Last Updated on May 20, 2022 by Matt Selfe
Knifemaking is a great hobby and doesn’t need to be too expensive either. I have seen some fabulous knives made with only hand tools. There are a few things that will make your life easier in the early days, but rest assured that if you do get bitten by the knife making bug you will want to expand the tools in your workshop.
If you have ever questioned how to make a knife then this three-part blog will show you how to start knife making using only hand tools and elbow grease.
So if you want to make a chef knife, a bushcraft knife or a utility knife then this blog should help you get started.
So what tools do I need?
Let us start simple, with a pen and paper. When drawing out my final designs I tend to move to pen and card, or more specifically a cereal box. Having a stiff template makes transferring to steel much easier than plain paper.
I would suggest for your first knives that you don’t go too crazy with your designs. Look at the knives you enjoy using the most, both in blade style and also in the handle shape and ergonomics. Use this to form a basis for your design, but don’t just copy someone else’s pattern unless you have asked and gained permission, or they have made it freely available.
So you are going to need some steel to transfer your design onto. I have read lots of people suggesting that you practice on mild or scrap steel when you start. How annoyed would you be though if you made a half-decent knife and couldn’t then harden it? Good steel is not that expensive, you can buy a bar of O1 tool steel or 10 series steel for only a few pounds. This way if you do make something you are happy with at least you can continue your journey rather than having to start again with some decent steel at a later date. I buy all my steel from Ground Flat Stock. They have a great range of knife making steels and would be more than happy to assist you in choosing what steel is best for your knife.
When your steel arrives you need to mark your pattern. These days I use Dykem but when starting out I used to colour in the steel with a Sharpie.
Lay your cardboard template onto the steel, and then scribe around it. If you don’t have a scribe pen you can use a nail, a Stanley blade or anything else that will mark your outline. Buy your steel in width that best suits the size of your knife and then lay the spine or the edge of the knife along the edge of the bar to minimise what you have to cut.
For this, you will need to either have a hacksaw or an angle grinder. If you use an angle grinder please be careful, they are scary machines and must be treated with respect. It is also important that you wear suitable protective equipment, I recommend a PPE3 face mask and eye protection.
Now you need to profile your knife. If you have access to a belt sander you can move to this. If not you can do this stage with hand files. A bench vice will make this easier as you can clamp your blank between its jaws, if not find a way to secure it to your workbench. Then using the hand files remove the metal up to your scribe lines.
With your knife profiled you need to work out your pin placement. It is a good idea to now revert to your paper template and draw where you want the front of your handle to start. Once you have this in place you can work out where you want to put your pins. I don’t like pins very close to the front of the handle, I think it looks ugly. You do not want them too far back either as that front pin aids in securing the handle material to the tang of your knife. Transpose your pin placement to your knife blank and mark where you want to drill with a centre punch.
Here a set of callipers comes in handy to check the diameter of your pins and your drill bits. After you have drilled your holes make sure that the pins fit snugly, if you cannot get them through before hardening the blade you will struggle afterwards.
To drill your holes it is really useful to have a pillar drill as this will enable you to drill straight holes. If you only have a hand drill go slowly and try to maintain the drill in an upright position.
Next, countersink your pinholes. By this, you are chamfering the hole which will greatly reduce stress on the blade when it is hardened. You can do this with a dedicated chamfer, or a much larger drill bit. You just need to remove a really small portion of steel, to break the edge.
So now you need to start adding your bevels. However, before we start moving steel we need to set ourselves some guidelines to work against. We shall start on what will become the edge. Grab that sharpie you had earlier and colour the edge in. A good rule of thumb when removing steel before hardening the blade is to leave at least 1mm of thickness at the edge of the blade. So we need to mark lines along the edge that allow us to work towards that edge. An easy way to do this is with a drill bit. If your steel is 4mm thick you want to remove 3mm of steel (1.5mm on each side) to leave that final 1mm thick edge. Se we want to mark a line 1.5mm up each side. To do this get a 3mm drill bit, the point of this drill be will be central to the drill at a height of 1.5mm. Now lay your blade on a flat surface. A granite chopping board is great for this, and then with the drill bit also flat on the plate scribe along the blade. Do this a few times, flip the blade over and scribe again. You will now have 2 lines to aim for that will leave you with a 1mm thick edge.
Now you need to begin removing steel again, this time in the shape of your bevels. If you have a belt sander you can use this, but again it can be done with hand files. There are some wonderful hand filing jigs people have made if you fancy going this route or you can go slow and steady yourself. Maintain a set angle and work towards your scribed lines. Work on each side, and keep examining to keep each side as symmetrical as possible.
When you have got your bevels looking good on each side of the blade, and down to that 1mm line you want to look at tidying up the flats. I swear by Rhynowet sandpaper to remove scratches from steel. You want to get it nice and tidy before hardening, as any deep scratches are much easier to remove when the steel is in its annealed state. I would recommend sanding the flats to a minimum of 220g before hardening and making sure that you have removed all scratches.
When it comes to blade hardening, instructions on how to do this will be available from your steel supplier. For O1 tool steel, you need to be able to get your steel to 800oC, or non-magnetic. You can do this by digging a pit in the garden, filling it with lump wood charcoal and blowing air into it from a hairdryer. You can also send your knife off to someone to harden and temper it for you. Shing, maker of wonderful folding knives offers this service.
So when the blade has been hardened and tempered you will need to take that edge thickness down to your final geometry. You will find that the hand files that you used earlier now don’t bite into the steel they instead skate over it. You will now need to use either abrasive stones or lower grit sandpaper. Again for the paper, I would recommend Rhynowet which you can then wrap around your file, or a flat piece of steel to begin removing the material. Be prepared for many hours of work, it is a slow process removing hardened steel but it will be worth it.
Again, pay attention to the flats of the steel, and before you put that final edge on it make sure you have sanded the flats up to 400g.
Read Part 2 Here