Jay Fisher - Fine Custom Knives

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"Raptor" obverse side view in CPM154CM powder metal technology high molybdenum stainless steel blade, 304 stainless steel bolsters, Peruvian Lapis Lazuli gemstone handle, hand-carved leather sheath inlaid with Caiman skin

Testing of knife blades

"Ghroth" Tactical, combat, counterterrorism knife, obverse side view in ATS-34 high molybenum stainless steel blade, 304 stainless steel bolsters, coyote brown, black G10 composite handle, hybrid tension-locking sheath with full accessory package
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"Domovoi", obverse side view in ATS-34 high molybdenum stainless steel blade, hand-engraved 304 stainless steeel bolsters, African dumortierite gemstone handle, hand-carved, tooled, hand-dyed leather sheath
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What is this page about?

Do you ever wonder why only blades and specifically cutting edges are the only thing tested? Why is no one testing handle mounting methods, bedding and bonding, bolster construction, fit, finish, balance, or the complex interface of the knife handle with the hand? Why is no one testing sheaths, ever: their potential for security, durability, safety for the user, wear and accessibility options? Why is no one testing stands, cases, or displays? Why is everything, everything of any concern, the cutting edge alone? Could it be that there is more, much more to the knife? Could it be that testing cutting edges is simply a distraction from the rest of the knife which is inferior? More

This page is about testing of knife blades, particularly handmade knife blades. If at first you wince at the thought of testing something that is handmade, your reaction is proper, grounded, and valid. Since there are so many large and small variations in anything  handmade, testing becomes completely subjective, and this page will detail the reasons why this is so, with plenty of logic and information. I'll go into the details of what I have learned and know after making knives for over 40 years, and being a professional full time knifemaker for over 30 years. Agree or disagree, you will at least know what this professional thinks, knows, and understands about the whole "testing hobby" that so many have immersed themselves in. You'll know the role I think it plays in the world of fine handmade custom knives, what it is not, and what claims are valid, invalid, or uncertain and why.

I believe this page is important because there is too much misinformation circulating on the web: in forums, on independent web sites, and in print: that it all becomes a confusing jumble. Ignorance is not the counter to misinformation. Instead, the counter to misinformation is careful consideration, logic, data, and real world experience. If you are reading this now, you probably want to know more about the subject, and I'll honor that with giving you as much information and reason as I can, based in my own experience and logic, based on my particular journey.

My credentials? First, understand that there is no authority that credentials knifemakers: not anyone, anywhere, at any time. There is no official authoritarian, legal, government, or public sanctioned group or individuals that can give a knifemaker credentials, certificates, or degrees. Knifemaking is not covered under a metal arts degree, an engineering certificate, or a professional license. This is not to say that the groups of tradesman who form organizations do not have some minor subjective and limited standing; it’s that making knives and the results are not recognized or regulated in any legal or any official way.

There is also no authority that credentials knife and blade testers: not anyone, anywhere, at any time. There is no official authoritarian, legal, government, or public sanctioned group or individual that can give so called blade testers credentials, certificates, or degrees. Blade steel testing is not covered under a metal arts degree, an engineering certificate, or a professional license. There is not even any group of tradesman who have formed organizations that have even minor subjective and limited standing in this area. Clearly knife blade testing is not recognized, sanctioned, or regulated in any legal, official way.

So if I (and every other knifemaker or knife tester) have no legal, authoritarian, official performance criteria and requirements, what is it that one can rely upon to make a crucial knife purchasing decision? Only one thing, and that one thing will determine a knifemaker's familiarity with this tradecraft: experience, backed by record.

My experience backed by record: If you have read only one tenth of this website (that would be at least 60 pages) you'll know from where I speak. It's been a hard-earned, tedious, labor intensive, at times grueling, challenging, and brutal way to make a living. Along the way, I've learned a tremendous amount, and the learning never stops. What you are reading here is a service to our community and tradecraft, to our tradition and art. I do this not because I'm just trying to sell my own knives; I sell plenty of knives without ever having written and posted this page. I include this information because people along the way have been supportive, kind, and true to the knifemaking arts, and have supported what I do. To them, and others like them, I owe my community and respect them enough to give them the truth.

One thing is certain: you won't find any more detailed, descriptive, clear, concise, and extensive reference written by any other full time professional knifemaker in the world than what is on this website, and what will continue to be as it grows. That's my experience, and all I can do is hope you consider it well. If you don't think that it warrants any consideration, you need to browse away now, perhaps to a video site where you can see some cute cats.

Knifemaking and associated activities involved in this trade are inherently dangerous.
Do not attempt destructive testing without proper safety equipment and training.

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Hello Jay,
My name is Donnie Owens; I am a disabled US Marine and served in combat in Iraq. I have been a x-ray combo pipewelder and bench hand for the better part of my life. I am a HUGE knife guy and i just was reading your article on knife testing: very, very well done. I have been doing some blacksmith work at my house recently (2-3 months). I just wanted to say I really, really love your knives. I don't want anything from you, just wanted to let you know that everything that I have read has been 100% true; I like that. I would one day like to purchase one of your blades. Anyway, that's really all, if you have any pointers or information that you would like to have had when you first started, I will listen. That is all. I hope you have a good day and i will get back to your website.

Thanks again,
Donnie Owens 

Hi, Donnie.
Thanks for writing and thanks most for your service and sacrifice for our country.

If there were one piece of advice I could give that I wish someone had told me when I started 40 years ago would be don’t set limits. There is no limit to what can be done when we truly love the craft. As a young man and beginning maker, I thought that what could be done with knives and what I could do would be limited, and that I could only go so far. I was amazed by what happened when, day after day, I worked in the field I love. I’ll also admit that I didn’t realize how important it was for me to create these pieces, and consequently, how important they would be to their owners.

Thanks again,

"Flamesteed" tactical survival knife: 440C high chromium stainless steel blade, 304 stainless steel bolsters, Olive Burl hardwood handle, hand-tooled leather sheath
More about this Flamesteed

Why do people test blades?

People test things for a variety of reasons. There are the professional engineers that test steels for a variety of characteristics, there are organizations that test individual lots, mill runs, and items to meet a specified criteria. There are testing organizations that are military, manufacturing-based, scientific, and consumer based. All of these have their purposes; most have substantial and significant apparatus, funding, and degreed professionals doing the work.

