Drac’S Guide To Crafting A Sgain Dubh

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Good day all,

Since I have plenty of time before getting my Ph.d I thought I would work through the article a bit at a time. The first couple sections, which are genteral, went fairly quickly. Next couple will be posted as the WIP is done.

I will post them in chapters as it were. First three to follow.



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Over the years you have gotten a hand-stitched, a beautiful custom sporran, hand knitted hose, a tailored jacket, maybe even a felted bonnet but you are still carrying that $10 plastic sgain you picked up at a Scottish Games from the same dealer who has $30 basket hilts and $50 claymores right next to the Lord of the Rings collection. You have looked at some of the custom pieces and they either look like someone stuck whitetail shed on a kitchen knife or they are way beyond your price range.

This will hopefully get you going. The basics of this article are –

  1. That you have never made a knife
  2. You are only interested in making one or two knives, not making a full time hobby
  3. That you don’t have huge amounts of industrial equipment and don’t plan to buy it

While there are as many way to make a knife as there are knives most of this article will cover the materials, tools and techniques I use.

I will cover this in 5 sections:

  1. Random thoughts
  2. Material choices
  3. Tools
  4. Walk-through
  5. Misc

Random thoughts – I will cover some thoughts and ideas on where to start.

Materials – What you choose will determine where you go with this. I will cover the pros and cons of you selections for blade steel, bolsters, handles and/or pins. Choose carbon and

you will be able to do the heat treat your blade with a torch and your kitchen oven. Choose stainless and there are several knife houses who can handle the challenges for you.

Tools – A great knife can be made with a file, a drill, a torch and an oven but a few tools can make the job faster and more enjoyable.

Walk-through – Will go through my way of making a basic casual carry.

Misc – Here I will cover tweaking you piece. File work, mosaic pins and sheaths can really take it up a notch. I will also list some supplier and assistants for your endeavors.

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Random thoughts

I know that this is normally the last chapter but I feel that there is a bit to cover before you dive in.

If you want to make your first knife there are three rules that you should always keep in mind –

  1. Safety
  2. Safety
  3. Safety

When working with sharp objects you might get hurt. When working with power tools you might get hurt. When using power tools to make sharp things you will get hurt. I have yet to make a knife where I didn’t bleed somewhere along the way. Most of the time it is a little nick from an edge or maybe knuckles grazed with sand paper moving 1000 feet a minute.

Safety is first, last and foremost when making a knife.

Next a bits of advice. If this is your first knife a few suggestions that should make it easier.

It will make it more enjoyable if you take a reasonable approach to your first blade. Most first timers jump in to the deep end of the knife making pool. They want mirror polish (more on this later); file work, trailing points, 20” long, exotic steels, expensive handle materials, etc. If you start off with a 4” blade with a basic design you will not only have an easier time going through the steps but you will be more satisfied with the results and you will have a knife that will more likely be an everyday user.

You will have the urge to put that perfect mirror polish on the knife. You will measure your success of your first knife by how good you look in its reflection. After all most of the factory knives you see have this finish. I urge you to resist this urge. While it looks good when you finish even putting it in a sheath will scratch the finish. A mirror finish will show ever little scratch, scuff and bump. On the other hand the hand-rubbed finish I cover later will give you a great looking finish that will be a working finish. You will be able to use it everyday and it still look good years later.

There are two main ways to make a knife –

  1. Forging - the steel is heated to a certain temp and than shaped, usually with a hammer
  2. Stock removal – maker starts with bar stock and removes the extra material

Again each has its advantages and disadvantages. I use the stock removal technique. It allows me to work materials that are normally difficult to forge.

I will cover additional advice in the areas to come.

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Material choices

At its most basic a knife is a blade and a handle. Additional pieces can be added to the maker’s preference. These include bolster (rear and front), pins, spacing material, inlays and sheaths.

Here I will cover some of the basic choices you will run into.

The first and foremost choice is what to make your knife out of. Over the centuries knives have been made of many different materials from stone to bronze to steels and even nonferrous metal alloys. For the purposes of this article I will keep the discussion to steels.

First choice you will have to make is where you will get your steel from. Most people dive into knife making by grabbing some unknown steel – a car spring, lawn mower blades and the ever favorite file. In the past all these pieces have been sources of good steel. Even many of the best instruction books have recommended using these steel. Times have changed. Most of these sources have given way to cheap replacements and corner cutting. At the time of writing you can get 18” (enough for 2 or three knives) of 1095 steel for $12 with shipping. This will give you a known heat treat procedure. No guess work. It really sucks to have spent many hours on a knife and after heat treat it won’t take an edge or worse yet you get that dreaded “ping” and now you have two pieces of steel.

