As part of my long-term ambition to live a life as self-reliant as possible, I am continually trying new things that might help achieve that aim. We have built our own house from scratch, making our own windows, french doors, roof trusses and floor boards. We bought and demolished the old Mittagong Railway station, then cleaned all the old sandstock bricks to use to build our house. I even excavated the sand stone footings and carved them into the new window sills for the house. Over the years, we grew trees here, then felled them to make all the kitchen furniture, chairs and tables.
If you have been reading this blog for any period of time, you will know that we make all our own clay bodies and glazes from stones that we collect locally and then crush and grind them to make all the various mixtures that we use in the pottery. I try not to buy anything that I could do myself. This frugal life style of self-reliance and simplicity has worked out quite well for us. I even had a go at building my own aluminium truck body. It didn’t turn out to be that hard. I welded it together from all the left over off-cuts from building electric kilns. It was a most rewarding well-spent week.
So this last few weeks leading up to the summer holiday gap between Xmas and New Year, I decided to have a go at making some kitchen knives. I have quite a few worn out or broken hack law blades from my mechanical power hack saw. These blades are made from excellent quality high Speed steel. This steel is quite exotic, being an iron based carbon steel alloy composed of varying degrees of tungsten, vanadium, cobalt and molybdenum. It is extremely hard and long wearing.
This stuff has such a high degree of embedded energy that I couldn’t bring myself to throw them out after they were worn out and blunt. I have worn my way through quite a few of these large 350mm blades over the past 40 years. Now I have made use of them. I hate to put anything in the recycling bin until it is really, truly worn out, or broken beyond repair.
I have spent a couple of hours each day working on them, whenever I got bored with what I was supposed to be doing. I cut out and profiled the blades using the angle grinder, ground them to a taper on the bench grinder and this can take at least an hour, if not more, depending on the size. A bench grinder is a very powerful tool. It grinds away the excess metal to create the tapered shape, but leaves significant scratches/scars in the surface. I have found that it is best to use 3 different bench grinders. I just happen to own them for other purposes over the years. I start with the coarsest, this removes the metal fastest, but leaves the surface looking very scratched. I work through medium to fine, each grindstone cuts less, but leaves the surface smoother.
I them move to the work bench and finish the blades off by honing them on a series of flat stones. I work through a series of grades of grind stones starting with 60# and 200# grit carborundum oil stones. The purpose of these stones is to try to polish off the scratches that are embedded in the steel from the bench grinder, then moving on to 400# and 1000# water stones and finishing on an 8000# grit Japanese synthetic water stone that puts a very fine finish on the blades.
This hand finishing is a labour of love. It takes ages to get a nice even surface and finishing with a very sharp edge without damaging that ultra fine edge. Always keeping it even. This is done entirely freehand without the use of jigs. I wouldn’t like to do this for a living, but it is very good to do it this once, because the reward is to re-purpose something that was once, only a few days ago, just a piece of rubbish. Now they are beautiful hand-made kitchen knives.
The last step is to make a wooden handle for each blade. 30 years ago, when I built my kitchen, I kept the best off-cuts of cedar wood for making pottery tools, which I have been using to make my own tools ever since. This is very nice straight-grained timber. but is useless for anything else, as the pieces are so short. They just happen to be perfect for knife handles though. These small bits of wood also need to be carved and then polished using sand paper to get a nice smooth finish. I prefer working with wood, rather than metal. It’s a gentler and softer process. Cedar also smells very nice.
The handles are finished with olive oil. I could use boiled linseed oil, but as they are kitchen knives, olive oil seemed more appropriate.
Nothing is ever finished, nothing is perfect and nothing lasts. Although the quality of this steel means that they probably won’t need to revisit the water stones for a year or more. Steel like this can’t be sharpened using a butcher’s ‘steel’ to touch up the fine edge intermittently. This high-speed steel alloy is so hard, that it is harder than the butcher’s ‘steel’. These knives have to be ground on a stone the same way that I sharpen my Japanese knives.
I have tried making a few different sizes and shapes. I don’t know which ones I will prefer to use yet. Maybe non of them will prove to be very good. I may have to go back and make some more. I’m still learning. I do have a few more worn-out hack saw blades left in my cupboard, so it is possible. I could just have been wasting my time this last couple of weeks, but even if they don’t prove to be useful to me or appropriate for purpose, I have really quite enjoyed the process of creating them. I’m pretty certain that a couple of them will be OK, but only using them will tell. Anyway, it beats working for a living. I’ll do anything to avoid getting a job!