Tools and Materials
What you need to start knife making
Contrary to what you might think, I’d actually recommend beginning with the minimum amount of tools. It’s important to experience knife making with fewer tools so that you can appreciate the process—and appreciate power tools once you get ’em! Start with just a handful of basic tools and feel the pride of creating a custom knife from very little. You won’t get everything right on the first try—you will make mistakes. So fail hard, fail fast, and move on!
I’ve marked everything that’s essential to knife making with an asterisk (*). Everything else might make the job faster or more enjoyable, but not absolutely necessary.
New steel vs recycled/used steel
The cost of buying proper tool steel is worth it; you’ll save lots of time and a big headache. When you know what the composition of your steel is, you know exactly how to heat treat, temper, quench, and take care of the knife. Aside from this, you want to be proud of the knife you create and you want to make sure it performs and looks good doing so. For a detailed response, see the FAQ question on the matter.
Recommended Tools and Materials
If you’re looking to upgrade to newer and better tools, I’ve collected a list of some of the community’s most recommended tools and equipment. Click through to see exactly what tools other knife makers use to create their knives. Products only make the page if they’re above 4 stars and come recommended by experienced knife makers.
Knife Steel (*)
A carbon steel is recommended, though stainless steel is also popular (more common for kitchen knives). The 10-series (1095-1050) and O1 tool steels are two carbon steels that are used by many knife makers. 3/16″ is a standard thickness.
- O1 – holds an edge extremely well and also very forgiving to work with.
- The 10-Series – The 1095 or 1084 is great to start with. As the numbers descend from 1095 to 1050, the carbon concentration is reduced and the edge will have less wear resistance, but the blade will be tougher (the 1060 and 1050 are often used for making swords).
- Automotive “spring steel” – You can go to a spring or axle shop and get a piece of 5160 cut to size. It’s extremely tough and has a bit of chromium to add to its hardness.
- Recycled steel – It’s possible, but not the greatest idea. See the FAQ question for more detail.
- NOTE: oftentimes, the last two digits of a steel’s classification will indicate its carbon content, so 1095 contains .95% carbon, while 5160 contains .60%. This isn’t always the case, so do your research.
Material for the Handle (*)
Hardwoods are the go-to choice for most knife makers. That said, in recent years, fabricated materials like Micarta (cloth/linen + resin) and G10 (fibreglass + resin) has risen dramatically in popularity due to its water resistance and choice of color. You’ll also sometimes find more obscure materials used, such as bone or plastic/epoxy resins. Your handle is made up of two scales, each usually 3/8″ in thickness.
- Most hardware store will supply small bits of hardwood that will do the job. Also check your local wood shop for scraps.
- Maple, oak, cherry, and walnut are all popular choices. You can even get fancy and go with burls of trees, shokwood, or stabilized wood.
- For all things wood, check out the Wood Database. It will give you the background on any wood you want to know about.
- Wood you procure on your own should be fully dried out so that it doesn’t expand or shrink on you later. This usually requires a minimum of 6 months.
- You can also buy “liners” or “spacers” that go in between your tang and the scales. They’re thin sheets of G10 that can add great colorful accents to your knife. Make sure to rough them up with 40 grit sandpaper to help them adhere to the tang and scales.
Rivets and Pins (*)
These are metal rods or tubes that when hammered down will help your scales adhere to the tang as tightly as possible. Traditionally, these used to be the only method for attaching scales to the tang, but in modern times, glue epoxy is the primary method and rivets are just secondary or decorative. There are usually 2-4 rivets depending on the size of your knife and they come in thicknesses between 1/16″ to 1/4″. The rods are generally 12″ long.
- The materials most commonly used are copper, brass, aluminum, nickel, and stainless steel.
- They can be hollow or solid.
- It’s crucial that the rivets, rods, or pins you choose are the same diameter as the drill bit you’re using.
- For something more decorative and DIY-able, check out mosaic pins. They’re attractive larger pins made out of an assortment of smaller metal rods and tubes.
- Some knife makers will drill a large lanyard hole through the handle (sometimes lining it with a metal tube), so consider this when purchasing your material.
The bolster or guard is used to protect your hand from sliding up toward the blade edge. It’s also great for increasing the strength of your knife. Though the guard has lost a bit of its historical function, it still remains as a decorative piece.
- The materials for bolsters and guards include: brass, copper, and nickel silver.
- They’re not that different to shape than your steel knife, so it might be something to consider adding on your 4th or 5th knife.
2-Part Epoxy or Gorilla Glue (*)
To attach the wooden scales to the tang of your knife, you need to use some sort of heavy-duty adhesive. You’ll find an assortment of basic 2-part epoxies available to you that will be great for the job.
- Avoid the “quick-set” or “5-minute cure” until you’re well practiced in the gluing up process.
- TIP – Use some acetone and a Q-tip to wipe off excess glue and chemicals left over from the epoxy.
After sharpening your knife, you can hone it using a strop and some chrome oxide compound. It’s basically a polishing compound that contains micro particles that will remove the unnoticeable burr on your blade and make the edge screaming sharp.
