The Complete Online Guide to Knifemaking, TOOLS OF THE TRADE
An assortment of knifemakers tools are listed. Many of these tools or pieces of equipment are relatively expensive. Each individual has to determine how much money they want to invest in this metal craft. For some, it might suffice to use a hack saw to cut out each blades profile or use a file to create the blades bevels. Others will invest a little and get an angle grinder to do most of the profiling work. Those that find they enjoy the craft will eventfully make the investment in three or four key pieces of knife making equipment. In order of importance they would be a 2x72 belt grinder, drill press, forge and band saw. Can you get the job done without these tools? Yes, but having the right tool for the job makes it so much more enjoyable and leaves you the craftsman more time to devote to the artistic aspects of the craft. Please note that in addition to tools and equipment listed, the knife smith will also need a variety of more common shop tools like pliers, a hammer, vise and a variety of clamps.
One of the least expensive ways to cut the knives shape out of steel is with an angle grinder and a cut off wheel. Angle grinders can also be used with flap sanding wheels to profile bolsters and even to rough shapes scales. When grinding metal these tools throw a lot of sparks so proper eye protection is mandatory.
For hand forged blades, a good Anvil is extremely important. Anvils should be secured to a solid platform at a comfortable height. If you are only going to make stock removal blades, an anvil may not be mandatory.
A metal cutting band saw can be used to accurately cut out the shape of each knife. If you are going to make an investment in a band saw, make sure it is a metal cutting saw and not a band saw designed for wood. Two inexpensive options are converting a Portaband from Harbor Freight which can be set up to be table mounted, or buying a Vertical /Horizontal band saw and using it in the upright or vertical position. Either option will work, but in either case, it’s recommended to immediately purchase a good quality blade. The blades that come with Harbor Freight saws can essentially be thrown out immediately. Yet, another option is to search for used machine shop equipment. Commercial band saws can cost thousands but sometimes used ones can be quite affordable.
Perhaps the single most important tool for the knifemaker. A 2x72” grinder or sander is the standard of the industry. Sanders are used for wood, and grinders are used to grind steel. Even though these versatile machines can do both, most knifemakers refer to them as belt grinders because the majority of the time they are used to shape blades and grind bevels. Many make the mistake of purchasing an inexpensive 4” Home Depot belt sander and then find out that, without modifications, it is very difficult to grind good bevels. The problem is that most 4” belt sanders do not have an open-sided flat platen, which is required so that the blade can be plunged in from both sides to create bevels with plunged lines. Other beginner blade smiths purchase 1” belt sanders, which have a flat platen and the required space on each side, but the majority of these are just not powerful enough. They can get the job done but it may literally take hours instead of minutes to grind bevels. Standard 2x72 grinders are manufactured by an ever-growing assortment of companies. They can come with a multitude of options. Variable speed, tool rests, and the ability to flip into a horizontal grinder are just a few. These machines vary greatly in cost and lead time for delivery. For anyone that is fairly serious about making knives, a 2hp grinder with a variable speed controller is recommended. For the beginner, you could spend $150 on a Home Depot belt sander, or a few hundred for a 1” grinder and then very shortly after wish you had saved for a decent machine. Several manufacturers offer affordable options to get the beginner a 2x72. You can purchase the basic chassis, including a flat platen, drive wheels, and contact wheels. Then, you can go out and buy the motor separately and skip the variable speed if you cannot afford it. Finally, you can build your own stand for it either out of wood or steel. Piecing it together like this allows the beginner to get into a good quality 2x72 grinder for around $800. This is all you need to get started and turn out some beautiful blades. Options like large contact wheels for hollow grinding bevels, small wheel attachments for getting into small areas, a Tilt Tables for easy bevel grinding and surface grinding attachments can all be added as you progress.
To go along with the belt grinder you will need an assortment of belts. Most of the material will be removed with a coarse grit belt. We use a 36 or 60 grit for rough grinding the bulk of the material. Finer grits will be used for finishing work. Coarse grit belts develop less heat than finer belts
Ceramic Belts are designed for wet or dry use and are very durable. They work best when pressure grinding, which actually helps to keep the belts grain sharp. Ceramic belts are long lasting and fastest for stock removal. Unfortunately, ceramic belts are not available in fine grits.
Aluminum Oxide are excellent for general purpose abrasive. It can be used wet or dry. Aluminum oxide is usually the best choice for finer grit belts.
Zirconia can be used wet or dry and requires heavy pressure to keep the grain sharp. It is great for grinding stainless steel. Zirconia is more expensive but will outlast aluminum oxides belts.
Scotch Brite is a variety of polishing belts that are sold under different names. These are great for finishing work and polishing bevels.
Felt belts can be used with or without compound for polishing.
Leather or leather stropping belts are available for polishing the micro bevel.
Cork belts have a thick cork backing and aluminum oxide embedded for abrasion.
A bench grinder with buffing wheels can be a huge asset to any knife shop. These buffing wheels combined with the correct compound are used for polishing brass bolsters, pins, many acrylics and allumilyte scales. Try to use each buffing wheel for only one material. For example, do not polish brass with the same wheel you use to polish plastics. Mixing the different compounds reduces the material specific effectiveness of each. In addition, small pieces of brass residue on the wheel can create scratches in any soft plastic polished.
