I have always been fascinated by knives. I can spend hours looking at them in shops and online. I had a trusty Vangedal knife when I was a scout which I somehow sadly lost.
I have gone through my fair share of pocket knives, though these aren’t the same as a wood craft knife or hunting knife.
When we were planning our tour I was thinking this would be a great time to get a good working tool for making wood kindle, cutting rope or preparing meat since Peli is vegetarian. This is where the dilemma arose: I wanted a good-looking knife, with a wood handle, nice and wide, since I have big hands.
A good sturdy blade that could take some beating from a wood club when making kindle. And around six inches long, so I have something to work with.
Even in the knife-loving United States it was hard to find something that wasn’t ridiculously expensive, ugly or impractical for what I wanted.
I have seen some of the handmade knives from Sweden and Finland which are works of art with beautiful blades and stunning wooden handles. But they tended to ask for way too much money for something that had a high chance of me misplacing and honestly not using that often.
I dragged my feet and never got around to ordering the Danish scout knife in time for our departure, which would probably have made this boy very happy.
Then I found the leaflet about knife making in Barrytown in New Zealand. A day spent forging, modelling and polishing a knife that you made to the exact shape you (nearly) wanted.
Now that is something I just had to do, get to use an anvil, red hot forge and power tools and I would walk away with a knife I had made myself.
You might have to call ahead a fair bit in the high season, from what I understood from talking to Steven and Robyn, our hosts for the day. I was booked in with nine others and we were all ready to go at 9:30am outside their home in the outdoor work shed.
The forge was going at full blast and behind it were the various other tools we were going to use throughout the day, jack saws, drills and band sanders.
We donned our safety glasses and old shirts to keep the dust away and Steven gave us a quick and sensible health and safety spiel, nothing deep just don’t be a numpty as there’s hot stuff here and power tools there. And knives are sharp.
We got given our knife-to-be, steel from a mine near Auckland, pretty much the same old stuff that the world is being built up with. A few seconds in the forge and the steel was orange which is hotter than red hot. Red, orange and then yellow where steel starts to burn.
And then we were to whack the living *beep* out of it, on the side where we wanted to create the sharp edge.
As we were making one side thinner it became longer so the knife began to curve up and my dilemma started, which will become clearer as the story/day moves along.
To un-curve the knife you hammer the knife edge which causes the blade to bend. But it being hot and soft steel you could just whack it back into shape. You repeat this three times and every time you do this you add more carbon dioxide into the steel and therefore create a harder steel and edge to your knife.
When you are generally happy with the shape you lower the blade part into a bucket of water up to the handle. This hardens the blade which make a good knife. You then figure out how much blade and handle you want and cut it to size.
Next step is the handle. We did a bit of sanding to make the surface flat for the brass part of the handle. Then we drilled holes for the brass (??) rivets. A bit of superglue helped to hold it in place though mine wasn’t set so it slipped. The safe and experienced hands of Robyn came to my aid and fixed it all.
The next step was the wood handle. Again, we were somewhat thrown into it: that is the shape we’re looking for, cut wide (easier to remove than to add later), here’s the electric jack saw and on you go. Most of what we did and used that day I have used at least once before over the years, so I’m not scared of power tools and the like. But it could be a bit scary for someone who hasn’t.
This is where Steven and Robyn were great as they could read us all right away and knew when to leave us to it or guide us through it.
The Rimu hardwood, a rare native wood, was second-hand from an old hospital. At first it didn’t look like much but as it got worked on it turned out to be a very pretty bit of wood. The handles were then glued and riveted onto the steel and you had something that looked like a knife. Rough, but definitely a knife. We then sanded the handle into a rough shape we wanted.
All the little gaps between the steel, brass and wood were filled with filler and then it was lunch time. We prepared our sandwiches along a production line in the kitchen and ate either in their living room or in their back garden looking at the beautiful views of the sea and pastures with horses.
While we rested Steven took over and sanded down the handles and blades, because apparently the hardened filler would be nasty to breath in.
We went on a little post-lunch walk with Robyn, talked to their horses and had a go on their massive swing, a few people need to pull to get it going, well good fun.
Back at the shed our work really looked like a knife now and was ready to be polished with finer and finer sand on the band sanders.
I still was fighting with the final look of my knife. Should I keep the curved point, or get rid of it? I kind of liked the ‘nose’ as it made for a different-looking knife with a personal touch. But I wasn’t sure if I should give it a ‘nose job’ and give the blade and handle the same curve, or even just make the back of the blade straight. I was talking to the others and looked at their work and the knives on display, and still I could not make up my mind.
After we had sanded the blade down, we put masking tape on the handle to keep it clean and we went to the views of the back garden for our Zen moment, the fine polishing. First a wet polish then a dry one before we attacked the knife with polisher and cotton. Each session lasted at least five minutes and if you want a really good job you’d be at it for an hour at least.
The last step before sharpening was to dye the wood handle, which gave the wood a nice dark look that goes very well with the brass bits on the handle and the brass rivets.
This is where I made my final decision that the knife needed a ‘nose job’ and I went at it with the sanders. As I sanded, I was really worried that I would ruin the personal touch and its uniqueness.
But as I saw the knife with a straight back I knew I was on the right donkey. After a few small touches I managed to get the curve going from the back of the handle to the blade.
If I had the tools myself I would probably have made a knife to a different design and would have had the time to polish it more. But knowing that in one day I made a knife pretty much all by myself is really satisfying. Even the impurities give it character and really make it mine.
All in all a day spent in Barrytown with Steven and Robyn making a knife from scratch is a brilliant day and one you will remember forever. I now have a wood craft tool which will last a long time, with a story attached to it, that I made myself. And I’m very happy with that.