Knifemakers are none of these; knifemakers have none of this. So-called knife testers are none of these; knife testers have none of this. Knife manufacturers and knife purveyors, dealers, and companies have none of this. Shocking, no? There are no knife testers at the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI), the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), and most importantly the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). There are no publications, international conferences, individual standards, applications, materials, and process guidelines, exposure evaluations, and manufacturing regulations for or about hand knives... anywhere!

The knife is one of the least regulated items manufactured, yet one of the widest known. It is sufficient to say that (just as in the Professional Certification topic above) there is no official testing, regulating, or scientific organization officially and legally authorized to test handmade knives in the world, no matter what you may read and no matter what they may claim.

Knife testing is then a cottage hobby, grown and directed toward having some official position or say in the hand knife field, in essence, creating a perceived need without any legal rights to. People do this for for the same reason they do most everything else: financial gain. They are either selling knives, services, or apparatus, or they do this because they want the notoriety, standing, or position that so-called authority gives them. Or, they simply want to be given knives, good knives furnished for free, knives they could not afford to buy on their own.

This kind of testing is far different from having an engineer determine the specs of a steel I-beam structure that supports a skyscraper; knife testing is a general interest garage-based hobby, sprouting recently from one of the oldest crafts in mankind (perhaps the very oldest). For comparison, do flint knappers have a testing authority that determines the effectiveness, durability, and tenacity of their cutting edges? Do jewelers have a testing authority directed at managing wear for potential injury or surface finish for abrasion? Do woodcarvers have an anti-splinter clause in their inspectors guidelines? If all of this sounds ridiculous to you, congratulations. Regulating a handmade knife is just as foolish, and is simply not done. The people, web sites, and interests who claim to do this may think they are somehow helping the consumer of knives, but who is regulating them? This is what I propose: first, certify and regulate the testers. Then, confirm their experience in the field with decades of valid, repeatable results. Then, they shall have some minor standing, since most of them do not actually make knives and even less actually use them in a professional way.

If you get that I think this whole idea is ludicrous, you are right. People get intensive training and degrees for a reason, and still, even with the greatest minds working together, humanity achieves results such as the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, Chernobyl, Fukushima, NASA's Challenger, Columbia, and Mars Polar Orbiter. How many engineers and professionals worked to make sure these were not failures? And those guys have training. So-called knife testers have not even a wisp of education that those engineers had. Just keep it in the forefront that there is no place you can be trained to test knives, and you're beginning to understand the limits of this invented field.

Still, some basic comparisons must be made. But who is the ultimate voice in this? Is it some guy who wants to get his hands on free knives? Is it some guy or group that is trying to make a name for themselves, and become the established authority? Is it  a blogger desperate for attention? Is it a foreign interest looking to establish a market for their testing devices and testing fees? Is it an inventor that has created a new sharpening device or a liquid that is supposed to keep a blade sharp?

More often than not, these are the types of people who push the testing. Typically, none of these have any experience making knives, determining what is useful, durable, desirable, and within the economic range of numerous clients and they don't have a long-standing reputation of  making durable, useful, and desirable knives. Those that do know that testing is a superfluous pretense.

If there were an absolutely, verifiable, proven best knife or steel in this field, all others would be replaced, shunned, and deemed obsolete. Instead, the trends are widening for steel types, designs, processes, and makers.

Here's an email about this practice (from my Funny Emails Page 5):

Hi Jay,
I write the regular Field Trial column for *********** magazine, and have done this for 15 years. I also sell freelance work to other magazines, though time does not allow me to do much of this.
I have a recollection of a knife you made that caught my interest years ago - mid to late 1990's - that I am willing to devote a full column to, if you are amenable. I recall it was robust but quite slender and pointy, in a leather pouch sheath, with a bit of a beak to better enable withdrawing from the sheath. I might call it a cross between a dagger, a letter opener, and a steak knife. And I recall you said you had sold them to police officers. I studied your extensive web site and do not find it. The closest is your Prairie Falcon. Perhaps this will ring a bell with you. If not, I would consider some other model.
I will put copies of my column in the mail to you, so you can see exactly what I do. If you would like to proceed, I would need knife, sheath, photos, and full specs. Please let me know if you wish to participate, or not.
Best regards,

This guy has written me before, and it's clear that he wants this knife. He keeps referring to a knife I made back in the mid-1980s, one I haven't made for decades simply because no one has asked for it. We corresponded once about this; he wants a knife, for free, to "test and evaluate" for his column. I assume it won't be returned, so basically this translates to a free knife from every person he writes about. What a way to amass a free collection! And if I don't like his "evaluation," what recourse do I have?
This is why I never have knives "evaluated" by so-called experts in this field. The people who evaluate my knives are the ones that pay for them: real soldiers, cops, military, rescue, and combat professionals. Real professional restaurant chefs, real collectors of some of the finest knives and art in the world. Guys that work on a ranch, or in an oilfield, in a frozen arctic wasteland, a brutal jungle, or on a rig in the Pacific. Guys that understand and can afford fine edges, premium handles, original creativity and embellishment. I even make knives for some of the top counterterrorism units in the world. All of these guys let me know what is right and wrong with the knives, and they do it with a serious personal investment of their own money, sometimes with their very life on the line. They remain satisfied; my waiting list continues to grow.
Hint: this guy has never offered to purchase the knife he mentions... only giving me the offer to "participate." My message to him: don't embarrass yourself; I'm not a dupe, and you can't have a free knife from me.

"Viper" skeletonized tactical, combat knife, obverse side view in ATS-34 high molybdenum stainless steel blade, hybrid tension-locking sheath in kydex, aluminum, stainless steel, titanium
More about this Viper counterterrorism knife

Why do knifemakers test blades?

