Joe Keeslar Brute de Forge knife

I saw quite a few “blacksmith” or roughly forged knives before I ever heard the phrase “Brute de Forge”.  These knives were for the greatest part unsophisticated and homemade in appearance as opposed to the better brute de forge knives by skilled makers that we see today.

keeslar large knife blogJoe Keeslar brute de forge knife

Today the more refined brute de forge knives that we see may feature forged in finger guards, file work, silver wire inlayed handles, and engraving. Some areas of the blade are usually left with an as forged surface.

keeslar handle blogHandle inlayed with silver wire

Joe Keeslar is an ABS Mastersmith and the chairman of the American Bladesmith Society, he is also known for his brute de forge type knives. I believe that it is safe to say that the example pictured here is typical of the style as done by Joe. Overall it is 9 13/16” and the clip point blade is hollow ground. The tiger maple handle slabs are decorated with silver wire and pins and the spine of the blade is file worked. The bolsters are engraved and the file work on the spine is enhanced with engraving.

keeslarforgescopyJoe Keeslar forging a brute de forge knife

The forged in finger guard is wide and a smooth curve making it comfortable to the fore finger. This is an area where many other knives of this type that I have seen have fallen short. The balance point is just behind the finger guard and the knife rests comfortably in the hand.

keesler spineFile worked spine of the Keeslar brute de forge

copyright Bill North 2013

Knifemakers and the internet.

The internet becoming so universal and easily accessed almost anywhere has changed many things in the custom knife world just as it has in many other areas. There are many types of knife forums, dealer websites, organizations websites, manufacturers’ websites, etc. Today knifemakers can have their own websites, blogs, or forums much, much easier than ever before. Many makers are taking advantage of what the internet offers them, the degree of this advantage taking varies from a little to a lot.

It is very difficult for me to imagine why any maker that is able to access the internet and is serious about his knife making, does not make use of the internet to whatever degree is best for him. Maybe I have just answered my own question…perhaps the maker is not serious, or maybe the maker thinks that it is best for him to not make use of the internet, although I can’t make sense of that thinking.

The various knife related forums can be a great place for a maker to show off his work, draw attention to his own site, announce shows he plans attending, post work in progress, etc. Well established, popular makers more often than not receive warm receptions on the various forums, not so well established or lesser known makers may or may not get the same reception. The forums are a keen edged sword that cuts both ways, the makers image can easily be enhanced or just as easily damaged.

It goes without saying that makers posting on forums should show their best work, and one would think that it also should go without saying that makers should be careful about how they come across on the faceless internet. Of course no one likes to have their work criticized, but if a maker posts his work he has to accept that everyone might not give it the glowing praise he hoped for. Getting sucked into arguments, becoming defensive or even worse losing one’s temper needs to be avoided like the plague by makers. Lots of potential customers may be watching.

The internet and having a website in particular not only allows makers to show off their work but can assist them in taking orders and selling knives. By doing these things the maker’s website potentially reduces the number of shows that the maker feels that he must attend, and thereby expenses are reduced. A maker can use a blog in many ways to maintain interest in his work, and they are simple to have and maintain as well as being free in many cases.

If the maker does have a blog or website it needs to be updated and not allowed to go stale. Most of us will soon tire of visiting a site that does not have new content over a long period of time. This morning I looked the blog of a certain ABS Mastersmith and could not help but notice that it has not been updated in 3 years and 10 months. You read correctly, I am not exaggerating; there have been no updates to the maker’s blog in almost FOUR YEARS!! All I can say is that it is truly baffling to me why the maker does not grasp that it would be better to take the blog down than to appear so lacking in focus and organization.

As usually is the case with this blog, the above is just my opinion based on what little I know and my own experiences.

copyright Bill North 2013

The first custom or handmade knife that I can remember seeing.

My dad had carried the knife through WW2 and my first memory of it was that he kept it in his big wooden tool chest in a small workshop area of the barn. I think that I was about 8 or 9 then and like most other boys my age growing up in the southern mountains I was interested in guns and knives. Sometimes the neighbor boy and I would get the knife out of the toolbox and have great fun throwing it at the barn doors or trees, but that ended when my dad started locking the tool chest. No doubt he noticed the many dings in the aluminum handle slabs that resulted from our poor throws.

