By way of introduction, I am a Law Enforcement Officer with about 10 years of experience, a Firearms Instructor and Defensive Tactics Instructor and member of the SWAT Team. I have been carrying knives my entire adult life, but always a folding knife. I own a couple of fixed blade knives, a Ka-Bar TDI which was given to me and a Bulgarian made AK-47 Bayonet which I purchased in Bulgaria on a training trip for sentimental reasons. I have never done any metal fabrication, but am reasonably handy, and I know next to nothing about metallurgy.
I started thinking about making a knife about six months ago when I realized I wanted a fixed blade knife for SWAT. I wanted something that could be used as a weapon if needed, but would mostly be used as a general purpose knife. I have done a fair amount of work with 550 cord, so I was looking for something with a handle I could wrap in 550 cord.
I was scouring youtube and the web looking for examples and trying to find out how hard it would be to make my own knife. On a whim, I googled knife making class and Connecticut, where I live and work. Much to my surprise, Dragon’s Breath Forge had a list of classes they offered (http://www.dragonsbreathforge.com/classes.html), and one of them was Bladesmithing 101: Forging and finishing a self-handled knife. Here is the course description as listed on the website:
Description: This bladesmithing class for beginners will take students through the process of forging and finishing a self-handled knife. Self-handled knives are ones in which the handle and blade are forged from a single piece of material, and in this case we will be adding a cord wrap to the handle to create an attractive and essentially indestructible cutting tool. Covered in this class will be forging blade profiles and bevels, filing and grinding to shape and thickness, basic metallurgical concepts as part of hardening and tempering the blade, and how to achieve a tight, attractive cord wrap. Students should expect to complete at least one knife by the end of the weekend. Students should bring: eye and ear protection, favorite tools, examples of past work if desired; wear natural fiber clothing, close-toed shoes.
Amazingly, this was exactly what I was looking for; I couldn’t believe it. I called a buddy who had previously expressed an interest in making a knife, and we both signed up.
Day 1: We met Matthew Parkinson, who couldn’t have been a nicer guy. My buddy and I briefed Matt on our lack of experience in knife making and forging. Matt said it wasn’t a problem and then he fired up the forge, which was built out of an old propane tank. While it was coming up to temperature, Matt gave us a tour of their very large shop, explained to us about the metal fabrication they do (railings, tables and other stuff), and then he showed us examples of the kinds of knives we would be making. Both had about 3-4″ blades and simply wrapped paracord handles. They looked good, but they looked like more of a camp knife than the super awesome fighting/utility knife that I had planned in my head.
I asked Matt if it was possible to make a dagger in the class and his answer was perfect: he said no and he explained why. He told me that I would need a lot of experience to create a dagger and that if I tried to make one in the class, I would end up with something awful. I didn’t know it at the time, but after taking the class and seeing the difficulty in making the knife I made, I would have been completely unable to make a dagger. I would have either ended up with a dagger that was little more than a railroad spike or Matt would have spent most of his time fixing my mistakes and at the end, I would have ended up with a knife that I watched him make, rather than one I truly made myself.
We immediately got started after the 1084 bar stock we were using got hot. Because there was only two of us in the class, it allowed Matt to make a knife along with us (he actually made two or three during the class). This was a huge help to us because we got to see him do it. We selected hammers, anvils, and tongs and got to work grabbing the hot steel out of the fire.
The next few hours consisted of heating the metal, hitting the ever living heck out of it until it got cold, then repeating the process about 100 more times. The entirety of the first morning was all about shaping the knife. We worked to shape the metal into a knife, creating a bevel, creating the rough shape of the blade, thinning the cutting edge, shaping the handle, setting the angle between the blade and the handle, and basically turning bar stock into a knife shape. It was a lot of hammering and heating for one morning. The shaping of the metal was accomplished with very small changes to hammer angle or metal angle in relation to the anvil. Hammering technique was discussed and demonstrated by Matt and we did our best to follow his lead. Most of the hammering I did was horribly inefficient in comparison to what Matt was doing. He easily moved the metal where he needed it to go, my buddy and I sort of beat it into submission with gross inefficiency. I would estimate that I hit the metal about ten times to accomplish the same thing Matt did with one hammer blow. Without watching someone with 20+ years of experience do it perfectly, I would have thought that it took me about the right amount of effort and time.
Matt was always within arms’ reach of us and was constantly monitoring our progress. I am not afraid to admit that he had to come over to my anvil on more than one occasion to fix what I had done. It was easy to bend the metal to one side or another, but it was tough for us to get it back straight without Matt’s guidance. After getting the rough shape we wanted, we broke for lunch to let the metal cool down.