What about the knifemaker? Doesn't he have some standing in this field? You bet he does, but his evaluation is only dependent upon his level of experience and his training and application of scientific method. I've seen guys build little levers, pivots, plastic protractors, and gizmos to test knife blades, yet totally miss the heat treating specifications with enormous and profound errors. Once such guy testing 440c and posting his "results" on a forum had the wrong stress-relieving presoak temperature, the wrong critical austenitizing temperature, the wrong quenching process, the wrong quenching temperature and exposure time, and yet claimed that 440c performed badly! He didn't process the steel in a high purity atmosphere, he didn't detail the method of quenching and media, his "tests" were something a high school kid would do for a science project that wouldn't make it to the regionals! Yet he went on to claim how badly this steel performed after all his failed processing! Did he consider why? Did he wonder why so many knifemakers use or have used this steel, and how industry relies upon it for critical corrosion-resistant and extreme service ball bearings, valve seats, and tools? Why would they use it for the liquid oxygen pump bearings in the space shuttle rocket engine? After all, it performed badly in his test! Somehow, he's convinced that he knows more than the metallurgists, foundries, machinists, scientists, and engineers that so frequently recommend and use this steel for industrial, medical, and military applications. Good grief!

You might suppose that a hobbyist posting on a forum is the only one making these errors, but sadly, this is not the case. This can happen with even the most successful knifemakers, guys who have made and sold knives for decades. Read about one such case on my 440C steel page at this bookmark; it's astounding, but true.

Knifemakers should do some basic testing of their blades. Are you surprised to read that? Well, the reason is much more surprising: knifemakers should test their blades not to determine what they think is the best steel, but to make sure that their processing of their blades is correct. For the reason of the failures of processing listed in the previous paragraph, knifemakers should regularly test themselves. The steel is fairly straightforward; it's been designed and developed by the very best minds in metallurgy, proven in the medical/industrial/military field, and certified by real testing organizations like the AISI (the American Iron and Steel Institute), ANSI (the American National Standards Institute), ASME (the American Society of Mechanical Engineers), SAE (the Society of Automotive Engineers), and ASTM (the American Society for Testing and Materials). These steels vary little among foundry runs, and modern manufacturing is consistent and standardized among suppliers and sources. Knifemaking accounts for less than a fraction of a percent of the use of these alloys; they are used in machining, industrial, military, and manufacturing processes to die press, shear, or form other metals. They are also used to make valve seats, turbine blades, ball bearings, and plastic injection molds.

Does the knifemaker in his little shop think he can do better than the industry standard organizations that inform, regulate, oversee, and test these materials? How is a knifemaker or so-called tester better equipped and trained in materials testing than AISI, ANSI, ASME, SAE, and ASTM? Does he have a multi-million dollar metals research and testing laboratory in his back yard?

What if the steel billet or bar from the foundry or supplier is flawed, and is used to make a knife that doesn't yield the right results? I've only run into one billet in over four decades of knifemaking that was not what it was claimed to be, and it was instantly obvious when it didn't heat treat at all.

The issues and errors in blade performance are nearly always in the processing of the steel, not the choice of steel type. You can simply learn the characteristics of each steel from engineering sources; you won't learn any more by bending it in a vise, by slamming it into a crowbar, slicing stacks of paper, swinging it through a hanging rope, chopping a water bottle, or by hammering it through a two by four. You won't prove the value of steel in knife blades by shooting it with a firearm on a television show contest directed at hobbyists using third world methods to hammer out blades. These are all ridiculously variable and inconsistent tests, and should not only be ignored, but also be shunned as entertainment, advertising ploys, and hyperbole.

Knifemakers have no business testing alloy performance, they instead need to test their own processing of these highly engineered alloys since that is the source of almost every case of substandard blade performance.

Do you ever wonder why only blades and specifically cutting edges are the only thing tested? Why is no one testing handle mounting methods, bedding and bonding, bolster construction, fit, finish, balance, or the complex interface of the knife handle with the hand? Why is no one testing sheaths, ever: their potential for security, durability, safety for the user, wear and accessibility options? Why is no one testing stands, cases, or displays? Why is everything, everything of any concern, the cutting edge alone? Could it be that there is more, much more to the knife? Could it be that testing cutting edges is simply a distraction from the rest of the knife which is inferior? More

"Anzu" fine combat, tactical knife, obverse side view in CPMS30V high vanadium tool steel blade, 304 stainless steel bolsters, Tiger Stripe G10 fiberglass epoxy laminate composite handle, digi-camo desert kydex locking sheath with ultimate extender package and accessories
More about this Anzu combat knife

Are blade tests accurate?

A result is only as reliable as the method of testing, the knowledge, training, and experience of the person designing and performing the testing method, and the reliability, uniformity, and proper treatment, processing and handling of the sample being tested. All extraneous influences must be eliminated or at least reduced to the lowest factor of variation for error reduction, all results must be weighed in lots, or large groups of repeated and absolutely uniform testing to determine a statistical average. The testing equipment and processes must be certified by an apparatus professional, regularly calibrated, and regularly verified against certified test samples.

Okay, if you dare, read the previous paragraph again. If you find the whole process daunting, please do some basic research on scientific testing, process, statistical databases and result analysis. Be prepared to spend considerable time and treasure researching this; it is a scientific field unto itself. Frankly, I don't know why any non-professional individual would try to do this for various steel types; it's already been done by AISI, ANSI, ASME, SAE, and ASTM, and the data is well known and readily available.

Let's say you just want to know if a blade test is accurate; that's all. You don't need no stinking statistics, no scientific method, no uniform samples, no calibrated instruments... right? Wrong. Even the very simplest test of materials requires a lot of carefully applied logic, calculation, instrumentation, and method. Let's look at how this can go wrong (and has gone wrong) in the field of knife blade testing.