Next choice is whether you are going with carbon or stainless steels. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Carbon can be heat treated fairly simply with a torch and an oven. Stainless requires more precision but can be sent out to a knife supply shop to heat treat.

I will cover mostly stainless as that is my primary steel.

There are many names out the 440C, ATS34, 154CM, CPM154, S30V and on and on. It can get confusing. I will keep it basic and use 440C. It is a good all around steel. It is fairly easy to work, easy to get a good finish, very stain resistant, and will take a good edge. It runs about $20 for enough for a knife or two. Most knife supply house can heat treat it for a reasonable amount.

If you are an enthusiast of knives you will have undoubtedly heard of a “super steel” somewhere. While there are some fantastic advances in steels but these come with a price. Actually price is a big factor. These super steels can double or more the price of materials. Also they can be a pain to work. They are harder in their annealed state. This translates to more time shaping and sanding. They also can be harder to find places (depending on the steel) to heat treat. For your own piece of mind please stay away from them at least for your first blade.

Onto the next basic part of a knife: the handle. There are many choices here but they are in two main categories –

  1. Natural – This would include woods and animal products
  2. Synthetic – This would include micartas and composites

Natural materials cover woods, ivories, bone, horn and any other material that comes from nature. These are the most historically used materials. They are easy to acquire, easy to work and beautiful. On the down side they aren’t, in most cases, stable. This means that they are subject to the environment and age. They will shrink and swell. They will dry out and crack. Some more so than others. There are care methods, seals and processes that will minimize this but there is no way to prevent it completely. That doesn’t mean that it can’t last a lifetime with proper care. There are a couple exceptions to this. One is nacre, also known as mother of pearl. This comes from the inside of the shells of bi-valves. Others are stones such as jet. Unfortunately both these materials require techniques and equipment that are beyond the scope of this article.

Synthetic materials are man made products that include micarta, polys, and composites such as carbon fibers and G10. These materials are very stable. They can be fantastic looking when used right. They can really lend a modern feel to any blade. Down side is they can also look cheap and cheesy. The good ones can also be a lot more expensive and require heavier equipment to work.

Again I will focus on wood as this is the most commonly available material and the most liked.

I would recommend using stabilized woods. Stabilization is a process that injects resins into the wood making them more stable. While it won’t prevent any effects of age or environment it will minimize them as much as possible. It will also make the woods easier to finish and allow you to use woods that would not have been strong enough for a handle.

Please stay away from composite woods such as Dymond wood. This material made from thin layers of birch that are dyed (in often gaudy colors) and than stabilized. This makes it extremely hard and stable. Unfortunately between the hideous colors and the over use in cheap knives this material has a bad reputation.

On this project I will be using bolsters. These are metal pieces that frame the handle material usually at the top and sometimes the bottom. In this case I will be doing both. They are decorative for the most part. You have choices of stainless, brass or copper through most knife supply shops. In this example I will be using stainless. I feel it is nicer looking and easier to maintain.

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Thanks what a great read can't wait for the next one. As always I love seeing your work and know look forward to being your first kilted student. Thanks agian!

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As stated earlier the tools necessary to make a knife can be very minimal. If you have someone else do the heat treat you can make a great knife with files and a drill. That simple, that straight but a few tools can make the process easier and more enjoyable.

The main tool of any knife maker is his grinder. In simplest terms this is a belt sander. The standard size belts are 2x72. There are many different sizes but this gives the greatest selection. Many knife makers start of with the 4x36 belt sander that you can get at most hardware shops. They will work for making a knife or two. In my case I use a KMG grinder. This grinder was designed for specifically knife making. Most others are adapted. Surprisingly enough this unit is about mid-cost as far as the machines go.

With this also go the abrasives, the belts. There are many types of belts and abrasives. Most people are familiar with aluminum oxide and maybe silicon carbide. These are fairly common in wood working. Unfortunately they don’t last long on the metal. Knife makers normally for heavy cutting use alumina-zirconia (or just zirconia) or ceramic aluminum oxide (or ceramic) belts. These are made for heavy metal work but have a very high cost.

