Forging allows me freedom in design because I can shape material in whatever way I like. A visitor to my shop was amazed one day when an inch-and-a-half long piece of round bar became a four-inch hunting knife blade with a four-inch long tang. I still find it fascinating how you can manipulate steel with heat and pressure. Another benefit of forging, particularly in Australia, is greater access to suitable materials. Most of the types of steel that I use only come in round bar here. With a power hammer and a press, this is not a problem. I do not think that forging is superior to other forms of knife making. In fact done poorly or with a lack of knowledge, experience or inadequate heat treatment, it can ruin a piece of steel almost before you get started. Done well and with experience, coupled with proper heat treating it makes an excellent blade. It is creative, flexible and gives you an excuse to buy bigger, noisier tools and you get to play with fire, What more could you ask for?
I get a real sense of satisfaction shaping a blade with a hammer. Creating a knife is often a slow and patient process. For me, forging a blade is as close as you get to a “eureka” moment in knifemaking.
Heat-treating my own knives allows me to have full control of the entire process and I can choose the heat treatment I want for the knife I’m building.. I test all the blades I build to ensure they leave my shop ready to work. A knife, no matter how embellished, is first and foremost a tool and for this reason I build every knife, plain or fancy, as if it where going into the field.
Damascus is probably the single biggest advantage to forging. There is nothing else as satisfying to me as making a new design or recreating a pattern that worked well in the past. It is a never ending journey only limited by your own creativity. It can also be a complete misery when it goes wrong. Damascus is also a fantastic material for fittings, either matching the blade or using them to enhance a straight steel knife. I really enjoy using colour and patination to enhance a finished piece. Damascus really opens the door to endless variation.
I primarily use three steels for my straight steel blades: W2, 52100, and 1084. I like W2 for smaller knives where hair-splitting sharpness and edge retention are the most important. I also use it to create knives with highly active Hamon lines. I feel 52100 gives a good overall performance in medium knives that may take a bit more abuse but still need to keep an excellent edge. For big bowies and choppers, I really like 1084. It is as tough as old boots and cuts great. With proper heat treatment, it passes the ABS cut and bend test with flying colours. It also shows a nice hamon as well as being easy to sharpen. I think most properly heat treated cutlery steels will make an excellent blade. This combination has just developed to work out well for me and how I make knives.
For my Damascus, I have used a few combinations over the years, including 1084, 1095, 1070, 15n20, L6, Uddeholm Round saw steel and others. The combination I am using now is 1075 and 15n20. I have found a supply of 1075 with a slightly higher than standard manganese content. This really helps develop a high contrast in the etch making the 1075 turn almost black. The oxides also really adhere to the blade further enhancing the contrast. It welds well and is excellent for some of the more abusive patterning techniques that really stress welds. The combination heat treats consistently and cuts like a chainsaw, so , I’m very happy with the combination. I also use other steels to create certain effects in blades. One thing I do not do is ever use anything in Damascus that would decrease the overall performance of a knife as a cutting tool. I know that many of my large presentation pieces may never cut anything, but that dosen’t mean they leave the shop with that thought in mind. I make cutting tools first and foremost, the fancy bits come after.
In regards to cutting tools, in my opinion knives are just that, cutting tools. I believe in, proper heat treating, good geometry and thin edges. I don’t believe in magic, punching holes in cars, or indestructible knives. All things in life are a trade off and knives follow those rules. I have seen many knives built to kill a tank, and they cut with all of the finesse of a cold chisel. I am also a firm believer in a balance between form and function, ergonomics and comfort in use. I want my knives to be functional, built to the highest standard I can achieve, and be beautiful to see and hold.