NOT ALL STEEL IS CREATED EQUAL
The majority of steel that we are exposed to in our daily lives is low carbon or stainless steel. Steel is so common in modern society that it has become background noise for most us. We see it everywhere, and take no notice of it. This isn't necessarily bad, but it has caused us to lose a basic appreciation for what steel is capable of.
This is in contrast to a thousand years ago when good steel was a priceless material and could decide the fate of battles. Just ask the Crusading Knights how they felt when they met the superior Saracen steel.
IT ALL STARTS WITH FIRE
The steel that I use is high carbon steel. There are a variety of high carbon steels, and each of them has a purpose. But no matter which steel is used, all of them go through the same process.
The steel is placed into the forge and when it comes up to temperature, it is forged out on my anvil with hammer and tongs. It requires repeated heat cycles to hammer the blade into the shape it will finally take, as the steel cools rapidly once out of the fire. For me, the process of forging is a bit of a communion with the craftsman of the past. My fire may be a little different than theirs, but the process that I follow is the same as it was a thousand years ago.
During the forging process, I forge the blade to its final shape as much as possible. I believe that this gives me a greater control of my material. It also saves me time in the long run as there is less material that I need to grind off later on.
REFINING AND FINAL SHAPING
The blade is now ready to be shaped by grinding. The grinder allows me to remove the forge scale and even all of the lines out. I am able to refine everything a little more as the grinder allows a tremendous amount of control over details. In times past, this step was done on large stone water wheels. Nowadays, bladesmiths use electrically driven belt grinders. Different tools, but the result is the same.
Once the knife blade has been brought to its final shape, it is subjected to the most important step of the whole knife making process, heat treatment. Heat treating is the process by which the knife blade is born in a very real way. There are times when it feels like sorcery. Before this point, the steel is comparatively soft, and would not make a very good knife. It will get sharp, but it won't stay that way for very long. After this process, the steel is hard and will hold such a fine edge that most people are unprepared for how sharp it can be.
Once the blade has been heat treated, it needs to be polished. This serves to clean up the knife, and bring the steel to its finished state. Through a combination of polishing belts and hand sanding, the steel is polished until the entire finish is uniform.
This process is perhaps one of the most mundane( although I find it very relaxing) and therefore one of the easiest ways to to determine the amount of attention that a maker has paid to finishing a knife. If the polish is sloppy, then it is reasonable to assume that the maker has cut corners, not only with the polish, but in other areas as well.
To be continued...
It is this process that most people have the most misconceptions about. Everyone more or less knows that quenching the steel into some kind of fluid is a necessary step, but Hollywood and urban legend have it that snow, blood, a human body, or some other ridiculous thing are appropriate mediums. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Water, oil and air are pretty much it for quenching mediums.