Get A Handle On Knife Making And Stay Sharp

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This article is from Issue 17 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Knife making has become a popular endeavor for woodworkers of all skill levels. This beginner’s guide will get you started. 

From cutting and marking in the shop, to hunting and camping, to preparing a simple meal, a good knife is indispensable. Mass-produced knives can be found for every budget and use. But custom knives, which are often far more attractive, tend to get expensive very quickly. 

Of course, the ultimate custom knife would include a hand-forged and hand-sharpened blade. If you’re not up for the expense and dirty work of such an endeavor, you can still experience the pride of a well-crafted and functional addition to your tool collection. All you need is a knife kit. 

It’s all in there

A knife kit consists of a prefabricated blade and pins, which allows the maker to select handle materials, assemble the knife, and shape and polish it to perfection. It requires minimal tools, good attention to aesthetic detail and a few hours of shop time. Once you’ve gained some knife-making experience, there are hundreds of types of knives (and swords, and spears) available as kits from a number of sources. We suggest starting with Woodcraft’s drop point knife kit, an affordable but good-quality model with a popular blade style most often used for hunting. 

The kit consists of a highly polished 8-1/4" hollow-ground blade that is 11/16" wide and 5/32" thick, made of 6A high-carbon stainless steel for good edge holding, and three 5/32" brass pins. The knife handles or “scales” can be made from any quality hardwood (Fig. 1). I used some ebony that I had on hand, and I really like the black contrasted with the polished silver blade. 

Whatever wood you choose, you will need two pieces 3/8" thick, at least 1-1/2" wide and 5" long. 

The blade comes pre-sharpened. Protect the edge from damage and yourself from getting cut by covering the blade with masking tape from the tip all along the cutting edge (Fig. 2). Use as many layers of masking tape as you need to keep the blade guarded. 

Select wood for your scales and determine which sides will face away from the handle portion of the knife blank, or the “tang.” Using the blank, trace the shape of the tang onto each scale (Fig. 3). Make sure to trace the tang in the proper orientation to keep the best woodgrain on the visible outer side.

Cut out the scales on a bandsaw or scroll saw (Fig. 4). Cut to the outsides of the lines you traced − you will sand up to them later. 

Using 120-grit sandpaper, sand the side of the scale that will be attached to the tang. Sand and polish the top outside edges of the scales (nearest the blade) with a belt sander and buffer. This is important, because after the scales are glued to the tang, you will not be able to sand and polish these areas without marring the tang and blade. 

Woods used in making the knives in the photo at top:

1.  cocobolo
2.  big leaf maple burl
3.  padauk
4.  bocote
5.  Macassar ebony
6.  cocobolo
7.  zebrawood
8.  curly koa

Clamp and drill

Place one of the scales exactly where you want it on the tang, clamping securely. Drill three holes for the brass pins with a 5/32" bit, using the blade as a template (Fig. 5). Test the pins in the first scale before adding the second one. Now align and clamp the other scale and drill through the second scale using the holes in the first scale as a template (Fig. 6). Clamp the assembly firmly to the drill press, as shown.

Dry-fit both scales on the knife tang and push the brass pins through the holes, making sure everything fits together and that the pins extend through both scales and are flush with or slightly proud of both scales. Disassemble and clean the tang and the insides of the scales with acetone. 

Mix enough epoxy to evenly coat both sides of the tang and the pins (Fig. 7). The epoxy acts as both an adhesive and a sealant.

Position the scales on the tang, aligned with the holes in the scales. Coat the pins and push them all the way through the holes. Now clamp the scales to the tang and clean off any glue squeeze-out using a rag and acetone. I find it a good practice to let the glue dry overnight if possible. 

After the epoxy has thoroughly dried, remove the clamps and begin contouring and shaping the handle (Fig. 8). A drum sander is handy for this shaping phase.

The most important thing is that the handle both looks good and fits well in your hand. You’ll know you’re finished when it looks and feels pleasing.

Finish sanding using 220-grit and 400-grit sandpaper and polish the scales using a buffer (Fig. 10) and red rouge polishing compound. Polish the knife to a soft luster.

