Many of us have an attraction to (obsession) and appreciation (really, it’s an obsession!) for knives. If you’re not one of these people, be careful…reading this article might lead you down a path where you become “one of us”!! You have been warned.
Here are the 10 Steps to Making Your Own Knife:
1. Choose the right tools.
2. Sketch or trace the shape onto a piece of cardboard.
3. Cut out the cardboard to match the sketch.
4. Trace the cardboard shape over the steel.
5. Use the vice and grinder to shape the steel.
6. Use a Belt Sander to make the edge.
7. Heat-treat the steel to harden it.
8. Back to the belt sander to polish up the blade.
9. Choose a material to add a handle.
10. You need a sheath.
Before we discuss knife making, let's have a quick discussion on knives themselves. A knife, at its most basic level, is simply a tool. Whether you are a carpenter, a teacher, or a doctor, I know I don’t have to tell you a well-built, well-maintained, properly designed tool is worth the expense, and often the difference between success and failure. A knife is the same.
As an outdoorsman or a camper, a proper knife is your most basic tool. It doesn’t matter if your version of outdoor time would most accurately be described as “glamping” or if you purposely put yourself into survivalist situations, you pack your knife first. If you can only take one thing, you take your knife.
A good knife provides food, shelter, warmth, comfort, protection, and peace of mind. You glampers can even use a knife to take that pesky top off of your favorite carbonated beverage when you are faced with that outdoor dilemma!
What separates a knife from your favorite screwdriver (admit it, you have 23 flat-head screwdrivers and you do have a favorite!) is that knives are also works of craftsmanship, often even works of art.
The knife you carry says a lot about you.
Those of us who are interested in a subject like this is not supposed to care what other people think of us. We are strong, independent, self-reliant people. The kind of knife you carry gives the world a little peek into the kind of person you are whether you like it or not, so you might as well put an appropriate amount of thought into that!
Don’t even get me started on the history, evolution, and culture we can get onto when choosing a knife!
If the title of this article has caught your attention, you are probably thinking “Rob, I am way ahead of you.” You have researched, and purchased, and tested, and carried lots of knives, and one day you said to yourself “Self, I can’t find exactly what I am looking for amongst the literally millions of knives available on the market.” Being the strong, independent, self-reliant person that you are, it crosses your mind to use all of your other tools to make your own “most useful, granddaddy” of tools.
I’m with you.
As a long-time collector and student of knives, I have recently gotten into the game as a knife maker. Since I am still on the front-end of the natural extension of this hobby, it is my hope, that I am close enough to where you are, to share with you the knowledge I have gained, as well as the pitfalls I wish I would have avoided in order, to make this as absolutely positive an experience for you as possible.
There is an old saying about master craftsmen…
”They have forgotten more about (whatever their skill is) than I’ll ever know”. I have found that saying in my life to be very true. Unfortunately, when you are starting out, and trying to learn a new skill or craft or trade, the stuff those Masters forgot might be the stuff you really need to know right upfront. Since I am not (yet!) a master…I haven't forgotten the upfront stuff yet.
A little more background before we get to it: like most beautiful things, knives are, at their core, extremely simple. A knife is a piece of hard material fashioned to an edge, and an attached or integrated handle so you don’t hurt yourself when you are using it. That’s it, that’s the entire anatomy of a knife.
As you get into this, don’t lose sight of that simplicity. Within this simple definition are literally infinite variations. Depending on the time you want to put into this, your budget, your patience, your skill level, and your tolerance for the nerdiness that comes along with a hobby like this, you can get as complex as you want to get.
I have a whole book…a thick, thick book…about nothing but steel. I might use that book one day, and it looks impressive sitting on my shelf, but right now I buy 1095 steel blanks on the internet!
We are not going to discuss forging in this environment.
The math, science, and equipment needed to get into forging as a hobby is more appropriate to an entire website, not an article on a camping equipment website. It is super interesting, and I plan to get into it one of these days, but we are going to skip that bit for now! The method we will be discussing is called stock removal because you are going to purchase a stock piece of steel and "remove" the parts that are not your knife.
Ok, here we go…Here are the 10 steps to building your own knife.
Step 1. Choose the right tools.
Angle Grinder - The most important tool for a beginning, amateur knife maker is an angle grinder. Buy a good one. Angle grinders are the Duct Tape of power tools, even if you never make a second knife, you will use an angle grinder in lots of other applications. You will need various discs for cutting, grinding, and polishing.
All of these things can be found at your local big-box hardware store. Or you can look at knife-making supply houses on-line and they will sell you the same things for quite a bit more money.
After you have worked through your first couple of knives, and you know for sure you want to do this more often, then start purchasing things from the supply houses. There are advantages to purchasing more specific things, but you do not need that right up front!
Vise - The next thing you need is a good vise. Don’t skimp on this either. Go ahead and purchase one that will grip at various angles. You can do it without that option, but 10 minutes into starting your first knife you will wish you had one! Manipulating a piece of metal to your will requires a strong grip. For safety’s sake, this is a non-negotiable.
Belt Sander – On the advice of the internet, I purchased a 1” belt sander and I went cheap on this. I really have not regretted the decision yet, so I am passing on the same advice. Go to a knife-making supply house (on-line unless you happen to live near one!) and purchase a set of belts from them.
You will get 3-4 different sanding grits that will help you pull an increasingly beautiful and sharp blade out of your steel. My next purchase in this adventure will be a 4” belt sander and one of slightly better quality, but I will always need the 1.”
Bench Grinder – You will use this primarily for polishing so purchase one with a polishing wheel.