- You can rub this compound on to a variety of things, but avoid materials harder than steel that would damage the knife, such as glass, ceramic, metal, or stone. Apply the compound onto your base enough that it feels waxy to the touch.
- Many knife makers use a leather belt, but others swear by cardboard (cereal box, back of a notepad, etc).
Equipment and Tool List
Safety Equipment (*)
Knife making can be extremely dangerous. You’re working with deathly sharp and high-powered things that will burn, slice, rip, crush, and generally make your life less fun unless you have proper equipment. Some parts of the process are more or less dangerous than others, so just use your head.
- For your lungs: some N95 masks at a minimum, though a half-mask respirator wouldn’t leave much to chance.
- For your eyes: a good pair of safety glasses.
- For your ears: some chewed up bubble-gum; or, better yet, some ear plugs.
- For your hands: a pair of gloves. Ensure that the gloves don’t contain anything that will melt during the heat treating step!
Hacksaw or Grinder (*)
You’re going to use a hacksaw or grinder as the main tool for removing as much metal as possible before you start refining the shape. Try to get as much metal off during this step as you can. You may have to use a lot of right angles as curves are difficult to achieve with a saw—but don’t worry, it’s not supposed to look pretty! Just be sure to have your metal blank in a vice or clamped down extremely tightly as you’re sawing away.
- [BASIC] Hacksaw – A good quality bi-metal, fine-tooth blade will work wonders. You’ll have to make lots of straight cuts to make your way around the curves. If you have a drill press, it can sometimes speed up the job to drill out a number of holes along the edge of the shape and cut between them.
- [BASIC] Circular saw – I’ve seen some people actually use a circular saw, but I would not recommend it. You’ll be able to make some of the initial cuts, but for an even smaller price you can buy a good hacksaw that will be safer, more accurate, and won’t risk heating up the neighbouring metal and affecting its composition.
- [$+] Angle grinder – Some good metal cutting discs and a handheld angle grinder can make quick work of your metal blank. Once thing to be careful of is keeping your disc edge in one spot for too long—this will inadvertently heat up the metal and change its properties.
- [$$+] Bandsaw – The tool of choice for established knife makers with a complete workshop. This will for allow for more maneuverability and less elbow grease.
Drill and Drill Bits (*)
The drill is used for drilling holes as well as removing excess metal in the tang of your knife (reduces weight and helps the epoxy’s adhesion). Don’t forget to use a center punch to get your holes started or else your drill bit will skate around. High-speed steel (HSS) or cobalt-tipped drill bits are great for cutting through metal. You’ll want a couple of them as a minimum, with a diameter of 1/8″ to 3/16″. It’s also recommended to use some light oil as you drill through the metal.
- [BASIC] (Corded) Drill – Patience and a steady hand is required to make your holes with a handheld drill. A cordless drill simply won’t have enough power to get you through 3/16″ of metal any time soon.
- [$+] Drill Press – The preferred method for knife makers, the drill press will allow for easy, quick, and accurate drilling for as long as you want. Make sure to have your knife blank secured down or pushed against a guard so it doesn’t spin out of control when you lower the press.
A Set of Metal Files (*)
If you choose to go the manual-powered route as opposed to using a belt grinder, your files are next in line after using the hacksaw. The files will remove large bits of metal to help grind in your bevel and shape your knife according to your template.
- [BASIC] – A variety of files is best as you necessarily find a use for each one.
- A 10″ or 12″ bastard double-cut file will remove the most metal at once. You need at least one. Additionally, a mill file, flat file, half-round, and round file will help with details. Try to get a range of coarse to fine cuts.
- The further the “teeth” are apart, the coarser the cut. So it goes Bastard Cut -> Second Cut -> Smooth Cut. On top of this, files will either be single-cut (one set of lines) or double-cut (two sets of lines running perpendicular to each other). The double-cut will remove material faster than a single-cut.
- 12″ is a nice size to work with. You don’t need a handle on it, but I find it’s easier on the hands. It allows allows you to use the Gough Jig easily if that’s how you choose to sharpen.
- This guide from SIMONDS not only helps you understand what file to use, it offers a captivating glimpse into the astonishing world of file use and history that you never knew existed. You might want to sit down for this one!
Sandpaper and Sanding Tool (*)
This is a must-have for all knife makers regardless of experience. You can choose to do dry sanding, wet sanding, or both. It’s a good idea to get high-quality sandpaper in a variety of grits. The lower grits are a lot more rough and as you go higher the sandpaper gets noticeably smoother; thus producing a finer finish.
- [BASIC] – Get yourself sandpaper starting at 60 grit and moving all the way up to 800. Ie. 60, 120, 220, 400, 600, 800.
- Grits above 220 are considered micro-grits—the particles are extremely close together. You’ll use these for finishing the blade after heat treating and tempering.
- Sandpaper is not often used as is, but rather is applied to a tool that makes it easier to use. You can wrap it around a wooden block, dowel, or metal rod.
