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Hand Forged Knives: What to Look For

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The forged blade conjures up both real and surreal images in the minds of both makers and collectors. Makers let their minds eye see the blade take shape by their hand in their shop. Every detail is considered until the knife or sword is complete. Collectors envision how the maker got a piece of steel to the finished product that they hold in their hand. Delighting in the combination of materials, the quick/light feel in their hand and the balance sought in all fixed blades.

Today the majority of makers who forge blades belong to the American Bladesmith Society (ABS). This is not to say that a maker cannot produce an exceptional forged blade if they do not belong to the ABS. The ABS offers three rating levels. First is the Apprentice Smith; this is the entry level for makers who want to learn what forging a blade and making a knife is about. The next two ratings require testing. Journeyman Smith requires the maker to be a member of the ABS for at least two years. The maker must complete the Introduction to Bladesmithing course providing them with the basics for making a forged blade. There are additional requirements for those wanting to be a Journeyman smith. After successfully attaining the JS rating a maker will have to wait a minimum of two years before testing for Master Smith. All the testing requirements can be found on their website at www.americanbladesmith.com.

Early on I found what attracted me most to forged blades were how light the larger knives were, particularly the Bowies. The forged blades feature what is called distal tapering. The blades are forged in almost a wedge type shape, thick at the top and very thin on the edge. This technique will reduce the weight on any forged blade. The other feature that has really garnered attention is the Hamon or temper line. This is created by differential heat treat of the blade. Part of the aforementioned JS Test is for the maker to put a blade into a vice and bend it 90 degrees without the blade breaking. The temper line is visible on all forged blades although you may have to look as some will be camouflaged by a very good satin finish. Many of the knives today will feature W2 steel which if tempered properly will have a very distinct and unique temper line.

When looking at a forged blade it is not so different from looking at a knife that has been made through the stock removal method. First does the knife appeal to me. Let’s be honest here there are knives out there that primarily will appeal only to the maker. I like to see a proper blade to handle ratio. Most handles will be 4 ½” to 5” depending on the type and style of knife. I have seen knives that feature a 3 ½” blade and 5” handle. Perhaps there was a specific purpose for that knife. However, it just doesn’t look right. Obviously a smaller or larger hand may require an adjustment to the handle length and possibly the blade length. Part of the reason for a proper blade to handle ratio is to insure the proper balance for the knife. Generally about where the guard would be is where the blade should balance. Some knives depending on the blade length and/or stock may balance a little in front of the guard. Some knives with a bigger handle may balance a little behind the guard area. As you hold the knife in your hands you will find the handle is an ergonomic fit or it is not. Some knives just seem to become one with your hand and others can be uncomfortable to hold.

Handles on forged blades will basically come in 3 styles. First the mortise tang; where a piece of handle material is split down the center. Then the a pocket is created for the tang on each side. Only enough material is removed so as to have the scales match back up when they are glued together. On a very good job you will have difficulty finding the line where the two pieces of material come back together. On others it will be very apparent that the knife features a mortise tang configuration. Next is the “stick tang” which is exactly what it sounds like. The handle material will be drilled down the center and depending on the set up of the handle the tang may or may not go all the way to the other end. Often wood handles with a hidden tang will feature a couple of pins to help hold the tang in place. This is done primarily as a back up and often the pins feature a mosaic pattern. The other style generally found on Stag often referred to as “carver” handles. As the piece of stag looks like one found on the older type carver sets used to carve meat at the dinner table. Often these will feature a spacer of stainless steel or Damascus file worked to match the Stag. The tang will come all the way through the handle and spacer and screw into a finial at the end of the handle. You will find this often with Ivory with or without the spacer and finial. Note that on both Ancient Walrus Ivory and Stag there may be a curve to the left or right which can add or detract from the handle ergonomics.

The third type of handle is the frame handle; which is exactly what it sounds like. A separate frame which will also feature the guard is built with the handle material (and often liners of sometime) fitted into the sides of the frame. The tang is then put into the frame and is secured by pins and bolts that are under the handle material or they can be showing. It can be deceptive as it appears to be a full tang knife. That is your first clue that it is more than likely a frame handle. This type of handle is the most expensive because of the amount of work it takes to create it.

