I was brought up around all sorts of crafts and the outdoors. Woodworking and leather crafting seemed to be interwoven into my genes, but really didn’t have much in the way of knife making, although my dad did make a knife or two in his younger days.
I’ve seen some of my buddies making wooden spoons, which for any of a million reasons seems to hit a chord with something deep inside. Rather than buying some of the necessary knives for spoon making, I thought why not see if I could make a decent knife that might get me closer to making spoons.
I initially took an existing X-acto blade and created a handle in which I could house it, which was sort of like making a knife, in some small way. After a few other iterations, adjusting the blade types on each one, I decided I wanted to try making one that was a bit more substantial.
I bought a sheet of metal that was around 1/8″ thick, with which to create the blade on this knife build. I drew out the shape of what I wanted, and then marked it onto the sheet of metal, and used a cutoff wheel in my Dremel to trace most of the shape and then a Milwaukee Sawzall for the majority of the through-cutting on the blade. I finished up some of the connecting cuts with a hacksaw, so I had the most control over the blade as it broke away from the blank.
I took my blade over to the grinder and set the rest so it was 90-degrees to the wheel, as initially I only wanted to clean up the surfaces, removing any jaggedness or ridges. As the blade was still full thickness all the way to where the cutting edge would be, there was less chance of drawing out the temper as long as I didn’t linger.
Next it was time to start working on the bevel(s) for the blade. I began by testing a completely free-hand presentation of the blade to the wheel, but this felt like it was still out of my league (even though I’d free-handed a couple of hatchet heads with decent success), at this point.
I’ve owned a Tormek wet grinder for around 8 – 9 years, but I’d decided I wanted to give my newish Baldor grinder some work, even though I knew it would require a much lighter touch as well as closer attention. One of the things I’ve always loved about the Tormek is the adjustable metal frame on which the accessories ride, and I know some will install the same in front of their dry grinders, so they can use the same gear. One of the Tormek accessories that came with my kit, the SVM-45, is made for sharpening knives. I decided to see if there was some way I could use this jig to make my grinding on the knife blade better. As it turned out, I was able to set my grinder rest at the correct distance away from the wheel, and then keep a ledge on the jig against the outside lip of the rest. This gave me a solid pivot that allowed me to quickly create a good bevel on each side of the blade, with a geometry that looks good to my eyes.
I used a flat diamond Dia-fold hone for the first stage of sharpening, which is pretty easy, as the grinder creates a hollow bevel. The hone just needs to stay in contact with the very edge as well as the other side of the hollow, which most people will feel, or learn to feel in short order. After I had the full length of the cutting edge, on both sides, showing a consistent surface from the hone, it was time to stop. Next I used a 4000-grit Japanese water stone that is about 4″ long and 1/8″-3/16″ thick, and with it soaked in water, use the same motion on the blade. When the edge on both sides is changed, and consistent, it’s time to again stop. The last step I use is a piece of hard wood, about 6″ long x 1″ wide x 1/4″ thick, with some of the Tormek honing past spread over the wood. The wood is then used just like the previous hone and stone, and should result in a completely polished cutting edge. Depending on your steel, this will be shaving sharp or close.
I used a piece of Avodire (white mahogany) as the knive’s handle, which I shaped so it felt good in my hand, and was large enough to contain the tang of the blade. I decided to split the handle on the band saw, and then I marked around the tang on one side.
I used my Lie-Nielsen No. 71 to remove enough wood from the first side, so it was half the thickness of the tang. I mimicked this procedure on the inside of the second half of the handle, and obtained a very nice fit. I roughed up both sides of the tang, to make sure the glue would have the best chance to create a solid bond. I mixed up a fair amount of epoxy and spread it on all inside surfaces, to make sure everything would end up bonded tightly. I used a couple of clamps to keep a consistent pressure across the handle until it was fully cured. I used an X-acto knife to trim away any epoxy that ended up on the outside of the knife’s handle, and then followed up with a very light cut with my spokeshave.
