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  • Jan Vaterlaus

Customizing a Knife

It’s easy to look at pictures of existing knives and get a feel for what you like but what you can’t see are all of the options that are available to truly create a custom knife. This is a step by step guide that will walk you through the creation stages of bladesmithing showing all of the options available to you.

1. Selecting the steel:

a. High carbon mono steel is tough (won’t break), hard (holds an edge) and sharpens easily, but sacrifices corrosion resistance. Common among this group are 1095, 1084, 5160, 80crv2, 52100, and 15n20. There are others but these are the ones most commonly used.

b. Tool Steel is also high carbon but is even tougher than regular high carbon steel. Common knife steels among this group are W2, W1, O1, and D2. W2 is among many knife makers’ favorite steel.

c. Stainless steel is pretty tough, is hard, but once the edge is gone can be difficult to resharpen, but excels in corrosion resistance. It makes a more carefree knife but will be outperformed by a high carbon steel knife.

d. Pattern welded steel (Damascus) is two or more different types of steel forge welded together to create contrasting layers. It can be manipulated in many different ways to create stunning visual effects. It can be made using high carbon or stainless steel. A most common pairing of steel is 1084 and 15n20. It gives great contrast and both steels have similar heat treat properties.

2. Selecting a blade shape and length:

a. Hunting knives have many shapes and sizes but we will address the common.

1. The Drop point has a gradual slope to the tip of the knife keeping the tip up high in the profile. This type of knife is less “pointy” but offers more belly for skinning. I prefer this type of blade for big game hunting

2. The Clip Point has an abrupt angled slope from the spine to the tip keeping the tip lower on the profile of the blade. Clip points are more “pointy” and great for big game hunting but even better for bird, small game, and trout knives.

3. The spear point is in between the drop and clip points and has a gradual decline to the tip placing it in the center of the profile.

4. A Bowie knife in my mind is a robust knife with at least an 8” clip point blade, a double guard, and large handle. Sadly, if you look up “bowie knife” on the internet it seems to encompass every large knife shape from a seax to machete. Bowies are impressive to look at and display but generally considered too large for most hunters to be practical in the field (hog hunters excepted).

b. Kitchen knives also come in many styles but the most common are the Japanese, German, and French influences. The common element with kitchen knives is that they need to be thin, tough, hard, and will sharpen easily.

1. A Chef knife is generally having an 8-10” blade and is at least 2” tall. It can be up to 1/8” thick at the handle but would taper to a 1/16” at the tip. The front edge should be rounded to offer a rocking effect while slicing and chopping. The bevels on the edge should be thin and smooth so the knife slices rather than splits what it is cutting.

2. Paring and utility knives are handy for the small chores and are usually between 3-6” of blade length. They have a straight profile and a smaller handle.

3. Carving, boning, and fillet knives are thin and have an upswept tip. They are the go-to blade for meat. Carving and boning knives are similar except in length. The carving knife is usually 8” and the boning knife 6”. Fillet knives reflect the same profile but are generally thinner and more flexible and they can come in any length.

4. Serrated bread knife is long and designed to cut bread. The spine and edge are generally parallel and the profile is about 1” tall. The bread knife can range from an 8” blade to a 12” blade.

3. Types of Tangs

a. A full tang knife has the most steel in the handle. The spine can be seen from the tip of the blade all the way to the butt of the knife. Handle slabs or scales are pinned and epoxied to the tang

b. A hidden tang knife has exactly that…a hidden tang. The handle is a block of wood drilled and fitted around the tang and epoxied into place. Once the handle is secured the only steel exposed is the blade.

c. A through tang is essentially a longer hidden tang that extends through the handle. It is designed to secure a pommel (end cap) to the butt of the knife either by screw threads or by peening the tang to expand it securing the butt cap in place.

4. Bolsters and Guards

a. Bolsters are used on a full tang knife and they are designed to do just what the name implies…Bolster the blade/handle transition. They generally are made of metal (most common are brass, copper, nickel silver, and stainless steel) and pinned and epoxied into place but other material can be used such as micarta, g10, wood, carbon fiber, Damascus steel, wrought iron, etc. They are contoured smoothly into the handle scales for a seamless transition.

b. Guards can be used on all tang styles and differ from bolsters in that they are one piece of metal rather than two. If a guard is being applied to a full tang knife it is slotted to slide onto the tang, pinned and epoxied into place, and fitted to the spine. The spine of the blade will still be visible as it goes from the tip through the guard to the butt of the knife. If a guard is applied to a hidden or through tang knife it will be slotted and slid onto the tang like a washer onto a bolt. Once the guard and handle material are in place the spine nor the tang will be visible beginning at the guard. Guards can be very simple or extremely ornate.

5. Handle materials

a. Bone, horns, and antlers make very resilient knife handles. They can be fitted to both full and hidden tang knives. They are generally used in their natural state but some bone is dyed and stabilized to add character and style to a knife.

b. Wood also makes a great knife handle. The harder the wood the more resilient it will be in adverse conditions. Some wood is nearly grain free while others expose nature as the greatest artist of them all. Woods that can be stabilized (infused with acrylic resin) should be stabilized to offer a more resilient handle. It can be stabilized to look natural or dyes can be added to create a variety of color and chatoyancy. Some woods are naturally oily and do not need stabilizing. Wood can be used as scales for a full tang knife or as a block for hidden tang knives.

c. Synthetic materials are very popular as they are the most resilient handle material. G10 has woven fiberglass infused with resin and is available is a variety of colors and textures. Micarta is similar but generally uses linen, canvas, or paper as its base. It too is available in many colors and designs. G10 and micarta are also available with alternating layers of colored fabrics creating a visual effect as the handle is contoured

d. Other synthetics are available usually of an acrylic base with ribbons of contrasting colors exploding through the shiny finish. Some of these materials tend to be brittle.

e. Handle shape is one other factor to consider when creating a custom knife. They can be large, small, medium, short, long, fat, skinny, curved, straight, rounded, squared, hexagonal, coffin shaped, contoured, etc. Some shapes work better with full tang knives and some better with hidden tang knives but the options are endless.

6. Liners and spacers are used to accent the handle material. Liners are used on a full tang knife and placed between the handle scale and the tang. They generally contrast the handle scale. G10 is a popular liner and it comes in a multitude of colors and in several thicknesses. Spacers are used on hidden tang knives at the transition of one material to the next. A series of g10 and thin metal spacers offers an additional effect to the guard/handle transition. Colored spacers offer variety and contrast to a knife handle. Liners and spacers are used to accent a knife but not overwhelm the knife.

7. Accent metals are used as guards, bolsters, spacers, pins, lanyard tubes, etc. they usually are brass, copper, stainless steel, nickel silver, but can be almost anything that is available. Pins can be as simple as a round rod that goes from side to side through the handle and epoxied and/or peened into place. Other types of pins utilize threaded parts that screw together through the tang holding the handle in place.

8. Sheaths can also be customized. The shape and style are considerations as well as the amount of tooling desired. The leather can be dyed to match the handle or spacer colors or a matching or contrasting thread can be a nice effect.

This is a basic guide. It is not all inclusive. To supply all information is to write a book. If you still have questions or need to see samples visit our website. If you see something you like get a picture of it and it can be added to your knife.


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