Choosing A Knife
A good knife is both a valuable tool and a thing of beauty.
Investing in a quality handmade knife can be a joyous preparation for future adventure and work, a commemoration of a milestone, or a preservation of a piece of the history of one of humankind’s oldest tools.
I am glad to say that several of my handforged knives have functioned well in various situations from Africa to Australia to Asia and in North America for over two decades and more recently in Europe and Japan. The information below should be helpful to those choosing a knife from the online shop or requesting a commissioned design.
Matching the Knife to the Work
The number one criteria for choosing a quality handmade knife should be to match the intended function to the style and materials best suited for use. If you need some advice we will be happy to point you in the right direction. If you have a type of work, use, or lifestyle for which the knife is to serve, let us know and we will try to best match features and materials for you.
Commissioning a Knife
If you have a specific purpose or adventure which requires a specially crafted knife, contact us for a custom design or a variation of one I have already made. Current lead time is approximately twelve weeks but work may be expedited under certain circumstances. Custom pieces require a 50% non-refundable deposit before work is begun and the remaining balance before final delivery.
The blade is the soul of the knife, it is the centre from which the strength and purpose flow. The size, weight, balance, shape, and lines will determine the range of functions that can be performed well with a particular knife. Read more about the process of making the blade: islandblacksmith.ca/process/forging-a-tanto-blade/
Almost all of the blades I create begin their lives as some other tool or object. Fine high carbon steel from old sources and low alloy steel from modern sources find new purpose as hand forged knives. Some of my favourite sources are antique farm implements and machinery (1080, 1095), carriage and automotive spring steel (1085, 5160), and large circular saw blades, files, and chisels (L2, W1, W2).
High alloy and stainless steels do not respond as well to traditional Japanese clay tempering. And, while stainless steel needs little attention to maintain its shiny colour, it is generally more difficult to sharpen and most grades do not take the fine edge that simpler carbon steels can. Combined with my theme of repurposing materials, these are the main reasons why I do not use stainless steel.
Blade Style and Shape
Whether intended for field use or as a collector’s piece, blade size and shape should be first reflect the required function and type of knife sought. Some of the common distinctions of outdoor knives and tools are included below as starting points.
Type and length guidelines for outdoor knives and tools:
- Camping or Bushcraft 3-5″
- Fishing 3-6″
- Survival 6-8″
- Camp or Bush Utility 7-10″
- Caper or Bird Knife 2-4″
- Skinner 3-6″
- Big Game Hunter for Deer 4-5″, for Elk or Moose 5-7″
- Japanese Carpentry Blade 2-3″
- Bent Knife or Wood Carving Knife 2-5″
- Carpenter’s or Gardener’s Utility 3-5″
- Japanese Kitchen Knife 5-9″
- Drawknife 3-12″
- Hatchet or Tomahawk 2-3″
All of our steels are high carbon and low alloy and will rust if left to fend for themselves. Used and cared for properly, carbon steel knives will provide years of excellent service and eventually take on a beautiful deep grey patina. Blades will be hand polished and have natural steel colour or a dark fire scale colour and one of three types of finish.
- Hammer finish – distinct hammer, fire, and file marks, mostly forged finish
- Working finish – some hammer, fire, and file marks, hand filed or rough sanded finish
- Polished finish – very clean, hand rubbed soft satin finish
Hammer finish has the most hand crafted character, displaying remnants of the blade’s past and formation process. Mainly finished with the hammer and drawfiling, and the edge is finished with files and diamond stones to between 220 and 600 mesh (60 and 25 micron). This works well on outdoor blades, heavy working blades, and certain types of traditional blades.
Working finish is a great all round style and displays a bit more of the internal character of the steel and hamon. Approaching a rough satin finish nearer the edge with drawfiling, diamond stones, and paper to between 120 and 600 mesh (120 and 25 micron) but retaining some hammer and file marks. This finish serves well on working knives and certain types of reproduction blades.
Polished finish is mainly for nihonto or other collector and heirloom pieces where the traditional finish does not fit the style or design of the knife. This finish best shows the internal character of the steel and activity of the hamon. Soft satin finished with diamond stones, paper, and waterstones to between 600 and 1200 mesh (25 and 9 micron). This finish works well on all blade sizes.
