The Official on line magazine of the
North American Frontiersmen
FROM THE CAPTAIN
I have always enjoyed this gentleman and wanted to share a little gem he wrote years ago, Stanley was a great guy even after he made you made you still loved him, God Bless you brother. Enjoy the man. Ole.
The Magic Tool
The making of a knife by Stanley Honour
This little incident might have happened in Africa more than a million years ago. It will serve to remind us that mankind has been using and making the knife since the dawn of history. Today, as always, the knife remains man's most useful tool.
Now if we may, somewhat abruptly jump a continent and skip a millennium or two, let's think about making a knife as our forefathers might have done a mere century or so ago.
First of all colonial America was well supplied with knives and other cutting implements of English manufacture. One good reason for this was a dearth of raw steel. Another reason for this situation was the tendency of England discourage commercial manufacture in the colonies in order to preserve market for its own output. Still many a frontiersman fought, whittled, skinned or cut with a blade improvised from a broken sword or forged from an old file and hafted with antler or native hardwood.
The John Russell Cutlery Company began operations on the Green River Greenfieid, Massachusetts in 1834. it is often assumed that Green river Brand knives are somehow associated with Green River Wyoming. Not so! The name originated in Massachusetts.
Other manufacturers followed John Russell and good quality American made cutlery became increasingly available to those who had access and could afford the price. Nevertheless and since the making of knives was well within the skills of backwoods settlers and local blacksmith, hand made knives were in regular use throughout the 19th century. The civil war saw southern smithies turn out quantities of fearsome "Bowies" or "Arkansas Toothpicks" , for example.
Early hand made knives evidently were shaped primarily by hammering of the red hot blank on an anvil. Some cuts may have been made with a file or chisel but without power, grinding had to be held to a minimum. This contrasts with modern methods oŁ forming by stock removal, grinding that is, on automated equipment. Old blade shapes resembled our familiar butcher knife style except for long fighting knives which were given spear points.
Handles were attached to narrow spike tangs which pierced the full length of the handle and were secured at the end by peening or threading on a nut; or, the tang might be shaped to the full width of the haft but only half its length. This latter style saved steel and was better suited to naturally curving antler handles. Full length and width straight tangs to which scales were attached apparently came in with regular commercial manufacture. Possibly the development of the famous Bowie knife had a strong influence on knife style. Personally, I don't think that the Bowie shape is very practical for anything but fighting or sticking.
After picking up this general background and managing to collect a few originals specimens. I decided my hand at making a knife from scratch. I did get some technical help from various publications and a basic manual on forging, a blacksmith friend gave me some very useful hints and demonstrations as well. My purpose here is to pass on to you my experience and observations. My own first try was not without problems but to my surprise and pleasure, I came up with a keen and dependable knife which continues to give satisfaction to this day after close to twenty years of service. By extension, I believe any persevering home craftsman who wants a personal and authentic frontier knife can do as well or better.
My raw material was a worn out twelve inch mill file. Equipment consisted of Anvil, a section of I beam, forge - a cast iron brazier (hibachi), bellows - an old vacuum cleaner with air flow reversed, quenching tub a plastic bucket which didn't work out as I shall later explain, and tongs - a large pair off pliers with insulated handles. A heavy ball peen hammer, a bench grinder, a hacksaw and a propane torch completed this assortment of highly specialized and obviously professional implements.
Step 1- The file is annealed, i.e.. hardness removed) by placing it in a good fire, wood or coal, whatever. The file should reach a red heat from one end to the other. Hold the red heat for a few minutes. You may remove the file from the fire and allow it to air cool; or, you may leave it where it is and allow the fire to die out. The slower the cooling, the better is the annealing. Some types of steel are annealed by thrusting red hot into a bag of lime to slow cool for hours.
Annealing makes it possible to bend, cut, grind, saw or otherwise work cold steel.
Step 2 - The teeth are ground off the file. True many old knives show the pattern of the file teeth but those incised lines, on the blade, are possible starting points for fractures during forging or hardening.
Step 3 - The file blank is hack sawed to length. This step involves decisions as to size, shape and style of tang. At this point it is a good idea to select a handle before forming the tang. It is important to note that the top of the handle should be even with the top of the blade. This usually requires that the tang be located off center closer to the blade top than to the cutting edge. Cut no square corners where the tang joins the blade. A square corner may start a fracture. Cut a small radius here with a small rattail file.
