My First Knife By Tempany Halbertlewis.yoole
We’d been planning this for months. We already knew the type of knife we wanted to make and had our handle materials ready, now we just needed a teacher. Since roughly July 2020 I’ve wanted to do a forging class with Keith Fludder, a recognised Journeyman Smith in the American Bladesmith Society. His reputation within the knifemaking, blacksmithing, leather crafting and bladesmithing communities is profound as is his wealth of knowledge in these fields, so for an aspiring beginner knife maker this was the perfect opportunity to turn into a sponge!
On day 1, it was pen’s on paper, chalk and duster on a board, theory. Keith began by showing us around the coolest (and coldest) shed I’ve ever seen. We had a look at the forges, kilns, hand tools, the grinders we would be using and the most terrifying item so far; the power hammer. Knowing my hands would be going near the beast, I only thought of the looney toons episodes where Coyote is squashed, except I can’t re-inflate my hands by blowing air into my thumb.
The lesson started as we dabbled into “Metallurgy”, which is the science and technology behind metal, and began to learn about the beginning processes of forging and handles, how forging applies differently to all types of steel and the special consideration made for the materials when making a knife. One example Keith explained is that a knifemaker shouldn’t consider 1075 and a wood handle for a dive knife due to the fact that when saltwater mixes with carbon-based steel, it can cause excessive corrosion over time however there are other steels with elements added to them that are better suited for a saltwater environment like high alloy steels and stainless steel. After learning about Metallurgy, Keith invited us into his home, where we were warmly greeted by Keith’s wife, Robynn and sat down to have a quick bite and some tea. Keith and Robynn both spoke to us about past visitors they’ve had at Southern Highlands Forge and even the symposium held on their beautiful property. Hearing about their stories and experiences over the last 15 years of hosting and teaching gave me a new sense of perspective in regards to the amount of effort, blood, sweat and tears and blood and sweat and more blood….. Has been put into creating such an educated and innovative community of people. We ended the day speaking about our design ideas and presented our chosen handle materials. After a lot of brainstorming, we had made our decisions about our knives and were ready to finish up the day.
Day 2 began with a 5:30 am journey, Lewis and I were absolutely buzzing with excitement. Wondering what we’d be doing, if we were going to do a bit of theory and designing a knife template first or if we’d be jumping straight in. When we got in Keith had the steel and hammers ready, the forge was burning bright and we started!
He demonstrated that we want to first begin to create the shape of a blade by hammering towards us and on a corner or the steel. He hammered with ease, maybe 3 or 4 hammers and he’d already buckled the corner. Next up, I grabbed my forged bar of 52100 and stuck her in. When it began to turn a bright banana-yellow, we’d pull it out and hammer away. 6, 7, 8 times? a lot of hammering later and I finally made a solid dent on the corner and could now flatten out the mushroom that had formed. After an hour, I came to terms that I am not She Ra and this was not for the honor of Grayskull, so we decided to use the power hammer for some needed assistance. I learnt that even the way a hammer is held and applied can affect the process of forging which is why Lewis and I were shown some techniques to shape the tip a bit better. After a few hours of forging, we left our knives to cool and had some bikkies and tea. Wakonda, Robynns beloved german shepherd greeted me with dance and I’ll never forget it. She’s 11 years old so she isn’t young for a shepherd but she definitely has her puppy moments. Keith talked a bit about Damascus back at the house and how it’s made; layering and forging different steels for different designs,
folding, hammering, re-folding, more hammering but also how it’s a lot like quilting which Robynn has clear talent in. Upon a bit of research, I found that the capital of Syria, Damascus where Damascus steel is claimed to have been originally created and found is also very well known for its famous and complex woven textiles designs since the middle ages. Throughout the day we were working very closely with the forge, power hammer, tongs, and hammers as we re-molded this flat piece of steel to resemble a basic shape of a Chefs knife.
We used the power hammer towards the end to help shape my hidden tang as the strength in my forearms was basically non-existent at this point. Once we had finished the hard yards, we placed 1 knife at a time on the surface grinder just to get rid of any leftover scale and create a smoother face for our knives. We also used the grinder to shape our tang, choil, and a little to get our bevel started for the edge.