Another must have for most knife makers is a drill press. This is important for drilling squares holes. Most use the common table top though full timers may have heavier models and sometimes more than on to easily switch between bit sizes. As for as drill bits go I would recommend using cobalt bits. They are a bit more expensive, a couple bucks but few things are as aggravating as having a bit snap off in your blade. Most likely it will be unrecoverable. It is worth using a new bit for this purpose.

A quick note on consumables, for full timers there is a saying – treat belts as though they are free. The idea here is that since these cost so much that there is a habit of trying to get just one more blade out of a belt or another hole out of a bit. Not only is it dangerous as any dull cutting tool require more force (or at least that is how we react) but it takes longer, builds more heat and you have a higher risk of damage. So don’t get wrapped up in the price of the belts, sandpaper, bits, glue, ect. Change them frequently. I normally only get one, maybe two blades out of a belt. With bits some things I work on, mother of pearl for example, I will always use a new bit and throw it away after. It isn’t worth risking $120+ pieces of pearl for a $2 drill bit.

I will be using other tools as I go through the process and will cover them a little as they are used but the above are the main machines – a grinder and drill press. All others are gravy.

As far as handle tools go you might want are files, a vise and a hammer. In the consumables area you will need the above mentioned belts and bit but also sandpaper and glue.

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Well done!

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awesome the perfect excuse to get that drill press i've been looking at for quiet awile. cant wait for the next edition

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It's been a while but now that temps are dropping I can get back into the shop.

While preparing for the next step I thought I would give a shop tour and explain some of the equipment both basic and more advance.

For me and many other makers is the grinder but before I talk about it I want to restate that great knives can be made with simple hand tools. Wolfgang Loerchner makes some of the top level knives with files. He can draw file a blade faster than most professional makers can grind and the finish is impossibly better.

This is the KMG (Knife Making Grinder) and is a workhorse for many. It is shown with a flat platen -


And some of the attachments a small wheel and slack belt -


The many belts that go with it -


Another piece of equipment for me is my 12 disc grinder -


A metal cutting bandsaw -


Drill press and wood bandsaw -


My oven -


My sanding vise -


And my etcher -


I will cover how each tool is used as I do the walk through. Also will post some pics of the materials used next.


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thanks for this installment. As I see, you have everything to make briar pipes ;-)

I think you might be interested in this link. This guy forges the most amazing damascus steel I've ever seen.


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That is some incredible work! Thanks for sharing that one :)

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Thanks guys.

Here is the materials.

The metals used. The blue ones will would be for the blade steel and the bolster. The smaller ones are damascus. You keep most scraps of any size because you never know when you can use them. In this case these were two pieces left over from two projects from the same type of damascus. They will make good bolsters on a dress piece. The other are various pinning and thong hole.


Some examples of various handle materials. Here is some of the synthetics. The yellowish ones are original white micarta, very rare. The black ones are standard. Micarta is a composite material or resins and some layered material. In these cases paper, linen and canvas. Each one gives different finishes. Paper gives a beautiful black, smooth finish. Awesome for dress pieces. The canvas ones gives a great texture for grip. A first choice for hunters. I have to say that I am not a fan of linen. It doesn't polish up nice enough for dress pieces but doesn't have enough texture for a good grip. All of them are made to be used and abused.


Some examples of natural handle materials. Various horns, ivories, stones and pearl. A great choice for nicer to dress pieces. Unfortunately most of the material is either very unstable or not very hard using. Not that they can't be carried every day for use but they are more libel to suffer from weather effects or be damaged. So most people tend to keep this more for dress purposes. Shame really.


Just a sampling of various woods. Just because someone will ask, the JD means I sent it out to be stabilized.


Should be starting the walk through shortly.


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Hello all,

Here is a supplementary article to my sqain dubn one. I know I owe you folks a step-by-step but I remember to bring out the camera about two to three steps to late, mea culpa. So here is a small one that can be used to embellish a blade.

Some of you have commented on my use of fancy carving on the spines and butt caps of the knives. This is known as file work. The most common one I use is rope. It is a very simple technique involving only a couple steps. Granted the execution does take some practice but with a little patient anyone here should be able to execute it well.

There are few tools of file work. No real surprise – files. Some people do use rotary tools and various bits but those are beyond what most people will invest in and actually have very limited applications. Second major tool is sand paper. You will be spending a lot of time sanding. Another piece that makes you life easier is wooden bits the same shape as your files. These will be used to shape the sand paper while smoothing the metal. Last on the list is a vise. Got to hold the metal still while you work.