  • Steel alloy content: This is the start of all blade testing. The steel is purchased as a specific type, with a specific alloy content. There are always slight variations in the content of alloy elements in steel, so this is the first consideration. Does the tester perform a critical analysis of this? From the ASTM E1019-11 Standard Test Method for Determining Alloy Content: "These test methods for the chemical analysis of metals and alloys are primarily intended to test such materials for compliance with compositional specifications. It is assumed that all who use these test methods will be trained analysts, capable of performing common laboratory procedures skillfully and safely. It is expected that work will be performed in a properly equipped laboratory."
    Whoops. Knifemakers working in their garage need not apply. Self-proclaimed blade testers using their kid's protractors and an old Chinese vise don't bother, either.
  • Grind Geometry: Guys who claim testing steels by comparison always overlook this. They may claim that their grind geometry is all the same, and that they ground the tested blades as closely as possible to be identical. What? By hand? Only a fool would believe that two pieces of steel could be ground by hand to exact and specific tolerances for certifiable, reliable testing. Did they use a microspectrophotometer, or just rely upon their handy eyeballs and take off an angstrom or two? Okay so maybe they just used calipers. Did they measure thickness at a specific distance from the cutting edge? Down to one thousandth of an inch? A ten-thousandth? What? They couldn't humanly control that thickness? The thickness that will erase almost a thousandth by one pass over a buffer or hone? And then use an instrument (a calibrated and verified Rockwell Hardness Tester) that measures at an accuracy of one millionth of an inch, a thousand times more resolute? This one is insurmountable. No two knife blades can be ground to the same exact tolerances by any method controlled by hand. And even if the blades were somehow matched by machine grinding (there is no device that does this), an accurate measurement of all geometries would have to be accomplished by a vast and expensive instrument that is beyond the scope of this testing. Okay, maybe you have an ultrasonic thickness tester laying around. You put it against the blade and... wait, the blade thickness varies not only between the edge and spine, but along the edge. And it varies a lot! Okay back to the grinder... I hope you understand how this is atrociously unreliable and ridiculous.
  • Processing: This is a big one. How is the steel handled before, during, and after processing? Are all steels processed (machined) underwater, so no material-affecting heat is ever exposed to the blade? Are all stresses relieved, are all times and temperatures accurate to a tenth of a degree? It takes a special pyrometer set to determine this. From my own experience, I know that ovens are notoriously inaccurate, they all have wide cycling ranges, and great variations within their chambers, so an entire assembly of thermocouples need to be located where the blades are processed, and all these instruments must be calibrated and certified. Heat treating in an inert gas or vacuum oven is a great help; we can only assume our knife tester is doing this. And is he doing a gas analysis with a spectrometry-based gas analyzer to make sure his purge and control environments are clean, uniform, stable, and reliable? The critical temperature has to be held to high accuracy, and his quench method must be extremely specific, controlled and concise as well. No opening the oven for a look, no delays in handling the steel while it's quenching, no tilting the steel (this affects heat dispersion), no angling the blade up or down (this affects how heat is carried away from the blade) even for a brief moment, since fractions of a second matter. So the quenching must be done by machine to eliminate any handling errors. Quenching must then be done in a regulated, chemically pure, inert gas environment (if "air" quenched), with zero air flow and yet complete and uniform quenching (a pressure chamber helps here) with some way to effectively carry away the heated quenching gas without currents, eddies or flows. If liquid quenching is necessary, a tested and certified pure liquid must be used, circulation around the blade must be very specifically controlled, movement that would cause eddies and currents in the solution must be eliminated or regulated by some damping method to eliminate hot spots or backflow eddy cold spots that are more dense than most of the heated medium... cha, cha, cha. I won't even get into the tempering process and use of sub-zero or cryogenic method, eliminating circulation and exposure irregularities, cycling the temper and the critical temperature measurement issues again... sigh. All of this seems like overkill when the guy I described above doesn't even know the right critical temperature for the steel he's testing!
  • Testing Equipment and Process: Just as a tightly regulated and controlled object geometry, material, and finish is necessary to obtain an accurate test result, the testing equipment must also be highly refined, accurately constructed, of uniform and reliable materials. It must be engineered by professionals who know and understand the mechanical applications of force vector analysis, wear study diagnostic methodology, and statistical determination of results. This is not some casual affair carried out in some guy's garage with a kid's protractor, some screen door springs, and hinges bolted to a wooden frame. Real analysis consists of:
    • Chemical analysis of the material being tested (for certainty of uniform testing)
    • Macrostructure and macroetch standard for porosity and billet (bar or ingot) pattern
    • Decarburization determination (since all processing produces some variations in decarb)
    • Minimum Rockwell and maximum Brinell hardness testing (for full range establishment)

These are minimum requirements (as defined by ASTM), and all of them require standardized and specialized testing equipment that is expensive and elaborate. Specialized optics (microscopes and comparators) are needed to examine the results. All of that dedicated equipment that is designed, constructed, maintained, and used for testing must be regularly tested itself with even more complex methods and requirement sets than those listed here. Otherwise, how is accuracy of any test to be reliable unless the equipment used for testing is made and maintained at the highest standards? Who in the world sets these standards for testing? Is it a knifemaker? Is it a supplier of bar steel? Is it a manufacturer? It it a guy promoting his own comparison website and blog, trying to make himself relevant?

No, it's the American Society for Testing and Materials (the ASTM). The ASTM has entire libraries of sources on this, how to do it, what is required, what it may (or may not) mean or cover, and the appropriate regulations, specifications, and determinations that each industry recognizes as standards.

This is real testing, and none of it is done on hand knife blades! None! Why is this? Why is the most determined, accurate, and relied-upon certified professional testing agency in the world not concerned with testing knife blades? After all, they test anything from rubberized coatings of chemical tanks to the tearing strength of fabrics with a falling pendulum! It's simple: they don't test hand knife blades because there simply is too much variation of all of the factors listed above! No knife made by hand is accurately constructed with high precision means, no use of a knife blade requires anything more than the ability to cut, and even that depends on an edge that is constantly changing on a microscopic level, perhaps with every cut. Every cutting chore is different, every use and exposure is different, every angle, every application of force between the human hand and the material being cut is different, every time a cut is made! They know, frankly,  that testing of hand knife blades is a glorious waste of time and effort, and there are a lot more critical and important things they need to be testing.

