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How To Make A Survival Knife You’ll Brag About For Years (Part 1)

knife homemade

Image source: USA Carry

Read part 2 in this series here

Of all the survival equipment available, the most useful and most necessary is a good knife. Knives allow you to cut tree branches to make shelter, prepare firewood to keep you warm, hunt, prepare what you get from your hunt and a host of other necessary tasks. If you only have one tool with you at all times, it has to be a knife.

Most of us buy our knives at a store. There’s nothing wrong with that, as there are a large number of quality knife manufacturers around, offering an amazing number of knife models. You can buy pretty much any style of knife you want, in just about any size and manufactured to just about any quality level. Even so, it can be nice to make your own.

The biggest problem in making a knife is that good knives are forged, rather than stamped. That means that the blade is shaped and the edge thinned by hammering it while it is heated, rather than just cutting it out. Unless you have the capability of forging, you are limited by the steel you can get.

We’re going to get around that by starting out with steel that’s already been forged. You can’t make a good quality knife, without having good quality steel to start with.

Start with Good Steel

More than anything, the key to making a good knife is starting out with good steel. Ideally, a knife blade needs to be hard enough to sharpen well and maintain an edge, while not being so hard that it chips easily. That’s a hard balance to reach.

Most modern knives are made of stainless steel. While this provides a hard blade that won’t rust, stainless steel blades aren’t as hard as high carbon steel. Therefore, they don’t hold an edge as well as high carbon steel knives do. Some newer types of stainless steel have a higher carbon percentage, more closely matching the molecular structure of high carbon steel knives. They maintain their flexibility by adding a high percentage of molybdenum to the steel as well.

The Essential Survival Secrets of The Most Vigilant…Most Skilled…Most Savvy Survivalists in the World!

If you try and make a knife out of cold rolled steel, the type you can buy at a hardware store or steel supply, you’re going to be very disappointed. This is soft steel, so it won’t hold an edge at all. While you may be able to sharpen it, the edge will dull extremely easily.

The best and easiest places to get good steel for making knives is from tools; specifically from files. You can also make very thin knives out of reciprocating saw (sawzall) blades as well. Files are made of steel that will hold an edge well, as it is necessary for the file to not become damaged when used to shape metal. Old files are often made of high carbon steel. You can tell, because they will rust.

If you want to make a wider knife than you can make with a standard flat file (which is only about 3/4” wide) you can use horseshoeing rasps. Like other files, these are made of a high grade, hardened steel, which will hold an edge well. Horse shoeing rasps are available at farm supply stores, as well as a number of online suppliers.

Grinding Your Knife Blade

The first part of turning a rasp or file into a knife blade is to draw out the silhouette of the knife on the file itself. You might want to make a cardboard pattern to use for this, rather than trying to draw it freehand. The bumps on the side of the file make it hard to draw freehand; by drawing it out first on a piece of cardboard, you can adjust the design of your knife to what you want.

I’m not going to talk about knife blade designs at this point, as you can easily find many different ideas, simply by looking around. I would recommend starting out with fairly simple designs, not something with a gut hook or other difficult-to-grind feature.

It is always best to make your knives with a full tang, extending the full length of the handle. Knives with shorter tangs tend to break when pressure is put on them. There’s no sense going to all the trouble of making yourself a knife, only to have it break.

homemade knife

This is somewhat of an unusual knife profile, being a drop-point, with an indentation between the handle and blade.
That indentation was put there for the thumb and forefinger, when using the knife for delicate work.
The rounded area at the file’s tang end will have a hole drilled into it, turning it into a ring.

We are going to grind the knife blade to shape, rather than forging it. The steel of the file has already been forged and hardened. If we are careful not to lose the temper in the steel, we can avoid the problem of having to re-temper it. Start by grinding the profile of the knife to match the outline you have drawn on it, using a bench grinder. Before grinding, ensure that the rest on the grinder is set exactly perpendicular to the face of the grinding wheel.

To grind the taper on the blade, you will need something to hold the knife blade at the correct angle. This is easily accomplished by cutting a piece of wood to the angle that you desire. For the knife below, I cut a five degree angle on the edge of the wood block, so that my knife blade would have a 10-degree angle. This caused the ground portion of this blade to be 7/16” wide. The block was longer than the knife blank, so that it could be attached along its entire length. This is necessary, especially when grinding the second side, to prevent the knife from coming off.

Depending upon the knife you are making and the width of the blade, you may want to change the angle. Unless you are good at trigonometry, the easiest way to figure out the angle for your blade is to draw various angles on a sheet of paper and measure how far back the blade’s taper goes for the thickness of your knife blank.

homemade knife

Knife blade attached to the angled side of the block. The facing side has been ground all the way, but the reverse side has not been.

The knife blade needs to be attached to the block. There are several ways of doing this, such as clamping or gluing rare earth magnets to the face of the block. It’s not clear in the photo, but I used double-sided masking tape for this.

Before attaching the blade to the support block, make a line down the center of its thickness. This will provide you with a gauge line for knowing when you are approaching the halfway point in grinding.

You can grind a knife blade with either a belt sander or a bench grinder. The belt sander will give a flat taper to the side of the knife, while the bench grinder will make it hollow ground. A six-inch bench grinder won’t work as well as an eight-inch one, as the curvature of the wheel on a six-inch bench grinder will make for a very severe hollow grind.

