Knife making 101

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Drop point hunter with elk handles

        Whether  you're going hunting, fishing, or camping, you need a good knife. You can buy a fine knife from any of the links on our knife page  or you can make a good knife yourself. A knife is one of the most important tools an outdoorsman carries, and serious consideration must be given to what you carry. If you have the time, patience, and a few tools, you can make a good quality knife at home. The first knife you make won't be as pretty as a $250.00 custom job by a famous knifemaker, but it can be just as effective. See knives our readers made in our Knifemakers Gallery.

   We will endeavor to build one good knife on these pages while learning some knifemaking basics.

Almost a bowie knife

Lesson 1

    First we need a piece of steel to make the knife from. It must be high carbon steel or suitable stainless steel ( not all stainless steel makes a good knife ). 

    Files are popular, have a high carbon content, and are very hard to work with. The files are very hard and brittle to begin with. Some knife makers use the water cooling method. While grinding the shape and edge, the files are frequently dipped in a water bath to maintain a low temperature and prevent the hardness of the steel from changing. When you are done you have a knife that has a very hard edge that is almost impossible to sharpen and is very brittle throughout. I have never used files to make knives but if I did I would first anneal the knife (see Lesson 7, Lesson 8) to soften the blade, and after grinding harden again (see  Lesson 6)

    My own personal preference is chain saw bar (the big flat piece the chain revolves around). The steel is high carbon and contains some chromium so it takes a nice finish. You can get the chain bar for free by asking your local chain saw shop for old chain bars they have lying around. They will be glad to load you up with their trash. 

    Saw blades are another good choice, readily available, and cheap. You can buy old saws at garage sales and flea markets (the thicker the better) or you can use new saw blades from the hardware store. I am lucky to have a big supply of high carbon tool steel I scrounged from the junkyard of a sawmill in Oregon. I have some band saw blades that are about 12" wide and 30' long that I cut into 6' chunks that are easy to handle. 

    Leaf springs from old autos are made of 5160, a high carbon tool steel, excellent for making knives. Leaf springs come from the auto salvage place, you can get more than you want for five bucks. The coil springs from cars are a good knife making steel, but you will have to heat the springs, uncoil and flatten them. This requires a torch or forge and a lot of hammering. 

    The most popular stainless steel used nowadays to make knives is ATS - 34. It's wonderful stuff but you need a sophisticated oven to harden and temper it properly. I don't have the technology in my shop so I don't use it but if you are interested look in knife magazines for an oven that will have the temperature control you need to prepare it.

    Lots of knife makers use 440C stainless steel. It's reasonably easy to work with and the hardening and tempering are not as complicated as ATS - 34. You will need an oven to harden this steel properly. It must be heated to 1880F for thirty minutes in a controlled atmosphere before quenching. A very good knifemaker, David Boye, sells 440C dendritic bar stock and knife blanks. Contact him at Boye Knives. There's no information on the site, but he will send you the specs by snail mail if you send him your address.  David Boye also wrote a very good book on knifemaking called "Step by Step Knifemaking". Get this book if you are serious about knifemaking. It's full of all kinds of good information and beautiful pictures of the knives he has made over the years. 

Buy Step by Step Knifemaking at:In Association with

    OK, I've told you what kind of metal we need, go get it and come back  for lesson 2 - preparing the steel.   

Lesson 1   Lesson 2  Lesson 3  Lesson 4  Lesson 5  Lesson 6  Lesson 7  Lesson 8  Lesson 9  Lesson 10

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