- [$$$+] Belt Grinder – The more expensive option is go the power tool route. As the name implies, this is a machine that runs a belt of sandpaper at high speeds. Hobbyist knife makers will often upgrade from hand sanding to a 1″ x 30″ or 2″ x 72″ (W x L of belt) belt grinder when the funds allow.
- Belt Grinders are so effective that knife makers will also use them for shaping the knife blank from scratch.
C-Clamps or Similar (*)
Clamps are essential for keeping your blank or wooden scales held down while you work on them. You can never get enough clamps.
- You don’t have to get fancy here. Call up that Uncle Joe of yours and see what he has kicking around. I’ll say again, the more the merrier. A variety is encouraged—C-clamps, F-clamps, tube clamps, spring clamps, pipe clamps, etc.
I didn’t mark the the bench vice with an asterisk because it’s not necessary, but it is going to be your best friend. It’s a lot easier to work on your knife and handles using a vice than than with a set of clamps as it allows your steel to be oriented upright and at many more angles. A sturdy workbench is necessary for your vice to attach to.
- To protect your knife and handle from the super-powerful vice, try padding either your work or the vice itself with a bit of leather, rubber, or cardboard—just whatever you can find so that it’s squeeze doesn’t leave an impression on your work.
Ball Peen Hammer
To tap the rivets or rods into place on your handle, you’ll need a ball peen hammer. It’s also used to gently embed the outer rim of the rivet into the wood for a more secure connection.
- A 4-oz or 8-oz hammer will work great.
- TIP – After heavy use, sand the end of your hammer with a high grit (400), then polish to remove any marks and scuffs. This will reduce the corresponding marks and scuffs on your knife’s or rivet’s metal.
Center Punch (*)
You’ll need to guide your drill bit accurately and reduce wandering by using a center punch. It creates a small recess or dimple that your drill bit can sit in as it starts to bore into the metal. They’re small, inexpensive tools that make your final product come out much cleaner.
- You’ve got two choices: a center punch that you can hammer to make the indent, or an automatic center punch which uses an internal spring. Your choice!
Sharpening System (*)
There are two main ways to sharpen your knives: guided and freehand. Using the guided method, you’ll build or buy a filing jig that will help you make consistent strokes at your chosen angle. These are great for beginners as you get acquainted with your tools and how they interact. More experienced knife makers looking for higher precision will purchase sharpening stones. They are generally two sided with a fine and coarse grit.
- The Lansky system is a great kit to use for the guided method.
- The Japanese have some of the highest quality whetstones available if you decide to go freehand.
- There is a lot of technique involved in both methods, so be sure to check out some of our knife makers’ progress photos or the Sharpening page before you begin!
This nifty little tool will measure and provide the thickness of various parts of your knife with great accuracy. It’s used to ensure you’ve ground your knife consistently or to spec, and that you don’t grind your knife too thin before heat treat—else it might warp.
The scribe is a pen-like tool that will allow you to score the metal. Most the time, you can get away with scoring your bevel line with just a drill bit, but the scribe has the added benefit of making it easy to outline a knife template onto your metal blank giving you a much finer line as compared to a Sharpie.
Used for tempering the knife after heat treating, the toaster oven is practical if you don’t want to risk smoking or stinking up your house by using the kitchen oven. Many men are rumoured to have been banned from the kitchen for this very reason. You can pick up a basic, inexpensive toaster oven at a box store or garage sale.
Layout dye is used to paint a thin layer of color on your metal. It’s useful when you want to scribe a clear, sharp line on the metal blank as you’re tracing out your knife shape as well as when you’re grinding, to ensure you file down everything evenly and don’t miss a spot. Sharpies can also work well as a substitute, though it will take a little longer to get the same coverage. If need be, the layout dye can be removed with acetone; like most things.
To heat your forge up to suitable temperatures (1450°+), you need a torch. The torch is composed of a trigger and nozzle that you screw onto your fuel canister. The recommended model has a trigger start so you don’t need a lighter or match—on and off with just a click of a button! Remember to do your heat treating outside or in a well ventilated workspace!
MAPP/MAP Pro Fuel
The above model is compatible with both MAP-Pro and propane. You might have difficulty buying fuel online, so keep your eye out for local suppliers of the 14.1oz cans. I’ve written about the different types of torch fuel available and why MAP gas is preferred over propane.
A staple for every workshop, pliers will help you maneuver you knife in and out of your forge and finally into your quench oil. Alternatively, you could channel your inner badass and find yourself a pair of heavy-duty blacksmithing tongs!
Assuming you’re going to be making your own forge, firebrick is one of the most common approaches. They differ from regular bricks in how they withstand and spread heat. They’re extremely easy to drill and carve into which is ideal for knife making as it allows you to fit room for your torch and knife without wasting space
The next step involves tracing, then cutting out your knife’s shape from the metal blank. Once it’s cut out, you need to drill holes in the tang for pins and a space for a lanyard to go through.