Bill Carroll

Bill Carroll is the director of franchising for Woodcraft Franchise, LLC and a lifelong woodworker. He produces commissioned projects and teaches woodworking in his spare time.

PROTECT YOUR INVESTMENT AND YOUR FINGERS with a custom-made sheath. Below are samples with Web sites for helpful information and tutorials about how you can make your own.    Bruce Evans    Chuck Burrows    Edgewise    Dan Gray    Tracy Mickley   Brome McCreary

The pattern and instructions for Bill Carroll's sheath, designed especially for the knife in this article, are availabe online at

A Little Help From Our Friends at DMT

Woodcraft’s drop point skinner knife kit allows anyone to create a custom knife without the worry of having to form the blade. It is designed as a true hunting/working knife that can be asked to perform a variety of tasks in the field; from skinning to chopping to perhaps even prying. The alloy is a high-carbon steel with vanadium added for wear resistance and toughness – a good choice for these kinds of tasks. Once the knife is assembled, there remains the task of defining the edge geometry and sharpening the blade. 

Having received both Bill Carroll's completed knife and an unassembled blade, I set about determining the bevel angles present on the blades in order to see what needed to be done. With a laser pointer, a few tool room fixtures and some patience I was able to build a setup to measure the bevel angle from the reflection of the laser onto an angular degree scale (Fig. 1) and found it to be approximately 10º on each side or a 20º included angle. This 20º bevel angle is somewhat acute; what this knife needs is a bevel angle that will be sharp enough for skinning a hide but also have enough steel behind the edge for durability between sharpening sessions, something closer to 25º.

An excellent tool for this reshaping and sharpening task is the DMT Aligner guided sharpening system. This system clamps the blade in a jaw with adjustable guide rods that keep the sharpening stone at precisely the same angle across the entire blade (Fig. 2).

Because this blade is exactly 1" wide, I set the Aligner adjustment rods in the fifth setting for a 24˚ bevel angle. Since I will be reshaping the bevel, I chose to start with the DMT coarse whetstone (blue). Marking the bevel edge with a felt-tipped marker will let me know when I have fully reshaped the bevel angle without over-sharpening and wasting the blade life (Fig. 3). Progressing through to the fine stone (red) and finally the extra-fine stone (green) while using the marker trick at each step allowed for a very quick and accurate bevel reshaping. Using the same setup each time the blade needs a touch-up is easy; just a few strokes with the fine or extra-fine DMT diamond whetstone and the blade is back in shape.

For those who already have a whetstone in your toolbox but perhaps not the Aligner system, the same task can be done with some skill and a couple of quarters! Just place two stacked quarters on the corner of your whetstone as shown and lay the spine back onto the stack for the same setting as was used for the Aligner with a 1"-wide blade (Fig. 4). Stroke from the heel of the knife to the tip, into the cutting edge while locking your wrist to maintain that same bevel angle. Do about six or seven strokes on one side, then flip the knife over while moving the two quarters to the opposite side of the stone and repeat the same motion for the other bevel. Step to the next finer grit if you have it and repeat the same sequence for a very sharp and durable edge. 

—Stan Watson is technical director for Diamond Machine Technologies and is responsible for new product innovation and engineering processes. He holds nine DMT patents.


My husband and son are both avid hunters and fishermen, and I’m always on the lookout for woodworking projects that would make good gifts for them. A custom knife fit the bill. Bill Carroll was going to be teaching a knife-making class at our local Woodcraft store, so a number of Woodcraft Supply employees agreed to become his trial pupils. Our class of four women and four men represented all skill levels, from beginner to experienced woodworker. 

We’ve always been told, “Don’t color outside the lines.” Well, in woodworking, it’s exactly the opposite – keep your cuts outside of your lines! If you cut your wood too narrow, problems can crop up later. We picked up bits of knowledge from each other’s mistakes as we watched the knives take form. I know a couple of us learned to hold tight to the knife as it was buffed, or it could get loose and shoot down the table or over your shoulder. We also learned about different tools for sanding and buffing. 

