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How Damascus Steel Knives Are Made With Matthew Parkinson


I started off always wanting to do this. I saw a blacksmith when I was probably seven or eight at a living history museum in Sturbridge mass. It was probably the late 70S early 80s there’s like a ton of people there and I can hear it, but I can’t see it, my dad. I remember he picks me up and he throws me on his shoulder. So I can see – and I see this blacksmith – this big burly guy with a beard and he takes the piece out of the fire and he puts it on the ammo and he hits it sparks go flying and there’s like doing that, and just never grew up from that.

There’s quite a bit of expertise needed to make a knife first step is just to assemble the billet and tig weld it together, so it’ll hold together. While I heat it, bring it up to its welding temperature and it’ll outgas carbon as co2, and there will be no oxygen in that weld and then, when I hammer it together, it becomes one piece. The large power hammer we have is a nozzle 4b that was built about 19 15 ish. I did a 450-pound tough weight, which means that’s what the ram weighs. I remember every time I went to see a blacksmith when I was a kid. That’s what I judged that’s it. I had to watch him and it was the first place I went whenever we went and I started to mess around, and I remember stealing propane torch and all the little nail swords I would uh. I would use the bro-brain torch and I’d use a pair of vice grips to hold it and I would heat it up and I would take a small little hammer hey.

I had no idea what I was doing. I was just flattening it and I’ll forge it down the square, then I’ll push the corners in and turn it 90 degrees. What I’m trying to do is form the layers into seas. I forge all my blades. Everything is done. The way our ancestors did it culinary knives, especially has been around forever. If you go back far enough. There’s Roman-era bronze knives, greek Arab bronze, knives that are specifically for cooking, and you can take from all of that history and bring it into modern culture and they’re made to last hundreds of years beyond the artistic side of it. Beyond the traditional side of it, you know the person who made this thing. It came from my hand to you, you know and you’re buying a piece of me once I have them cut to size. I bring them over the surface, grinder, and surface grind. The surface finish down, so it’s perfectly flat and they mate. With no light.

When I went to high school, I went to a tech school because I was interested in working with metal. So I went to the machine shop program and I graduated from that, but I found that the tolerances and the kind of machining that is common in the northeast weren’t for me. It was too much stress to work on a million-dollar part at half a micron. I just didn’t want to do it and I weld that the same way with the tig welder and then back into the forge and forge welding. Drawing it out helps me to picture how it’s going to lay out in the knife, and then I can kind of imagine it as it stretches to see the form of the knife so cool and what I ended up doing was stacking for s’s and then stacking again, so that the pattern kind of does this, and now, if I forge that one block out into a knife, I’d have a huge knife, but the pattern would be really stretched out.

I want to keep the iteration the same, so I cut thinner, slabs out of the block and I cut into three pieces, so I can forge three knives out of that same block. So I got into fabrication and I was doing blacksmithing on the side just for fun. It was basically a hobby and then somebody was like hey. We have a red fair. You want a table. The first fair I did was a Connecticut renaissance, fair. He was behind a motel in pomfret, it was like all 10 vendors. I put a tent up, I didn’t make much money and then somebody got my name from that one and said: hey: do you want to come and demo and do show here? We need. You know we need somebody’s all right, I don’t have anything to do and then that led to another show and another show. I did that for 15 years.

The reason I cut off the point so that I don’t stretch the pattern as much at the tip if I leave it and try to forge it all out. The pattern ends up elongating and just looking like straight lines at the point and it just seems a waste. I start to pull the heel out that heel gets wider, but it also gets longer on one edge, so it’ll curl the tip-up. So I pre-curve the tip down to help kind of keep it centered and then I just kind of control where the volume of the material is moving by switching from the cross beam, the straight edge of the hammer, and the flat side of the hammer. When I use the cross paint, I can direct the motion of the material a little bit more accurately, but if I use it too much, I end up putting grooving and that’ll show in the pattern. So so so I kind of got stuck. Couldn’t quite make enough money to afford to live and move into a better space, and that was when Jamie Peter and i got gotten business together.

The three of us started the ironwork business. On the other side, we did railing work for a lot of really high-end homes and at the time the ironwork business was like gangbusters. We had more work than we could do so for five years. We did both, which was awful because um you know we would build knives and stores in the winter and try to build up stock. But then the fares would hit and we wouldn’t have enough material. So it was constantly trying to rob Peter to pay Paul. I just couldn’t do it after a while every time you heat it and cool it, the structure changes, but also every time you heat and cool it and put it on the anvil. That’ll do something different. Every time you hit it’ll break up a structure, so you have what’s called a mixed microstructure after forging you want to make sure that’s all completely. Even so, you do a normalizing cycle heat it up hot and let it cool.