  • Ridiculous Tests (bending): This one has bothered me for a long time, and it's time some things were set straight (or bent!) Bending of knife blades has gone on for a long time, and I know of several organizations that require knife blades to be bent. Why? Why would it be necessary to bend a knife blade laterally (sideways), and what, exactly, does this prove? Beyond that, how does bending a knife blade actually benefit the owner and user of a knife?
    • The old history: in the old days, a blacksmith was required to have a generous range of skills, necessary to service the large range of items and applications he was expected to fill. Sometimes a tool would need to be hard, sometimes it would need to be soft, sometimes it would need to be tough (flexible without breaking) and still have good wear resistance. So, primitive tests were invented to show just how a particular piece of steel would respond to the blacksmith's hammer and heat. If a steel could not be both hard and tough, a balance was needed between the two, and these rudimentary tests were meant to exhibit the balance and prove his savvy, skill, and treatment of the material. In knife blades, this meant that a thin blade would need some flexibility without breaking, but still be hard enough to hold somewhat of an edge. I write somewhat, because this is a general balance factor, and blades can be made very hard and wear resistant, yet are too brittle to use as a hand knife. Each tool varies greatly; a knife is not expected to perform like a file, which is too brittle to perform like a knife. So tests of bending were created to exhibit the "correct and best" hardness/toughness balance. I've used these myself, back in my early days. But they are generalized only, and not applicable to modern high alloy tool steels. Why are they not applicable? Because modern, high alloy tools steels can be processed to be both hard and tough, and are far superior to knife blades made by blacksmiths. This indisputable fact is constantly overlooked by blade smiths, blacksmiths, and the knife buying public, yet there are no blacksmith (or blade smith) created products in any machine shop, anywhere. This is simply because steels that can be hand-forged in an open-air furnace (typically plain carbon steels) are inferior to high alloy tool steels that require a controlled and isolated environment when at plastic and critical temperatures. These high alloy steels are superior to plain carbon steels by many orders of magnitude, better in wear resistance, corrosion resistance, toughness, and overall strength. This is why there are no blacksmiths in a modern machine shop!  
    • Should a modern knife bend? Flex? By how much, and who sets this standard? The first consideration is the steel itself. Modern high alloy tool steels vary tremendously, even if they are the same type! The hardness/toughness relationship should be established by the maker, who should know and understand the intricacies of each steel he uses. He should understand why he is using it for a particular application, what its advantages and limitations are, and just how to process the steel into a knife blade that performs at the maximum potential of the particular steel, grind, and application. A fillet knife is not a combat weapon, a survival knife is not a paring knife. Remember, there are hundreds and hundreds of different types of hand knife, and all have specific and different performance expectations all set by the knife maker.
    • Since there are so many types of blades, and since there are so many variations in steel type, steel temper, and blade geometry, what does bending a blade accomplish? Nothing, that's what. It shows that a knife can be bent. Professional knife users do not want their knife blades to bend, unless they are fillet or boning knives. I've never met a military client, a hunter, a chef, or knife collector that insists that his knife be bent. The whole concept is rooted in the blacksmith tests of the past, and have no business in the modern high alloy tool steel world.
  • Actual real world toughness is determined by the specifications of the steel. This is very clear, and comes from the manufacturer, and plainly lists recommendations for heat treatment and tempering that will give a close range of hardness and temper for that very steel type. It's like a recipe. You follow it for a correct result. Don't follow the recipe for heat treating and you won't discover an exiting new flavor of knife blade; you'll have a disturbing and permanent failure of the blade, and that may be experienced by a knife client.
  • Generalized testing of old or unknown tool steels: I'll throw this in so that die-hard knife blade enthusiasts who like to experiment can find something of value in this discussion. If a steel type is unknown, you have no business selling a knife made from it to anyone; that needs to be clear. You wouldn't buy a knife of unknown blade steel, so why would you sell it to someone else? However, as knifemakers we often are given, find, or acquire steels that can be used to make knives. In using these, a general estimate of steel type can be made by blocking out a lot of small pieces and doing some rudimentary testing by heat treating at various temperatures. When these experiments are completed, how do you test them for general viability? The old standard is that a hardened and tempered knife blade should just start to bend, and then break. This means that right at the break, there should be the initial and permanent signs of bending, and the fracture should be fine grained and even. Remember, this is not for any knife blade made for any buyer; it's for your own interest and study. And if you can make shop jigs, holders, and devices from this, this method works well, even if you still won't know what steel type it is. Because you don't know the steel type from "found" steels, you have no business selling them to others. To make shop jigs, tools, holders, clamps, guides, and the like for your own shop use is one thing, but selling them to someone else? No. This should make you think, now, about the knife company who uses a secret formula steel in their blades. They know what it is, but won't tell their customers. Who would treat a customer this way, with deception?
  • What about differential hardness? Differential hardness in a knife blade is often performed because the steel is inferior to modern, high alloy tool steels, and cannot be both hard and tough in the same location. So differential hardening or differential temper is performed through a variety of methods. This is old blacksmith stuff, and is supposed to yield a blade that is hard and wear resistant at the cutting edge, but soft and tough at the spine. This may be applicable for primitive works, but this is not how a modern machinist or professional working with high alloy tool steels makes a knife blade. The temper line (or hamon) is seen on the blade, and to some this is an intriguing effect of differential hardening or differential temper. But it also signifies an inferior blade, because the blade cannot be both hard and tough in the same location. The bad part about this is that no matter what the knifemaker does, the blade will be more brittle at the cutting edge, and possibly more prone to failure, simply because the thinnest part of the blade is left very hard! So, in order to prevent breakage, the blade at the cutting edge is usually left too thick, much thicker than a tougher blade, to prevent breakage or fracture. So, the cutting edge is thick and hard, and this is harder for the knife owner to sharpen. And who, exactly wants a hard, thick cutting edge? Wouldn't it make more sense to use a steel that has high chromium (making a lot of very wear resistant chromium carbides) or high vanadium (making a lot of very wear resistant vanadium carbides) or high tungsten (making a lot of very wear resistant tungsten carbides) completely through the knife blade? And then, repeated sharpening would not eventually use up that precious hardened area, which is a another big problem with knives with temper (hamon) lines. Much more about this practice and limitations on my Blades page at this bookmark.

Frankly, there is no accurate, verifiable real world knife blade test that can determine superior performance. It is only the steel type, married with the skill and experience of the knifemaker, that can offer a well-performing blade. There is no device, no short cut, and no standard. It's skill and experience, just as it has always been, throughout our history.