The knife is 10 ½”overall in length and the blade is 6 ¼” long. The blade is single edged and has a small, shallow swedge at the top of the tip that is about 2 ½” long. The blade steel exposed under the thin, aluminum handle slabs is about .200 thick, and the handle slabs are fastened on with steel rivets or pieces of peened over steel rod. Overall the knife shows coarse grinding marks, file marks, dings, etc.

dadknife

The knife, sheath, and CBI bullion patch

The knife has its original sheath which has my dad’s name, address, and military ID number on the back still visible having been written in black ink. The sheath is thick leather, riveted together, has no welt, and is still serviceable today.

It certainly is a tough old knife; whatever steel and heat treatment was used must have been right for the knife to have survived all the abuse I heaped upon it back then.

I believe that I remember my dad saying that the knife was made by “an old man out at a sawmill”, but from its appearance I think it could also have been theater made. Whatever the truth is about that, and despite its crude construction, it is as old as I am and it brings back good childhood memories for me.

I have pictured the knife with its sheath and his China Burma India bullion patch.

copyright Bill North 2013

Steel Silliness

DSC_2296A forged blade cools in the vise. The makers steel rack is in the background.

In the following I am addressing “using” knives and not “collector” knives:

For years I have seen on various internet knife related forums posters who may or may not know what they are talking about, commending the virtues and/or decrying the faults as they see them of various steels used in knives. I know of makers that are so focused on steel and heat treating that they seem to pay little attention to other important aspects of the business of knife making. I have heard claims that some batches of well-known steels are supposedly superior to other lots of the same steel, and maybe that’s so, I certainly have no way of knowing. I have seen makers claim their heat treating methods were superior to other methods, and I have heard makers criticize other maker’s heat treating methods as being wrong, too basic, not advanced, etc.

I used to try to pay attention and attempt to sort through all this input and to get to the bottom line; what steel and heat treatment is best for my knives? Soon I was overburdened with information and I found myself easily being seduced by the promise of a better steel or better heat treatment. I spent more time wading through mountains of others opinions and thoughts on the matter than I did actually using any of my way too many knives. Just when I thought I had it narrowed down to what was the best steel for me, some new steel would be put on the market or some cache of desirable but hard to get steel would be suddenly be discovered and available.

After several years of wasting time at this never to be fruitful “steel silliness” I made a decision that seems obvious now, I’d just use some of my way too many knives and figure out what worked for me. I found out some things, and some of what I found out was not what I expected at all.

One thing that I found out was that in a large percentage of the knives that I tried, the steel and heat treatment seemed adequate or better to meet my daily use requirements. When it comes to the factory made knives that I own, I just have to believe that most factories that produce and sell thousands upon thousands of knives probably have the heat treatment of their chosen steel pretty well down. The factory knives that I own and use work just fine at what I use them for. If they don’t I get rid of them or throw them in a drawer to be forgotten.

As far as custom knives, I suppose most of us have to take the makers word for some things. If I decide to buy a knife from a custom maker, I am probably forced to accept what he says as far as the steel goes and how it is heat treated. That is sort of an uncertain position to be in. My experience with ordering custom knives is that sometimes I get what I think I am going to get, sometimes more, and sometimes less. As far as I am concerned, if fit and finish are sloppy, or promised delivery dates are missed by a lot, then other areas of a makers work could and probably should be suspect. The custom knives that I use I could not be happier with performance wise.

Another thing that I found out was that while the steel is very important so are other things. Now days not being so pre-occupied with the steel selection or how the steel was heat treated I am able to focus on other things. Things like is the knife ergonomically pleasing to me, is it reasonably easy to sharpen, is it’s edge holding and strength acceptable for my purposes, and does it have blade geometry that works best for me at the tasks I would put that knife to? Is it constructed in a manner that is satisfactory to me, and if it is a knife that I am going to carry, does it “carry well”? All these things are important to me in a knife that I am going to use more than casually. And all those things are probably more important that the “steel silliness” that I was caught up in.

copyright Bill North 2013

HEPK, a new knifemakers organization.

This year a new knifemakers organization was announced by Ed Fowler. It seems to me that Ed is a polarizing character in the custom knife world. Most of the controversy that I am aware of centers on his heat treating methods and the results he says that he has achieved. I would think that a lot of the controversy could be put to sleep if Ed would publish the metallurgical results from a recognized, independent lab but for whatever reason he chooses not to do that. And to be fair, as far as I know none of his detractors have had an independent metallurgical lab test one of Ed’s knives and published the results either. And so as it is so often in life, it’s a case of “he said vs. he said”

Ed is an interesting person who has authored articles in Blade magazine, one or two books about knifemaking, and also has made DVDs about his knifemaking methods. He teaches his bladesmithing methods at his shop in Riverton, Wyoming. Visually Ed’s knives are a style of his own and that style is repeated whether the knife is large or small, at least that is normally the case as far as I know. The examples of his knives that I have seen and handled had sheep horn handles, brass guards, and what I would describe as long ricassos. At least longer than what is generally seen.

