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Friday, April 12, 2013

My first attempt at knife making

One of my Tai Chi students set up a private class with a local knife maker, David Lisch. "What a great opportunity..." I thought. "...To learn how patience and hard work forge into something sharp".  A full two day workshop, we were excited, and a bit nervous.

David's school, "Studio 4" (which ironically is in room #3 in the building) was in an old metalworks building in industrial Seattle. Drafty and cold, we soon forgot the chill as we got down to business. David had already laser cut knife blanks for us, and we had a choice of style.....skinner, hunter, or Santoku style kitchen knife. I chose the hunter.
I looked at this hunk of steel and thought...."Now how am I supposed to get this blank looking anything like a real knife?" I was actually questioning my ability to make it happen. But David assured that if we paid attention and "didn't try thinking about shortcuts", we'd go home with a beautiful knife by the time the weekend was over. We chose our handle wood....I chose a beautiful purple analine dyed multiplex.

David took the time to explain geometry, steel characteristics, Metallurgy of carbon steel, safety precautions, etc. Then, down to work. Our first duty was to establish our plunge line and initial bevel, as well as rough shaping the handle. Standing at the grinder I was pretty happy to have a bracket that established the exact grinding angle for the plunge line . I would've freaked out if I was told to do it "by eye". hahahaha!

Luckily, establishing the plunge line and grinding out the rough shape of our handle wasn't as hard as I thought. But I knew it was going to get more challenging. Next, we drilled our pin holes and we rough shaped our wood.
The fun part....heat treat! We watched as our teacher explained using a forge, and we had a choice of using the forge or the salt pot (which was much more consistent and suggested for first timers). No brainer....we chose the salt pot. We had to pre-treat our blanks with a torch to drive out extra moisture. When he reminded us that the blanks still carried a bit of moisture, we all shuddered..."Single drop of cold water in a pot of high temp molten stuff....that's an explosion!!". Needless to say, we all made sure to have Dave check our blanks to be sure they were good to go before we dropped them in the pot! Two treatments in the salt pot and oil quenched, we were good to go for that first class. Dave would put the blanks in the oven to temper, and by the next morning, we'd be set to for the real grinding and polishing.

David explains and demonstrates at the furnace

Knife held in the salt pot

Day Two:  The polishing begins. After the tempering, we each had stations where we stood with sanding sticks, starting with 400 grit sandpaper and gradually going to 1200. Funny, just as I thought the steel was beginning to polish up, scratches that weren't there before, revealed themselves. I thought I was going to be sanding and polishing for hours.....which was pretty much the case. Two hours of patient polishing, and I had a shiny blade in comparison to the dull salt pot/oven tempered color that I started out with.

Where the heck did those scratches come from?

Almost there!

After the polish, which evened out the harsh bevel, it was time to epoxy the scales to the handle. Dave mixed the epoxy for each of us, as "two part epoxy was a tricky thing....if you don't mix it right, it will screw everything up and you'll need to clean off all the gunk and start over". Well, no one wanted that, so we welcomed the fact that he was willing to mix the epoxy for us.

Ready for epoxying to tang....
Then...the fun but mind bendingly exhausting part......grinding and shaping the scales to the tang. I was doing fine until I messed up the underside of the handle (the area that sits above your fingers when holding in a standard grip). I had inadvertently put a bit too much pressure on on side, and completely lopsided that area. But Dave said "No worries...." and helped me fix it without changing the profile too much. I did my best to learn as he shouted over my grinder, and voila....all fixed.

This underside part was all lopsided until Dave helped me fix it....

After things were all even, I opted for a slight palm swell. Dave gave great tips on how to use not only the belt part of the grinder but the platens as well. A final deep polish on the handles, and it turned out to be a beautiful blade.

After a final profiling of the blade, we all had Dave put the final sharpening on each blade. We all watched intently, and I tried to take mental pictures of how he did it....even down to how he took his stance in relation to the grinder and blade. Each of our blades were sharp.....mine not "crazy sharp" as Dave noted that since I wanted a utilitarian knife, he left enough "tooth" so as to cut through rope and twine, whittle wood, etc. Now my students who made Santoku style kitchen knives.....those knives were crazy sharp. Like "cut paper thin slices of tomato" sharp.

The youngest of our group, a 14 year old kung fu student of mine, turned out a beautiful hunting knife. Dave was there with Isaac all the way, guiding him through the power tools. I was so proud of this young man making his own knife, with the scary power tools! His mom, the Tai Chi student who initially set up this workshop, was a proud mama hen too.

The finished product!

All and all....a wonderful weekend. It felt great to know that a little bit of "me" was in this blade...and no amount of money will buy this blade from me. save up my $$ for more classes. The "great grinding" class sure sounds like fun......

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