What about the steel? Depending on the intended use, the environment of use and any other unusual parameters the type of steel used can make a big difference. That said while looking at a forge blade three things to look for are: 1) is the edge sharp. Often people want to run their finger along the edge or across their thumb nail. I would caution you about this. I would suggest brining paper or a magazine with you. Test the edge on something other than your body parts. 2) The blade finish. What you are looking for here is straight lines from the front of the guard to the point. Everything should be going horizontally on the blade. I find pointing the tip towards the lights overhead and looking along the blade a great way to see the finish. 3) Symmetry. That is to say are any grinds equal on both sides. Points where the grinds come together are the best place to look. Example: the choil area, where you can often tell if the maker is left or right handed.

Damascus while difficult to create has become more abundant. Comprised not only of a combination of carbon steels and nickel, stainless steel Damascus is now an option. Damascus will go from the basic Ladder and Twist pattern to more exotic patterns and finally to mosaic patterns. Literally your name, a flag, Santa and his reindeer, etc. can be put into Damascus steel. Two things you will want to look for are an even acid etch on the Damascus. The other would be separations between the layers within the Damascus.

I feel sheaths are a must for hunting knives, especially carbon steel hunting knives. Often these knives are bought with the idea that they will be used and as such you will need something to carry the knife in. If you are just putting the knife into your collection you may or may not want a sheath.

The problem with sheaths for carbon steel and Damascus bladed knives is that it gives the impression to some that the knife can be stored in the sheath. In the case of carbon steel and Damascus bladed knives they should never be stored in the sheath. It is not will the blades rust it is how soon they will rust.

The good news for those who like sheaths is that there are several very talented sheath makers who can create whatever your budget can afford!

Quandaries with forged blades, rating systems and business practices.

In the mid 1980’s when Damascus was making its first appearance at knife shows. I ran into two well known Master Smiths who were touting their “secret steel and techniques” made their steel special. It turned out that their steel and/or techniques were far from special. I would caution you to be leery of any forged blade maker who would use the “secret” word.

The forged blade makers out there do an excellent job in sharing their knowledge with their fellow makers. The teaching at the Bill Moran School of Bladesmithing in Texarkana Texas is done by Master Smiths. Additionally there are other schools and hammer ins across the United States that allow the knowledge of the forged blade to be passed from maker to maker.

While the ABS has excellent guidelines and testing procedures that makers must meet in order for their knives to pass the tests to attain their JS or MS stamp. This does not mean that every knife build will maintain that high standard set for their test knives. Today you will find some makers with a JS stamp are better than some of the makers with an MS stamp. This is primarily because of better equipment and better dissemination of information. It is up to you to be able to compare apples to apples when it comes to materials and techniques that are used on similar knives.

Before you purchase or order a knife it is always best to talk with the maker. Ask them about why they use particular materials for the knives on their table, etc. While some may be slow to talk about their knives (as many makers feel this is bragging) once they understand you interested in their decision making process. They should be more than happy to answer any and all questions. If for some reason the maker won’t or can’t answer question(s) about their work. You may want to consider finding another maker for your project or your collection. However, understand that at a show they do have other people to talk with as well. The more you as a collector know the better more specific questions you can ask.

You should understand that most knife makers are part time makers. As such their level of business expertise will vary. This is why communication is so important between the maker and the buyer. Two issues that can arise here are the delivery time and deposits. With very few exceptions should you put a deposit down on a order. An example would be if you are asking for very expensive materials to be used, i.e. gold, ivory, gem stones, etc. You can expect the maker to ask you for money up front to purchase those. Make sure to work out the money details at the time you place the order. Makers who insist on a 50% deposit should be avoided. For those makers who insist on payment in full up front. Run don’t walk away from them.

Delivery times are going to vary. More than likely the maker will be late. Understand this is not done intentionally. Makers will give you their very best estimate of when your knife will be completed. As you can imagine once you go more than 6 months out it can be difficult to give you an exact delivery date. So plan on being a little patient and stay in contact with the maker. Once again good communication is the key.

Just like the forged blade makers the forged blade buyers have a wide variety of resources they can use to educate themselves on what to look for with regards to knives in this category. The ABS website is a wealth of information regarding what is expected of makers with a particular rating. Given the amount of Hammer In’s and knife shows that are in the US there is probably one close to you. A basic understanding of how a knife is made can go a long way to give you an appreciation/education on how easy or difficult some aspect of knife making can be. The Internet can be mined for a treasure trove of aftermarket potential of particular a particular makers work.

Knowing what a maker’s position in a particular market is allows you determine what you should pay for a given knife. This will get you the best bang for your buck.

Forged blades seem to offer almost a limitless variety of styles and materials. Making this aspect of the custom knife market something every collector should explore.