Visually I like Ed’s knives in that they are different than what is currently in vogue, and to me reflect an independent spirit. The ones that I have handled were comfortable in the hand and had very durable appearing sheaths. I have never owned one of Ed’s knives and am not able to comment from personal experience as to how they perform.

Ed has some followers that are knifemakers who emulate his knives partially or wholly as to blade shape, ricasso length, steel type, handle material, and guard material. I assume they may partially or wholly use his heat treating methods as well.

This year Ed resigned from the American Bladesmith Society and later announced a new knifemakers organization, the HEPK. I believe that stands for High Endurance Performance Knife. It appears to me to be very loosely organized, and Ed has published on his forum the mission statement and requirements to be a HEPK Mastersmith.

The HEPK, like the ABS, uses “Mastersmith” to distinguish a particular level of skill that a smith has reached.  Although the word is the same the tests to award that status are quite different. Both organizations have their own Mastersmith performance tests but the ABS also tests for design, fit, and finish.  I believe, although I do not know for sure that the HEPK as an organization is performance oriented and less concerned with fit, finish, and embellishment.

I do not know if the HEPK has a website but some information about it can be found on Ed’s forum http://www.knifetalkonline.com/smf/ . I was not able to find a membership list, a list of Mastersmiths, any planned events, a mailing address, an email, a phone number, or any of the other things that one normally associates with a new organization looking toward the future. One thing that Ed has categorically stated is that there will never be any dues.

The ABS was first incorporated in 1976 I believe. From a small beginning to the present it has grown to now having about 1100 dues paying members. The ABS has done many things to boost its membership and further its goals. It has its own yearly show, puts on hammer-ins, has schools, has established a ranking system for member smiths, publishes a magazine, advertises, etc. Despite doing all those things, the current membership is just about 1100. That is approximately the number of students and staff at the High School in the town where I live. To me that speaks as to how small the custom knife world really is and how hard it must be for like organizations to get members. Since Ed has stated that the HEPK has a no dues policy, members might be easier to acquire; many people do want something for nothing.

Free, volunteer help in organizations is great, but in today’s world some money is needed to accomplish much. Without dues, and unless financing comes from somewhere else, I am unable to see any way that the organization can grow to be very large. Eventually, if the organization does grow, things like printing, advertising, stamps, phone bills, publishing newsletters or a magazine, office space and supplies, etc. will require money. Perhaps the goal is to keep it small and informal, in that case very little money would be needed.

I would think that a maker wanting or needing to sell knives would ask himself if being a member of an organization is going to be beneficial to him, and if the prospective customer will take the organization’s standing within the industry into account when considering a purchase. Whether or not you are a fan of the ABS it is an established organization and a Mastersmith ranking helps makers charge more for their work. It remains to be seen if being a HEPK Mastersmith will be as helpful.

Of course getting paid for the knives one makes is not always a motivating factor for the maker. If that is the case then as far as financially speaking goes it makes little difference what organization the maker is or isn’t a member of.

What the future holds for the HEPK I have no idea and could only make pointless speculations. In ten years we should have a pretty good idea, and in thirty six or seven years those of us that are still around will know for sure.

I for one think that the more pro-knife related organizations we have the better the future will be for knife makers, knife owners, and knife enthusiasts.

copyright Bill North 2013

Postscript: Since I originally wrote the above I have seen the link www.hepk.org When I went to that address it took me to Ed’s forum and not to a HEPK dedicated site. Perhaps that was temporary and the link will go to its own site in the future.

Victorinox One Hand Trekker

DSC_5946Victorinox One Hand Trekker

I am a big fan of Victorinox made pocket knives and multi-tools. I own several and have finally found one that I really don’t like all that much. It is the One Hand Trekker model multi-bladed knife.

My knife weighs 4.6 oz., and the main blade is 3 3/8” long and .096 thick at the ricasso, the knife is 4 3/8” long closed and .715 thick.

