Bladesmithing for Beginners
Have you long been fascinated by the blades represented throughout our history, fantasy blades in blockbusters like Lord of the Rings, or the process of bladesmithing in reality shows like Forged In Fire? Are you an adventurer or worker constantly using knives made by other people and thought to yourselves, I can do this!?!? Look no further, this article will breakdown the basics like “What is Bladesmithing?,” outline the basic bladesmithing tools necessary, and help guide you in your journey to becoming a bladesmith.
So You Want To Be a Bladesmith?
Merriam-Webster defines “Bladesmith” as a cutler who makes blades. You may be familiar with the term blacksmith, which is a smith who forges iron. The subtle difference is the specialization of working on steel used to cut, strike, or chop in the form of a blade. This will also serve as a reference for knife making for beginners, which is a subset to the larger category of blades ranging from axes to swords.
What Are the Modern Duties of a Bladesmith?
- Purchasing materials for blade, handle, sheath, and any other needs of your customer
- Sketching your blade design to serve specific function
- Complex metal forming, shaping, & forging of blades
- Grind blades to have professional finish, ideal sharpness, and high-quality end product
- Administrative work such as communication through email, networking, and social media
- Knowledge of leatherworking, woodworking, sewing, to craft handles, embellishments, and sheaths
Understanding Bladesmithing Fundementals
Now that we covered what a bladesmith is in the simplest terms, lets dive into the fundamentals of bladesmithing and what you would need to master to become a modern bladesmith. First let’s discuss the two major bladesmithing methods: Stock Removal vs. Forging.
What Is Stock Removal?
Stock removal refers to the removal of metal stock from your blade using saws, grinders, and sanders. A typical stock removal blade starts with a sketch that is cut out of your blade material, then shaping it with a belt sander, beveling, heat treat / reheat / temper, and then finalize through beveling and sharpening. Some prefer this method over forging as it allows you to create standard blade shapes faster.
- Easier to get started with as a beginner
- Easily replicate CAD designs / drawings
- Less equipment necessary
- Pollutes with debris (Can be reused for Canister Damascus)
- Requires patience for more intricate designs
- Requires flat stock material
What Is Forging?
Unlike stock removal, where the blade is primarily formed through removing materials, forging uses extreme heat and pressure to form the finished blade. This could range from heating metal over a coal/charcoal forge to modern day gas-powered temperature-controlled forges. This process involves heating material, shaping/flattening on an anvil with your hammer, normalizing / quenching until desired results are achieved, and sharpening into your final product.
- Can form your blade from different shaped materials
- Easier to accomplish more intricate designs
- Less debris and pollution
- Harder to master
- More equipment required than stock removal
- Certain steels can be more difficult to forge
Blade Design and Sketching
This process cannot be overlooked if you are seeking to be a bladesmith. The best bladesmiths have a basic philosophy for how they design blades, and we really fell in love with this video by swordsmith Walter Sorrell in which he lays out 10 pro tips for blade design. We’ve outlined a shortened text version below to get you started.
Most bladesmiths get started creating blades for a particular use whether it be hunting, camping, cooking, or many more end uses. We recommend doing initial research and getting your hands on similar use knives and testing them out for features you like or features you feel can be improved upon.
Think Big Picture
Now that you’ve thought deeply about the use, try thinking about your knife design as a whole (blade & handle). The visual impression of the knife, whether you want it to be elegance, simplicity, intricacy, needs to be cohesive unit.
Not all smiths sketch, but we find that the more successful ones do. Grab a sketch book and start drawing lines, shapes, and figures. Print out other bladesmiths designs and trace them to get comfortable with drawing knives. From there, you can start drafting based on looking at knives you own or find online. Continue practicing until you are comfortable honing your own designs from scratch. Here are a few of the main knife shapes bladesmiths need to master:
Test Your Blade
Expectations and reality aren’t always in sync. Throughout the bladesmithing process you should be testing and evaluating your knife to ensure your designs meet both your desired functionality and appearance. Get the knife in your hands and get a feel for it in the intended use cases.
Study, Iterate, Challenge Yourself
Follow other bladesmiths, get your hand on different blades, get in other bladesmiths shops, and continue to question possibilities. The only way to improve is to test yourself, fail, and learn!
