The Essence of Life

The Essence of Life

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

From Fire & Steel

My creation with the Master at the forge

My wife asked which gift I wanted for father's day, and I said that I did not want anything, but while surfing the web I found something that I could carry with me for the rest of my life: a two-day knife making course!

The course was offered by Tillers International ( an organization that aims "To preserve, study and exchange low-capital technologies that increase the sustainability and productivity of people in rural communities," and the instructor was Tim Carr of Black Bear Forge (, a master blacksmith and bladesmith that has endless patience, skill and good humor, and that appears to be as strong as a black bear.

So, on Saturday, June 29th, I woke up at 4:00 AM to drive from Traverse City to Scotts, MI, which ironically is not more than five or six miles from my previous place of work.

Around 9:00 AM the seven or eight “students” watched the teacher demonstrate how to forge a blade from a strip of 5160 steel that used to be a suspension coil spring. Gently bringing the steel to a nice dull red on the coal forge Tim started to shape the little bar into a small and handsome blade, and when a master is at work, everything looks simple.

Shortly after we lighted our own forges, got our own pieces of steel, and started heating them to what looked like a dull red, placed the piece on top of an anvil and started pounding with the heavy forging hammers.

Immediately I remembered a story that Dr. Alexandre, a good friend from my hometown told me several years ago: Dr. Alexandre was at a bar when a samba group came to play, and he asked one of the members to teach him how to play the tambourine. The guy handled him the instrument and showed him the basic movements and after ten minutes he was able to follow the others. Then Dr. Alexandre asked if that was all and the musician answered that “This is all, plus thirty years of dew forming on your back.”

Just like any other activity it takes practice to make perfection, and I took quite some time to shape a blade that was passable, but less than perfect. Some of the other students actually forged two blades in the same amount of time, but as pounding at hot steel is a lot more demanding than pounding on a keyboard, I decided to play safe.

After forging we normalized the blade for three times and let it cool while we had lunch at the main house. Then we went to the belt grinders and carefully corrected the shape and cleaned the blade, and after that we drilled the handles and spent a LOT OF TIME polishing the blade by hand to get it ready for heat treatment. First heat it up in the forge to a good red with the edge up, then quench it in vegetable oil with the edge down. And then we polished by hand again until we had bright steel so we could watch the colors change during the tempering operation, which was done with a propane torch.

By this time it was almost 5:00 PM, and it was time to quit, as unlike my blade we were not made of steel. I called my good friend and hunting partner Greg Anderson and was cordially invited to join them for dinner at their home. Greg barbecued some excellent pork that was served with pasta salad and a zesty sauce on the side. There was also a delicious catfish. While Greg cooked I enjoyed some great conversation with his wife Linda and explored the contents and character of a bottle of Buffalo Trace.

Greg and Linda also invited me to spend the night, and I slept like the proverbial child. Next morning I said good-bye and went “back to school.”

Following my fight with the Buffalo, which apparently ended on a tie, it was time for more cleaning and polishing, and then it was time to select material for the handles (as 4th of July was just around the corner, I selected a laminated wood that had red, white and blue in it), cut to shape, drill and epoxy them to the knife tang. We used “Loveless” brass screws to hold the scales in place and also to provide some good looks.

After some 45 minutes for the epoxy to cure it was time to go back to the belt grinders to shape the handles, and then more hand polishing, this time for the handle.

The final operations were buffing the handle, and forming the edge with a 200-grit belt and final sharpening with a 600-grit one, and I immediately went looking for something to test my knife on. For the lack of better quarry, like a whitetail deer to skin and butcher of a good Brazilian style barbecue to slice and dice, I was content to shave the hair from a portion of my left arm in one swift motion.

Following Tim’s advise I made a newspaper sheet, less to protect the knife than to protect other surfaces and objects from getting cut by it.

I learned a lot during those two days. My knife is not perfect, but it is very functional. I was able to maintain a certain proportion and balance between blade and handle shapes and sizes, and while it is a bit on the heavy side, it is very robust and quite sharp.

I also learned to respect a lot more the work done by custom knife makers and other artisan. It takes a lot of time not only to make a knife, but also to get good enough to be able to make an attractive and flawless one. I am not sure I would ever make a living making and selling knives, but I really plan to further explore this activity as a hobby.

The first serious use I put my knife to, was cutting some hard salami into thin slices to prepare my Sunday dinner, as I was too tired to go out. Right now my knife is resting on my knife chest along over one hundred twenty of its relatives, where it will rest until hunting season, when I expect to be able to proof it on gutting, skinning and butchering the whitetail deer of my dreams!


  1. You received a nice gift because you love blades. Here in Brasil knivemakers use a furnace easy to make it is fed by butan gas

  2. Please visit for a great collection of outdoor supplies.