How to Make a Western Blacksmith Knife

making a western frontier knife

What you have to realize is that the guns and knives carried in American West were tools, at times, a man's saddle, guns, knife and leather were the heaviest investment, if not the most important possessions of a Westerner, so he chose them with an eye to durability, style and cost. Then, as now, the skill you had in using these items dictated what you demanded from the tool, and how it was made, by and large many "dudes" carried Sheffield knives and bowies, but the workhorse was a simple, often crude and ugly blacksmith-made forged knife, such as we will describe here. In making knives, I have found that by far the best available steel at the time was wagon springs, they are durable, high-carbon, tend to take a razor edge, and have enough flexibility that, if need be, you can throw it and not have it break on you, knives made out of files, even the old Nicholson horse hoof rasps, are great, but finding a good source of those is amazingly hard to do, since a good used or antique hoof file can run as much as $45 by itself! I have my own stock, which were all pre-1900, for which I paid a dollar each, and these were still in the box they were shipped in, but since these have to last me a few more years, they are never gonna be for sale by me. Beginning with the wagon spring, which is oil-quench steel (as opposed to modern springs, which are air-quench, and harder composition) the initial thing to do is remove the temper, or normalize the entire length of the blade. This is easiest done by putting the spring in the rear of your fireplace (if you have one) at the onset of winter and remove them in spring, that way the heating and reheating will be pretty thorough, if you don't have time for this, the best thing is to heat the entire length of the spring (cut it to size, if possible) to a dull red glow, or take it to a point where a magnet is no longer attracted to it, and allow the steel to cool off entirely before re-heating it. It's best to do this three times, so as to relieve any residue stresses that were put on the spring by years of use while it was tempered, realize that springs can have flaws due to years of use, and although there is no easy way of telling whether one of these flaws will lead to a knife breaking on you, the best rule of thumb is to not use the very tips of the springs, which are thinnest, and to use the middle part, where there is usually a hole, as the end closest to the handle, as this is the greatest stress point. Once the steel in untempered, never take it to a heat above orange-red, and forge the blade with even blows to each site, trying to not put too many deep dents in the blade, but shaping the blade to taper in all directions, recall that there is a lot more information about forging that I am NOT including, for the sake of simplicity, the best view I can give you at this point is to try and achieve a decent basic blade shape, and begin thinning the edge with the hammer, keeping as much metal in the back as possible. A trick I use, which is sometimes found on historic knives (I use it a lot) to decrease weight of the blade and improve balance is to work the edge down to an even thinness, and then also forge the back, or spine to a decent thick, but not full thickness state, leaving a thickened portion of the blade running through the middle of the blade from the hilt to the point, this helps balance a heavy blade, and greatly lessens weight of a blade without compromising the thickness, it gives the finished blade  a "spine" that will keep the blade stiff and balanced. Once you have shaped the blade, realize that it is at the softest you will see it, and do any shaping required with files, grinder, stones and a try and remove as much of the hammer marks as you desire, square up the edges, but recall, do NOT make edges or corners sharp, as the final tempering with create cracks in a thin edge that could cause the blade to crack, much the same as glass when you heat-treat. after you have acheived the shape, repeat the normalization process, again three times taking it to a dull r, non-magnetic red glow, and let the blade cool naturally each time. Once you have done this, the blade's crystalline structure is ready to be treated and cooled to set the hardness you want, and this is best done in oil, warm oil that has been heated to at least 140 degrees F (plunge some hot metal in it to do this) return the cool blade to non-magnetic and VERY CONSISTENT red glow for the entire length of the edge (recall to heat the spine, and allow the heat to travel to the edge, do not heat the edge directly!) once the blade in non-magnetic, plunge the blade in oils and move it, edge to spine, in the oil for a time that it takes a good deal of the heat out, it may flame up, so wear gloves and NEVER hold the blade up so that excess oil can run down the tongs and ignite! when you remove it from the oile the oil should immediately start to burn off, and it may ignite, drops of oil may fall off and whistle as they fall, a sign that a decent temperature is reached. recal the hot oil my burst into flame at any second, so do NOT get to close to the hot blade! allow the blade to air cool a while, and brush the residue iron oxide and oil off with a wire brush, when it is nearly cool enough to handle, test the edge withy a file, the file should barely cut the metal if the temper is good, if not, merely repeat the process of heating to non-magnetic again and then quench it until you get the hardness desired. Once you have this, clean, sharpen and put the handle on it as you wish!

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Aidan Rose
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Posted on Mar 29, 2012