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Adapting Knife Making Techniques, Precision at the Bench

Sharpen Your Skills

by Gary Dawson - © MJSA Journal - September 2009

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My dad was in the Navy during World War II and was among the personnel who entered Japan shortly after the war was over. The Katana (a Japanese warrior's long sword) he obtained in Japan, which hung on the wall of my childhood home, now often decorates the wall of the custom jewelry design studio that I founded in Eugene, Oregon. It was because of this sword that I happened to meet knife makers Shane Taylor and Wade Coulter (the "Montana Boys") when they were wandering the streets of Eugene shortly after the Oregon Knife Collectors Association (OKCA) knife show some years back. This huge show draws artists and craftsmen from all over the world to display their custom one-off's and some production knives. Dennis Ellingsen, the show director, calls the OKCA April show, now in its 35th year, "the largest knife show in the world run by a nonprofit."

Drawn into my shop by the Katana, the Montana Boys became friendly when they discovered that we actually make most of what we sell in our studio. We fell into a conversation about the common tools and processes we use for working metals. Inspired by this meeting, I have attended the OKCA show over the past few years and have come to hold in very high regard the work that knife makers are doing today. And while there are many excellent craftspeople working in the jewelry industry, it seems to me that the attention to detail, dedication to purpose, variety of materials, and precision that knife makers bring to their craft may provide a useful benchmark for us.

Both Taylor and Coulter are American Bladesmith Society (ABS) Mastersmiths. Looking at the requirements for the honor of bearing that title shows how seriously these people take their craft. The ABS Mastersmith must, by sole authorship, forge and build a Damascus knife of no fewer than 300 layers that will pass the following series of tests, in this sequence:

  1. Cut completely through a free-hanging 1-inch rope with one slice.
  2. Chop completely through a construction-grade wood 2x4, twice.
  3. Using the part of the blade most used to chop the 2x4, shave.
  4. Bend the blade to 90? without it breaking.

I don't know of a comparable test for a jewelry designer, but there should be one. I believe every jewelry designer should have to spend three years doing repair before they ever carve a wax or sit at a CAD station. It may be aesthetically beautiful to have rows of small diamonds run down the top and sides of a ring shank in a delicate prong structure, but rings take a beating-and they eventually need to be sized. Structural integrity is as important to jewelry design as it is to knife making, and we would do well to remember that fact.

In addition, because of the functional requirements of knife making, the typical knife maker probably has a better working knowledge of the metallurgy of his materials than the typical goldsmith/designer. I can relate to this because during the early stages of my jewelry career I was happy (and successful) simply learning one technique after another as a process. I had success without much understanding of how my materials were reacting to my techniques. It was only later in my career that I began to understand the physical and mechanical properties of the materials I was using, as well as the utility of heat treatment. Crossover Techniques

In addition to taking cues from the precision of the knife making craft, we as jewelers may be able to use similar techniques to make unique jewelry. John Jensen of Pasadena, California, who has a BFA in jewelry and metalsmithing from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, has gained a reputation for crossing over into knife making. "I strive to push the envelope of what a knife can be," he says. In speaking with him, it seems that his thoughts are that knife makers typically use a broader palette of materials within a piece. He mentions that there is so much more to explore beyond gold, platinum, and gemstones, and that knife making has caused him to learn more about different materials, which has spawned new ideas for both his knife making and his jewelry designs.

Processes used by knife makers are, in many cases, similar to the fabrication techniques we use for jewelry. And although the ferric metals most commonly used in knife making have different properties and therefore work somewhat differently than the precious metals that we use, there are crossovers. A process commonly used by knife makers working in what is called "mosaic Damascus" may be interesting for use in jewelry making. I have done some preliminary experiments using this process with precious metals, with minimal success to date, but wish to offer the following as a possibility for those of us working in the jewelry industry with precious metals.

In making mosaic Damascus, pattern welded billets are often formed with a design running lengthwise within the billet (1). Whether it is a Damascus-type pattern or an image, the design must be coaxed to reveal itself along the length of a formed blade. The technique most often used to do that is called an accordion cut: the billet is cut a number of times, about 2/3 of the way through from opposite sides of the billet, alternating from one side to the other. It is then stretched and hammered flat. The result is a repeating pattern of mirror images, as pictured in the barstock (2) made by Gary House, an ABS Journeyman Smith in Elphrata, Washington.

With the help of my friend Joseph Tunick Strauss of HJE Co. in Queens-bury, New York, I have proven the concept with 18k yellow gold and sterling silver. I began by forming a long, thin shape in 18k yellow gold (3) and pouring sterling silver around it (4a and 4b). I then used a modified accordion cut on the reduced billet (5), and finally rolled it flat (6). I was able to get a repeating pattern of 18k gold within a strip of sterling. This may be impractical for production, but could possibly be developed into an interesting addition to the goldsmith's toolbox.

And I'm not the only goldsmith gathering inspiration from knife makers. Andrew Nyce of Andrew Nyce Designs in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, is also adapting techniques from knife makers for use in his mokume and patterned stainless rings. Several years ago he and I journeyed to Taylor's forge/workshop near Miles City, Montana, and observed the Montana Boys in action. Andrew has recently incorporated a new mosaic mokume pattern (7) informed by an arrangement used by Mike Norris, a noted Damascus knife maker and Damascus steel maker. He has also been intrigued by the possibility of making stainless steel/gold mokum?. After a couple of failed trials, he got the 316L stainless steel and platinum-enhanced sterling alloys to bond (8). Encouraged by this success, he is now working on 316L stainless steel and yellow gold mokume.

If you're as inspired as I and some of my colleagues are by the talent and craftsmanship of these knife makers, think of creative ways you can adapt these techniques in your shop.

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