Drill – Either a hand drill with wood and metal bits or a drill press, either will work, the drill press is better.
Forge – yes you will need a forge, not for blacksmithing, but for heat-treating.
Safety Equipment – I'm going to be totally honest with you here. Deep down inside me, I am not much of a safety guy. I have sat through hours of safety meetings in various work environments and thought, “well, this is stupid”. You need safety equipment to do this. Get yourself a set of work gloves that fit properly.
The metal you are working with gets very hot and you will burn yourself. Wear safety goggles. Tiny, red-hot pieces of metal will be flying around, and when (not if) you get one in your eye it will be too late to think “I should have listened.”
Purchase a respirator. When you are on your belt sander you are creating metal dust that will be in the air, and you do not want it in your lungs. Finally, either wear a heat-resistant apron or clothes that you don't care get ruined, a lesson learned the hard way!
Workbench- In addition to these key pieces of equipment, you will need a very solid workbench and space to work. You will be throwing sparks and tiny bits of metal all over the place, so space the equipment out so that you’re not damaging one while you are using another (if that sounds like advice following a mistake, it is!).
Set yourself up in a space that is easy to clean up when you are finished. Be in a well-ventilated area, buy a fan if you need to!
Misc Tools- On your workbench, within reach should also be a selection of pliers and vise grips, both damp and dry rags, really good lighting (wear reading glasses if you need them, you need to see what you are doing!), a shallow pan with water in it big enough to drop your entire knife into, and a couple of sharpies.
Step 2. Sketch or trace the shape onto a piece of cardboard.
Now you’re set up and ready to start, but what are you going to create? The simple answer is: if you can draw it, or sketch it out, you can make it, isn’t that awesome? When you purchase stock metal, it will come in 12”x2” pieces.
There are other sizes available, but this is the standard, and therefore the most cost-effective way to go. For my first knife, I copied a knife that I already had. I liked the size of the handle, I liked the size of the blade, so I didn’t have to do and take a bunch of measurements to get the size and the ratio correct.
Step 3. Cut out the cardboard to match the sketch.
I sketched (traced) it first onto a piece of cardboard, then cut it out with utility scissors. I try to keep the edge of the cut nice and smooth. Keep the cardboard so you can try again, or in case you want to make that same knife again in the future.
Step 4. Trace the cardboard shape over the steel.
I then put that onto the piece of steel and traced the lines of the knife with a sharpie, handle, and blade, right onto the metal. Sharpies are great as oppose to a pencil, chalk, or ink pen because they are permanent.
Step 5. Use the vice and grinder to shape the steel.
Now you will use your new tools to manipulate the steel into the basic shape that you have traced into your metal. You will use your vice and your angle grinder with a cut-off wheel to carefully remove all of the metal that isn't your knife.
Step 6. Use a Belt Sander to make the edge.
Then you will take your piece of steel that looks a tiny little bit like a knife over to your belt sander and add what is called the “grind”. This is the part of the knife that angles down to the place that will eventually become your cutting edge. Getting this angle perfect on both sides of your knife takes skill and practice. Be kind to yourself when you start!
There are lots of different grinds, for your first knife I recommend a flat grind which is just a straight angle from the surface of the metal to the edge, exactly the same on both sides. While you are grinding, your knife will get very hot. Do not let it get so hot that it starts to change color.
Take your time, cool it off in your water bath every once in a while. Once you have the basic shape of your knife together, use increasingly higher grit to smooth out imperfections.
Step 7. Heat-treat the steel to harden it.
Here is where things get tricky! Now that you have a knife in your hands you have to harden it. You have been working so far with “soft steel”. Now you have to heat it up in a forge (roughly 1400 degrees) and then “quench” it, which means decreasing the temperature rapidly.
Research it; you will get a ton of good information. A soft knife is not a knife! The best and easiest way to learn about quenching is to watch a couple of episodes of Forged in Fire. They spend a lot of time on this step and seeing it done will make it all come into focus for you.
Step 8. Back to the belt bander to polish up the blade.
Once you have properly hardened your knife you are back to your belt sander to make your knife pretty. This is the most satisfying part of the process.
Step 9. Choose a material to add a handle.
We are now into an entirely new set of skills and options. Some knives don’t even have separate handles, just properly shaped steel that is comfortable in your hand. Adding a handle made out of paracord is an easy way to make a cover handle and make it more comfortable in your hand. Some of my favorite knives have paracord handles.
Most knives have wood, or plastic, or bone pieces (called scales) affixed to either side of the handle. As with so much in knife making the possibilities are nearly endless! You can make your own or buy pre-made things from the knife store.
Step 10. You need a sheath.
Then you need to make something (a sheath) to carry it in. That is adventures in Leatherworking or plastic work. Only then you will have a useable, fully functional knife! But making a sheath, well that’s a whole other article for another time.
Some parting thoughts.
To become a full-blown, soup-to-nuts, knife maker, you get to become a metalworker, and woodworker, and a leatherworker.
Now resources…there is a thriving community of people on YouTube who will gladly show you how to do all of these things. Watching people do these things is what always gives me the confidence that I can do it to.
Give it a shot…I’ll bet your desire to try and do this yourself will overcome your hesitation in your abilities.
Truly if I can do it, so can you.
One more piece of advice…there are companies out there that do a lot of the hard, and skilled, and tool-heavy work for you, then put it all into a kit that you can purchase and build your own knife with significantly less up-front investment.
If you are looking to just put your toes in the water…try one of those. They are great, and you will have a good knife that you made!
All the best,
Avid knife builder