A few weekends ago, I had the opportunity to take a Beginner’s Knifemaking class, led by none other than L.T. Wright at his shop in Wintersville, Ohio. Over the course of a weekend, we were able to take a rectangle of O1 steel, a couple slabs of micarta, some brass pins and a lanyard tube, and turn it into a beautiful, functional knife.
Greater even than the knowledge shared that weekend was the warm welcome we received. It is quickly apparent that the guys in the shop are an extremely tight knit group, and we handful of students were welcomed like brothers. At the end of day one, we were all invited for dinner at L.T.’s house for a wonderful meal prepared by his wife Elaine.
Back even before the Blind Horse Knives partnership with Dan Coppins, L.T. started his business out of that house. Scott “Scooter” Wickham, L.T.’s second in command, gave us a tour of the cramped basement that served as one half of the Blind Horse knifemaking endeavor, eventually taking over the entire basement, with the dining room serving as the office, and shipping and receiving spread across the living room. Hard to believe the number of people crammed into that house, making the company run! Some of L.T.’s early equipment that he purchased from his mentor R.W. Wilson are still in use at the new shop, and it was very cool to feel the history in those grinders.
But back to the knifemaking. I’m finding it difficult to adequately portray just how fantastic an experience the weekend was, and I wish I had taken more pictures as well, but I will do my best.
The pace was fast, at least it felt that way, and is best described as a “crash course” on the subject of making blades the L.T. way. The rough strokes are below, but I’m looking forward to applying the lessons in my upcoming review of the Blade Grinding Attachment for the Ken Onion Work Sharp.
As I said, our “Class Knife” started out as a few hunks of raw material, and it was up to us to turn it into a functioning blade. The crew was there to give us a hand with anything we were having trouble with. They encouraged us to do as much as we could ourselves, but they were there to help us bring home a knife we could be proud of.
Day one consisted of tracing the pattern onto the steel, shaping it and then drilling holes for the lanyard tube and brass pins. Next up we did a rough fit of the micarta blocks and shaped and polished the face of the shoulders. This area has to be done now as you can’t really get to it once the slabs are glued and pinned.
Next step, after pulling the micarta off, was putting a full flat grind on the blade. We started by hand filing a drip notch/sharpening choil to serve as demarcation for the beginning of the grind, and then proceeded through a series of different grit belts until we had the grind complete.
After grinding came the heat treat. O1, like 10-series steels, can be heat treated and tempered easily in a home shop with just a torch.
First step was the heat-and-quench. Using acetylene, we heated the blade to cherry red and once the blade would no longer stick to a hanging magnet, dipped it in oil. The oil will flame up, so you have to dunk it quickly and completely. Or, you could do what I did, panic, and drop the whole thing into the bucket. Oops!
Fortunately, disaster was averted thanks to Scooter’s quick action of grabbing the vice-grips before the blade melted a hole through the side of the container. (Thank you sir!)
After it had cooled back down to room temperature, a quick sand-blast removed the “scale” left from the quenching process. This is just rapidly oxidized metal on the surface of the steel, and while it can look attractive when left on the blade, most knifemakers clean it off.
At this point the steel is very hard and too brittle for actual use. In order to bring the hardness back down to a usable level, we have to temper the blade. The tempering step can be done in a home oven, but you can use the torch again, which we did, because fire! Keeping an eye on the color, we held the flame farther away until the steel progressed from plain gray, to a straw color, and finally a cool blue. This is a more delicate process than it sounds, so the expertise of the crew was especially crucial here.
That was day one! It was only about 4PM at this point but talk about overwhelming. The evening spent with the gents at L.T.’s house was a good way to unwind. Good company, good food and good beers well into the evening left me exhausted but ready for more.
Day two was reserved for attaching the scales and shaping the handle. First up after dry-fitting everything we used a fast acting super-glue to coat the micarta and pins, stack everything together and clamp for a quick half-hour cure.
While the knives were curing, L.T. walked us through the handle shaping and finishing process by taking an unfinished Bushcrafter off the shelf, and taking it all the way to the finished shape before handing it off for the final couple of finishing grits.
After squaring everything up with a disc sander and getting the outline of the handle to the right shape, they will normally rout the corners to get things into rough form, but he demonstrated how to do everything using only abrasive belts. First by “cutting” the corners off the micarta to get to a rough octagonal shape, then cutting the two resulting corners, and then further rounding and fine tuning of the handle using higher and higher grits until we finally got to the polishing stage. Everything was done by eye and by feel, and it was a pleasure to watch the craftsman at work.
Now it was our turn. I got to shape my handle at L.T.’s station on one of the old R.W. Wilson machines, and he would show how to do something on one side of the knife, and then we had to get the other side to match up… and so on it went until we had gone through all the grits and gotten to the polishing wheel. Sounds simple, but it takes a keen eye to do well, much less do it quickly.
Only thing left to do was grind in the secondary bevel, buff the edge to razor sharp, and then “strap” the spine of the knife, giving it that crisp edge that L.T.’s knives are known for.
And here is my knife! I got a tiny curve in the blade after the quench (that’s what I get for dropping it in!), the handle is a little fatter than it is tall, and we had to use some gap filler around the pommel/tang meetup, but I’m still proud of it!
Just as cool as turning out our own knife was the camaraderie. We knife nuts are a rare breed, and being in a room full of people who completely understand our obsession facilitates bonding even faster than the quick acting glue we were using! It is why BLADE Show is such an experience, and it is why the ten of us attending the class from all corners of the country, not to mention the fine blokes that work there during the week, forged an instant connection. Cheers mates, and I’ll see you at the Intermediate Class!
Disclosure time: I have developed some friendships with L.T. Wright and the crew at his shop. I am also a paying member of the Pout House, the official LTWK forum. The cost of this class was $340 for the weekend. I paid my own way.