I personally like the wide, half-handle-length, type of tang. it is more typical, stronger and easier to make. The butcher knife style of blade is good for dressing game, for skinning and for general purpose use. Don't go overboard on blade length. Too long a blade makes a knife hard to work with and tiring to the wrist. The completed knife should balance at a point a bit in front of the guard.
Step 4 - Ok!, Let's have at the fun part the forging. Forging is believed to toughen steel by compressing its molecular structure. Besides which, something of your own personality flows into the steel and all kinds of mystical properties are imparted. But hold it!, first we have to think about what it is we want to accomplish.
What we want is a gradual taper of blade thickness from guard to point. At the same time, we want the blade to be "V" shared in cross section, thick at the top and tapering to the cutting edge. Check any good modern hunting knife for inspiration. These objectives are realized by moving metal with directional blows. If you simply pound straight down on the intended cutting edge, that side will stretch longitudinally, the top will not and your blade will curl like a sickle. Strike glancing blows in the direction you want the metal to move.
Load up your forge with fuel, preferably with blacksmith's coal Charcoal briquettes will do. Place the file blank well into the hot coals and blow the bottom of the fire with your vacuum cleaner "bellows". When the blank reaches a good bright red, it is ready to work. As color advances from cherry red toward white, the metal nears its melting point.
Pick up the glowing blank with your tongs and hold firmly by one end. Placing the blank on the anvil and start pounding. If the blank is hot enough, sparks should fly and the red color should fade out slowly. Enjoy yourself, Vulcan!
Step 5- Final shaping may be done by judicious surgery here and there with a hacksaw and by grinning. There is a point beyond which sawing, filing or grinding is more productive than furthering hammering, especially for we casual craftsmen.
Step 6 - hardening is next. before detailing this procedure, I want to point out a couple of things. First, there is a gradual reduction of hardness starting just north of the hilt or guard area and moving toward the end of the tang. The tang will have to be drilled eventually for the cross pins which pass through the handle. Second, don't use a plastic bucket as I did on my first try. The red hot blade kept on going, right through the bottom, which inspired some less than admiring comments from interested observers. Use a metal bucket or large can.
Water will serve as a quenching fluid but may sometimes shrink the metal too rapidly with cracks resulting. I use motor oil which cools more slowly but sometimes flames on the surface. This may be scary.
Heat the blade to a good cherry red, uniform from end to end. With the longest handled tongs you have, grasp the blade head on by the end of the tang and plunge it quickly, point straight down into the quench. Any other entrance position may cause warping or unequal shrinking. You can help yourself by stopping the blade entrance so that the tang is held just above the surface level of the fluid. Bob it up and down a few times, an inch or so either way until all red color fades out. This helps to reduce hardness in the tang, as mentioned earlier, if this procedure sounds difficult, forget it and plunge the full length of the hot blade into the quench at once. You can adjust later.
Step 7 - Tempering. When the hardened blade is cool to the hand, rub it to a natural white color with emery cloth or wet-or-dry paper. Don't hit it, try to bend it or drop it. it will be quite brittle. Lay the blade on a warm fire brick with the cutting edge away from you. Play the flame of your propane torch along the back edge of the blade. Color will appear and move toward the cutting edge. When the back is light blue and the cutting edge a yellowish straw color, stop! Color the tang a dark blue in the same way lightening a bit as you move to the guard or hilt area.
Step 8 - When the tempered blade has cooled out, again polish out the color with abrasive cloth or paper.
Make a guard of nickel silver or brass, I saw out the hole for the tang with a jeweler's saw. Cut a slot in the handle to accommodate the tang. Drill through, the handle and tang for the cross pins. These pins may be made from 3/16tbs brass rod. Pin ends are preened over chamfered holes in the handle.
If the tang is still too hard to drill, place the blade in your vise, tang up and point down. Only the tang is to appear above the jaws of the vise. Heat the hole areas to the glowing point with your propane torch. Blade temper will not be affected. Heat travels upward of course and the vise acts as a heat sink.
Care and attention to the fitting of the guard and handle will reward you with a fine looking and efficient cutting implement. Voids collect dirt and corrosion.
The hardness of the cutting edge is just about right when you can barely cut it with a brand new mill file. Final sharpening is done mostly on a rough whetstone until the edge cuts freely, after which you progress through carborundum to India stone to a final polishing on an Arkansas stone. A good edge takes time and patience.
Almost one hundred and fifty years ago, a man named John Pierpont wrote this verse:
you in a few months