How to build best utility knife?

Feb 17, 1999
Okay..., went to the Blade show and *STILL* couldn't find what I'd consider and "ideal" utility knife.

For a "large" knife, I ordered a Battle Mistress.. which I consider probably the "best of type". For folder, I've got a small Sebenza.. again, among "best of type".

But for a mid-sized "utility"... I haven't found "perfection". I've got a Lile #5 in D2, Dozier Yukon Pro and Guide knives in D2, a Randall #5, a new 4" Mike Irie hunter in ATS34..., but I have no great leanings toward any of these knives.

So I'm approaching a local knife maker, Keith Kilby, and I gonna try to have him make "my" ideal utility knife.

I'm looking for a blade between 4 1/2 and 5 inches... straight, or *very slight* drop point, with just a little belly. 5" handle (I've got big hands).

I'd like to have the handle made of fossilized mastodon ivory, either "blue ivory", for surface ivory..., but I'm unsure about it's durability. I don't know if it can be "stabilized". I want a full tang, so the ivory would have to be scales, which I assume would help with durability... I might even consider using ivory inserts, if necessary.

For blade steel.. obviously, I want toughness, plus edge taking and holding. Stain and rust resistance would be nice, but are lower on my desireability scale. I'm thinking damascus..., but I'm not well-versed in what's the best damascus out there. I'm willing to pay a premium to get good steel.

Any suggestions... on the steel, or the ivory, etc..., would be appreciated.
I can't say anything about ivory because I don't have any. Suggestions for steel would be:

D2, tough and good edge holding somewhat rust resistant(about 12% Cr).
52100, rusts rather easily, but people swear by it's toughness and edge-holding, can be diff-tempered leaving a hard edge, softer back and nice hamon. Some smiths use this as the middle layer of a sandwich, with damascus outsides.
3V, not as much info as I would like, and hard to get, but the early reports say it's indestructable. You probably don't need as much strength as this would provide in that size knife.

I'm not well versed in the qualitites of all the varieties of damascus, so I'll let someone take that part

I like my women like I like my knives: strong, sharp, well-formed and pattern-welded!
Okay, now I'm gonna piss everybody off;

There's a reason why damascus stopped being made. Crucible steels. As good as you can make a damascus knife, I can make one with a homogenous steel blade that's better. Damascus isn't bad, but like the laminated steels of Japan, and the pattern-welded steels of the West(note: damascus and pattern-welded are not the same thing),they are products of a less-sophisticated metalurgy.

I have always been a fan of carbon steels. I have never had a problem with them rusting. All you have to do is clean and dry them when you're done using them. I don't even use any fancy products like tough cloth, just water and a clean rag.

I have no idea what sorts of things you'll be using your utility knife for. I own a Project 1, one of the things I use it for is killing and cleaning out animals. It's one-piece design makes it easy to clean, no spots I can't reach for bacteria to lodge in. This is a concern because some germ with a name similar to trycho-somethingerother is common in wild game. It'll make you pretty sick. If you're using yours just to open boxes or something, that wouldn't be a concern. Unless you worked for the CDC or something.

What I can tell you is that the ivory won't stand up to a lot of hard use. It's more something you'd put on a presentation piece or a pure fighting weapon than on a beater.

But keep in mind, a good amount of the satisfaction of owning a knife is liking it's looks. I wouldn't trade looks for function, but it is a factor in selection.
I'm not a metallurgist, and honestly don't know a ton about metals, but I think there is a major flaw in your reasoning about crucible steels over damascus/pattern welded steels. You seem to be saying that crucible steels are better than these others becuase that is what the industry has adopted for most knives, by and large. I think this is an incorrect conclusion to reach. My background is in bicycles, and so that's where I'll draw my examples.
Reynolds 753 is a cromoly steel that is notoriously difficult to work with. In fact, framebuilders of bicycles need special licensing from the Reynolds company in England to be able to make production frames from it. Anyway, it is finicky, very heat sensitive, can only be brazed (no TIG welding, fillet brazing, etc) and lugged, and it has to be brazed using silver solder. Becuase of this, very few people use the material. As a result, does that make the material lesser quality than a cheAP cromoly that can be robot TIG'd in Taiwan in minutes?
Another exmaple is on high stress aluminum parts. For cosmetic reasons, many companies CNC machine cranks because they get cool shapes. Cold forging is a much stronger and durable method, but it has cosmetic limitations. Does this mean that because CNC is more widely used that it is better?
Industries adopt certain ways of doing things for the best product (we hope) at the least amount of money. Is there empirical evidence that suggests crucible steels to be better than damascus, or is your opinion simply based on the fact that one process is more widespread than the other?
That said, as far as steels for a custom knife, I would also consider Talonite. This really isn't a steel at all, and people who are using it are LOVING it. I have several knives from D-2, and I like them just fine. Don't look for a perfect knife because it is a balance between good and bad. You'll never meet all the parameters of a good knife with the materials being used today.
Finally, I would look away from mastodon ivory for a durable handle. Woods will shrink and contract unless stabilized, as will all materials to some extent. Oh...I meant shrink and expand. Anyway, using a fiber spacer under the handle seems to help the scales accommodate for the temperature and moisture changes, too, plus it adds a nice contrast in color. I like Micarta for handles, but damn near anything works if it's temerature range and mode of use are considered.

