The Iaido Journal  Apr 2003EJMAS Tips Jar

The Traditional Scandinavian Knife.  A Tool Or A Decoration

by David Barker

Almost since time began, the knife has been an important tool for man.  In Scandinavia it was the Vikings that developed a method of forging that produced high quality cutting blades.

Traditionally the knife was used in Norway and in fact all of Scandinavia for everyday purposes, carving, hunting, gutting and skinning of animals.

They were also used in combat where they proved themselves as an excellent short-range weapon.

Today the knife is still used as a tool, both during the working day and in spare time. Due to the beauty of `truly` handmade knives they are also widely used on an ornamental basis on the Norwegian national costume called the Bunad.

The Knife Blade

Many modern day smiths forge their blades in the old fashioned and traditional way, just as the Vikings did thousands of years ago. The blade is composed of soft iron wrapped around hard carbon steel, this process can take a long time, depending on what finish the Blacksmith is trying to achieve. None the less all blades start off the same way. The materials (iron and steel) are heated to a temperature of  1300 degrees Celcius to hammer into shape.

When the blade is formed and the smith satisfied with the product it must be cured or hardened, this is done by once again heating it. This time the temperature is not higher than around 740 degrees or until it changes to the colour of ripe cherries. It is also possible to determine the temperature by the use of a magnet. When the blade is no longer magnetic the temperature is correct and the blade quenched in oil.

The blade is now fully forged. However it is now very hard and extremely brittle. This means that it will break as easily as glass and is therefore unusable. To combat this the blade is tempered (by warming it to 250 degrees) and after it is slowly cooled, the edge can be sharpened. The blade is now finished and ready for use.

In olden times there were many different types of metals used in the forging of blades, and this is how patterned blades (known now as Damascus blades) were formed.  Different metals melt and contort at different temperatures and a pattern develops within the stock.

In modern days top class smiths such as Steen Nielsen use this method.  The pattern is enhanced by the use of acid to dissolve various layers of metal and then the blade is highly polished.  The blade is still able to hold an extremely sharp cutting edge, but is also more decorative and adds a little finesse to a knife.

Alder root, inlaid silver and brushed blade knife

The Shaft.

In olden times the material used for the knife shaft was of little importance.  It had to be durable, and be able to take the abuse that the living condition demanded.  Today the materials are carefully chosen, for their decorative patterns (such as those found in curly birch) and for their ability to take a high quality finish.

Many modern day knife makers mix wood, bone and metal together to form very decorative pieces, but he question is this, “are these knives intended to be used, or are they designed to sit in cupboards and be admired?”

Unfortunately today we are privileged to have power tools.  Many knife makers actually earn a living entirely from their product are able to create scores of ready-formed shafts per day, and for me this takes away the beauty of a knife that is totally hand made.

In my opinion a handmade knife should be just that…handmade.  Personally I use a drill and occasionally a band saw.  The rest is done with a rasp, a knife, sand paper and a lot of elbow grease. These knives may not be as decorative, but they are designed to be used and will last for years if looked after.  I guess you could call it a matter of taste

Maple burl and mosaic blade knife.

The Sheath

Traditional sheaths are made of leather.  The leather used was mostly rawhide, but today it is common for leather to be completely cured.  The sheath to my mind has two purposes.

1. To hang on the belt.
2. As a place to put the knife, to keep it dry and to stop the carrier from cutting their selves.

Again the modern day sheaths are often highly decorated, with patterns that are cut into the leather.  This has a fantastic look but does weaken the sheath somewhat.  I prefer to make sheaths with either no pattern, of with a pattern which is either raised from the leather or which is pressed into the leather.

For me, making a knife is a wonderful hobby. Yes I have them on the internet and if people want to buy that is great.  I make very little money on the sales.  The money I get through sales is redirected into my hobby, new blades, new tools, more sandpaper, and most importantly new wood!

Please feel free to have a look around my web site.  If you want to buy, just let me know.

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TIJ Apr 2003