The main tool though is you mind. In the design (limited by your imagination), in execution (practice, practice, practice) and SAFETY!!!! Even this simple thing can have danger associated with it from metal shaving in the eye to bleeding because you slipped and stabbed your hand with the file (repeatedly).

Some basic advice before starting. The most basic is that if you are using files do your work on the knife before it’s hardened. You can do it after harden but you are limited to the styles you can do if using a rotary tool or diamond files. Always use sharp tools. If a file goes dull toss it. Dull tools require mare pressure and more likely to slip. Always stay seated while you blade is in the vise. You can always slip, over to pick something up or just lean forward and –


Let’s just say you will go from wearing a kilt to a skirt in a very short time…

Your life will be a lot better if you finish you piece to about the level you will be polishing it to. You will be doing clean up work but it will be a great deal less and the less you do after you are finished shaping the less likely you are to mess up all the hard work.

Ok let’s begin.

Here is a shot of the spine of the knife, rounded and sanded to 600 grit. I use a sharpie for a layout fluid here. Works well and is cheap. The marks spacing will depend on the size of your main file, in this case a 1/8” chain saw file so I use 1/4” spacing. I drew two spaces minus one for each “rope”. Here is where you opinion matters. Humans are naturally attracted to odd numbers. The question will be whether you want the rises to be odd or the valleys to be odd. On this one I went with the valleys as I normally go with the rises and want to see how it turned out so 10 spaces –


The first cuts can be done a couple ways but the basics of it are a compound angle. Meaning that we will go at a 45 degree angle across –


and a 45 degree angle on the sides –


Resulting in a cut like so –


Noticed the file in this picture has a uniformed width. This is a chain saw file verses a rat’s tail which will taper. Also notice that is not a very coarse file. This is a matter of preference. Some people prefer to use a coarse file and then work to smoother files before they get to sand paper. This makes the carving go quicker and an experienced person that has done draw filing can get a finish that is incredible. I’m not one of them. I prefer to work slower and minimize my mistakes (I make enough as is) as well as have an easier time sanding. You can also start these cuts with a sharp edged file such as a triangle or square to give you a grove to then use the chain saw file. This is probably the easiest way for a beginner with files to start.

Here I have worked through all the valleys. Noticed that I did not take this all the way to the shoulders. That is part of my own specs. One I feel it looks nicer with the space before the work but also when finishing of the upper bolster I can mess up the work if it is too close –


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Here is a side view to see the compound angle I mentioned earlier. Here is where practice (practice, practice and more practice) is important for making the final project look its best. You have some fudge factor on top with how things go. Unless the person is really picky they won’t notice slight variations. On the side it’s very much in your face. You want the marks to be proportional to each other. Not necessarily exactly the same. If you are doing a longer piece where the distal taper is pronounced (part of what happens when you grind the primary bevel on a knife) you will adjust the spacing and depth to make the filework “taper” with the spine. In this case the run is short and the taper will very little effect so I want them to be as close as possible –


Here is the next step with a close up view of the file. This file is a cross (eye shaped cross section) file that has been modified. You can also use a half round. The idea of the modification is to give very sharp edge. Even the best files are slightly round on the edges. You do this on a belt sander (or belt grinder in my case) very slowly. You don’t want to build up any heat that could destroy the temper of the file. You dip VERY regularly while shaping. You can also do this to standard needle files with a flat diamond file. Again this is a slow process, not for heat but because it will take a while to get the shape. This cut cannot be done with a diamond file (to round on the side) or a rotary tool (cannot make sharp cuts) this pattern falls outside what can be done with rotary tools.


I did the same compound cuts as I did with the chainsaw file –


And finished the rest of the rises. I normally finish the shaping and tweaking with sand paper. Again it is because I am far from an expert and prefer to work slowly and smartly then rush through and screw up the whole job on the end with a slip.

When sanding I am going to tell you two ways to do this. The first will be the way I do it and the second is the way you should do it. Yes this is a “Do as I say not as I do” but it is not a safety issue so I will tell you both. The way I do the sanding is to wrap the sand paper around the files I used to make the cuts. This allows for aggressive cutting of the sand paper as the file give alternating raised and shallow areas. Maybe a machinist can explain why this is as it is the same on wheels for sanders. Serrated wheels cut faster. I just take it on faith. Also using the files means you always have the right size tool for wrapping the paper around it. Now the down side. If you slip (and you will, a lot, at first) you will be dragging a file (remember coarser than sand paper) over a surface you are trying to make smoother. I will almost guarantee this will happen in the fine finishes and force you to start all over again with the coarse sandpaper to remove the marks. Also the file can cut right through the sandpaper if you aren’t paying attention as you are sanding. For a beginner these will happen often and be very frustrating. Enough so you might not do it again.

