now for the fun part. Start drawing the outline your knife. Look at pictures to get some ideas. Possibly trace parts of knives that you already have.
Once you have an outline that you are happy with, erase the lines that indicate the edges of the steel bar.
Fill in the details of the knife such as where the handle material will end and the rivets. Draw the bevel of the edge. You could even draw in some wood grain. These little details will help you envision what it will look like when it is done.
When you are happy with your drawing, you can trace the outline onto another blank piece of paper. To do this I put the original drawing onto a sunny window and then the blank paper over the top. This creates a light box effect and makes it easy to trace.
Cut out your outline drawing and use it as a template.
Trace your template onto a piece of bass wood, plexiglas or some other material that is 1/8” to 1/4” thick and is easy to work with. This wooden template will be what you use to trace the shape onto the steel.
Cut out your wooden knife and play with it. Pretend to use it. Hold it in different positions. Your wife will think you are nuts, but it is quite helpful in the long run.
If you are not happy with your design, now is the time to change it. Simply keep playing with it and trying various shapes until you like it.
In the attachments you can see my original drawing, the paper and wood templates, the ground blade blank, and the finished knife.
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