Specialty carving knives can make difficult cuts simple. Most carvers don’t realize that these knives are surprisingly easy to make, with minimal investment.
Making your own carving knives is a relatively simple process. All you need are a few scraps of hardwood and a couple of hardened steel knife blanks. Most of the work is in the blade preparation. You’ll have to cut the steel to length and shape and hone it – all without losing the steel’s temper. However, if you work with a cup of water close at hand and continually quench the blade, you shouldn’t have any problems. Lately I’ve started to do my grinding on a Tormek wet grinder. While it’s a little slower, I have greater control over the grinding process and the blade never blues.
I started to make these detail pencil knives because I couldn’t find a tool that was comfortable to use when I wanted something more than an X-acto blade but less than a standard carving knife.
Begin with the blade
Let’s start with the blade. I’m using a 1/4" violin maker’s knife that can be broken into three pieces for three different blades. Similar steel from other sources can also be used; just modify the size of your blade slot to match your stock. I marked the 6" blade at 2" intervals, locked it in a vise grip and ground a groove around those marks (Fig. 1). Clamp the blade in a bench vise and snap the blade at those marks (wear your safety glasses) (Fig. 2). You could use a piece of unhardened steel and heat-treat it yourself, but because my blades are so small, I find it easier and less complicated to start with hardened steel.
With a blade in the vise grips, go ahead and rough-grind the blade shape that you want for each knife. Remember the machine shop adage: “Keep a cool tool and you won’t lose your hardness.” If you blue the blade, toss it and start over. When finished, wrap the cutting end of the blade with duct tape. It shouldn’t be sharp yet, but just in case you have the opportunity to stick yourself, this helps to prevent injuries.
Cut handle slabs
Cut your handle slabs to size, 1/2" w x 3/16" t x 51/2" l, and rout a slot in both pieces for your blade. With a router table, fence and a piece of scrap I centered a 1/4" bit relative to the handle stock and set the bit height to slightly more than half the blade thickness. Because my blade is 2" long and I want 3/4" of it outside the handle, I cut a 11/4"-long slot (Fig. 3).
If you want to angle or shape the blade end of the handle, now’s the time. Leave it square, round it off or cut a slight angle (Fig. 4). Clamp the slabs in a vise and bevel the two long outside edges with a hand plane (Fig. 5). You can also do this on your router table with a beveling bit.
Glue handle and blade
Epoxy and clamp the two handle slabs and blade together (Fig. 6). Leave the blade approximately 3/4" proud of the handle (your choice depending on blade style) and make sure there’s plenty of epoxy in the blade slot to securely hold it when cured. When hardened, scrape the excess epoxy off the blade and handle. Bevel and soften any edges that may bother your hands. Sand and apply an oil finish. I like to leave the stock a little rough as it helps create a non-slip surface and give me a better grip on the tool.
Peel off the duct tape, sharpen and hone your blade and you’re ready to start carving! Just like a pencil, as your blade wears away you can whittle back the handle to expose more useable steel. Once you see how easy it is to make your own knives you’ll start to experiment with different handle and blade designs. Oh, and the best part? I have less than $8 in each knife!
Standard carving knives
The process of making a standard carving knife is basically the same steps described above, with a few minor changes.
Start with a larger 1/2"-wide blade. Cut your rough handle stock to 11/4" W x 5/8" T x 71/2" L. Cut a blade slot 1/4" from the top edge of the handle stock. After assembly, draw top and side views of your finished handle shape on your stock and carefully cut it out on a bandsaw (Fig. 7). These dimensions will give you a good-sized handle. If you like a smaller one, just cut away more stock or start with smaller slabs. I shape my handles using a stationary belt sander, spindle sander, files and sandpaper. Take your time and constantly check the handle for comfort in your hand. From start to finish, the shaping process usually only takes about 20 minutes.
—Ken Kupsche is a contributing editor to Woodcraft Magazine.
Violin maker’s blades are available in 1/4", 1/2" and 3/4" widths from hocktools.com.
Unhardened carbon steel blanks are available from mcmaster.com.