PART 1-Master Knifemaking at Parkland College

Yorkton This Week is proud to announce Yorkton TV - watch every Thursday night at 7 pm sharp for a special program feature of the new, the exciting, the newsworthy. Starting off our first historic broadcast tonight, is Part 1 of a series of Parkland College's groundbreaking new knifemaking program, with master knifebuilder Kevin East. Be sure to subscribe to us for notifications of new videos. Don't miss it! Watch the premiere broadcast now. Below:

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“A knight is sworn to valor.

“His heart knows only virtue.

“His blade defends the helpless.

“His might upholds the weak.

“His word speaks only truth.

“His wrath undoes the wicked."

The romance of the Arthurian prose and code of the medieval era, popularized in countless books, films and quotes such as this one from Dragonheart, has endured for centuries.

In recent years, that love of tradition and craft has been further stoked (pun intended) with a variety of innovative television series. Game of Thrones, Knightfall, and others, have gone on to do exceptionally well.

Discovery Channel programs such as Forged By Fire have sparked the imaginations of many viewers attracted to the romance of handcrafted blades.

With all this television excitement, more than a few of us have probably wondered -- well, why do these guys get all the fun making this cool stuff? Chances are, no matter how much you fantasized at making your own sword or Elvish blade, well, first of all, where would you even get the stuff to do this? Besides, even if, by some miracle, you did get access to whatever equipment you needed, who would be the master you could apprentice under to teach you in the first place?

You may even have resigned yourself to the idea that you’d never be able to make one.

That, is where you’d be wrong.

So, you say, precisely where and from whom exist to impart the secrets of this craft?

The answer lies in the Trades & Technology campus of Parkland College, room 1427.

Kevin East is the instructor of the knifemaking course. The process, he says, “has a lot of grinding.”

“There’s three kinds of metals that are typically used in knifemaking,” he says.

“Carbon steel, tool steel, and stainless steel.

“Stainless steel is the strongest, but it also requires a lot of patience and grinding. It’s a tough metal but also requires you to be pretty tough in patience to get to the final result. So we typically don’t start with it.

“Carbon steel is good because it’ll give you both hardness and strength. It also has a tendency to rust on its own. So, you have to treat the metal in a process we call quenching. If you don’t, it gets too soft.”

We’ll go into quenching shortly.

“Finally, you’ve got tool steels, which are somewhere in the middle. They’re carbon steels too, but they have an alloy in them like stainless steel does, which are basically other types of metal elements mixed into them that make them stronger.It can be a bit brittle so they’re not always the best choice for super sharp, high impact knives but look great and work for a lot of things. They’re also good as a starter.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, that’s what we’ll be starting with.

“Typically, we use tool steel. Because it’s a carbon steel, with an alloy -- like I said, mixed with other metals to make it stronger; keeps it from rusting out. It’s hard, but not too hard, so you can file it without going too crazy.”

The design of the knife is drawn on a piece of stainless steel with a permanent marker, as a cutout guide,

“It’s a bit like a stencil,” says East. “You just draw it in there and cut it out.”

“You can go as simple or as crazy as you like.

“Here’s one,” Kevin says, pulling out a beautifully polished knife with a keyhole loop. The loop is, as one might expect, seamlessly integrated within the design.

“Cutting this one was a real bugger, but I think it turned out pretty well.”

The first students of the workshop are varied, from all walks of life: a couple. She signed him up for the course as a birthday gift.

Some of the other students are retired, work in other trades, and plenty are simply curious.

Most of the work takes place in the welding area of the college, since it is equipped with all the belt grinders, baking oven, quencher and other tools required to turn out a handcrafted blade.

“This is a nice new toy,” East says, motioning to a kiln. A svelte, shiny metal tube covered in cables, a massive heat sink and circuitry to tell the computer how to disperse the massive amounts of heat generated within the porcelain interior, sits atop a cart.

This is a knife kiln, which is specially designed to heat treat the blade. The knife has to be heated in a controlled manner so it sets. It is similar in concept to letting paint, an epoxy or resin cure. It will have the form, but not the strength to avoid damage.

Each blade, depending of course on the type of metal involved, takes an hour and a half or so.

“Gets red hot,” says East.

“You can see the ceramic turning red through the cracks.”

The kiln has the best of both worlds: the heritage and reliability of classic kiln coupled with the precision of digital technology.

An onboard computer and thermostat with sensors precisely indicate the heat, and can be programmed. The rate of heat including the speed in which the temperature can be precisely specified. A readout on the screen clearly shows pertinent information.

“This little marvel makes things so much easier,” he says.

The state-of-the-art knife kiln is made by Evenheat, in a facility based in the small Michigan town of Caseville. Literally sitting atop the mighty Huron, the company is the town’s primary employer.

Originally founded in 1948 by the Watson family, the husband and wife team suddenly found themselves awash in demand for personal pottery kilns, and the company grew. They now make knifemaking and glass kilns as well.

Now, it’s time for the knife to come out of the kiln to be quenched.

Quenching effectively ‘seals’ the blade, much like a water seal treatment for a deck. This ‘seal’ ensures the integrity of the blade remains intact and keeps corrosion at bay.

The way the blade is quenched involves heating oil to a particular temperature. Once the knife is removed from the kiln, you have only two seconds to pull the glowing, red hot hunk of metal and dunk it into the oil bath. If you take too long, the air gets at the metal and you cannot properly treat the blade. In simpler terms, if you don’t treat the blade properly, especially if the plan is to actually use the thing, renders it, effectively, lovingly crafted garbage. So this two second jump into the oil is absolutely crucial.

Once the blade cools, it is completely black. Kevin holds out the knife.

“Now, the fun begins,” he says.

“The black is just carbon deposit. You just file that right off.”

Part 2 of this article will be available online next week along with the second instalment.

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