Custom knifemaking!

Coulter's Smithing Home

Air quenching a composite metal cleaver. Bet this would go through butter!

Air quenching a cleaver We make custom knives here, sort of as a hobby, but it has turned out to be a profitable one. We are not as good at it as some of the masters, like, for example this guy, or this guy, but so far we are not getting any complaints either. Unlike some of the pros who are not really custom, but make batches and then sell them, we actually make each knife for each customer, to a design the customer helps with or likes -- this sometimes results in unusual designs, which is fine with us – and more fun sometimes. We fit each to the customer's hand, something impossible to do in batches. We also pick the steel type based on the customer's desires, uses, and skills with knife type tools.

Believe it or not, there are people who think nothing of using a fine knife to cut radiator hose, or to pry on something. For one customer we simply ground a screwdriver bit onto the end, because we knew this person would use it that way anyway. Of course, he got a different sort of steel than what we would use for a gourmet chef's blade!

So, to sum up our philosophy on all this, if it's worth doing, it's worth doing right, and it can't be custom unless the customer has quite a lot of input. We just can't give you the best unless we know what is best for you. And that is emphatically not the same thing for everyone! Naturally, one has to have fairly deep pockets or be a really good friend to motivate people who normally make really decent bucks programming to take a few days off and make a knife. It seems there are such people around, who appreciate the finer things that can't be had any other way, and who would rather use an exquisite tool every day that lasts a lifetime rather than go through a bunch of WalMart stainless steel knives that won't take or hold and edge, don't fit the hand, and so on. We cater to those people.

Sadly, we only have a few pictures of knives we've made, but will add more as we make more. The good ones go out the door! We didn't think this would turn into a business, so we didn't document them all. Life is funny that way, sometimes you try and fail, sometimes success surprises you when you weren't really trying.

Cleavers Tantos

Ok, here's some good stuff we do have pictures of. These were Christmas presents. In the left picture, the center cleaver has a Cedar handle, the left and bottom ones are different samples of Cherry, and the prototype on top is Walnut. These cleavers use S7 for the blade, which is welded to regular 1020 steel for the body parts, which saves quite a lot of money. We built a jig to do the MIG welding in the milling machine so the welds come out perfect, and can then be made flat without having to do any new setup. These haven't had the gold plating layer added yet, or the final wood finish.

In the right picture there are some Tanto style blades, which make really nice kitchen knives. Our first hand-forged knives were curved, and one customer really didn't like that, so we tried another way after watching how she used knives to do things like open packages. This is the result, and it seems pretty popular. Handles are Walnut, brass, Oak, and Aluminum. We cut threads on the aluminum one and hollowed it out for the recipient, so he can use it as a ruler as well as a knife. The oak came from some very old, probably over 100 years unfinished oak flooring found in a local barn, and is "distressed". The customer asked for the "crooked" blade. Keeps the knife from rolling around on the counter, that's for sure!

Steels we use

Different strokes, as the saying goes. Here we use A2, O1, S7, and various carbon steels, sometimes case-hardening those. We prefer the tool steels, as they are a lot easier to heat treat without warping them. We have not found any stainless alloy that works well enough to suit us, so we don't use any stainless. We do, however, electroplate or blue the blades we make for rust resistence, and in the case of nickel plate, to make them slip through things better. We also engrave and inlay things like gold. A heat treatment trick we know can leave the blade surface with a texture sort of like a maze, and this looks very nice nickel and then gold plated, with the gold plating taken off the high spots. It looks like someone spent a good part of a lifetime engraving and inlaying, but is easy and cheap to do. We can plate most metals on to knife steel, but we like nickel for being slippery, cobalt for being very pretty, and gold for the same reason. We can also anodize aluminum handle parts and put just about any artwork you can think of on there.

Steel Properties from a knifemakers perspective.
A2 Our all around favorite steel for those who will use a knife for cutting only.
Takes and holds a spooky-sharp edge. Really good for meat and veggies.
Best all around tradeoff for hardness vs brittleness we've used.
O1 This is what we like to use if we will blue the blade, as it takes the blueing
better. Will get almost as sharp as A2, and hold an edge almost as well.
S7 S7 is a very tough steel, but not all that hard as tool steels go.
It is the steel of choice if any prying or pounding is going to happen
to the blade. Good for cleavers especially.
1075 and up Carbon steels are the traditional choice. They have a tendency to warp during
the quench in heat treating, though, which reduces the productive yield.
They can be made so hard that they become difficult to sharpen, but in that
state they are also pretty brittle, and drawing the temper to the point they lose
brittleness leaves them soft again. The tool steels have a better hardness/toughness
tradeoff. If relatively mild carbon steel is case hardened, it can be very good,
but then requires two heat treats to be done really right. So the cheap steel is
actually the most expensive. Shouldn't be a surprise.