Center Line Scribe
More of a tool rather than a piece of equipment this little gadget is extremely important if you want to grind good bevels. Several different designs are available. You want to pick one that allows you to set the height of the scribe. The end result is you want to be able to scribe two parallel lines on the edge of the blade called railroad tracks. These lines become a visual guide when grinding the bevels. Do not buy self-centering scribes because they will only produce one single, center line. bolsters and even profiling scales. Many use disc grinders with interchangeable plates, each with finer grit wheels for flat polishing.
Often overlooked, these handheld mini grinders are great for shaping handles and cleaning up the small inside radius of a knife blank profile when a small wheel attachment for the 2x72 grinder is not available. They can also be used to create Choil Notches and Jimping.
Much like a band saw, you get what you pay for with a drill press. Small drill presses are available at local hardware stores and may seem affordable. Just be careful and make sure the drill press can be slowed down enough to drill through metal. When first starting out many spend hours drilling pin holes with an electric drill. They burn out drill bits or end up case hardening the blade material. It's the ability of a drill press to apply adequate downward force at slow revolutions that makes drilling holes through steel easy.
Disc Grinders are available in a variety of different sizes. They can be bench-mounted, free-standing, vertical or horizontal. Disc grinders with a flat surface plate used in conjunction with an adjustable tool rest are great for creating perfectly flat grinds
A specialty item specifically designed to hold a knife by its blade without scratching it. Knife vises are usually designed to rotate for ease of use. Nice for hand sanding handles.
Although not a mandatory piece of machinery for the knife shop, having a small milling machine makes milling small Choil notches and Jimping easy.
Oil Quench Tank
This tank is used to hold quenching oil used during heat treating. The tank should be made from steel. Be steady enough not to tip over and have a lid which can be used to snuff out any flames if needed. Oil tanks can be either vertical or horizontal and are often fabricated out of steel tubing or pipe.
Pin Chop Saw
This miniature chop saw is certainly not a piece of mandatory equipment for the knife shop. Harbor Freight has one for about $30. We bought it just to see how it worked and now absolutely love it. It makes cutting brass pins fast and easy, and it cuts the pins without leaving much of a burr. Much easier than hacksaw, bandsaw or angle grinder.
Plunge jigs are made from two pieces of metal that have drilled and tapped holes allowing them to be tightened together, over the blade, like a clamp. They act as a guard preventing accidental grinding beyond the flat edge of the jig. They help blade smiths create even bevel plunge lines on both sides of the blade. They often can be used in conjunction with a Sliding Jig, if the jig was designed to accept the plunge jig or can they be used when freehand grinding bevels.
Quench Bucket and Stand
Knifemakers should have a bucket of water located near the belt grinder. We recommend building a stand out of wood or metal so that you do not have to constantly bend over to quench the hot blades. This makes grinding just a little more comfortable.
A scroll or pin saw comes in very handy when trimming scale material to size. We use the scroll saw to cut access material off the scales after each side has been mounted to the blade.
Sliding Bevel Jigs
Many different types of bevel jigs are available. The most common seems to be sliding jigs. These secure the blade to the jig and have an adjustment to set bevel angle. These sliding jigs are pulled along the grinders 90-degree work table. They are easy to use, relatively inexpensive and can create consistent bevels on both sides of the blade. Some are even designed to work in conjunction with a plunge jig. The downside of using these jigs is that it's sometimes hard to get the bevel to follow the curvature of the blade.
The tilt table is a work rest or bevel jig that the authors designed, build, and sell. It mounts to a standard 1 1⁄2 inch tooling arm. It was designed for our OBM 2x72 grinders but is adaptable to fit a wide range of different manufacturers grinders. This is accomplished because it can be bolted to any size tooling arm and adjusts vertically, horizontally and can even to squared up to the flat edge of the machine's platen. The tilt table offers the knifemaker flexibility for grinding bevels. It's one of the only jigs that can be used to create flat bevels and hollow grinds. Basically, the table is set at the desired bevel angle. The blade is held flat against the table and slowly moved up into contact with the belt. The smith then slides the blade horizontally while grinding a consistent line along the prescribed center lines. The beauty of this system is it gives the knifemaker total control of the blade. He or she can watch the scribed lines and grind more in one area as needed. If the knifemaker carefully grinds to a consistent depth along the scribed centerline railroad tracks, the bevel will then have followed the curvature of the blade. When using the tilt table, a small digital angle meter can be used to record the tables angle. These meters are available online for about $20. They allow you to set the table for one bevel angle, record that angle, and then be able to reset the table to the same angle in the future. This is perfect for grinding rough bevels for one thickness material, then being able to work on a knife with a different bevel angle or change from flat platen to a large wheel and then accurately reset the table for the final post heat treating finish grinds.
The tilt table can also be used in conjunction with free hand or when learning to freehand grind. Bladesmiths can establish accurate rough bevels using the tilt table and a coarse grit grinding belt. This allows them to create a consistent bevel angle on both sides of the blade. It also saves a ton of time. With a coarse grit belt, the tilt table can establish rough bevels in minutes. After heat treating, they then convert to free hand grinding with a finer grit belt. Resting the bevel directly onto the grinders platen or contact wheel. The pre- established bevel then acts as a guide for the finishing passes. For some, this is the best of both worlds.