I recently purchased some Birchwood Casey True-Oil, and wanted to use this as the finish for the handle. I found during some experimenting, that using a paper towel to apply this finish, ended up a much thicker application than was needed. Instead a small piece of linen material was the optimum application tool, as it kept the oil very thin, which was perfect. I applied two coats of True-Oil, which ended up providing some good protection, but didn’t get so built up that it was slick in the hand. After the oil dried, I used some 0000 steel wool to make the surface feel as nice as possible, without loosing control.
I decided to take a leap and do a little bit of file work on the back of the blade, as I’d always thought about trying this and this seemed the perfect opportunity. I found some aspects were easier to accomplish after I got going, so this may just be something I’ll do on any knife I make. I used a small conical diamond Dia-fold file as I liked the look and feel of the recess surface. I made five divots on the back, which has some personal reasons I’ll keep to myself at this time.
Yesterday, my best bud was in town, and we had the chance to mess around with a couple of the knives I’ve made, as well as a few of my hatchets (the Plumb, the Sears and the Gransfors Bruks – large carving version). I found a dead ~4″ limb on one of our Osage Orange trees, which I was able to pull down. After cutting a couple of 12″-18″ pieces from the long limb, we used the hatchets to remove some of the bark until we were down to the brilliant colored heartwood.
Now that we were at the heartwood, we used the knives to work on some paring cuts and different hand positions. One of my knives has a single bevel, while the most recent knife has a dual bevel. My buddy was having a little more difficulty using the single-beveled knife, which wanted to dig into the wood rather than providing the easy control of the other knife. As he mentioned the issue, I looked over and knew exactly what was up. My buddy is left-handed, while I’m right-handed. Why is this important? When I used the older knife, the bevel was on the downward facing side of the blade, which allows it to start down into the wood, and swoop back out easily. For my buddy, the flat side was down, and if it even just barely dives into the wood, it will want to keep going deeper. So, if you make yourself a knife, for the most flexibility, make it with a bevel on both sides of the blade. If you decide to make it with a single-bevel, make sure it is on the correct side of the blade, so it is against the wood when you are holding the knife in your most comfortable position.
I also made a hand-stitched leather sheath for both knives, which protects the knives during transit as well as protects those around the sheathed knives. You can use some cardboard, wrapped around the blade a few times, followed by some strong tape, if you just need to provide basic protection to the knife’s edge.
I was nicely surprised at how well the knives behaved, and mostly with the newest knife. It held its edge nicely, even while we were working on some really tough mostly-dried Osage Orange. The surface on the Osage Orange looked completely polished and felt almost waxy. This knew knife was a complete success for both me and my bud.
Thank you for checking out this article and please let me know if you have any questions or comment.
I have a few different hatchets from over the years, but the one I’m most partial to (now) is one that belonged to my grandfather, and was made by Plumb for the Boy Scouts of America. I don’t know the exact date this was made, but it looks to be in the 1930-1940 range. The handle is hickory (at least I’m pretty sure it is) and it is shaped so it almost looks delicate, but for those that aren’t familiar, hickory is very strong and has good resiliency.
This is so completely different than the first hatchet I ever had, which was the type where a block of metal was run through a press that stamped the hatchet out, leaving the head and handle, with the latter dipped into some rubber for a grip.
I hadn’t picked up the old Plumb hatchet in a while, and when I gripped the handle, I was immediately in heaven. It fits the hand like it was made for it, and feels great when in use. I also have a Sears Craftsman hatchet (ca 1985) that I bought after we got our house, that was just for small de-limbing and such. I took hold of the Craftsman’s handle, after just holding the Plumb, and talk about worlds of difference. The Craftsman’s was a bulky and thick handle (can’t tell what species) and even though it had a few subtle curves, was really almost completely straight and un-sexy.
Another interesting sidebar is relating to the heads of these two hatchets. If you tap the head of the Craftsman, it has a very bright and ringing “cling” sort of sound. The head of the Plumb hatchet is much more substantial and only sounds a faint high-pitched ring when hit. The crazy ringing of the Craftsman isn’t a huge deal, but it does tend to get a little annoying as it announces every time it hits, including when contacting the wood you are chopping. This is of course just a personal thing, but I am less likely to grab the Craftsman, for a number of reasons that are likely becoming obvious.
