Wednesday, August 18, 2010

And Now For Something Completely Different

By nature, I'm a DIY kind of guy.  I couldn't even begin to list every kind of thing I've made, but the range includes fishing rods and bucktail jigs, goes through full size wall-units, and small wooden boxes, with stops at radios, grinding telescope mirrors, hand fabricating precious metal jewelry, making one-of-a-kind metal parts for projects and special fixtures or tools. 

So when my interests turned to knives, it would only be a matter of time until I had to try making some.  Unlike firearms, you can buy knife kits widely.  The first couple of knives I built were folder kits.  Knife making supplies and kits are pretty easy to find.  Three places I know of are:   Texas Knifemaker's Supply   and Jantz Supply

I have a couple of good self defense folders, a Cold Steel Recon 1, a Spyderco Tenacious, and a nice folding knife I made myself from this kit, with carbon fiber sides (called "scales" in knife-talk).

Once you've built a few kits, the next step up in knife making is to buy a finished blade and do the rest of the work yourself.  The "Ph.D. level" of knife making is to make everything, even Damascus steel for the blade.  Just below this level, many knives are made from the leaf springs of a junkyard car, or shaped from purchased chunks of carbon, stainless, or even Damascus steel.   

I decided to buy a blade and instead of attaching bone, antler, or wooden scales, I would make a set of scales from a semi-precious stone.   I decided on a fixed blade this time, not a folder, simply because I have many folders and no fixed-blade knives.  I started with this blade, which is clearly from Texas Knifemaker's.  With no instructions, I had to invent my work flow, which worked out pretty well. 

The first step was to install the bolsters, those two big pieces between the blade and the pins in this picture.  This was done by using two of the longer pins, and required enough effort to accomplish that I'm sure they're secure.  The pins are hammered in, and the bolsters clamped to the blade tang with a C-clamp to eliminate gaps while hammering in and setting the pins.  The pins extend a good quarter inch past the surface of the bolsters, leaving the question of how to get rid of the extra metal.  I have heard of grinding them off, but I own a good jeweler's saw, so I simply sawed them off flush to the bolsters.  If this was going to be a step by step, I would have taken a picture of them at this point, but I forgot.

Before you can go any farther, it's time to select and prepare the rough rock to become the scales.  This is where you decide what the knife will look like when it's done.  Will it be blue, red, green, or what?  With natural stones, there is an almost unlimited choice of colors and textures.  I chose a stone called silver sheen obsidian.  Obsidian (volcanic glass) comes in many varieties and is a favorite of rockhounds and lapidaries (people who cut and polish stones).  Silver sheen obsidian is black, but shows a silvery sheen (chatoyance) under light, almost a cat's eye effect, so it is a black handle that carries in it the silvery sheen of the blade. 

You can cut a stone like obsidian on a diamond tile saw, like you'll find in every Home Depot or Lowe's these days.  Skil makes this fairly cheap saw.  You wouldn't want to use this on very valuable stones, but for something like this, it's fine.  Once a couple of pieces with a good straight side are cut, epoxy the scales onto the blank and let it dry overnight.  If you're unaware, covering the blade with conventional masking tape is a good way to keep from slicing yourself up while working on your knife. 
A couple of 1inch C-clamps hold the stones while the epoxy sets.

Now it's time to shape the stones.  You have to do this with wet grinding, but other than that requirement, anyone who has done body work on a car knows instinctively what to do.  It's simply coarse grinding followed by progressively finer grits until you polish.  Do NOT use a Dremel for this: they're not waterproof.  Because of my other hobbies, I have access to a Diamond Pacific Genie, a wet grinding machine widely used by lapidaries who cut opaque stones like jade, agate, jasper and even gem material like star sapphires or opals.  I shaped the handles roughly, including some shaping of the sides and bottom ends of  the bolsters, which did not match the shape and outline of the knife blank. You can barely see it in this picture, but the bolsters are about 1/16" beyond the blade tang outline, all around. 
Rough-shaped down to about #400 grit.

With the stones shaped to this "fine grind" finish, I then smoothed the bolsters with files and sandpaper into a smooth profile with the blade.  After a few dozen projects as a silversmith, and a couple of classes in it, I tend to believe I can do anything with a handful of needle files, and while stainless is way harder than sterling, it was uneventful. 

Finally, with the metal smoothed and finished to 600 grit on sandpaper, I did the last few steps of grinding and then polishing the stone scales, and the metal, followed by polishing the metal bolsters with Tripoli on a bench polishing system.  I bumped the back half inch of the blade on one of the diamond wheels while shaping the stones, and had to re-shape and sharpen the blade.  I have the Lansky system for sharpening blades, and got a nice edge.  As a test, I cut some cooked chicken and found it cut every bit as well as the original edge.  
Finished Knife

So there you have it.  Is it practical, or is it a presentation/art knife?  At this point, I think it's practical.  I'll have to do some experimentation to see how well it handles.  My biggest concern with this project was that the knife might get too slippery when wet.  I find that's not the case, at least with water.  I have not tried blood (thankfully…) or other fluids.  What's it cost?  The blade was $30 with shipping.  I had the obsidian, but a good sized piece would be, maybe, $5.  The rest was a couple hours of my time, and you can't count that for a hobby, right? 

Mrs. Graybeard said she'd rather do this kind of work than make jewelry, because when you're done, a knife is an important, and very useful thing, while a piece of jewelry is nice, but it's just decorative.  There could be more knives like this in our future.

Edit: 8/23/10  On the request/advice of commenter, I've replaced the photo of the finished knife with one photographed on a more neutral background.  I think it looks better. 


  1. That is a beautiful piece of work. Congratulations. Not to complain, but I would get a better look at your scales if you re-took that final photo against a white background.

  2. I hope you subscribed to this thread, or come back on your own, so you can see I went ahead and re-took the final photograph on a better background.

    I grade this a "B", from my perspective. Not bad, but could be better. Unfortunately, there isn't much I can do with this one. To get much better, I'd need to start over.