As you can see, selecting the right steel is very important to the end user. Some folks want really good sharp blades, and will use them as cutting tools only. We can specialty heat treat for those folks so they get just what they want. We can also make a great knife to kick around the bench or garage, but it would not be made anything like the same way, or out of the same alloys. If you really want us to use some other alloy you think might be best for you, we will, though it may cost more if yields are low or heat treat is especially difficult. One of our TODO projects is to make an induction hardener, which will improve all this heat treating stuff a lot, as we can do it in a vacuum and have no scaling and no warping. That oven uses considerable kWh for a solar system! We can do TRUE Damascus steel as well, which is not what most of the knife business calls by the same name. They mean any two or more steels forge welded and folded, etched to show the nice pattern. What we mean by that word is real Wootz, hard ferrite particles suspended in relatively mild steel. This is what those fantastic swords were made of. It's good stuff, but hard (expensive) to make. Unless you want it for historical reasons, the tool steels are better.

Everyone who has used one of these asks "How did you get it so sharp?" We use the lathe, with a 6 inch wheel between centers, with the blade mounted on a fixture on the tool post. We set the traverse very slow, it takes about 10 minutes per pass down the blade, about 4 passes per side, and results in a very nice hollow ground edge. For final sharpening after hardening, we use one of those little angled carbide things you can get at the hardware store. Sometimes the cheap stuff really works.

Woods we use. All grown here.
Oak Oak comes in many flavors, red, white, pin, live and others. Each has a
unique look. It is very strong, and an ideal knife handle material. We of course
select for beauty, rather than what the flooring guys do. We go out of our way
to find crotch pieces, knotty pieces and suchlike, which finish up very nicely.
Walnut The traditional favorite for gunstocks, it makes nice knife stocks as well.
Some samples have truly beautiful grain and ray patterns. Not as hard as oak,
but hard enough for most people's uses.
Cedar Cedar can be utterly beautiful, as we found out when we put a small but
old cedar tree out of its misery after a truck ran over it. All those tiny branches
make for a nifty figure, and if the tree has grown up a little warped, the resulting
grain patterns are out of this world. Just one problem. It's really too soft for a
"working" knife. We like it anyway, and some people are really careful.
Wild Cherry Sometimes bland, but can be gorgeous if you get the right chunk of it.
This is the hardest wood we work with, at least in what grows around here.
This raises costs somewhat, as it is hard on the tools as well as the knifemaker!

We will also work with whatever you send, or use any metal we can get, which is most of them. Some people seem to like handle-heavy knives, and making the handle out of brass or aluminum will get you there. Either can be hollowed out, of course, to make them a little lighter and perhaps provide a little compartment for things.

pretty cedar stock Here is as close as we get to a non–custom knife. I found this nice piece of Cedar, and just went ahead and made a blade for it. Once someone comes along to love it, I will then adapt the stock to fit them. For now, it looks nice hanging around the shop as an example of what can be done. This picture doesn't do it justice, as the wood figure is sort of 3–D and everything moves when the light does. It will take better lighting and a movie to really show how nice this thing looks.
 short sword being restored Here is a knife someone brought to us to restore. This picture was taken in the middle of the process. When we first got it, it wasn't very recognizable as a blade. Careful use of mechanical and chemical means got it to this point. Some of the metal inlay is missing, and will be replaced. The customer said his grandfather got this somewhere in South America. The decorations are obviously Islamic. When cleaning out the hand stamping on the blade, what came out was garnet powder, so this may have been used near a mine. The stampings on the blade have some further engraving or stamping down in the bottoms, the pattern is quite complex. The stock is ivory, the metal inlays are pewter, the blade is hand forged high carbon steel, and takes an excellent edge. We would love to hear from anyone who might be able to fill us in on the possible history of this item. It was obviously made in a time when skilled hand labor was inexpensive.

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