Do you ever wonder why only blades and specifically cutting edges are the only thing tested? Why is no one testing handle mounting methods, bedding and bonding, bolster construction, fit, finish, balance, or the complex interface of the knife handle with the hand? Why is no one testing sheaths, ever: their potential for security, durability, safety for the user, wear and accessibility options? Why is no one testing stands, cases, or displays? Why is everything, everything of any concern, the cutting edge alone? Could it be that there is more, much more to the knife? Could it be that testing cutting edges is simply a distraction from the rest of the knife which is inferior? More

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"Andrimne" Chef's Master Knife, obverse side view in 440C high chromium stainless steel blade, 304 stainless steel guard ferrule and pommel ferrule, Peach hardwood turned handle, hand-stamped, hand-laced leather sheath
Elegant, tough, and beautiful mirror polished 440C on this professional restaurant chef's knife, "Andrimne"

What? You just want to rely upon a simple test?

How does a typical knifemaker determine if his blades are properly processed? Rely upon the instructions provided by the steel manufacturer to properly process his knife blades. That's it. The manufacturer clearly reveals in print what the steel is made of, how it is made, what alloy components are (to a tenth or even a hundredth of a percent!), and exactly the forging temperature and atmosphere, annealing temperature and atmosphere, stress relieving data, hardening, austenitizing, quenching, tempering, and recommendations to achieve a specific recommended hardness. This specific recommended hardness is the one critical and specific point that a knifemaker must know. That's it!

Only one number? How can that be? After all, steels have so many variables in tensile strength, compressive strength, elongation, fatigue, and impact numbers that are very important to know. Perhaps, but there really is only one number the knifemaker has control of, and that is the hardness. The Rockwell hardness number is the only thing the knifemaker can actually reveal, certify, and confirm. That is, if he has the calibrated testing equipment in good repair! Remember, the hardness testing apparatus must be accurate to a millionth of an inch.

The rest of the stuff; the geometry, the processing steps, the exposures, method, and results are all purchased by experience, verified by extensive feedback from the field, accumulated for as long as the maker has made knives. This is why long-standing, experienced, successful knifemakers can usually be relied upon for superior knives. This is why they have standing.

Back to the number. The important thing is that one number, the number that should accompany every knife in exact digits (not a range), hopefully on some archival record so that it is always known.

The Rockwell Hardness is a number that is determined by a hardness tester. This is a device that is a testing instrument, and as such, must be kept in good repair, clean and neat, in a protected environment, and regularly tested for calibration. This device is critical to determining that one number that the knifemaker uses to set the hardness and temper of his blades, and without it, his work is just a guess.

The technique of the machine is described on my Blades page at this bookmark. It's important to note that what the machine is measuring is displacement accurate to one millionth of an inch. That is a very sensitive and delicate measure, so the instrument must be kept in prime operating condition!

With this measurement, a knifemaker knows several things:

  1. His heat treating and tempering is accurate
  2. His steel is the correct type
  3. His customer, patron, or client has a verified hardened and tempered blade
  4. The performance of the blade will be optimized per the manufacturers recommendations

This is the only testing necessary, and the only testing of handmade knife blades that has any meaning, business, or purpose.

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"Chef's Set" Concordia, Conditor, Consus, obverse side view in CPM154CM stainless steel blades, 304 stainless steel bolsters, Petrified Palm Wood gemstone handles
More about this beautiful and durable chef's set with CPM154CM steel blades

Why do they claim their steel is superior and how can I find the truth?

There simply is no ultimate steel for knife blades, no superior, magnificent, ultimate blade material. Please understand this: If there were a superior steel or other exotic metal, all others would be cast aside, no longer made at any foundry, and they would be sentenced to the ashbin of obsolescence. Every steel has its pros and cons, its advantages and disadvantages. So advertisers need to make something sound new and better (even if it is cheaper and worse), so they claim a new steel, a better steel, a rarer steel, a superior steel is used in their product. Isn't it funny that they never claim new or superior handles, bolsters, or sheaths, only the blade steel! That's because they know that you, as a consumer, have limitations about blade steels that prevent you from knowing the truth. How does this happen?

  • They know that you will not have the steel tested by a certified metallurgist to determine exactly what the steel is.
  • They know that you will not use the knife in such a way as to notice any difference in any performance from earlier steels.
  • They know that there is no real testing of knife blade steel performance, only subjective comparisons based on vague properties that are not scientifically defined.
  • They know that if you are unsatisfied, they amount you pay is either not enough for you to care about, is not too much for them to refund, or that you will be satisfied with a replacement of the same item.
  • They know that you are influenced, hoodwinked, and taken in by advertising hype consisting of unsubstantiated claims.
  • They know that there is no official, law enforcing, or sanctioned authority that will police their lies, claims, and inflated hype to make them tell the truth in their advertising.
  • They think you are too stupid, ignorant, or careless to bother to research the topics presented by proven masters and highly experienced professionals in this field, and will simply go with the herd.
  • They know you, who are reading this website, are not their customers.

Okay, so is most of what you read about knife blade performance hype? It really depends on who is presenting it, and this is very important. If you are a knife client, buyer, or user, there is a simple way to know whether your knifemaker, knife factory, and knife supplier is selling the hype or knows what he is talking about. Look at his knives!

