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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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

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