Generally speaking, I let it cool down to 1200 degrees or so, and then I quench an oil, and then it goes into the oven at 1475 degrees in argon, rich environment, and then quenched in parks 50, which is a quench oil. I want to make sure that my knife is above 64 Rockwell. If it didn’t get there, then probably not all the carbon went solution. It didn’t quench fast enough. Something went wrong in the process as long as it went above there, it’s pretty confident that I know it fully converted to martensite, which is hard and steel. Then I put in the oven again at 375 for two hours that tempers it and then it’s ready to grind, I’m trying to make a knife have a parallel spine, a taper and then the last quarter of the knife or third of the knife Is gon na sweep down to nothing and that helps like when I’m cutting a potato or something it’ll help get air behind it? So it just falls off so.

I don’t know if I ever really took it seriously until, like the last six or seven years like I don’t think I took business in general seriously until my son was born. I stayed home with him for the first year and a half so while I was staying home with him, it was you know I couldn’t keep up with what was going on in the shop with the railing job, so I started primarily making knives during that period because it was the only way I could really like make a living. That was something that forced me to really look at what I was doing, how I was doing it. What I was doing the wrong kind of made me grow up as a business person. Bills are piling up, things aren’t being paid, I’m borrowing, money left and right from people, and it was like kind of. I can’t do this anymore. I have to find a way to survive this.

I started teaching a lot more during that time too, and it’d be one thing for me to leave for the weekend and say to my wife: I’m going to teach this class, I’m coming home with this much money. That’s one thing, but you know. Oh I’m going to go away and go to this rent fair for three days and I might come home broke or I might come home in debt or I might come home with 500 bucks, she’s a lot harder sell, and then uh forging fire happen. There was an open casting call. I talked to my wife, I said: hey, I’m gonna put my name in for this because you know I could be away for a week. It’s not the worst just filled out the form. Then I did a skype interview. Another skype interview and then one day I just got a call from him saying so. Your plane’s gonna leave this day and you’re gonna be here and you’re gonna be in Seattle. For a week, I’m like uh what that was the thing that made it. So I could do this. I got my js the same year. Those two things kind of accumulated with me, starting to get more traction which made my classes feel faster, which made my knives sell faster, which made it so. I could really take this more seriously.

I would always try to do the big sword and oh I’ll, make this awesome, totally sweet blade, it’ll be five grand I’ll sell it and I’ll make money and, like that’s great, but then you have money for a month. You don’t have money for the next four months and you spent all your energy making that thing to get that big score and now you’re looking around for another job and there isn’t one. Whereas if you instead spend all your energy doing a little bit of a knife make sure it gets out and see people make sure it sells, make sure you do some tools and do this and do that and have more of a diffuse base of income. So you have a bunch of little streams of revenue that just sort of flow in and then you take on that job. Then you can. Then you can have a score. That’s nice, but like it’s not a score anymore, it’s just added revenue because you don’t really need it by having a piece of g10, that’s pretty stable, it kind of caps the end grain and keeps it from swelling and it’ll keep it from breaking that glue bond, which is really the only place that it can break so I like to have an intermediate: that’ll move a little bit more like the wood, a little less like the metal penny.

Okay, so so chef handles especially should have good. What’s called indexing, so you should know where the cutting edge is at all times. They should be comfortable in a number of grips. Everybody holds a chef’s knife slightly differently and, depending on what you’re doing you’ll change your grip on it quite a bit. So you don’t want a knife handle that just is only comfortable in one grip. The handle design that I’ve gravitated towards this, this kind of d shape where the corners cut off came from a Japanese handle that I saw and I’ve modified and it’s very angular, very modern, very aggressive. But it’s still classy once I have the handle shaped and everything is polished. It goes really fast. At that point, it’s basically finished. It’s just that last ten percent. The last ten percent is the part. Everybody sees that’s the important part, it’s the important bit. You know, but you know the etching finishing polishing, that’s the last 10 percent and that’s the quick part, but it’s the most important.

So there’s a lot of danger. I mean I’ve gotten stitches a number of times. I have scars all over my hands constantly cut up. You know I work with all kinds of nasty chemicals. You know. Epoxies are horribly carcinogenic, um work with acids all the time. It’s there’s a lot of things that you deal with as a knife maker that are not safe, and you know you just have to know that they’re not safe and then think about how to keep yourself safe around them. So so honestly, this is like a calling for me like I can’t I’ve tried to quit knife making I’ve tried to quit sword making, doesn’t work I’ll come back, I might as well just concede it and do it and I enjoy it. I do enjoy it. There’s a certain weird satisfaction, even though it’s laborious and torturous and it beats your body up. But you know it’s satisfying in a very meaningful way. The Center of the home is a kitchen and center of the kitchen is the knife, so cooking with one of my knives is a special kind of joy and sharing it with people? That’s fun. You know it was. It was a lot of fun to prepare a meal with a knife that I had literally finished minutes before and uh and make some good yummy food.

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Knives and Scissors