Knives probably aren’t the first items that come to mind when you think of art. Art is admirable, emotional, and inviting. Knives, however, might strike you as cold, utilitarian, impersonal.
But fine custom knives aren’t just made to be used; they’re formed, carved and cherished. They’re beautiful artisanal creations that don’t have to be admired from afar. Custom knives are functional art: objects intended to excite the senses just as much as they are utilitarian.
Knives are some of the oldest tools in human history. Humans began forging them about two and a half million years ago from natural materials such as stone and bone. These early knives were made by hitting the material with a rock to chip away excess material from one side. What was left was a fairly uneven albeit sharp surface.
This crude blade could be used for protection, hunting and to butcher animals for skins and meat.
Knives that we’d recognize today began to appear 10,000 years ago made of copper and 5,000 years ago made of bronze. For the most part, these knives, too, consisted of a single piece with a sharpened end (the blade) and a long, dull end (the tang). Around that time, people started crafting handles around the tang to make it easier to hold.
Knives have always been essential to hunting, but they’ve also played a significant role in other aspects of culture. They’ve been decorated and displayed for thousands of years to be used in rituals, superstitions and fashion.
Anglo-Saxons were buried with a knife so as not to be defenseless in the afterlife. Placing a knife across another piece of cutlery was once associated with witchcraft. A small single-edged blade called a sgian-dubh is worn with a kilt as part of traditional Scottish dress.
Medieval knives were often ornately decorated and carried in protective sheaths made of leather. Handles were carved of fine wood, bone or ivory and adorned with jeweled inlays. Inscriptions were often carved into the handle or blade.
The imagery carved into handles and blades depends on the culture and intended use. A Wiccan ceremonial athame may be inscribed with signs depicting fire and nature, while a hunting knife could be adorned with sacred texts about life and spirit.
Materials and methods have obviously evolved. Modern materials are more durable than in any other time in history, and equipment is infinitely more powerful and precise, allowing the human hand to create the most intricate details into their knives.
Today metal blades no longer have to be hand forged and slowly hammered into shape, though it’s possible. The shop of the modern knife maker resembles that of a machine shop, with clamps, Dremels and belt sanders. But the process of making custom knives is still very hands-on.
Modern blades are more corrosion resistant and hold an edge better than older materials. Most blades are made of an assortment of metals including steel alloys, cobalt/titanium alloys and carbon steel.
Thousands of types of steel exist, but not all of them are suitable for a useable blade. Some are too soft while others can’t be easily sharpened. The metal used to create a custom knife is malleable without losing durability or sharpness.
Blades are commonly composed of the following kinds of steel:
- D2 is a high chromium tool steel known for its resistance to wear and abrasion. It shows very little distortion when correctly hardened.
- ATS34 keeps a very clean sharp edge but isn’t as corrosion resistant as some other alloys.
- VG10 is the most popular material used in high-end professional cutlery; designs can be inscribed during temperament.
- 440C is a high-carbon stainless steel considered to be a high-end material.
Stock removal has replaced forging as the method of choice for shaping blades. A template of the blade and tang is scribed into a stock piece of metal then cut out. The blade is then ground, sanded and polished until the final finish is achieved.
Today’s blades are as striking to look at as they are to use.
Modern handles can still be carved from natural materials such as wood, bone or horn, but these days, most are composed of newer, more advanced materials such as plastics, aluminum, stainless steels, titanium or carbon fiber.
Materials commonly used in custom knife handles include:
- Aluminum, a low-density metal that can be anodized for color and hardness
- Titanium, the lightest most corrosion-resistant metal available
- Carbon fiber, an extremely strong and eye-catching material
- Micarta, a hard highly scratch-resistant resin.
With the advent of fine-tuned engraving tools, dyes and casts, there’s no limit to the colors and shapes possible.
Knives have played a huge part in human civilization since ancient times. They’re tools and cultural icons. While the tools for creating modern knives have changed, the passion, creativity and detail instilled into each piece have not.