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Rookie Questions I didn't see already

Discussion in 'Hammer & Tongs' started by sixboysdad, Feb 17, 2015.

  1. sixboysdad


    Sep 1, 2008
    First off, if anything I am asking has already been discussed, a link to the proper thread will be appreciated. Otherwise, thanks in advance for any input anyone has.

    I have been studying the process and art of knifemaking as a hobby for a few months, and want to experiment with it this summer after my boys are out of school. So I have a few questions:

    1. How do I tell what kind of steel I already have, and where would I access good steel to use for a rookie making a first knife or knives? I mean, if I have some steel blanks just laying around, how would I know if they are suitable for making a blade?

    2. Someone please educate me on the differences between oil and water quenching, what temperature and time is really necessary for what hardness level in tempering. Also, there are as many different opinions out there on what type of oil to use when quenching with oil, from peanut (it has a higher flash point, and is less likely to burst into flame when you dip red hot metal into it) to used motor oil mixed with old transmission fluid (it's cheap, everyone has some, usually, but doesn't allow for the metal to become as hard as some of the organic types). What's the down and dirty poop on which oil is best, or does it depend upon the situation?

    These are my main questions right now. I plan someday to build a forge, whether gas or traditional I'm not sure yet, but that's a ways off. I just want a project I can do with my sons right now.

    Again, thanks!
  2. samuraistuart

    samuraistuart KnifeMaker / Craftsman / Service Provider Knifemaker / Craftsman / Service Provider

    Dec 21, 2006
    There is no simple way to tell what steel you might have laying around. You can have it spectrographed, or whatever they call it, to give you the element make up. Darn expensive just to find out what steel that is. Some guys can grind into a bar of steel and tell you low carbon, medium carbon, high carbon. But even spark tests from what I understand are simply unreliable with no reference as to what it could be. There are guys out there who can do that, I am told, I don't know. There is John Deer axles that are supposedly 5160, I think, but not all axles are. Files are supposed to be 1095 or W1 type steels, but some are case hardened, and some are just not acceptable for knife making.

    When it comes to steel for knife making, when learning how to get started, BY FAR the best advice I could give you is forget about unknown steels for right now. Later, when you have gotten the hang of it, play around with some of that stuff....with a working knowledge! But for now, if you want to heat treat your own steel, by far the best choice is a steel like good ole high carbon 1084. The reason being, it hardens darn well at 1500F quenched in canola oil. No need to worry about soaking the steel with 1084. No need to worry about super narrow hardening temperature windows with 1084. No need to worry about super fast quenchants. And makes a superb knife.

    Where to get it? Simple google search will bring results. The New Jersey Steel Baron, USA Knifemaker, Alpha Knife Supply, Sheffield, Niagra, to get started.

    Concerning oil vs water. The steel will designate. Fortunately with 1084, canola oil warmed to 130F works darn well. You CAN go with a commercial grade quenching oil if you like. Some oils are faster than others, and the steel dictates how fast the quench needs to be. 1084 CAN be water quenched too. The risk is greater with water (and it is actually brine.....not water). Steels like O1 are oil quenched. That is the "O". Steels like W2 are water (brine) quenched. the "W" for water. But they CAN and some might say should be quenched in a very fast oil.

    For all that is holy, do NOT use motor oil or ATF as quenchants. Besides not being that great for quenchants, the fumes. Ug. Canola oil works so darn well with steels like 1084, there is simply no reason to use motor oil and the like.

    Concerning flashing oil....that should not happen. For simplicity sake and not getting into selective hardening, you submerge the hot steel completely and this will not flash up. It is when you linger with hot steel exposed to the air, say halfways submerged, that it might flare up on you. But full quenching....no flare ups.

    Hope that helps.
  3. SinePari


    Oct 24, 2013
    I've had good luck with leaf springs. While others will find this advice unacceptable to propagate as a starting point, I found the steel (both bundles coming from different sources) to make a pretty decent blade, as have the other gents who made blades from the same stock. Just be sure to check for fissure cracks near the pinned ends. I stuck to the canola oil quench.

    I don't negate the purchase of known steel types, as they yield consistent positive results, and take the guessing out of the equation. I just got 75 pounds of leaf springs for $15 and took the gamble as a means of fun practice. I've since moved onto known steels... :D
  4. samuraistuart

    samuraistuart KnifeMaker / Craftsman / Service Provider Knifemaker / Craftsman / Service Provider

    Dec 21, 2006
    Just to clarify, while I certainly don't mean to imply that starting with mystery steel is "unacceptable to propagate as a starting point", to me it is much better/smarter to start with known steel. There should be absolutely no reason not to obtain known knife steel at all. When you can go to USA knife maker and buy a foot of 1084 (I realize many thicknesses are out of stock until the next batch arrives from Europe mid March) for $7 plus shipping, it really is worth it.

    There certainly isn't anything inherently wrong with using mystery steel to start out with. I can recall many threads here from guys who had their heart set on using the plow shear, file, or leaf spring from their grand father's stash to make their first knife. After advice given to use known steel to start with, and ignored, inevitably the reply comes, "I can't get it to harden right. I wasted all this time building a forge. What did I do wrong?" And no good answer can be given at this point. Because we have no idea either! The variables with mystery steel are just too many.
  5. Cactus Kid

    Cactus Kid

    Feb 11, 2015
    Go with the advice from Samuraistuart, it is right on the mark! I've had good luck with mystery steels and bad too. With a known steel you get much better results every time, not just sometimes. And if you are starting this project out with your sons, you sure want to have good results the first time through, otherwise they loose interest and the entire project is wasted. Best of luck to you and your boys!!!

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