The old, Faroese saying is perhaps not as relevant as it once was… but the knife surely is! Most of us use knives in many different shapes and sizes every single day. We learn to respect knives from an early age through constant reminders of how dangerous they can be. Finally getting your own knife as a child can therefore feels like a responsibility. My grandfather gave me my first knife when I was about five or six years old, and I have wanted to make my own ever since.
Just do it
You just need to get the wheels rolling… I had almost everything I needed to make my own custom knife. Well aware of my many projects, my grandparents had once given me an old cutting board made out of teak, thinking it would would be a great material to use in a woodworking project. This turned out to be a perfect blank for the knife handle and I found steel for the blade and pins for the handle in a scrap metal container at my University. In other words, this knife is made from 100% recycled materials!
Inspired by different knives I found to be both practical and aesthetically pleasing I made my own design. The steel of the blade also forms the core of the grip, and makes the knife more stable, aesthetic and easier to make. The handle is secured with two steel pins, that in addition to their practical function was a deliberate part of the design.
The making of a custom knife
With a finished design I was ready to cut the steel. I did this by hand with a small hacksaw. It was tedious but I saved time by cleaning the curves up with a belt grinder. Next step was to file the edge of the blade. This required precision and was done with a hand file. Getting a straight edge is hard and requires equal trimming of the steel from both sides. In addition to this, I wanted the blade to be symmetrical, which required filing at the exact same angle on both sides. This was time consuming and difficult, to say the least…!
I cut the handle material with a band saw in a workshop at one of my University’s workshops. Making the two pieces a bit too big on purpose allowed me to sand them down later to fit the profile of the handle and make them sit flush with the steel core. I made sure to keep the pins a bit too long for the same reason. It was essential that the materials had a flush fit for the handle to be comfortable to hold.
To make a long explanation short, you can alter the properties of the steel by heat-treating it. When making a knife, you want the steel at the edge to be very hard so the edge retain its sharpness for as long as possible. Tempering the steel makes it harder, but it also increase its brittleness, making it more likely that the blade will break under stress. However, it is possible to retain some of the knife’s flexibility by focusing the heat treatment on the edge while letting the back of the blade stay colder. Short on proper tools, I had to improvise by using a gas burner made for cooking as a blowtorch to get the metal to the right temperature.
The tempering process darkened the blade and almost made it look dirty. I wanted a shiny blade, but with a matt finish, and that called for some serious sanding and polishing. The polishing also served to remove any rough scratches from the process of shaping and filing the edge. The trick is to alternate the direction of sanding as you move up to finer sandpaper grit. This way you reveal all the scratches in the steel from the last round of sanding. This step takes time but lays the foundation for a good end result.
With the steel tempered and polished, attaching the wooden handle was the last step. I used a grinder to shape the pieces and sanded them for a smooth finish. Then the application of a couple of coats of oil helped to highlight the grain in the wood. You can see the finished result below!