sharpening and caring for your kitchen knives

Bladesmithing Class with KitchenKnifeGuru

img_3303_300-250
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.

Master Bladesmith

joe_fnl2I 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.)
bowie-tomahawks

 

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. . .
img_3265
 
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:

1) Forging
2) Grinding
3) Heat Treating
4) Sharpening

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

After a breakfast graciously provided by our host, we head down to the workshop. . .
img_3366
 
. . .which consists of a front room for most of the finishing work. . .
img_3367
 
. . .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.)
img_3369
 
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.
bladesmithing forge
 
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.)
bladesmithing anvil
 
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.
bladesmithing hammer
 
Tongs to handle the hot metal we’ll be working with. Notice they’re designed to grab the steel bars by their edges and keep them vertical.
bladesmithing tongs
 

The Steel

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.
bladesmithing steel
 
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.
img_3279
 

Bladesmithing Demo

Joe grabs a stick of steel and shows us how to do it!img_3281
 
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.
img_3282
 
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.
img_3284
 
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.
img_3294_joe-forge
 
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.
img_3285
 
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. . .
img_3297
 
img_3295
 
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.)
img_3302
 

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.
img_3293
 
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.
img_3317
 
img_3318
 
Joe helps Scott finesse the curve on the horn of the anvil—one of the few times I ever saw Joe use the horn.
img_3328
 
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.)
img_3331
 
My little paring knife now has a small crescent moon dividing the blade from the handle. (But my blade is still connected to the darn bar.)
img_3364
 

Handle with Care

Now it’s time to forge my knife’s handle. But, first, we need to liberate it from the steel bar. (Nothing more fun than creating your own spark shower! Can you see my knife poking out to the side?)
img_3380
 
Next, we heat the steel back up. (We’re using tongs now, but still no gloves.)
img_3385
 
Then, we straighten it out some using the noisiest machine in the whole shop: the power hammer. (Imagine trolls pounding on a giant steel door.)
img_3384
 
Finally, we shape it. Well, Joe shapes it—creating a long, smooth curve is a little tricky for a newbie bladesmith. (Check out the size of the hammer he’s using—small and delicate.)
img_3386
 
img_3388
 
Ta-Da! Done with forging. (Can you see how we added a gentle curve to the spine?)
img_3433
 

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.

The grinding beast. . .
img_3349
 
. . .and grinding belt forest. There’s quite a range of grits—the grey Trizact belts going as fine as 1800 grit. (As a basis of comparison, your average home shop sandpaper runs from 50 to 200 grit.)
img_3436
 
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!)
img_3406
 
Task #1) All the gunk is almost off.
img_3481
 
Task #2) Smoothing out the shape of the bolster.
img_3405
 
Task #3) Thinning down the blade.
img_3407
 
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.
img_3484_ed
 
Inspection. . .
img_3413
 
. . .and some spit and polish the old-fashioned way.
img_3422
 
My paring knife, all spruced up. . .
img_3520
 
. . .but still kinda thick, huh? It needs a special trip to the flat-bed grinder.
img_3521
 
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. . .
img_3526
 
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.

Best Chef Knives—Six Recommendations

Are you in the market for a new chef knife? Check out KitchenKnifeGuru’s most popular page: Best Chef Knives—Six Recommendations.
6chefknivescollage3

Handle Design

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.
img_3426
 
img_3429
 
img_3501
 
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.
img_3496
 
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.
img_3571
 

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.
img_3451
 
Talk about using a light touch. . .
img_3450
 
Joe sands by hand at a high grit to remove the grinder scratches.
img_3458
 
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!
img_3471
 
img_3464_ed
 

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.
img_3508
 
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.
img_3511
 
You don’t do it all in one shot, but take multiple passes, gradually grinding in more and more.
img_3512
 
Scott practices. . .
img_3517
 
. . .and here’s as far as I got on my dummy. Pretty lame, huh?
img_3670
 
Needless to say, Joe ended up doing our actual blades.
img_3549
 
Two pleased customers (and mine below). Now they look like real knives!
img_3555
 
img_3589
 
But mine, since it’s not a hunting knife, needs some finessing. . .
img_3586
 
img_3635_flip
 

Heat Treatment

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.

Hardening

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.
img_3601
 
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!
img_3605
 
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.
img_3612
 
img_3610
 
Scott’s hunting knife gets an oil bath, spine up, to concentrate on the cutting edge. Hey, who’s got the marshmellows?
img_3599
 
img_3617
 
Air cooling, after the oil quench.
img_3627
 
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.)
img_3630
 

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.

img_3632
 
img_3633
 
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. . .

img_3661
 
img_3659
 
Cooling down to room temperature. . .
img_3664
 

. . .then into the freezer next to the butter. Ha!
img_3666
 

My babelicious blade. Should I save my pennies to take another two-day class to create a handle?

2 Comments
  1. Thanks for pointing out that heat treatment cannot be underestimated in its importance to bladesmithing and any style of knifemaking. I am sure that proper hardening of the steel via heat treatment and quenching would make a huge difference in the durability of a blade. I would imagine that treating the finished product with nitrogen or another steel hardening gas could be another good way to increase it’s durability.

    • Thanks, Luke! Do you know of any knifemaker that does nitrogen treating? Do you think it would work with kitchen knives—that need very fine edges, but still need to be flexible and not chip?

      Arcos Knives in Spain, tout their Nitrum steel. . .I wonder if that’s what they’re doing?

      http://en.blog.arcos.com/?p=35

      Best, KKG

Leave a Reply


 

Latest Posts

Most Popular Posts


Other Resources

An Edge in the Kitchen
by Chad Ward

Mastering Knife Skills
by Norman Weinstein

Facebook

Twitter

LinkedId

Google Plus

Follow Me on Pinterest