We came back from lunch and grabbed a sharpie so we could mark the metal and set the kind of shape we wanted. We figured out what kind of blade profile we wanted, the tip shape, the choil shape, and for my knife, the shape of the glass breaker on the pommel. We both consulted Matt on our designs and talked to him about what was possible and what wasn’t. After that, it was off to the belt sanders. We spent the next two hours at the sanders, taking off the rough exterior that the forge and our hammering had produced. We only took the rough surface off of the blade, leaving it on the handle. We worked to get the blade shape to match what we had drawn on the knives and we worked to get a nice even grind, careful to not take any more metal than we needed to, frequently cooling the knives in water.
I convinced Matt that I “needed” to have a sharpened edge on the top of the blade for at least an inch or two. He reluctantly agreed and helped me put that angle into the tip of the knife. Because of the extra grinding I needed to do for the tip of my blade and the hand filing I needed to do on the spine of the blade just forward of the grip for a thumb rest, I spent a lot more time grinding and filing than my buddy.
Because my buddy had some down time, Matt took him back over to the forge, threw in some steel and taught him some decorative blacksmithing. He ended up with a pretty good looking coat hook while I ended up with an unevenly spaced (my fault) hand filed thumb rest in the spine of the blade.
Day 2: We started Day 2 way ahead of where Matt thought we would be. As it turns out, we weren’t terrible at this stuff and there was only two of us, so things were moving quickly. We spent the morning refining the shapes of our blades on the belt sander. I finished the hand filing of the thumb rest and finished the hand filing on the top edge of the knife. I also spent some time finalizing the shape of the glass breaker with the file as well. It was detail work and it took a fair amount of time. Again, my level of inefficiency was fairly high because I had the constant fear of going too far with my filing and screwing up the whole knife.
We rounded out the morning with heat treating, which is a process I can’t remember well enough to describe accurately. Matt had an amazing grasp of the metallurgical principles at play and expertly guided us through the process. We heated and cooled the knives multiple times, then quenched them in oil, ensure they were straight, and put them in the oven while we went to lunch.
After lunch, we did the final belt sanding of the knife, but we had yet to put an edge on it yet. Matt was monitoring the thickness of the blade with a set of calipers to make sure we hadn’t taken too much off of the blade. We drilled the hole for our 550 cord and then got to wrapping 550 cord. I had a fair amount of experience with this and knew that I would end up doing it multiple times after the class to get it just right, so I rushed through the process and ended up with something that looked like I rushed through the process.
You can see from the photos that the knife handle has had multiple different wraps. Matt had a wonderful knowledge of decorative knotwork and showed us some examples of some amazing knot work that he had placed on the handles of many knives and swords.
We were way ahead of schedule, so Matt decided to allow us to engrave the knives and make sheathes. The engraving was nerve wracking because it was such precise work. It was accomplished with a dental drill. We first practiced with sharpies, then practiced with the dental drill on a piece of scrap metal, then took the plunge with the real knife. My initials look like my kid drew them, but it was good enough for me.
Next was sheath making. Normally, sheath making is another class, but Matt knew we needed sheathes and knew we had the time to do it, so he included it. We got out some hides that he had in the shop, cut them, treated the edges, fitted them, sewed them by hand, and dyed them black. The sheath making was straightforward and uncomplicated, but it only went well because Matt had created hundreds of sheathes before and was walking us through the process. The sheath is perfectly functional, but I want to mount this knife to my gear using a Kydex sheath for better retention and durability. I will have some Kydex on the way in the next few months and will try and produce something that better fits my needs.
The last thing we did was sharpen the knifes. This was done on a belt sander and a buffing wheel. We put an 11 degree angle on each side of the blade, so 22 degrees between the two edges. The upper blade on my knife is set at probably 30 degrees. The knives came out scary sharp and the hardness is estimated to be around 58-60 on the Rockwell Scale. The hardness was tested by cutting glass, which the knives would do, and the sharpness was tested by shaving arm hair and cutting paper, which they did just fine.
Overall Impressions: This was a great experience! I had a great time for two days and I came out of it with a custom knife that I built. I have a new appreciation for all of the skills necessary to be able to do this type of work. Forging, hammering, heat treating, designing, shaping, grinding, filing, cord wrapping, engraving, leather working, and sharpening are just some of the skills required. If Matt was bad at any one of these, he couldn’t make a living producing knives and swords. He also couldn’t teach a class where all of these things have to be done. He was very talented at all of these skills. As a firearms instructor with my department, I have seen many talented shooters that aren’t good instructors. Matt has the rare gift of being good at creating knives and swords and teaching people as well. The knife I created was what I wanted. I will proudly carry it for years.
Many of my colleagues have asked if I would take the class again. For me, I wouldn’t take it again, but only for one reason: I don’t have a need for another custom knife created by me. If I ever need another fixed blade knife like this though, I will be back at Dragon’s Breath Forge for another class. I can’t recommend this class highly enough to my friends and colleagues though.