Please note that the process of forging is different for each finish and it is not usually possible to change from one type of polish to another after the knife has been forged.
The handle is the connection point, the interface between human and tool. It must be designed with this purpose in mind; above all visual and stylistic additions it must provide secure grip, comfort, and integrity with both the blade and the user. Read more about the process of making the handle: How a Knife is Made/#handle
The touch of natural wood, bone, and leather are hard to surpass as far as comfort and an effective mediation ground between flesh and steel. The handle wood will often come from reclaimed or salvaged sources and will range from skate decks to local and exotic hardwood scraps. Rawhide or leather will be either all natural traditional plains style hand-tanned or commercially produced oak (vegetable) tanned.
Other materials used for various parts of the handle may include iron, copper, brass, bronze, silver, bamboo, antler, bone, and horn. For some specific uses, synthetic or compound materials such as micarta or paracord may be added on request until existing supplies run out.
Whenever possible, mechanical methods of joining handles and other parts will be employed. The longevity of rivets, brads, dovetails, pins, brazing, and integral parts are preferred to glues and resins, but on request a waterproof wood glue may be used for handles intended for certain applications.
Handle Style and Shape
A knife handle that is the wrong size greatly impairs the effectiveness of its use, particularly if it is too small for the task or too large for the hand. In the Japanese tradition, a simple handle design lends itself to many more positions and grips than a complex shape. Again, the handle design must align with the task and blade size.
Whenever possible, natural finishes and materials will be used to complete the handle. This allows easy refinishing, touching up, and reshaping in the future. Wood will be hand oiled with 100% pure tung oil or organic flax oil, waxed with beeswax or ibota, or burnished and left to naturally patina with wear and age.
If you choose to purchase a sheath, there are several options available depending on the style of knife. Some will be best suited to collectable pieces and others to field use. Read more about the process of making a nihonto style wooden shirasaya (resting scabbard): islandblacksmith.ca/process/tanto-shirasaya/
Leather is the most common material in the west, while wood is standard in the Japanese tradition. Most of my nihonto style and fusion work is housed in hand carved wooden saya and will range from softer Magnolia (honoki) and Yellow Cedar for shirasaya to harder woods like Vancouver Island Maple and Fruit woods for koshirae and kaiken. While I occasionally make rough working style leather sheaths myself, I often work with other leather artists to create complementary and beautiful pieces for each knife. The leather is usually either all natural traditional plains style hand-tanned or commercially produced oak (vegetable) tanned.
Sheath Style and Shape
A working sheath should securely retain a blade in place to prevent accidental loss or injury. Depending on the use scenario, this may be accomplished by a strap, hook, pocket, cord, or by friction fit. The design of a sheath should functionally and visually work with the knife it is created for.
Leather will be hand-stitched with waxed cotton or linen thread, leather lace, or rawhide and may be strengthened by brass or copper rivets. It will be oiled or waxed with a natural blend or combination wax.
Wood will be hand oiled, waxed, or burnished and left to naturally patina with wear and age.
Use and Care
Properly cared for and maintained, a quality knife will last a lifetime and longer. The cutting tools we craft are known for toughness and resilience, and will serve exceptionally well for their designed uses. Some general tips for using and caring for your handmade knife include keeping it sharp, dry and clean, using it only for purposes for which it was designed, and storing in a safe, dry place.
More information may be found on this page: islandblacksmith.ca/knife-use-and-care/.
The longer I work at this craft, the more familiar I become with the amount of time involved in each step of creating a knife. Pricing is broken down by the type of blade finish and is according to blade length, these are the two main factors affecting total cost. Various options for mounting and materials, such a a guard, pommel, or habaki are added as units, and some materials may incur additional costs. Other options are available for DIY knife makers, such as blades that are tempered but do not have handles, unpolished blades that can be finished by the client, etc.
The pricing schedules on the following page allow a client to get a fairly accurate idea of the price of a potential project before contacting me for a project specific quote: islandblacksmith.ca/pricing/.