Saturday, January 28, 2012

How to hand forge a simple knife in ten grueling hours with significant forearm torture

One might think, from the title, that I'm prone to being over-dramatic, which - in fact - would be a correct assumption, but more importantly, I'm here to tell you that making tools by hand with fire and steel is not for wimps. There's a reason, a very good reason, we let machines (or migrant labor) do most of our work now. 

In short, hard work is HARD

Nonetheless, when my friend Ashlyn suggested I join her on Vashon Island to learn how to make our own knives, I thought this sounded just like the crazy kind of shit that would make a good blog post so of course I said, "WOW, I've always wanted to do that!"

If you lived in the 1700's, this is the last thing you'd see before passing out in the dentist's chair.

This is the forge where all the action takes place. Please note that the spikes on top are for (no joke) cooking hot dogs and potatoes. Will creativity and multi-tasking never cease?

We started with what our teacher, Drew, called "tool steel" or "bar-stock". He referred to it by some number which I promptly forgot, rationalizing - sanely - that as I age, new knowledge pushes out old knowledge, so if I remembered the number I'd forget how to put my pants on in the morning. Here is Drew showing us that hot steel is fiery red and orange and it will BURN YOU. 

Here is my anvil-partner showing us the handle-end of his knife.  With a hammer and a very butch swinging motion, he created the 'bolster' of the knife. The bolster creation was probably the hardest step.

Teacher Drew showed us how to make the 'rat-tail' of the rat tail knife, taught to him by another metal worker whose signature addition was not just the rat-bodied handle and the rat tail but just underneath the tail a little tiny rat-sized pucker. Blacksmiths, like cooks, and 7th grade boys and really, most everyone, like a little spot of potty humor.  We did not add this little 'adornment' to our knives. Poor constipated rat tail knife.

This is my knife. This was about 8 hours into hurling a very heavy hammer at a smallish piece of steel while holding it with heavy tongs.  I was very proud of my little rat, even though at this stage it looks like the rat head is bending over at the neck. No matter -- the beauty of this work is that you can just throw it back in the fire to 're-plasticize' it and try again to get the shape you want.

 In this shot, I'm reheating my knife to try to straighten its little rat back.

Drew showing us some technique and making it look very, very easy. Drew made everything look sooooo easy when he did his demo. Drew is clearly a liar. A handsome and nice liar, but still a liar.

I prided myself on doing all the work myself for the whole day until the very end when I was clutching my T-rex arm and making little moaning sounds.  I 'let' Drew put the edge on my knife because, you know,  I'm sure he needed the practice.

Here is a shot of our class' knives, along with the sheaths we also made. The class was a fundraiser  so Drew can teach a teen blacksmithing workshop on the island.  A fabulous day and totally worth the ensuing 48 hours where I couldn't brush my hair, hold a pen, or wipe my rat tail.


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