The Craft of Bladesmithing
My goal in bladesmithing is to make the best possible knives and swords I can. I want them to perform exceptionally, and be beautiful. I want to make swords that a resurrected medieval warrior would consider magic. To this end I don't do any 'production' work. All my projects are unique and I spend as much time as it takes to make them the best I can.
Almost all my blades start with new steel from the mill. I rarely use scrap steel, and when i do it's only part of the blade and used for aesthetic reasons. The cutting edges are never made from scrap or repurposed steel. A piece of steel such as a car spring has a whole history of use behind it that can include strain-induced microcracking. Putting days of work into a piece of steels that may have fatal flaws in it seems foolish to me. In addition you are never sure exactly what steel you are working with, which means your heat treat may not be optimal.
Currently I use a mix of 1075 & 15N20 in my swords and large pattern welded blades. It provides an excellent balance of toughness and hardness for blades that will see lots of impact. For large monosteel blades I use 1075 or 80CRV2. 80CRV2 is a fantastic sword steel, combining incredible toughness and a higher carbon content for more hardness and edge retention. It also requires significantly more work than 1075 due to its resistance to straightening and abrasion once it has been hardened.
Forging the bar to the shape of the blade is the first step. With Modern steels the forging does not improve the qualities of the steel, despite what you may have heard. Modern steels are PERFECT in the sense of not having any contaminants, and having even distribution of the carbon and other elements.
Before the modern era forging the steels helped drive out impurities and distribute the carbon evenly throughout the steel. It improved the quality considerably. The folding of the japanese swords was very important to the quality of the blades because their steel had a lot of impurities (it also made for very pretty patterns). With modern steels folding and forging can only introduce impurities. As Mastersmith Kevin Cashen put it “Steel from the mill is perfect. Your job is to not ruin it.”
Heat treatment is pure science. It’s all about the effect of heat on the crystaline structure of the steel. When I started making knives I did heat treatment by observed steel colors in a forge, which is the classic method from antiquity. Recently I have switched to a digitally controlled electric furnace. The increased precision has made a noticable difference in the edge-holding ability of my knives as reported by my beta-testers.
I quench in industrial quench oil. Not the urine of a red-haired boy, or a goat that has eaten only ferns for a month, or the body of a slave, or any other silly method you may have heard of. Industrial quench oils are designed for one purpose only: to remove the heat from metal parts, and to do it over and over and over again in the exact same way. Like modern mill steels, the quench oils are the results of hundreds of years of effort to make the best possible material.
After heat treatment I go over the blade one more time with a 120 grit belt on the grinder, and then move to hand sanding. Hand sanding gives me more control over the process and produces a nicer finish than by machine. I usually sand down to 400 grit for a utility knife, but I have taken knives down to 2500 grit depending on the style.
Handles vary enormously in complexity and material. Much of my work is done through the lost wax casting process. I carve all my own waxes and cast them in my workshop. I tend to cast in traditional tin bronze (10% tin, 90% copper), but I have used many different alloys and occasionally mix my own.
I love to carve handles, and I’m working on my engraving and inlaying skills. I tend to favor natural materials such as wood and bone, but I’m not oblivious to the virtues of man-made materials. Put those together and you get my favorite handle material: stabilized wood. To stabilize wood you dry it well and then impregnate it with heat-cured acrylic in a vacuum chamber, then cure it. The result is a very strong material that is much more dimensionally stable than wood and largely impervious to moisture.
My sheaths also vary a lot, from simple all leather ones to complex carved wooden ones with metal fittings. My leather sheaths are all made from the highest quality tooling leather, and I carefully select individual pieces of wood for sheaths.