The preferred way is to file either wood dowel or round hard plastic to wrap you sandpaper around. This doesn’t cut as aggressively and can be a bit of a bother to have find something but the end result will be much more pleasant.

On the valley cuts I use a shop knife that I keep around for scrapping the bench, ect, to sand in them to keep them sharp on the bottom. Here is the work after hitting it with 200 grit paper –


I normally take file work to about 600-1000 grit as I will take it to the buffer to really bring out the beauty. You want to minimize your time on the buffer for two reasons, one is that you can wash out all you work by buffing to hard or too long. Remember a buffer uses abrasives. At 3600 RPMs this can eat thin ridges quickly and smooth out sharp lines. The second is safety. Ask 100 knife makers and almost all will agree the most dangerous tool in a shop is the buffer. This tool can quickly grab and through a blade at amazing speeds. I have lost knives by having them jerked out of my hands and slammed against the wall but remember it can slam it into you as easily. Think about a sharp (or ever dull) point being hurled at you at feet per second speeds. Pretty scary.

When buffing always keep the object below the center point of the wheel. It is less likely to catch and if it does it will normally go straight down or back. Never turn an edge into the wheel, this is asking for it to be caught. NEVER STAND WITH YOU FACE OVER OR ANYPART OF YOUR BODY UNDER THE MACHINE!!! These are extremely dangerous areas. You head over the wheel will mean you are going to raise the object above the centerline to be able to see it and now puts you head in line with something that maybe thrown.

Best advice on the buffer is have someone with experience show you how to use it before jumping in. I learned in jewelry class (as were I learned most of my skills) with supervision of an expert. Other safety advice is make sure that you have nothing dangling. Aprons, hair, sleeves, ect, nothing that can get caught by the wheel. We had a girl in class get a ponytail caught in a buffer. Truly a frightening event.

Remember the compound does the work, not your pressure on the wheel. More pressure equals more danger. Reapply compound regularly when using the wheel though in all reality you should finish it well enough it only takes a couple seconds to buff it to a high shine.

Enough on the soap box, here is the buffed piece –


I will add some more on how to use the same technique on the butt cap for a different (and stunning) effect.


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Man o'man, you do beautiful work!


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Thank you but remember this is for your use. If all I did was charity and trade blades I probably would be just as happy. I would love if a bunch of you could make our own blades :D

I will get the instructions on making the blades up in the near future.


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Nice tutorial Jim. Filework is an area I tend to skim over a bit (probably because I'm in a hurry to get to that beautiful timber!)

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Some rambling musings for you all.

Over the years thanks to forums I've had contact and "instruction" from some of the best makers around and even some shop time. This can take years off learning knife making by not needing to reinvent the wheel for every aspect of making. Even a day with an experience maker can open worlds of new techniques.

It also can slant your views to that of the successful maker. Not a surprise, we often follow the paths of a mentor. One of my first mentors was Tim Herman. He is/was a top level maker. Like me he has an art background and a firm convection that beauty of a knife should not limit it's functionality. His and other makers has taught me to appreciate high end handle materials such as iron wood burl, mother of pearl, ivory, ect. Over the years I've handled many of these materials and truly love what they can do for the beauty of a knife.

This sometimes can make a person a bit of a snob when it comes to handle materials. You don't think about materials such as walnut, oak, regular maple, ect. Just to boring. Not enough character. Occasionally I get some materials that have more do do with meaning than looks. Ones like bog oak.

I was working on a charity piece l had been working in-between other commissions. The handle material is live oak from a ship, an historic wood. Now oak is a rather boring handle material as the grain isn't tight enough to really show off on the small surface of a handle. This is doubly so with wood from a ship. The desire is strong, straight grain. So here I am working with this material and as I grind it down something starts showing -



And this is only wet, when it gets finished completely it will be truly stunning. This is a lesson learned of not being blinded by fancy materials, showy products, of getting wrapped up in expensive supplies.

So, I pass on this lesson to you - Don't get caught up in the cost of the material means they are the best. Enjoy each piece for it's own because, like a lady, you never know what beauty maybe hidden inside despite the plain exterior.


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