Nope, I'm not basing my statement on the fact that crucible steels were adopted by manufacturers. I'm basing it on the reason why. REAL brief history;

A long time ago steel production techniques sucked and steel was more brittle and expensive than now. Metal working cultures developed different ways to incoporate tougher iron or low-carbon steel into high-carbon steel weapons to make them cheaper and better able to resist the shocks of battle. Then they refined their techniques and were able to produce homogenous steel blades that were cheaper and better able to withstand the shocks of battle. Just about everywhere but Japan switched to crucible steels. Japan had a unique blend of low-quality ores to work with and a strong sense of tradition. Damascus, like other such concoctions, were "make-do" matierials.

Homogenous steel tempered uniformly will have better wear resistance than damascus, as well as dealing better with flexing stresses. You've got to think about damascus and such matierials as what they are, laminates. Two interlaced matierials with different properties. When you flex a damascus knife, the high-carbon steel resists more than the low carbon steel. This sets up forces that make them want to pull apart, delaminate. Because of the great strength of ferrous metals this usualy doesn't happen. In the worst possible case, your high-carbon steel has been left so hard, and so much force was applied, that the high-carbon steel experiences many micro-fractures throughout the blade, and is just held together by the mushier low-carbon/iron. Some people are trying to say damascus sets up a micro-serration effect as it is used, because the softer material wears away. There may be some dubious truth to that. The thing is, every time you sharpen it, any such effect goes away. I have never seen a practical experiment done with a damascus and an analogous homogenous steel knife that demonstrates any difference in edge retention or cutting ability.

Damascus is pretty. I think it looks good. Hell, someday I may even own a damascus knife! But it offers no advantage over modern crucible steels in terms of strength or wear resistance, and while a well made damascus knife will never have any problems with delamination or micro-fractures, it does set up un-necessary stresses in the matierial for the sake of beauty. That to me is not utilitarian.

Consider this in light of some recent threads; would you rather have a damascus bladed knife, or one of INFI?

Damascus is not neccesarily a bad matierial, but at best it only equates a homogenous steel. If you like it's asthetics, go ahead and get damascus. If you're intrests are purely utilitarian, stick with homogenous steels.

This isn't a case of opinion based on market trends. Tantos are popular too, and I hate them. Besides, just because something is popular doesn't mean it's any good. Microsoft proved that.

This is based on metalurgical fact and practical experiment with reproducable results. Gotta love the scientific method.

(P.S. I am not upset with anyone, I'm not calling anyone stupid. Please don't take it that way.)
By most reconning you already have several good utility knives with good steel in the blades. It sounds like you have different desires for handle and blade geometry than some of the main stream trends. I would go to the biggest knife store available and find the knife with the blade shape closest to your ideal and the knife with the handle shape closest to your ideal and explain to your custom knife smith what you like about the configurations. For example I interpreted the blade you described as somewhat like a 5" Buck #105 pathfinder (possibly thicker). I would look at the handle from a Buck #692 Vanguard (shorter than your 5", but a substantial grip).

For steel I would suggest BG-42 like the Vanguard Master Series. Tough and fine grained. Takes a good edge and lasts a long time.

I give Buck knives as a reference since it is easy to find them and handle them in a store.

If you really want utility I would avoid damascus or mastadon ivory. Both are subject to cracking.

"Defense against knife attack:
Option 1. If you have a gun shoot him."
A little about Crucibles steels and why they can be better than Damascus.
Damascus gets it’s properties from the welding of the layers even if you use the same steel
in it’s fabrication it will be stronger than a strait homogenous piece, IE welded wire rope.
Crucibles CPM steels are diffusion welded at forge welding temp they are just powder
instead of sheets or bars.
So basically Crucibles CPM steels are in fact Damascus.

Edward Randall Schott

Snickersnee... I appreciate your input. We seem to have a minor consensus (two people
) that agree that damascus isn't a great idea.

I'd believed.., from reading this and that article.., that damascus could come closer to providing an "ideal" steel, than any "homogenous" steel. Certainly... the "katana's of legend" stories are impressive. I have yet to see a blade that'll part a silk scarf that's been dropped on it

I have a couple of damascus knives.., a little AG Russell Gentleman's damascus knife.. and a knife I bought from "Tex", at the blade show last weekend.

Both seem like nice knives.. though not "magic".

I, too, have been impressed with D2. I own 4 Dozier knives, and the Lile knife... all D2. I've also heard very good things about 52100. Certainly, my Marble Plainsman is extremely sharp.. though my Roger Massey "Arkana" (Larry Connely still has its twin on his site) is not a super-sharp knife.

