The Madness…Why Forge?
Why, in this day of laser cutting, high tech grinding and CNC machines would we choose to make our knives in the thousand’s year old method of forging to shape? There are many reasons. While we don’t declare that forging is the only way to get a truly high performance knife or that all other production methods are inferior, forging does allow us far more creative liberty in shaping our blades. Because we forge, we are not limited to the size and shape of the steel bar stock available to us. For example, we can make a 2 inch wide knife out of a 1 inch wide bar of steel. We can use curves and shapes that would not be possible without wasting enormous amounts of steel. We are also able hand tailor the geometry and performance of each blade.
While it is a fact that the knives we make in this way are extremely high performance, as can be seen in our rigorous testing processes, the truth is more personal. We are artists,
and craftsmen… forging caresses our souls in a way that no grinder, or machine ever can. It lights a fire in a spot deep down inside of us all that remembers a different day. A time when men and women carved their very lives out of the harsh and dangerous world. A time of chivalry, when politeness was demanded at the point of a sword, when kingdoms were gained and lost on the edge of a blade. It is the fire, the anvil, and the rhythm of the hammer that speak to us of these days long past. There is a reason that men are drawn to knives. Knives are woven into the very fabric of our humanity. That is why some collectors who could afford to collect any type of art they wish are knife collectors. It is for this reason that we forge. For this connection to our basic humanity in a most elemental way.
Our choice of steel is based on many factors. For us, performance is the primary factor. We need a steel that yields the highest possible cutting and strength performance. It also needs to be forgeable and heat-treatable. For these reasons, we use only high carbon tool steels. Our favorites are W-2, 1095, O-1, L-6, and 15n20.
While we both love to forge in coal and charcoal, the fuel that is most readily available to us is propane. Propane is easy to transport out to the Alaskan bush where we live, and is clean and controllable. We have 2 or 3 forges of our own design and construction that burn propane. In the future, we have plans to experiment with a waste-oil forge. Here in remote Alaska, we need to make use of everything we can.
We still do most of our blade shaping the old fashioned way, on the anvil with a hammer. We also have a 50lb Little Giant power hammer that we named ‘Gimli’. We use it for resizing bar stock, and making Damascus steel, and to speed up forging processes that don’t need detailed hand work. Once the blade is forged to shape, and properly thermocycled, we use a “KMG” belt grinder to clean off the scale and finish grind the blade.
The process of changing, and controlling the internal structure of the steel to suit our needs is called heat treating. Most people are familiar with “hardening” and “tempering”, but many don’t know that the heat treating starts as soon as you put the steel in the forge the first time as you begin to shape it. Every time you heat steel over about 300 deg. F. something is changing inside. It is important for the bladesmith to know exactly what is happening to the steel at each temperature change. Careful attention is needed so that the steel is never overheated, or hammered on when it is too cold. Serious damage can occur if the steel is mistreated in the forging process. Proper forging can be very beneficial to the steels performance. Especially critical are the last few heats as the blade nears its final shape. When forging is complete, we then run the blade through a series of thermo-cycles, careful heating of the blade up to the critical point where the blade turns non magnetic, then cooling it to room temperature. These thermo-cycles, and even a ‘pre-quench’ can greatly refine the grain structure of the steel, adding to its strength and cutting ability.