To master bladesmithing, you must also master the material you are working with. With so many uses for blades and ways to achieve them, there are a few constants you need to grasp. This section will serve as a high-level introduction to heat treating your blade and applying different finishes.
Heat Treating Your Blade
While extremely scientific and complex, heat treating is simply a process that helps harden your blade steel to reach specific properties. This requires three main steps:
Different Blade Finish Types
After properly strengthening your blade, applying a coating or surface finish can help separate it from the pack aesthetically. Aside from making a great looking blade, coating and finishing a blade can help prevent corrosion, scratching, shine, as well as drag in some instances. While there are several different options, let’s go over 5 of the most popular methods:
One of the most popular finishes, Hand Statin’s appearance falls between a matte and mirror polish. Typically achieved by sanding the blade in a singular direction creating a semi-shiny minimalistic finish.
Coatings can prolong the life of your blade and tend to be black, gray, or other dark / neutral colors and are often associated with tactical or military knives.
To achieve a mirror polish, you must hand polish the metal until it reaches a highly reflective state. This finish requires a lot of time and effort, along with ongoing polishing to maintain its flawless mirrored look.
This finish requires rotating (tumbling) your blade in a container filled with abrasive cones or stones. You can achieve a different finish based on the shape of the stones, movement in the container, and type of finish before initiating. These blades hide scratches well and retain their appearance for a long time.
A Hamon blade has a notable wavy line that shows up on the blade through acid etching and differential hardening. The spine of the blade is softer while the edge of the blade is harder. The acid affects these parts of the blade differently, separating a darker and lighter part of the blade with a noticeable line.
Handle Construction Basics
As mentioned in the prior section, blade design needs to consider both the blade itself and how you intend to handle it. Both aspects deserve dedicated time to master and require skills outside of metalworking. If you would like to learn more about handles and the basics, we have crafted an article dedicated that that specific topic.Read More About Handle Construction
Bladesmithing Tools To Get You Started
It is easy to overinvest in bladesmithing as a beginner by adding flashy professional grade tools that are above the minimum requirement to get started. To save you some money and grief, we have curated a list of essentials with the help of professional bladesmiths to keep you under the $1,000 mark. This is the best way to give yourself a 6-month trial period to see if making knives is something you genuinely enjoy.
The first 5 investments should be:
- A Forge (Hell's Forge USA Portable Gas Propane Forge Double Burner) - $330
- An Anvil (Happybuy Single Horn Anvil [66lbs]) - $170
- A Hammer (STANLEY FATMAX Hammer for Blacksmith, AntiVibe) - $35
- A Grinder (Bucktool Combo 2" x 42" Belt Sander 6" Bench Grinder) - $260
- Starter Steel – 1085 / 1095
To ensure a safe learning experience, we also recommend these products:
Paths to Becoming a Full-Time Bladesmith
While there is no single path to becoming a successful bladesmith, we generally find that graduating high school is the minimum requirement and the rest is up to you!
Let’s layout your options starting from there:
- Head to the American Bladesmith Society (ABS) and investigate their approved course selection.
- Seek out an Apprenticeship with a professional bladesmith
- Find bladesmithing courses near you:
Continue learning through a collection of highly recommended books:
- Knife Engineering Book
- Complete Bladesmith: Forging Your Way to Perfection
- Master Bladesmith: Advanced Studies in Steel
- A Modern Guide to Knifemaking: Step-by-Step Instruction for Forging Your Own Knife
- The Wonder of Knifemaking
- Knifemaking: A Complete Guide to Crafting Knives, Handles, and Sheaths
- The Art of the Japanese Sword: The Craft of Swordmaking and Its Appreciation
- Simple Knifemaking: A Beginner’s Guide to Building Knives with Basic Tools
- Bladesmithing with Murray Carter: Modern Application of Traditional Techniques
We hope you have found this resource useful as you begin your journey into bladesmithing. This is a very high level overview, and as such we know there are sections and aspects we can dive deeper into so don’t hesitate to reach out through the phone (888) 527-3331, our onsite chat, or email us at [email protected] with suggestions or recommendations.
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