A Sharp Edge

To me, a big part of being an Anarchist and an outdoors person is fostering a degree of independence.  It brings to mind a conversation I had online on a survival and bushcraft page a while back.  A guy posted, having it in his head that he was going to hike the entire Appalachian trail and that he would sustain himself by hunting small game and foraging for food.  He was looking for recommendations on the best knife suited to the task.  Now lets put aside the inherent unfeasibility of his idea.  The guy’s mission was clearly about self reliance.  The guy wanted to walk 2000 miles utilizing nothing but his own skills and abilities.  Wouldn’t buying a commercially available knife defeat that aim?  Even if he’d made it, could he really say that he’d done it on his own?  Wouldn’t he owe his success to Becker, or Gerber, or K Bar?  To me, if the guy had really been serious, he would have made his own knife.

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Making a knife is well within the capabilities of anyone out there who is willing.  Primitive, mud dwelling people did it.  You can do it too.  It is an art form, and you can absolutely spend a lifetime mastering it.  But in a weekend, you can easily bang together something special that you won’t be ashamed to hang on your belt.

I use a process called stock reduction.  You see in the Conan movies where the old Barbarian steel smith hammers a mighty blade into shape?  That’s not me.  Instead of a hammer, my basic tools are an angle grinder and a belt sander.  Rather than pounding the steel to bend to my will, I act more like a zen sculptor.  I start out with a flat piece of steel and remove anything that isn’t my knife, grinding away until it reveals its true self.  Hammering and pounding are cool, but that process is a little more advanced and not entirely necessary.

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My basic process is as follows:  I start out by annealing whatever steel I’m using in a big campfire.  I basically just put it in the middle of everything, watch it get red hot, and then let it cool overnight in the ashes.  This softens the steel to make it easier to work with.  As noted, I then grind the blade into shape.  Now, there’s a whole lot to know about different blade designs and cutting angles and whatnot, and that could make for an extremely long article.  As there’s a big wide internet out there, I’ll leave you to do the research.  I’ll just tell you that you want your cutting edge to be about 20 degrees or a little less and leave it at that.  Make the knife you want and make another if that one doesn’t work.  It’s a lifelong learning process.  From there, you want to heat treat the blade.  Now, a forge isn’t that hard to put together, and I’ve made one out of an old washtub and a leaf blower.  You’re basically just trying to keep a constant stream of air blowing up underneath a charcoal fire.  How you can accomplish that I’ll leave to your imagination.  I heat the blade until a magnet won’t stick, and then I quench it in oil.  After tempering in a 400 degree oven for an hour and letting it cool, it’s ready for a handle.  I could probably go into more detail and give you the why on top of the how, but the idea I’m trying to get across is that there really isn’t much to it.

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To me, the striking advantage to a knife like this is that I don’t really care about abusing it.  My knife is tough.  It will baton completely through a dry, birch log.  I have been nothing if not impressed with its functionality.  If I break it though, I’m only out a $2 Nicholson file from a junk shop and some wood from the pile.  All I have invested in it is time.  To my mind, a knife should be used.  That’s what it’s for.  But I wouldn’t dare put a Gil Hibben masterpiece through the same torture I have mine.

And the really weird thing is that, while I used to obsess and be really into knives, now they’ve gotten to be kind of meh.  I still appreciate a good knife, but I don’t covet them like I used to.  When I see something neat, I’m more likely to think about how I could make something similar than I would be to try and buy it.

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It’s kind of like the Bruce Lee quote where he noted that, upon mastering the art, a punch was once again just a punch and a kick was once again just a kick.  Now, I have absolutely not mastered knife making.  I’m sure someone is out there right now who really knows what they’re doing, looking at what I’ve come up with and laughing at their screen.  With better tools, materials, and perhaps some more patience, I might turn out something really special.  But I’ve still got a long way to go.  Lets just say that a knife isn’t quite the mystery it used to be.  That thing on my belt is a thing I made.  I know what it is, what went into it, and where it came from.  It is of me and it is mine.

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