Each classmate picked out a different type of wood. I learned Macassar ebony makes a beautiful handle, but the sanding dust literally covers everything. Even with the mask, I could feel the dust in my throat and eyes and was grateful to get home and shower off the dust! 

The glueup went rather smoothly. We mixed the epoxy and had a little bit of time to align the wood on the tang with the pins. I soon discovered not to dally because the adhesive sets faster than you’d think, making it harder to align the pins in the handle. 

Once the handle was glued up and allowed to set, the buffing began. We had two buffing machines going, and they were constantly being used. I would buff awhile, find a place I wanted to sand more, and would go back and start over again.

As each knife was finished, we would all stop and scrutinize each other’s craftsmanship. We all discovered ways we might do things a bit differently, but there wasn’t a knife that we didn’t like. We were all proud and amazed it was so easy to make something so appealing and useful. And my outdoorsmen at home were quite impressed!

—Sharon Hume

SOME OF THE CLASS MEMBERS  left to right are John Righter, Liz Matheny, Alan Hendrick, September Fleming, Bill Carroll (instructor) and Sharon Hume.

“To be able to make such a beautiful knife in a short amount of time was amazing.”
Andrew Bondi
Director of Product Development 
“I would not have believed I could  accomplish this with such great results..”
Liz Matheny
Marketing Manager

“This project produces a result that people will have a hard time believing you made.”
Jody Garrett

Tracy Mickley — In a Class by Himself

I STARTED MAKING KNIVES IN MY GARAGE with a knife grinder — a 1-hp beast that has a belt grinder on one side of the motor and a buffing wheel on the other side. Maybe you don’t have this problem, but I simply cannot own enough tools and when I saw those two tools combined into one, well that just flat sold me on it. I also bought some cheap low-carbon steel to practice grinding. I was throwing sparks and dust everywhere, and that was when I learned my first Zen lesson in making knives: Practicing on something that will get thrown away doesn’t motivate me. I switched to expensive knife steel right then and created some of the most awful knives you have ever seen. I gave away or destruction-tested my first 100 knives. I ran out of friends to give them to, so I even raffled some off for charity. For me, it was charity to get rid of them. I had knives coming out of my ears. I had some that were so bad I kept them in a drawer out of sight so they didn’t frighten the children. A couple of years ago, I dug a hole in the backyard, chunked these knives in, poured salt on them and covered them up. I am not making that up. I have the pictures to prove it. 

My second knife-making Zen lesson was: Noisy, dusty, cluttered workshops naturally repel women, children, phone calls, TV and most of life’s everyday problems. You can decide if that is good or bad. It is amazing how many hours and problems can slip away in a workshop. Sometimes I find myself just sitting there on a stool enjoying my shop and wondering what I should create next.

It took me three years to complete my first 100 knives. Then it was time to attempt to sell the knives I made. The first time was bittersweet. My third knife-making Zen lesson: Selling something that you have created and worked so long and hard on isn’t easy. It shocked me that I would develop an emotional attachment to each and every knife I made. It pained me to sell one of them. I still form an emotional opinion about every knife I construct; it’s just that all of those emotions aren’t always positive now. Some knives you never want to stop working on. Others you just sort of quit; some knives you just want out the door. Still, every knife means something to me personally when I finish it.

The upside to selling knives is getting a little cash back for them to buy more tools. It’s a wonderful circle of life! After I started selling knives I was flattered that someone would actually buy one. I even took orders for knives. I thought I had made it. The more orders I took, the more successful I thought I was. This is when my fourth knife-making Zen lesson came to me: I don’t like production knife making. I love to make knives, but only knives that I want to make, not someone else’s knife. I had a six-month backlog of orders and I loathed going into the shop to work on them. I couldn’t put my heart into it, and it showed in my knives. I stopped taking commission orders years ago and I fell back in love with knife making. I can work on what I want, when I want, how I want.  

There are still more tools to buy, more fancy woods to collect for handles and more designs to draw up. I have one more knife-making Zen lesson to share with you. No matter how good I get at this, I can still be better. And that makes it fun.

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