If you’re a beginner blacksmith looking to get started on a simple, easy project that’s both fun, fulfilling, and even a little challenging, knives are a great way to go. There are plenty of experts out there that recommend you work away at making 100 nails or something, but most people tend to find doing stuff like that to be a chore.
Knives are an area that most beginners love to make. However, they can be quite complicated as well. There are tons of different types of knives out there, and there are plenty of ways to accessorize and customize your design to become even more elaborate. If you’re just getting started, however, I’d highly recommend making a chef’s knife.
Let’s go over exactly how you would go about making your very own chef’s knife.
Why a chef’s knife?
If you’re wondering why we should make a chef’s knife in particular, there’s a number of good reasons.
For one, a chef’s knife is easy to make. Unlike other types of knives, you can get away with making a chef’s knife out of a single piece of metal. This way, you don’t need to worry about how you’re going to make your handle and grip.
With other types of knives and swords, the grip and handle can be incredibly complicated. This can range from wrapping leather straps around your grip to carving out pieces of wood that you’re going to screw into the handle itself. If you’ve read my beginner’s guide on forging a rapier, you’ll know that making the handle and grip tends to be the most challenging part for beginners. Getting to skip all of that makes forging a chef’s knife a much simpler proposition for a beginner blacksmith.
Chef knives are also pretty darn practical. While you’re hardly going to use a rapier unless you fence a lot, chef knives are pretty useful in cooking. They also make pretty nice gifts to friends and family, so there’s that as well.
Once you get good at making them, you can also sell chef knife sets online as well. If you go to websites such as Etsy, you’ll find plenty of people selling custom, homemade chef knife sets online for pretty significant sums. Once you know what you’re doing and get good at making them, you can easily make a pretty nice side income selling chef knives online.
A word of caution
Since you’re probably going to be using your chef’s knife when cooking food, it’s especially important to know what kind of material you will be using.
A nice piece of carbon steel is what I strongly recommend for most people. While iron can be used on some occasions, you need to be 100% certain of what you’re using. Often times, beginner blacksmiths like to use whatever piece of scrap metal they have lying around for their practice projects. This includes rebar, but it can also mean whatever mystery metal you picked up from the scrapyard.
The problem is that some pieces of metal are galvanized, which means they are coated in a layer of zinc to prevent them from rusting. When heated, this zinc leaches off, which can be dangerous while forging or even using it to cut food. For this reason, make sure that if you’re going to be using your chef’s knife, make sure you’re using a high-quality piece of metal as your stock.
What do you need?
The good news is that you need very little to get started with forging a chef’s knife. Your basic blacksmithing tools, like a hammer, some tongs, an anvil, as well as a grindstone or a whetstone, is pretty much all you need for the most part.
Of course, having a forge goes without saying as well. In terms of the actual smithing process when making a knife, it doesn’t matter what kind of forge you’re using. However, I’ve always been a stern proponent of gas-powered forges for beginner blacksmiths. They are easier to use, quicker to heat up, and you don’t need to worry about keeping an eye out for your forge.
Coal and wood-based forges can be trickier. It’s harder to keep your temperature steady, and you are constantly going to have to keep an eye out. Also, especially with coal, things can get a little messy. However, from a practical standpoint, there’s no real difference between a gas forge or another when it comes to actually making a knife.
Step #1: Come up with an outline
While there are plenty of different strategies for making knives and other bladed-objects, I always like to start by coming up with a basic design first. Usually on a piece of paper that I cut out, I’ll make a rough outline of the shape of the knife I’m going for. Once I’ve cut it out, I’ll put this paper outline on my piece of metal and actually draw out the shape on the metal itself with a pen.
That way, I’ll be able to have a rough idea of exactly what shape I want my metal to be in when I’m done working on it. On the other hand, if your stock is a thicker piece of metal, this strategy might not work. You’ll probably need to flatten it first a fair bit, and as you hit away with your hammer, it will make your stock wider and thinner. Then you can compare exactly how the shape’s turning out and what you still need to do.
Step #2: Forging your knife‘s blade
Most knives tend to have a 2:1 ratio between the length of the blade and the handle itself. If you’re making a knife with a 5-inch blade, for example, you would normally expect your grip to be around 2.5 inches long.
However, with chef knives, this isn’t set in stone. Smaller chef knives can follow this formula, but larger ones often have a blade-to-grip ratio of 3:1, or even more. As such, it’s up to you to decide whether you’re making a smaller or larger chef’s knife. For the purpose of this guide, I’m going to make an 8-inch chef’s knife, and I’ll keep a grip of around 3-inches.
Now’s when the real work begins. Heat up your metal in the forge until its glowing hot (a bright orange color) and start hammering away at your metal. This might take a bit of time, but your goal is to make this metal look as close as it can to the outline you create back in the previous step of this guide.
Step #3: Cleaning up your blade
Once you’re happy with the general shape of your knife, cool it off in a bucket of water. From this point, you’re going to want to do a bit of basic cleaning on your blade before moving forward.
Depending on the exact material that you used, you might need to clean your blade a little. If you have a file handy, you can try to scrape off any hardened flakes that could still be on the metal. However, a better way is to use a belt grinder or a grindstone against the flat side of the blade in order to grind away any blemishes on the blade.
This step tends to be more important for lower-quality metals. If you’re using a high-quality type of carbon steel, then you probably won’t need to clean your blade that much.
Step #4: Polishing the grip
While making the blade can be relatively simple for a beginner blacksmith, the grip or handle tends to be where many smiths have some trouble. There’s a lot of ways to make this more complicated than it should be, but for the sake of this guide, we will stick to making a one-piece knife with a handle made out of metal.
After you’ve finished sharpening your blade, the next step will be to smooth out and round the grip. For one, the grip should be thicker and rounder than the blade. If you left your grip alone while you were working on your blade, now might be the time to heat it up so you can hammer it into a more proper shape.
Once your grip is starting to looking like a proper grip, you’re going to want to smooth it out. Put your knife’s handle against a belt grinder and slowly rotate it while you press it against the grinder. Slowly but steadily, it will help smooth out and make your handle less like a rough piece of metal and more like an actual knife’s grip.
Step #5: Sharpen your blade
Despite what you might think, your chef’s knife doesn’t necessarily need to be razor-sharp. In many cases, they are, but you can also have just a moderately sharp blade that can cut things like cheeses or fruits without being super sharp. Again, it’s your call as to exactly how sharp you want your knife to be.
I mentioned using a belt grinder before, but if you haven’t already bought one, they’re really an essential purchase for serious knifemakers. If you’re planning to make quite a few knives in the future, buying even a cheap belt grinder is an incredible time-saver.
Even if you don’t have a belt grinder on hand, however, you can still sharpen your knife with a whetstone or a grindstone. It might take a bit longer to do, but these older methods can still make an impressively sharp edge.
I’d also recommend doing this step last. If you sharpen your chef’s knife beforehand, you’re going to have trouble holding it in a way that keeps you safe when you need to work on your handle. Instead, keep the edge dull until you’ve finished everything else, and leave the sharpening to the end.
Even though this is a relatively simple guide on how to go about making a chef’s knife for beginner blacksmiths, there’s still a lot that can be said about the topic.
As you become more practiced, you can start trying more advanced techniques. You can try to add engravings on your knife’s blade via a rotary tool that includes an electric engraver. You can also experiment with creating a more elaborate handle for your knife. If you have a bit of woodworking skill, you can create two pieces of wood that go on each side of the handle. Then you use a threader to engrave both your wood and your metal so that you can put a screw through them.
However, even a simple one-piece metal knife is an impressive accomplishment for most blacksmiths.