Making a small craft knife and learning hard lessons

Blogging is difficult. Not the process of sitting down and actually typing but getting all my thoughts in line beforehand, thinking of what I am going to say, even more important, why I want to say those things. It is too easy to complain about everything I struggle with and very hard to find the real value in a day's work.

In the following the value lies in the lessons learned and how I will apply them in future projects.

I made a small craft knife about a month ago, a very simple design: a small blade with a copper handle folded over a piece of wood.

It was nothing special, a knife suitable for use in a studio or workshop environment. The good bit about it is the fitting of the copper to the wooden core which came out really well. I listed it on my Etsy shop, put it in storage and continued with other work.

On Monday last week I had to mail a package and on the way home I stopped by a Ginkgo Biloba tree to pick up some leaves for reference. The last leaves I had were crushed when we moved into our new home. Ginkgo leaves are one of my favourite subjects to carve, and I always keep some dried leaves on hand.

Looking at these leaves I suddenly knew that this little knife needed some work.

One of the reasons I like using ginkgo leaves as subject is the ease of doing a basic layout; each leaf is a half circle with a bit sticking out on the bottom.

My original idea was to have three leaves on the end of the handle, but the drawing ended up with seven leaves in a scattered pattern. Maybe I should have stayed with three.
Doubt is my constant companion.

I made several copies of the design and cut them into individual leaves, gluing each leaf onto copper, nickel silver and brass sheet in turn, so the first, middle and last leaf would be copper.

I think this is where I made my second mistake (the first mistake was having too many leaves). Not only that, but I should have been a lot more careful in transferring the design to the metal, as I ended up having to do a bit of careful filing to fit the bits of metal together.

I did the sawing at a slight angle, so the bottom of each leaf slightly larger than the top. This is done in order for the base metal to grip onto the inlay.

I used a permanent marker on the handle to mark the position of each leaf, then started work on the inlay. The handle is curved markedly towards the top, so I had to put a slight bend in each leaf. I also cut the recess much deeper than I do on flat surfaces to compensate for the curve. This turned out to be a good decision as I will explain later.

Doing the inlays basically came down to carefully holding the leaf in position, scribing all round, raising the edge of the hollow, then excavating the hollow, checking the leaf for fit, tapping down the raised edges to hold the inlay firmly in place. Seven times.

Once all the leaves were in place I looked at the handle, and it just did not work, the background had no life. I should have considered the background beforehand. 

Another lesson learned.

As the ginkgo is a theme frequently found in Japanese metalwork, and since I am using Japanese tools and techniques I resorted to a classical Japanese surface treatment called "nanako".
Nanako is done with a hollow tipped punch, each raised dot formed by accurately placing the punch and striking a blow of the same strength as struck on the adjacent dot. This is a time-consuming process and a true test of patience and endurance. I do nanako in half-hour bursts, walking in the garden for a couple of minutes before continuing. This is where I made my third mistake: I started the nanako work at the bottom, below the leaves, then worked between the leaves and over to the top. By the time I got to the top I had lost the lines that makes good nanako work so amazing, and I had to realign the pattern.

I chose a fairly bold nanako punch, and as the depth one needs to punch increases with the size of the dot to prevent having a flat topped dot I was suddenly very aware of the depth of the inlays. Had they been inlaid a bit shallower the punch-work closest to the inlays would have exposed the bottom of the inlays. This is something I have to keep in mind for future projects with nanako backgrounds.

With the nanako done I sculpted the leaves, bringing them to a level where they seem to be floating just above the background. Too low, and they would look like they were trampled into the ground, too high, and they would look like they were stuck on as an afterthought.

For me sculpting used to be the best part of this type of work until I made this knife. I guess one could call the making of this knife a watershed moment, as I finally realized that the background, the surface treatment of the background is an integral and very important part of the work. (As I am writing this there is a folding knife on my bench with a day's work done on the background alone, and maybe another day or two remaining before I can begin work on the inlays.)

Finishing was done with a very sharp scraper and a deft touch. Scraping is not to be used for sculpting, it is only done to remove any chisel marks. I then used a fine abrasive powder and a brush to polish up the surface. After applying the patina I brought out the highlights by vigorously brushing with very fine charcoal powder.

I then slightly heated the whole knife and applied a wax finish, the heat allowing any water to evaporate and the molten wax to penetrate deep into each and every pore.

I do not know if I am completely satisfied with this knife. Too many things almost went wrong in the making, so I guess my sense of dissatisfaction is about the process rather than the result, which is a very good piece of work according to the feedback I have received so far.

It is listed on my Etsy shop at the time of writing. 


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