Afterwards, we put our shiny cookies in the oven for baking and that concluded the day. Personally, I loved our day of forging. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction or motivation than getting sh*t done and that’s exactly how I felt afterward. Exhausted, sweaty, a metal splinter that is still in my finger but overall, proud and inspired.
Friday we get in and straight away Keith greets us but quickly alerts us to an issue. “We have a problem….” I thought no worries, I’ll just bang or grind it out and we’ll be sweet as? Little did I know, I was about to quote a shirt from my own workplace. “Knifemakers don’t make mistakes, just smaller knives”
One half of me was very sad because I had a suspicious feeling that I put a little too much pressure towards the centre of the steel than the tip and end/tang. It was a clean break and due to that we were able to admire the grain inside of the steel and she was beautiful. Perfect, clean fine lines like you see in a snapped tree branch but in metal? The structure was incredible.
We didn’t want to dwell on it too much and to my own disbelief, Keith told me we wouldn’t worry because we can turn that into something else later and surprisingly gave me the half-completed knife he was working on with us the day before. We scribed a line down the centre of the choil of the knife to use as a guide to really stay on
centre when using the grinder. In the beginning, we use 40-60 grit belts, making sure to grind out any bumps, uneven edges, smoothing out any coarse lines embedded in the grain and focusing on creating a more
tapered shape towards the tip of our knives. When we were happy with our result, we’d move onto the next section of the knife, switch belts in between for particular finishes and to get rid of any unnecessary blemishes or details. We completed the look by using some alo oxide flexible belts so we could get into the grooves on the knife and really bring up a nice silver shine and a smooth surface along the width of the entire piece of steel.
From here we placed the knives down and moved onto our handle. Lewis decided he wanted to create a handle with a full tang while mine would be a hidden tang which meant we would be using different techniques to each other when it came to applying, shaping, grinding, drilling etc our handles.
For a hidden tang handle, I started off by measuring the brass offcut against my blade and handle and scribed 4 lines equally on the flat surface of the bolster, drilled 3 holes and used a milling machine to connect the holes and hollow out the centre. There were some grooves in the hollowed out area so I grabbed a file and went to work.
Once the bolster was shaped with a slot for the tang, we moved onto the handle. I ended up using a dyed stabilized maple block for no reason other than that it looked cool and boy was I right.
We cut a bit off the end first as it was about an inch or two oversized and from there we outlined the shape of the handle on the block and used one of the grinders to bring that shape to life. Once our shape came true, we went higher in grits for the finer details and to smooth out the corners and edges and any rough areas on the handle. After a couple of hours of grinding and hand sanding, we were left with a finished knife blank, finished handle and bolster.
Now was time for the assembling process! My bolster became a little stuck on the tang towards the tip but it was nothing a little tiny hammer couldn’t fix. After a bit of epoxy in the handle, tape on the tang and the bolster fitted, we put the knives in a vice with grips on our handles and waited only moments until we would come to the end of one of the most educational, humbling, aggressive and nurturing experiences I’ve ever had.
From beginning to end, Keith was attentive and careful when we used heavy tools or machinery, empathetic when my knife broke but reassuring with where my path would continue to go. Throughout this course, I’ve been more interested in knife making than I have the past 2 years and I can’t help but give thanks to Keith and Robynn. Both Keith and Robynn welcomed us into their home where we had so many wonderful conversations about various topics from knitting, symposiums, shepherds, plants, food, family, knifemaking. Over the period of our 3 day course we weren’t only learning about knifemaking, Robynn had been nothing but kind, hospitable and shared our enthusiasm everyday. We were given teas and lunches and listened to stories about all these wonderful blacksmiths, bladesmiths, cooks, backpackers, knifemaking celebrities, etc who’ve been through Southern Highlands Forge as well as indulging in the knowledge and experience of a recognised Journeyman Smith through technique, application and demonstration.
Keith and Robynn,
Thank you for your generous hospitality towards us and allowing us to be a part of your very humbling, cheerful and exciting world. You both already know how grateful I was and I still am. I learnt a lot about knifemaking, I learnt a lot about myself and felt a growth within through the experiences I’ve had and would love to come back again.