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Forged in Fire

There is magic in sharp steel. The feel of a perfectly honed edge slicing through wood, leather, or other targets, it’s as if the thing being cut parts before the blade like the Red Sea before Moses.

I’ve spent my whole working life with blades, first as a cabinet-maker, then as a swordsmanship instructor, so it’s odd to think that I’ve never made one. Well, thanks to Sergio Muelle at Twisted Horseshoe Knives, I’ve now made three. Sergio runs ‘Make a knife in a day’ workshops at his forge in the Suffolk countryside, and I showed up on January 9th with a sense of keen anticipation. 

In the three months between booking the workshop and the happy day arriving, I thought a lot about what kind of knife to make- Sergio is happy to help you make literally any kind of blade that a beginner could reasonably attempt: he even runs a three-day damascus knife workshop. His courses are individual instruction, so you really can make whatever you want, within reason. I wanted a knife I’d use all the time, not something fancy to hang on the wall, so I opted for a cabinet-maker’s marking knife, in the Japanese style (kiridashi). Because this is a very simple design with no handle components, Sergio told me we would have time to make a pair of them, both left and right-handed. This is really useful, because in fine woodworking you often need to use one or the other for maximum accuracy. And in the end, we made three: one left handed, one right, and one with both bevels which can be used either way. 

Here they are:

We started with the basic safety briefing (fire is hot, the British government thinks that pillar drills are more dangerous than forges running at 1000 degrees centigrade, etc.) then I sketched the basic idea of the knife onto a sheet of paper, and we got started. The left and right handed ones started out as a piece of steel that Sergio cut out from a sheet with an angle grinder, and the middle one began life as a farrier’s rasp. 

Our first job was to bulk up the steel at the point end. We did this by heating it up, putting the hotter end on the anvil, and bashing it with a hammer like driving in a fence post. I say we, but in every case, Sergio showed me what to do once or twice, then I did it. While I couldn’t have done this without his guidance, I did about 98% of the actual bashing and quenching and grinding etc. It turns out that having two irons in the fire is way more efficient than just one. You get maybe 30 seconds of bashing time, and have to re-heat for maybe a minute. During that minute there is nothing to do, unless you are working two blades at once. So in terms of forging time, two knives take about the same time as one. 

Once the ends that would become the points had been thickened, I bashed the blanks into the overall shape, first drawing out the handle, then shaping the point and the bevel.

I also put holes in each handle for hanging on a nail in my workshop. This was done with a punch, cutting through the red-hot steel, then widening the hole.

As you can see from the end results, I got better with practice! The first one is very wiggly woggly, the other two much cleaner.

I also stamped the blades with my initials. At the end of this process, which took maybe an hour and a half, I had two knife blanks cooling down, and the third about half-way done. The two forged blanks were ready for grinding to shape on static belt sanders.

Here you can see one blank straight from the forge, the other ground to shape:

Then the real magic: the alchemical process of heat treating. I coated the blanks in clay, leaving the cutting areas bare.

I then dried the clay in the forge, before leaving the knife in there (one at a time) to heat up to the point where the steel glows brightly, and is completely converted to austenite. Then out of the fire and into the frying pan (or in this case, the oil bath). The rapid cooling converts the austenite to martensite, giving the steel the crystal structure that makes for excellent sharpenability and edge-holding. 

Oh my, that was fun.

We then took the blades back to the grinder and finished shaping them. I knew exactly what I wanted, and I’ve done a lot of sanding of various kinds before, so Sergio left me to it while he heated up the tempering oven and got lunch ready.

The knives sat in the oven at about 180 degrees while we had lunch. This takes the very hard and rather brittle blade and relaxes it a bit, leaving it plenty hard enough, but tough with it.

After lunch while the left and right handed knives were cooling down, I forged the file blank into the right shape for the double bevelled knife.

Sergio speeded up this process enormously by doing some of the basic shaping in the powered press. The file steel was much easier to beat into shape than the high-chromium steel we used for the other two. It didn’t take long before it was ready to cool down before being ground to shape, heat treated, ground again, and then tempered. While it was tempering I polished up the first two knives.

The time-saving element of doing several blades at once only applies to the forging: grinding and polishing takes ages!

I didn’t sharpen the knives there- I was getting tired, and I have a decent sharpening set-up in my home workshop. So far I’ve got the right-handed knife sharpened, and have been using it for woodwork and cutting leather. It is absolutely beautiful to use. Sharp enough to split hairs, solid and stable in the hand, with enough weight behind it that you need very little effort to get the job done. 

What a start to the year! Three shiny new blades, some new skills, and what is shaping up to be a new friendship.

Sergio Muelle

If you are within striking distance of Stowmarket (Suffolk, UK), then you should definitely contact Sergio to set up your own knife-making experience. Feel free to share this with anyone you think may be interested!

 

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