This knife has a Spyderco type hole in a hump in the blade to allow one hand opening. When it comes to opening, the hole in the blade is where the similarity to Spyderco ends. The blade does lock in the open position but it is not easy for me to open with either hand although it can be done. It lacks the smoothness and ease of operation of the Spydercos that I have owned. In addition the blade opens and closes with a draggy, mushy feel and does not have much of a positive, snapping into place sound at either end of travel.

The handle feels slick and is not what I would want to use with wet hands or hands made slippery from dressing fish, game, or handling food. I think that overall the knife would be made much better and safer feeling in use if the handle slabs had some sort of texture.

I do like the size, the included tools, the tweezers, and the toothpick, but overall the knife does not leave me with an impression of solid durability. The tip of the blade is not pointy or sharp at all and so would be useless at tasks requiring a keen point.

And now a comical note: At the time I ordered the knife I also ordered the Victorinox brand belt case that the dealer recommended for it. When I received the knife and case I noticed that the case was waaaaaaaay too large. I knew and I am sure the dealer knew that it was unlikely that I would invest either the time or money to return the case. Also I kept it because the idea that it was supposed to fit the knife was entertaining to me. That someone would ship something that fit that badly was just a joke and told me something about the shipper that had said that this case fit this knife.

I have included a picture of the case with the Trekker in it as well as a Victorinox Farmer (which is a knife I really like). I have taken the photograph with the knives partially withdrawn so that the viewer can see them both. This gives the viewer some idea of the size of the case. Both knives fit in it nicely.

DSC_5953

So I guess that what this all adds up to is that I have a knife that I don’t like and a case that doesn’t fit the knife I don’t like. But, I can get two multi-blade knives into the case should the need for that remote possibility arise.

copyright Bill North 2013

Are collectors drawn to the forged blade?

doc hammers2

Bladesmith Mike Christenson using a power hammer

In the custom or handmade knife world there are two popular ways of making the blades, forging and stock removal. In the stock removal method the maker starts with a piece of appropriate steel and uses cutting tools or abrasives to remove everything that does not look like the blade that he wants to create. In the forging method the maker also starts with an appropriate piece of steel but he heats it to a malleable state and uses hand or power tools to force it into the shape he wants.

Actually, when it comes to forged blades in most cases the blade is only forged to shape in its earlier stages, and then stock removal takes over, at least that is how it normally is done. Different makers forge the blade to varying degrees of the final blade shape before stock removal takes over. Some makers forge very closely to the final shape and others not so much. Despite how much or how little forging is actually done in the shaping of the blade process, if knives have been forged at all by the maker, the market seems to refer to them as “forged blades”.

Some people say that forging makes a better knife but they don’t say exactly how much better or what independent lab evidence they have to support that position, at least I don’t have knowledge of it if someone has. Please note that I said “independent lab”. I have heard it said that forging is more economical in terms of material, but knife steels are not that expensive considering the price of finished knives and they fail to mention the extra time and materials used in cleaning up a rough forged blade. Proponents of forging say that forging allows the maker to create shapes that other methods don’t, but I doubt that is so; computer controlled machines can do remarkable things. I also have heard it said that forging allows the maker to use different shapes of steel as raw material, and as true as that is, I doubt very much that it matters much to most collectors what shape the steel was before it was a blade. In fact I bet that nothing in this paragraph matters much to most collectors….of course that’s just a guess on my part, but I would still bet money that way.

One excellent quality that forged blades by good bladesmiths often have is distal taper. It is a tapering of the blade thickness from guard to tip and helps avoid “nose heaviness”. This is easily roughed in during the forging process but would require much grinding to accomplish by the stock removal method. This distal taper is what gives some knives such a well-balanced feel in the hand. It really makes the difference in how Bowies, fighters, and other large knives feel. Large knives with good distal taper can feel very light and quick and many collectors like them.

Forging capabilities do allow makers to make laminated blades and Damascus or pattern welded blades, and currently collectors are drawn to both those blade types. There is something archaic about forging, the fire, the anvil, the whole “Under a spreading chestnut tree the village smithy stands” thing. To most of us, forging as a way for a solitary craftsman to produce a knife blade is very far removed from the computerized world we live in. And therein probably lays a great deal of the reason for its appeal.

So why is it then that many collectors are drawn to the forged blade? What is the allure? Are they in fact drawn to the forged blade or is it that they are drawn to a particular knife, knife style, or makers work that just happens to be forged? Certainly there may be collectors that collect only forged knives, but it is probably a small segment of the collector population. I am only guessing, but I imagine that most collectors with sizable collections have knives of both forged and stock removal genres.

copyright Bill North 2013