“This feels amazing. Really nice balance.”
I beam with pride at such remarks now, because it’s the result of years of training and countless trial and error. But I wasn’t always the cool kid. I still think back to my earlier years of training with Barry, and to some of my first design attempts. The term “cringeworthy” comes to mind. I come across some old patterns of mine from time to time and wonder what I was thinking, and why no one stopped me. It’s truly horrifying.
But that’s the nature of design I think, the more knowledge and experience you have, the better it will ultimately be. While I am privileged to work with clients all over the world on creating beautiful, functional custom designs now, there was definitely a pretty big learning curve, during which I made every mistake in the book.
So what are the key design elements that every knife should have you ask? Well, pull your chair a little closer and I’ll share a few secrets learned from two expert instructors: Time and Experience.
How do I start?
Well generally I like to start at the end and work backwards. Meaning, I think about what I want the blade to do really well. Do I want a compact general purpose knife to be used for smaller everyday jobs, a rugged field knife that can handle tough jobs like chopping wood, or a small skinner for dressing out an Elk? All of these applications require different design features and considerations, so it’s good to have an idea of what the blade is going to be used for, or at least what its intended purpose is.
Pro Tip: Read all you can about knife and sword history, the more you know the WHY behind a certain design feature the better equipped you are to utilize those features in designs of your own.
Putting it on paper.
I hate to disappoint any guys that might be a little more “modern” than me, but when I want to get an idea from my head into the real world I use good ol’ graph paper and mechanical pencils. It’s simple, I can adjust lines easily and also get a good idea of how things look proportionally. Sorry if I let you down, but I’m not a big fan of computers. Technology and I had a falling out. It was a mutual decision to go our separate ways, but it still calls every once in a while to “catch up”. Usually with cat videos.
Now that your spiffy design is all drawn out perfectly and every line and curve is how you want it, we need to make a pattern. So now we transfer the drawing onto a material that is a little more rigid and substantial than paper. (Also, make copies first. Unless you have also come to an understanding with technology.) Choose a material that is easy to work, such as a thin mild steel, or even wood. You’re just transferring the design onto this material so you can profile it true to form, and make adjustments. You can also cut the paper design out and attach it to the pattern material with glue, or trace it onto your chosen material with a dark pen.
Usually at this stage you realize the knife isn’t balanced quite right, the guard is too small, the handle too thick, etc. Use that grinder and keep adjusting till it’s perfect. You know you have hit “knifevana” when you hold the pattern in your hand and it feels like an extension of your arm.
Sometimes you might have to go back to the drawing board (literally) to make the changes needed, and then try again. Don’t get discouraged, even if you have to walk away from the design and come back to it in a few days with fresh eyes. It’s part of the process, and in the end it pays off with a well-made, thoughtfully designed knife. Remember what Mr. Ford said:
“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” -Henry Ford
...and keep on motorin'.
Lynn is a second generation Dawson knifemaker. She and her husband, fellow knifemaker Dennis Cook, have four awesome kids, a perfect marriage and never argue. Ever.