It begins with 5160 spring steel 1 ½” wide and ¼” thick. “The length I chop up as I choose,” knife maker Greg Ferrier said. Greg spent 20 years as a B 52 crewman before retiring from the military. His passion for fine blades brought him to historic Ft. Hays outside Rapid City, South Dakota to work in a blacksmith shop.
“I go from here to there making a blade in 30 to 45 minutes if I keep my mouth shut and pay attention to what I’m doing.” Greg took the bar slab, cut to desired length, to his forge. He heated it until it was cherry red. The blade was removed and hammered on an anvil to flatten and shape the steel. In the hands of an expert the job looked easy. It required careful attention and the use of tongs to keep the metal in place while it was being hammered. The process might repeat itself several times before the bar steel was shaped.
Greg then lets the shaped blade cool. “I clean off the fire scale with a Makita right angle grinder with a 4” disk. If you put it on a belt grinder it will tear up one or two belts and they cost $5 each.”
Once the rough coating left from the forge heating process is removed, he uses the belt grinder. “I start with 50. It is a coarse grit. Coarse moves a lot of metal in a hurry. Then I go to 100, 200, 400.” With the blade shaped, the coarse scale removed and partially polished, a quenching process is started.
The blade is brought up to cherry red again in the forge. “I oil quench it once it’s cherry red. I use vegetable oil, bees wax and hydraulic fluid.” The hydraulic fluid keeps critters out of the quenching mix. “At this point the blade is brittle and it will break like glass. I put the blade in the oven and bake it at 400 degrees for two hours. I turn the oven off and leave the door closed.”
When the blade is cool the next morning and Greg can pick it up in his fingers. It is tempered 60 on the Rockwell scale. “Good store knives are 55 or less.”
“The yellow color is an oxide layer,” the knife maker explained, picking up a partially finished blade after quenching. “I take it back to the belt grinder and use progressively 300, 400, 600, 800 and 1000 grit. See the stripes. The belt grinder works across the blade.” Grinding left visible stripes on the blade. From this point on Greg uses 400 to 2000 grit by hand up and down the blade until the stripes disappear and the steel is perfectly smooth.
When asked how long the hand polishing process takes, Greg answered “I do it until I can’t see any more stripes. Then I can mount my guard and tang extension. I then can glue the handle material and lock it up with a butt cap.”
The next day, when the glue is fully dry, Greg grinds the handle, butt cap and guard. “When it’s as purty as I can get it I put a serial number on the right side of the blade and my name on the left. The knife is then sharpened and buffed.
“The blade is sharp enough to shave with and will keep its edge unless you throw it, use it as a screwdriver or put it in a dishwasher. Carbon steel knives and dishwashers are not compatible,” Greg warned.
To make a sheath, Greg covers the blade with lacquer to protect it. “I form the wet leather around it. When the leather dries it contracts enough so it really holds that blade.” The entire process requires 40 hours on average to make a blade.
“The bigger the knife the more time it takes. If a knife is nose or tail heavy it will be slow. The slow knife will get you turned into coyote bait,” Greg joked.
In the hands of a skilled craftsman the many steps required to turn a flat chunk of steel into a finished knife look simple enough. “When I went to knife shows and couldn’t afford the knives, I started making my own.”
“I try to teach knife making. Most kids last 3-4 hours. I believe in the four letter word: WORK. Some stay three months and learn. An apprenticeship program is one exchanging slave labor for knowledge,” this affable South Dakota craftsman laughed.
A finished blade will cost about $150 depending on the time it has taken to make it. Greg makes skinning blades from D-2 tool steel antler tips that he’s tempered. He’ll run through a batch at a time and sell them out quickly for $60. “They fit the hand and the blade is small. Hunters like them for skinning with the antler tip since they don’t cut the hide.”
For more information email him at email@example.com or call 605 464 4452.