I’d noticed the cutting edge of the Plumb was pretty dull, and it was sharpened last at a crazy high angle. Even though this is a striking instrument, it seemed the angle was too steep to be effective. It was obvious to me that there was more metal to remove, than I’d want to attempt with a file, so I gladly took it to my Baldor 8″ grinder. I initially reground the bevel on both sides, matching the existing angle, just so I could confirm my suspicion about it’s bevel angle. I have an old stump in my shop and tested to see how the newly-ground Plum behaved by lightly striking the stump’s rim. It left a dent, but wasn’t very impressive. I wanted to re-grind the bevel, so it would work more as it was intended, but I didn’t want to ruin this family piece.
The Craftsman had a very similar bevel angle, from the factory, so I figured I’d make a test run on it first, just in case I was off base with my ideas. In a couple of minutes, I’d adjusted the bevel on the Craftsman hatchet, and it was amazing just how much difference this made in it’s performance on the stump. With this confirmation, I grabbed the Plumb.
I still had the rest at my grinder set for matching the existing bevel, so with the grinder turned off, I adjusted it to what looked reasonable to my eyes. I forgot to mention earlier that I handle sharpening of the hatchets in some ways just like I do with plane irons and chisels. If I don’t know the existing bevel angle, I always apply some black Sharpie to cover the bevel, so I can know where I am making contact. I applied the Sharpie from the cutting edge, back to where I planned the final bevel to end. When testing to see if the rest is set for the angle needed, I place the tool on the rest, and manually turn the second grinding wheel in the opposite direction it normally runs, and let the tool just kiss the wheel. I noticed the rest was still off, but decided to let my hand-eye coordination see what we could do. Since the original angle was so steep, I knew I had to remove a fair amount of metal (more so on the Plumb, as the Craftsman is thinner towards the cutting edge), and with my hand in contact with the tool rest, basically free-handed a very light pass. When I checked the progress, I saw the grinding wheel was hitting where I’d envisioned, so I made a couple more free-hand passes. I checked the progress between each pass, just to make sure whether I needed to remove more or not. I did exactly the same thing on the other side of the Plumb’s head, and then worked to blend it towards the cutting edge. On my final pass, on each side, I made a light pass that just reached the edge, all the way across the head. A wire edge (or burr) is created on the opposite side, as the edge is reached on the first side. I used the wire edge as my indicator as to whether I’d completely reached the cutting edge, on the second side. I have a nice light near my grinding setup, and with the tool in the correct orientation, it was extremely easy to see the wire edge or lack thereof.
I tested the Plumb’s cutting abilities, in the same way I’d done with the Craftsman earlier, and it was nothing less than amazing! Still, I was a little concerned about the wire edge breaking off, during some chopping, so I wrapped a smallish piece of oak with some 800-grit sandpaper (just what I had close at hand, so not important it is this grit, but I wouldn’t go for anything less than 220-320). I was careful to keep my thumb and fingers, from the hand holding the wood/sandpaper, behind the cutting edge of the hatchet. I also made sure to pay attention to the angle, so I wouldn’t accidentally round over the cutting edge, and after working both bevels for a minute or two, there were no signs of any wire edge.
I find it interesting how it seems that my regular sharpening of my plane irons and chisels, really seems to carry over to everything I sharpen. I’ve gone through earlier periods when I sharpened the irons and chisels freehanded, but didn’t get consistent enough to work solely in that manner. I use one type of honing guide or another, for at least 99% of my sharpening now, but I believe the finger/hand pressure is still developing while using a guide. This hand control seems to carry across to other work, whether it is using and controlling a hand plane, or this free-handed sharpening of a hatchet. So, I say, keep using whatever works for you, and if you prefer to use a guide during honing/sharpening, you are still honing your skills.
Thank you for stopping by and checking out this article. Please let me know if you have any questions or comments, as I welcome them.