  • Look at the website. If there isn't a substantial web presence, they are not modern or advanced makers tuned to make and respond to modern knife use, design, or appeal. Their website demonstrates their participation, or lack thereof, in the professional knifemaking field. Look for information, lots of it. There simply is no reason a knifemaker or (worse) a knife manufacturer will not take the time to offer every available piece of information about the product they sell. If I, as an individual knifemaker can do it, certainly a large corporation with dozens or hundreds of employees can too! If it's a single knifemaker you intend to buy from, know that how he "wears" his website demonstrates how he treats his clients, because this is the service aspect of our field. More on service at this bookmark.
  • Look at his testimonials. Are they realistic, are they plentiful? Do they seem like they are all made by one writer, or do the individual testimonials have their own voice?
  • Look who he makes for. This should be clearly presented, with plenty of references, testimonials, and types of knife in his particular field.
  • Look at his history. A new maker is not an experienced maker. There is no shortcut, no fast track to knifemaking skill. There is no cultural claim to fine knives (like is so often seen in Japanese style sites and products). The history of the maker should be well-established and clearly defined without hype.
  • Overall and most importantly: LOOK AT THE KNIVES! Do they look finely made, are the grinds crisp and uniform, are the finishes complete and precise? Do they have an excellent and precise fit? Do they even offer large, clear, and plentiful photos that you can see the fit at all, or are they just small, dinky "profile" photos? Have they painted the blade? Are there three ridiculous rivets securing the handle to the tang? Is the tang tapered for balance? Are the blades ground to their purpose, are there a large variety of styles, patterns, and designs to choose from, or are they just 4" drop points or Bowie "fighters?" Are the handle materials wide-ranging and exotic, as well as domestic? Are there fittings on the knife (bolsters)? Are there good sheaths? Good stands, good cases? Or is the maker or manufacturer just making a simple, plain, boring knife, and then hyping the steel type in hopes you'll buy?
  • Probably most important: does the maker make real combat knives? Why do I include this? This is included because these are frequently the most durable, most well-made, most challenging, and most important endorsements of the maker's experience. I don't mean knives that are stylistically tactical, I mean real combat knives made for and used by professionals in the field of war, counterterrorism, or law enforcement. While many makers and manufacturers claim to be making these knives, their reputation, their illustration and their participation in this field is less tangible and more inferred. How do you know the difference between a maker or manufacturer who actually makes real combat knives and the company that just makes the claim? Hold on to your hat: it's the sheath. If a maker or company is making an actual combat knife, the sheath is just as important as the knife, and made just as durable, with specific and various options, with real mounting and interfacing hardware to work with the professional's gear. How do I know this? Because this is how every knife makes it into battle: in a sheath. So don't forget to look over what is (or what is not) offered in this critical part of the knife package; it will tell you a lot!

Most knifemakers and manufacturers who overly hype their steel type produce an inferior product.

Do you ever wonder why only blades and specifically cutting edges are the only thing tested? Why is no one testing handle mounting methods, bedding and bonding, bolster construction, fit, finish, balance, or the complex interface of the knife handle with the hand? Why is no one testing sheaths, ever: their potential for security, durability, safety for the user, wear and accessibility options? Why is no one testing stands, cases, or displays? Why is everything, everything of any concern, the cutting edge alone? Could it be that there is more, much more to the knife? Could it be that testing cutting edges is simply a distraction from the rest of the knife which is inferior? More

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"PJ" fine handmade custom CSAR knife, obverse side view in 440C high chromium stainless steel blade, 304 stainless steel bolsters, canvas micarta phenolic handle, locking kydex, aluminum, stainless steel sheath with ultimate belt loop extender and accessories
The tough, corrosion resistant and hard use tactical combat and rescue knife "PJ" with 440C blade

So how do I choose the right steel?

Now you know some of the serious issues behind knife blade testing, and its use and misuse in the knifemaking field. A critical point is the topics on this page only discuss blade steel testing, as this is the most common, most argued, most championed, and most misunderstood and misapplied activity in modern knifemaking! You've got gatherings of makers chopping two-by-fours, hacking through hanging ropes, whacking at beer cans and plastic bottles filled with water. This is all a show, and yet it seems to be popular with knifemakers. It's like when we were kids, taking out our rifles and shotguns and blasting away at milk jugs (they were glass and cardboard back then, not plastic, just to watch the pieces fly. I suppose this is part of the attraction of these competitions, the chance to see action, pieces moving, guys wildly wielding blades, and chunks of waste tumbling and flying through the air. Otherwise, at shows, you just see a bunch of knives laying on tables, and everybody likes to see some action.

I won't go into how real combat teams and specifically, counterterrorism teams test and use their knives, perhaps I'll save that for my book. They do test these knives, and these types of tests may surprise you. It's important to know that if they surpass these initial challenges, they are then worn and used in combat for many months and many missions before they are approved of or disapproved of. This is real world testing.

It's important to note that this page only discusses blade steel testing. Why is it that no one is testing handle materials, fit, durability of bolsters, fittings, and guards? Why is it no one is testing sheath construction and wearability, sheath retention and release, sheath (and knife) interfaces with critical tactical gear? Why is it no one is testing balance when skinning game, weight and grip on a cutting board, usefulness of stands, boxes, cases, or accessories, all real world parts of this knifemaking trade? Who is it that is testing the long term value of investment grade pieces overall? Who tests the maker and his viability in the tradecraft, the value of his work? These are things knifemakers, manufacturers, boutique shops, pre-production shops, knife testing websites, blogs, writers, and so-called knife aficionados are not even looking at! Why is that? Why is the focus only on the blade steel?

Some wisdom:
Look, there are many good knife steels out there. When sites and discussions go on and on about steel types and properties, ad nauseam, they are often ignoring balance, fit, finish, geometry, accessories, service, and design. Don't get distracted by steel property details! The steel is just the start of the knife, not the whole.

Knife steel properties vary in many ways that are indistinguishable in actual use, and more known to the maker than the user, unless he is a relentless cutting maniac, like a Pararescueman, Forward Combat Controller, Navy SEAL Team member, Ranger, Rescue Professional, or Counterterrorism Professional. I know this because these are some of the guys I've made knives for, and this is an important point: they are interested in the blade steel properties, but they are just as interested in the spine strength, cutting edge, serration profile, corrosion resistance, and length and shape of the bade. More surprising it may be to learn they are just as interested in the handle construction and shape, grip size and function, bolster arrangement and materials, contouring, fit, balance overall, and finish and color. They are also intensely interested in the sheath, the mounts, the accessories, the locking and retention method of the sheath, the interfacing with their gear, the variability of the rig for mission parameters, the durability, the accessibility, the functional actions that allow them to know the best knife (not just blade steel) is available instantly, when they need it, and it can save their life, even if they use the persuader at the butt of the handle to break out a piece of tempered glass. There really is so, so much more to the knife than the steel; truly the steel is just the start of the knife.

