Knife collectors and the forged blade

As far as I can see there are two main ways that custom or handmade knives are referred to. They are “stock removal” and “forged blades” or knives made by bladesmiths. But to be accurate both types normally require stock removal to some degree. There is some dividing line between the two types, at the Blade Show in Atlanta these two types are separated from each other in the room as if to avoid contamination. Why this division exists within the custom knife world I don’t know but imagine that it has to do with egos, jealousies, insecurities, old hard feelings, etc.

When it comes to cutting, slicing, or chopping anything that most of us cut, slice, or chop, there are probably plenty of reasonably priced factory made knives that will do the job just fine. The fact is that relatively expensive custom or handmade knives are not needed by most of us to perform the tasks we normally use knives for. We don’t need them, we just want them.

DSC_7374Forging a blade with hammer and anvil

Most of the custom knives that I have purchased over the years have been made by bladesmiths, and recently I began wondering what is it that draws collectors to the forged blade? I suppose that a lot, maybe most of it is the romance and historical aspect of the forging process. Perhaps the collector thinks that he is getting something that requires more skill or that more work is involved. Maybe he is attracted to Damascus or laminated steel. The collector might believe that the forged blade is a better blade when it comes to performance.

As to the last sentence in the above paragraph. I don’t know of any published, scientific tests performed by an independent laboratory that show a forged blade to be a better blade than a stock removal blade when it comes to cutting or edge holding. Claims are easy to make, proof is apparently not so easy to offer. Besides, the majority of expensive custom knives receive very little hard use if any use at all, and this fact is not unknown to makers.

When it comes to the amount of skill or work involved in creating the blade itself, I would say certainly that more work is involved because the forging process creates another step or steps, and it’s fair to say that additional skills are required to properly accomplish the forging phase. When it comes to Damascus steel, San Mai, or the carbon/stainless laminates that are popular today even more skill is required on the part of the bladesmith.

DSC_7574Grinding a forged blade (stock removal)

Collectors or users should probably keep in mind that most bladesmiths do their own heat treating and the better, more experienced among them probably know what they are doing. Often times though the maker has very little in the way of accurate temperature controls in his shop or a lot of experience under their belt. The processes of forging, laminating, or making pattern welded steels, and then heat treating them offers opportunities for things to go wrong. All knife makers including bladesmiths come in all levels of skill, experience, and aptitude.

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Forge Finishes

DSC_0540A copy2

Today it is in vogue for bladesmiths to leave portions of the blade with a rough finish as left from the forging process or to use intentionally created roughness. These “unfinished” areas can be a wonderful design element when used by a skilled maker, but all too often these unfinished areas on a blade look to me to be exactly what they are, unfinished. Sometimes makers create special texturing hammers or dies that give the surface a pleasing appearance, other times, not so much.

I have seen knives with blades done in this manner touted as being “working grade”, “user grade”, or some other creative name for unfinished looking knives. I may be wrong but I think that a rough finish on a working knife made from carbon steel is just asking mister rust to start in all those little rough places. If rust does show up it would be harder to clean the blade I would think. Also it seems to me that it would be much harder to clean the blade of blood, grease, etc. after dressing game, fish, or preparing food. Pair a rough blade finish with a cord wrapped handle and you have lots of little bitty bacteria friendly places.

A knife maker suggested to me that perhaps the forge scale left in the depressions of the rough areas might protect those areas from rusting. I suppose that is possible, I don’t know, also I wonder if the forge scale will stay there on a knife that is used. I once knew a blacksmith that kept his fresh from the supplier steel stored outside because he said it rusted and that removed the mill scale.

Certainly I won’t go so far as to call all smiths that use a forge finish lazy or accuse them of taking short cuts to a finished product, but I do think it applies in some instances. No doubt as time goes by areas of the blade or its fittings textured or left as forged will continue to be used as design elements by skillful smiths. Knives with areas of “forge finish” by the less talented will doubtfully command much respect or many dollars.

Copyright Bill North 2013