I guess I'll talk to the knife maker, and see what he has to say..., but I'll another look at homogenous steels, I guess. D2 and 52100 were the steels I put in my letter to the knifemaker, as a matter of fact.. as steels whose performance I'd like the damascus to emulate or exceed.

You're right, though... INFI seems to be an excellent choice for this application. In fact, I bought a Badger Attack at the Blade Show, but the blade is wider than I want for this purpose. The Basic #5 looks close to the blade configuation I'm interested in (maybe a bit too much of a drop point), but I'd prefer the full-fledged INFI, and I wonder about the durability of the handle material.

As for the mastodon ivory... we certainly seem to have a consensus that it'd be a bad idea, in an "all-inclusive, all-around" utility knife.

That's too bad.., I *really* like the look of it. Maybe ironwood.., or the old standby, stag.

Jeff >>For steel I would suggest BG-42 like the Vanguard Master Series. Tough and fine
grained. Takes a good edge and lasts a long time.<<

I'm really leaning toward high carbon steel. The rust and stain resistence just isn't enough incentive to give up the advantages of HC steel. I even got an ATS55 knife from Katumi Kitano, at the blade show... Rockwell 67, and super sharp..., but I have my doubts about getting the same edge on it, ever again
Kitano said to use 6000-8000 grit sandpaper, and drag the blade backwards (with the edge) across the sandpaper. That feels wrong to me.

As for the handle.., the grip on the Lile #5 feels great, but just a half inch or so too short. I've got a Buck Vanguard, but it doesn't feel especially good to me.
Ed, I forgot that there's a steel mill called Crucible. Let me clear a little bit of this up;
(I just checked out your site. Tesla was THE MAN wasn't he? A little weird about his food, but a genius. Definately the coolest of all scientists. He was Croatian-born, I believe. I wonder how he'd feel about what's going on over there now.)

The "crucible steels" I'm refering to are steels made IN a crucible(like the vat), not BY Crucible(like the company).

I was unaware Crucible(the company) was powder casting, or "sintering", their steels. But even then, there's a world of difference between powder casting a bar of steel, and what damascus is. Powder casting is a technique used for any number of reasons, some common ones are to control quantities of different metals in alloys easily, for casting precision parts, or less comonly now with modern furnaces able to reach high temperatures, to redcue the amount of heat output to melt high-temperature metals by increasing surface area. It starts off as seperate granules, but gets melted and ends up as a homogenous piece of steel(ignoring some of the more exotic manufacturing techniques, like layering).

Damascus on the other hand, is forge-welding dissimilar ferrous metals, traditionaly low and high-carbon steels, together, then folding them over again and rewelding. You get the picture. A much different process yielding a much different product. There is nothing special going on with the forge-welding itself. Any differences observable between a forged but untempered piece of steel and an untempered piece of steel that has not been forged or forge-welded is due to workhardening. As soon as you temper the forged or forge-welded steel, you've lost the workhardening, and once you've tempered the unworked steel, you will see it's properties are the same.

Forging steels WAS superior back a real long time ago when steel production techniques were young, and steels impure. The heating and hammering allowed excess carbon to escape(making the steel less brittle) and also worked the slag to the surface. With modern steels and manufacturing processes this is un-neccesary.

Yeah, I've heard some wild katana stories too. Like the infamous machine-gun-barrel-chopping. All they are is stories. There is nothing magical about the swords or their manufacture. The Japanese smiths are skilled craftsman, but they have to work with the same laws of physics we do.

A lot of this is romantics or nostalgia for the "good ol'days". It's understandable. While our advanced knowledge and abilities have allowed us to do truly wonderous things, like landing on the Moon for instance, it's still fun to have some mystery to life. The problem is, as a friend of mine put's it, is that "the more you know about something, the less mysterious it is".

Oh yeah, if you want a beautiful and durable natural(any more "uhls" I missed?)I reccomend cocobolo. I love the stuff personaly. If we didn't have cool metals like bronze and steel, I'd make my knives from cocobolo instead. Not as good edge retention as rock, but a lot tougher, and it sharpens up nicely. It also has natural oils that help make it water/mold resistant. Great wood.

[This message has been edited by Snickersnee (edited 16 June 1999).]
Hey Snick

Yes sir Tesla was THE man, I shudder to think what would have happened when the ethnic cleansing started ten years ago if he where alive(can you say 2000 sq. miles of black glass where the bad guys used to live?)

Don't say sintered in front of the crucible guys they get red in the face and say "IT'S NOT SINTERED"
no melting. they call it hot-isostatically-pressed. And it's done at something like 15000 atmospheres.

Edward Randall Schott

OOPS! Sorry! You're right, forgot about the compression. (damned elitists...)

Still, it's not the same as damascus.

Yeah, it's scary to think, but this guy had Death Rays. Real, working Death Rays. In the early 1900's. And it's not a joke. Have you heard about his "pet" ball-lighning that nobody can even figure out how he even made, but which he produced and played with to entertain guests? This guy is one of my personal idols. It get real upset thinking about how much further ahead we could be if he was still alive, continuing his work. And it wasn't even about prestige or money to him. Pure scientist.