Choosing blade steel can be difficult because there are so many sources out there for good steels nowadays. So many choices, so many offerings, and everybody seems to be pushing a particular one. This is probably an indicator of where not to look. If a maker or manufacturer is recommending one particular steel, over all others, you should probably keep looking at other makers and sources. A good maker, someone who is knowledgeable and has long standing in his tradecraft in a professional way will, by necessity, offer many different kinds of steel for his clients. Currently, I offer over a dozen types, for example. This is because every knife owner, user, or collector is different, and has different needs, applications, and budget. A maker should be able to explain these types, their pros and cons, their use and service, their appearance and feel, and particularly their sharpening and care, since sharpening and care are the only things the knife owner will have to do himself. The maker should be able to show how and where these particular steels are used and by who and provide owner feedback if necessary.

The maker or manufacturer should also be offering the same conversation for his bolster and fitting materials, method of construction, handle materials, finish, sheaths, stands, cases, accessories, and even embellishment! Because, after all, the blade steel is just the start of the knife conversation.

What to know where to start on blade steel choice? I've put together a simple chart of a few of the steels I use on my Blades page. Know that these are just the most commonly requested steels I use, and there are many more. Chart here.

If you want to know the reasons why a particular steel is chosen, there are three main factors and twelve distinctions detailed at this bookmark on my Blades page.

Want to know details about some of the more common types of blade steels I use, and steels I don't use and why? Only a small portion of them are detailed in this section on my Blades page.

Want to know more about what the public thinks about knifemakers and blade steels and how those choices are made? Here's an interesting story on my Website Overview page.

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"Aegir" knife sculpture in mirror polished, hot blued O1 high carbon tungsten-vanadium alloy tool steel blade, blued steel bolsters, 14kt gold bezels, peridot gemstones, Nebula stone gemstone handle, stand of cast bronze, white Carribean coral, Venetian gold granite with garnets
More about "Aegir'

Conclusion: result-based judgment

It can be humorous (or sad) to see so-called testing entities use their completely subjective interpretations to try to sell their service or product, whether it's a knife, apparatus, or web site. You now know how baseless this all can be, and I've seen it go on for decades in my career as a professional knifemaker. It's true that a person buying a knife wants the best steel available for his knife; who wouldn't? The way this is determined is through reasonable research, and comparison of what other knife owners like. Some like primitive knives; some like modern works. Some like corrosion resistance, some prefer tremendous wear resistance. How these steels are shaped, ground, machined, and processed by the maker or manufacturer can play a critical role in the performance of the blade. Geometry, steel type, process, handling, and the grip and pressure of particular handle shapes all play a role. Sheaths, exposures, environments, and even storage can play a role in how a knife can cut at any given time!

When a test is performed and a knife is used to cut rope, over and over, the knife buyer should consider this: is that exactly what he will be doing with the knife? How many knife owners use a knife to cut rope; how abundant and common is hemp rope nowadays anyway? I know of no military client I've had, in the hundreds and hundreds of combat and tactical knives sold, that asked how well the knife performed cutting rope because that's what he will do with it. Same with chefs; I know none who cut rope. How about cutting paper? Reams and reams of paper, layers and layers thick. Who exactly does this with a hand knife, anyway? Most of the rest of us have learned to use scissors or shears.

If actual use, then, is the standard by which knife and steel type should be held to, how is this identified and tested? I have skinning knives dressing out buffalo and just how many buffalos have to be skinned in the test to certify a skinning knife? How many slices of bread need to run through the testing line to verify one steel outperforming another in a bread knife application? How many layers of clothing and cut-resistant armor must be pierced to know one counterterrorism knife blade steel is superior to another? These are result-based judgments and they are what real knife users use in the real world to evaluate knives.

Knife makers and knife enthusiasts will always discuss, argue, lament, and nitpick hundredths of a percentage point of carbon, chromium, or iron and their bearing on the hand knife's performance. Manufacturers will always try to hype their product with little or no information about it, only inferences and generalizations. This has gone on for all the years I've been alive and will continue. The only hopeful future is what you are reading right now, the massive information and educational medium of the internet and modern information exchange. People are learning, and they are learning to ignore the useless stuff.

The ones that aren't are going for the magic sword of Valyrian steel, a form of metal that was forged in the days of the mighty Valyrian Freehold; exceptionally sharp, tremendously strong, yet light, keeping its edge and requiring no maintenance. Valyrian steel is recognizable from its sharpness, as well as a distinctive rippled pattern visible in blades made from it; the only thing that can kill White Walkers.


What do real knife users choose? They choose the best knife they can afford, suited to their use or collection, made from the best steel they can afford for the purpose they intend. They rely upon the knifemaker to know what that steel is, how to grind it, process it, and finish it, and rely upon him to use it to make a well-fitted, well-balanced, durable and beautiful knife with the accessories necessary. The knifemaker or manufacturer needs to understand the available materials and their applications, advantages, and limitations, and be able to discuss this with the knife user (or client) so they understand exactly what they are buying.

In all the years I've done this, I've never heard of any client or professional knife user requesting test results before he makes his purchase. That's because knives are tested in the field in military, counterterrorism, and tactical uses, in the kitchen for chef's uses, in the wilds for hunter's uses, and in the investment and art realm for collector's uses. Nobody is cutting rope, slicing water bottles, or chopping two-by-fours with their knife to build their home in the woods. And there really are no White Walkers... anywhere.

So for one last time, let's review this critical and intimidating thought:

Do you ever wonder why only blades and specifically cutting edges are the only thing tested? Why is no one testing handle mounting methods, bedding and bonding, bolster construction, fit, finish, balance, or the complex interface of the knife handle with the hand? Why is no one testing sheaths, ever: their potential for security, durability, safety for the user, wear and accessibility options? Why is no one testing stands, cases, or displays? Why is everything, everything of any concern, the cutting edge alone? Could it be that there is more, much more to the knife? Could it be that testing cutting edges is simply a distraction from the rest of the knife which is inferior? More

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Skinning a buffalo with my Nunavut Skinning knife
Skinning a buffalo with my "Nunavut" skinning knife


Links below discuss applicable topics. Thanks for preventing wives' tales, misinformation, and lies, and thanks for bettering our tradecraft and art through education!

"Nunavut" obverse side view in 440C high chromium stainless steel blade, hand-engraved 304 stainless steel bolsters, agatized, jasper petrified wood gemstone handle, hand-carved, hand-dyed leather sheath
"Nunavut" Skinning Knife

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