Custom too Expensive?
Do you like knives? Do you like to use them? Do you like them to look good and perfectly fit your hand? Are you pleased with exotic woods with wild colorful burls bursting with features? Have you found a good knife but wanted it in carbon steel instead of stainless or maybe stainless instead of carbon, loved a knife but wanted a blade length two inches more or maybe two inches less? Like most of us, you have found that the handle sometimes just does not fit your hand well. Maybe you have found your dream knife that has all those perfect things but it is simply out of bounds with your budget. It is beautiful with exotic wood, the perfect length blade for your needs but the price tag is a staggering $300 and you only have $50 to spend on your obsession?
Warning: Obtaining a $300 knife with only $50 in your pocket can be addicting and you may come up with something that is absolutely priceless in terms of challenge, achievement and beauty. Bottom line: Anyone can accomplish this goal. You bring the desire and a few hand tools, and you will experience the pride of craftsmanship that a little investment of time, sweat and mental exercise will return to you. If you have access to a hand drill, a hacksaw, a set of files, a couple of wood rasps, some clamps and some sand paper then you can do this thing. A good vice, a cheap belt grinder and an inexpensive drill press are the ultimate. They make the work go faster but you can get by without them. However before we drift off into those deep blue waters lets splash back over here to the most important thing; imagination. You need a pad of paper, a pencil and a plan.
In the beginning keep your plan simple with clean lines and few bell or whistles. The fancy stuff can come with time but you will be happier with a good, no nonsense design for your first few masterpieces. Remember there is a learning curve and you are now on the steep side. Let that idea guide your hands to a carefully thought out, precise economy of design. Spatial perception is your biggest challenge. Hatching your original plan is the start to a beautiful, strong, personal blade. Then one must execute the plan and follow it through to the end.
This short course will deal with Scandinavian style knives. I have found them to be one of the ultimate using style blades. They combine both high functionality and incredible beauty. The stick tang leaves you a huge array of options when choosing your handle shape. These aren’t pry bars, but the stick tang is very strong and they are some of the sharpest and most useful blades you will ever have the pleasure of holding in your hand. My favorite is the Finnish puukko. The Finnish knife is more than 1000 years old and down through the centuries it has been refined as the puukko we know today. There are many little variations on this theme that you can choose for your own design but in the beginning as I said previously, we are going to keep it simple and clean. In any case simplicity is the ultimate ideal embodied in a design that insured 1000 years of survival in a harsh unforgiving landscape. This is not a climate that suffered fools nor does it still. When these hardy adventurers first set out across the arctic tundra or sailed the ocean in search of strange, new lands, the sword may have been their weapon of choice but it was the Nordic style knife that was their hard use utility blade. It was their most important tool and they used it far more often than they did those beautiful swords. It butchered game, cleaned fish, fashioned wooden parts for the boat and tools or accessories for the hut. It was the indispensable tool.
To start your design, you
need to decide how you will use your knife most of the time. A long blade
can be good for butchering, slicing bread, light chopping and other game
chores or food preparation. A short blade is good for carving and woodwork.
A medium blade is considered a good all-rounder. For this project we are
going to use a 5” blade which is on the longer side of the spectrum. Now a
handle needs to be designed. If you have a handle design that fits your hand
well, measure it well. How long do you like a handle? How wide and how high
should the cross section be? Start putting all of this information down on
paper. Make a side view and a top view. Take your time. Make a few drawings.
A good design at this point will insure a good knife when all is said and
done. In general, I like the Nordic style handle but always wished for a
small finger indentation just before the front bolster so I incorporated it
into my drawing. Decide on your bolster material and add it and it’s
thickness into your drawing. For a very simple knife you do not even need a
bolster but it does add strength, durability and good looks. Overlay the
blade on your drawing and trace it and the tang where you want them to end
If you are going to use a bolster then making it is the next step. This is
the hardest piece to make. It must fit tight with no play up and down or
side to side. Eyeballing and measuring will get you a good plan to draw on
the nickel-silver piece you will use. Once you decide what shape it will
take to slide down the tang and fit tight up against the blade draw it on
the piece and mark the center of the slot with a punch. If it is long enough
for two drill holes then mark them both. Keep in mind the width of your
drill bit. Select a drill bit that will almost touch the edges of the drawn
slot. Drill the holes and start work with a set of needle files. Slowly work
your slot to shape and keep sliding it farther down the tang until it fits
against the blade. Spatial perception is your biggest friend when you are
doing this step. My first one took about five hours to measure, draw and
shape. The rest of the knife will not take you a whole lot more than this
one step. Do it carefully so it fits well.
The drilling is easiest and most accurately done with a drill press but if
you are very careful, you can line it up with a hand drill. This is best
done with a short bit as a longer bit can flex in the burls and bend off
track. You will have to drill the front and then the back of the handle
making the two holes meet. If you have access to a drill press, make a
“bottom pin” which is a sharp pin held in place by the drill press vice as
illustrated. Line the drill bit up perfectly so it would touch the point on
the bottom pin if lowered all the way to it. Place the punch marked tang
entry point on the bottom pin and lower the drill bit into exit punch mark.
Drill slowly and carefully. Turn the wood handle over and repeat on the
other end meeting perfectly in the middle every time.
Take a small ball peen hammer and slowly peen the tang over the
bolster. This can take some time. Don’t jackhammer it. Do it slowly and
deliberately. Finally it will mushroom and swell, pulling the entire knife
together firmly. You will know when it is peened properly when the rear
bolster will not move. It is nailed in place.
I obtained all of these materials from Dennis Holmbacka at Brisa. He is
based in Jakobstad, Finland on the Gulf of Bothnia, just north of the Baltic
Sea. The easiest way to get there is by computer. His website is
He answers all of his emails promptly. The prices are in Euros. One Euro is
about one dollar. He has a currency converter on his site so you can check
to exchange rate.
©2003 Glen Lewis