Custom Knives from Scottish Highlands

Skye Knives, Glendale, Isle of Skye, IV55 8WY.

Skye Knives Home New Knives for Sale Gallery of Handmade Custom Knife Photos Knifemaking Workshop
Buy a Custom Knife Today

Workshop ~ A blogging experiment...

So I’ve decided that a good way to keep myself motivated to update here, and to actually finish the stuff I’m working on, would be to keep a blog of sorts. Primarily, this will be a place where I post pictures of the pieces I’m making on spec, ramble both randomly and pointedly on the difficulties and joys of the craft, and try and give an insight as to the way a blade is produced. At least that’s the intention; we’ll wait and see what it evolves into. I won't be detailing ongoing commissions, but everything else is fair game...

March 26th:

Here we are again, on Day 2 of this tanto build...

Tempered Tanto Blade

This is the blade just out of the oven in the morning (maybe afternoon, actually, as I didn’t finish the initial cycles until about 5am). I've photographed it on top of some rough sketch ideas. As you can see, the blade has taken on very little curvature (sori) from the quench. From here it was a question of breaking down the edges until it’s very nearly sharp…

Ground Tanto Blade

… and refining the lines (sugata), meat of the blade (niku). The next step is doing the foundation polishing. I take it to 320 grit on the grinder, then move to hand sanding. Depending on how the surface looks, I may back up a few grits in the hand sanding. With this, I went to 150 grit to get all my lines nice and crisp, and polished out the scratches again with 320 on the grinder, and hand rubbed to 600x with a quick etch in ferric to bring out the hamon.

Hamon Polished Tanto Blade

Tanto in Progress, Hamon Image

At this point in the build, it’s time to go to the Thursday-night traditional music session in my (somewhat distant) local pub, before we get to Day 3 (coming soon).

March 20th: For the last month or so, I’ve been playing with some new 1095 steel I got from Aldo Bruno in New Jersey, and it’s beautiful stuff. I made a tanto styled blade which I mounted in a very untraditional style, to the point where it probably no longer counts as a tanto:

New Tanto

Then I made a pair of shobu zukuri (iris leaf shaped) blades, in a ‘tactical’ (horrible term) style, just wrapped in ray skin (same) and doe-skin over wrap. I was concentrating on the heat treatment more than anything – the wakizashi was the longest blade I’d ever quenched in my own shop:

Deerskin Wrapped Set

And so, by and by, I decided it was time to try and make a traditional tanto. This takes us up to a Wednesday night, when the build began...

[… From here on in, I'll take the form that I expect this blog will usually follow. A couple of things to note. First up, if you've commissioned a piece, and you see me working on something else here, don’t panic – I’m still working on your piece, but generally I start something like this when a commission is at a delicate stage, and I only want to work on it in very short bursts of full concentration! At this time, for example, I was carving a very temperamental piece of Wenge: I find after about half an hour of that, I have to do something else for a while and come back to it, or else I’ll stab my hand (done, in this case) or worse, split the wood (not done, thankfully). Second, if you see anything I’m working on in these pages that you’re interested in, don’t hesitate to e-mail me…]

Day One: Cut out the blade from ¼ inch x 1 inch 1095, ground the profile, shaped the nakago, and ground in the bevels. While I do often forge my blades, this 1095 is already in an 87% spherodized state, which is about perfect for hamon production. Forging would grow the grain size, meaning it would take a vast amount of work to get back to roughly where I started. Anyway, off the grinder, and straight into clay application:

Clayed blade One

Here I’ve set out the clay for a fairly classic choji style hamon. Went out to the forge, and heated it to critical, judging temp by eye and with a magnet, before quenching into c.120f water. Back into the shop to grind off the scale and check the hamon.

Unfortunately it was lower than I wanted, because I hadn’t held the steel at critical for quite long enough, so I slapped some more clay on. As the edge was hardened but untempered, I took much less care in my clay application this time, as every second gives the blade a chance to crack. Fortunately the ashi on one side were well adhered and didn’t need replaced, while I clayed the second side like so:

Clayed Blade Two

Back out to the forge, heated and quenched into the slightly cooler water. Ground off the bark and decarb from hardening and tempered. With clay hardened pieces, I temper multiple times. My standard sequence is 1 hr at 375f, followed by a more careful grinding and a dip in ferric chloride to check for flaws/cracks etc.

If the blade is good, it goes back into the oven for an hr at 400f – this is the proper temper, and should take care of any martensite precipitated from retained austenite in the first temper, another hour between 375f and 400f as insurance, and finally an overnight soak at a descending heat from about 375 – 275f. I believe that this final long soak at a cooler temperature increases toughness without sacrificing hardness in the same way as a hotter temper – everything with steel is a factor of both temperature and time…

Which brings us to Day 2 (above)


14th March 2011: In my own work, outside of commissions, I’ve recently been re-examining the tanto form, and I figured that that would be as good a place as any to start. Why Tantos, I hear you cry? First off, I see a large area of correspondence between Japanese swords and Highland weaponry, particularly dirks. The tanto and the dirk are both utilitarian in function, part tool, part weapon. And yet they both occupy an important place in their respective cultures and art traditions. At it’s most robust, the dirk was the ubiquitous repository of the Celtic knotwork tradition, a continuation of Pictish themes. Dirks were made by artists, local and itinerant, with a deep connection to their culture and traditions. And the tanto, as it developed from utilitarian tool to art piece, also became the canvas for the most expressive examples of the art of sword making. Dirks and tantos passed through the same place, headed in different directions.

And basically, I want to make tantos because Japanese sword smithing and the related arts are a paragon of bladesmithing elevated to the status of art, and as such, represent everything I aspire to. Plus they have hamons. And I love hamons.

Every part of a Japanese sword is designed with a purpose, and every part relates to every other in subtle and complex ways – while they seem deceptively simple, to make a mounted blade which looks, feels and flows beautifully, is one of the greatest tests in what I do.

Sword fittings Ray-skin handle, frog inlaid tsuba

Sword handle assembled

About 11 months ago, I went to a wakizashi forging course at Bushfire Forge down in Kent, hosted by my friend Owen Bush (a great smith and great guy), and taught by ABS master smith Howard Clark, who I knew online but had never met in person. I forged three wakizashis, and in the process of mounting the first of these up, I came to realise that there were a lot of subtleties which were going to take some practise...

The nice thing about tantos is that they are more knife sized swords than just knives, and the techniques and principles which apply to them apply to longer blades as well. So, because of all this, I ’m on a tanto kick - I'll explain more soon....

Commission a Custom Knife
About Jake Cleland
Contact Us
News from Skye
Jake Cleland's Blog
Links to Knifemaking Sites
Sam Bell Dirk for Sale
Golden Curlicue Knife
Kwaiken Japanese Tanto