Grinding a knife blade takes a light touch. You want to take material off the blade along the entire edge in one stroke; working your way from the handle end to the point. Maintain consistent light even pressure along the entire length of the stroke, not allowing the knife blade and support block to tip in any direction. Continue grinding in successive passes until you reach the halfway point.

A couple of precautions on this: Don’t try to grind just one area of the blade at a time. You will end up with a blade that is wavy and inconsistent. If you need to work on one area to catch up with the rest of the blade, make a few passes through that area and then go back to full length passes. Be careful as you don’t want to heat up the knife blade while grinding it. The very act of grinding it will produce a lot of heat, so you’ll need to pause between strokes to allow it to cool. If the metal turns blue while grinding, you’ve overheated it, losing the temper. If you want to, you can dip the knife blade and block in water between passes to cool it.

Once the knife is ground just shy of halfway through, remove it from the block and turn it over, so that the other face of the knife blank is visible. Repeat the grinding process on this side of the knife, to make it match the first side. Be especially careful about not overheating the tip; as it thins, it will overheat much easier. Stop just short of sharpening the knife blade, as you will put the edge on the knife with a honing stone.

Many knife designs, such as this drop-point, are partially ground on the back edge of the knife, making the point sharper. This is accomplished in the same way as grinding the cutting edge, without grinding the metal all the way down to the middle of the blank.

Editor’s note: This is part one in a two-part series. 

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8 comments

  1. Carroll the Irishman

    Good information. I wonder about horse shoes. Would that be too soft? Anyway, I appreciate the info and the food for thought.

    • No horseshoes make good quality knives as do railroad spikes they both require a lot of work and patience but the end result is a knife that will last a long time and be dependable

  2. Am in the process of making me a survival knife and have been for a while now. I had an old used lawnmower blade that was long and I traced out the silluttee of an Navey Seal Knife on one end. The other end was a silloutteet of a smaller machette and both came out ok so far. Lawnmower blades are thicker than needed so I still have to thinn out the thickness of my knifes and machette. The steel is plenty hard enough and does have to be softened by heating up to a reddish glow and then air cooled to work with. Then when both knife and machette are all ground they both needed to be heated up to a good glow again, and this time quenched in older motor oil to reharden the blades. Then the last process is to shine up the blades. I also had to straighten out the blades some too. Then make handles for them and then a light coat of oil to protect the finish and blades. It is a job and does take me a while to do. Am still making them. My friend an retired Marine really likes them both, and he sell knives already at a flea market. I have bought many knives, yet, it is not quite the same as taking out the time to have one that I actually made. The indians make some beautiful knives out of older files and they look really good with antler handles. For my handles I will glue or appoxy the handles together with brass pins in them contoured with the handle itself. I have a backround in machining, and working with metals. Not really good at it, yet I make the effort. I can also do pretty good bench work, by hand with files too. I just take my time and stay with it. Have fun. And happy knife making to all.

  3. There is a very large difference between old/vintage files and newer files. Old files are tool steel, W2, a very high quality steel with exceptional attributes for a blade. Modern files are are 10xx series steel if you are lucky, and they are hardened way beyond the usable limits for a knife. When a carbon steel is quenched from non-magnetic, it is at maximum hardness, and will “skate” a file without getting marked, in other words, even a hard file will not dig into the hardened steel. However, the steel will be very brittle after quenching, light hand pressure is often enough to snap a file thickness blank. Files are tempered so as to be very hard to allow cutting/removal of steel through abrasion. This temper is fine for the edge of a knife, but not good at all for the body or spine of a decent blade. The blade will break. Not what you need for a good survival knife. The simplest method of overcoming this problem is differential tempering. By very carefully heating the spine of the knife once the steel is shiny, you can watch the oxidation colors move across the blade – the back of the knife should be springy, approximately blue in color. Gray indicates that the metal has been completely softened, bad for knives. The first colors seen will be straw, then yellow, then a color referred to as “peacock”. These are the colors for the edge of the knife, hard but still usable. The spine of a knife should be springy, somewhere in the purple to blue range. This basic tempering will result in a very usable blade far better than most mass-produced blades. The opposite approach is differential hardening such as in the Japanese tradition – clay or some kind of refractory material is applied to the spine of the blade. The heated blade will cool at different rates – fast for the edge for hardness, slower for the spine for toughness/spring. Good luck.

  4. I’ve just got in to blade smithing myself. It’s a massive learning curve, you need a lot of knowledge and you need a fair amount of equipment if you’re going to heat treat your blade in a forge. It seems that blade smithing is as much art as it is science.

    • Hey John,

      How long does it take (usually.. once you know the process) to make a knife from start to finish? This is something that I’d like to start doing myself, but of course time seems to be a factor.

      Do you or anyone have any recommended courses or tutorials I could refer to so I can get started?
      Cheers, much appreciated.

      Barry.

      • Hi Barry, as far as timelines go – it’s almost like asking how long is a piece of string. There are many various factors that come into play – what steel are you using, what type of equipment you have, what is your still level.
        There’s a few intro tutorials on Youtube that’ll get you started.

  5. You can get great knife making steel from new jersey steel baron website. You can get enough to forge sword out of for 25.00. I forge knives and swords and just stumbled upon his site. Really lawnmower blades? Riding mowers maybe, but push mower blades suck.if you don’t have a forge , use stock removal of 1075 steel and send it to online heat treating co. You will have quality blade.just my .002

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