The telltale etch.

Discussion in 'Custom Knife Forum Archive' started by Keith Montgomery, Jan 23, 2002.

  1. Keith Montgomery

    Keith Montgomery

    May 9, 2000
    OK, let's open up a can of worms. Having just read the article by Ed Fowler in the Knives 2002 annual, I was wondering how many bladesmiths believe that it is important to etch their blades. What was written about the polished blade being able to hide all kinds of faults made an awful lot of sense to me. It would seem that etching the blade would allow the maker to learn more about how to make the most out of the steel that he has chosen to use. The temper lines let you know if you have heated the blade properly during forging and etching helps you to see this. etching the blade also lets you see the grain structure of the steel better so that over time the maker can see that what he is doing is or is not improving the structure of the steel. When viewed with the right instruments, etching makes it easier to see any micro fractures and faults that could cause a blade to fail.

    The above statements are my opinion and they were derived from the article by Ed. I am sure that there are those that disagree with this, but it makes a great deal of sense to me. What do you guys think of these ideas? If you disagree please explain why. I want to learn, and through respectful disagreement a healthy debate can can teach a great deal. I will respect all the ideas put forward here and will never belittle anyone for the thoughts they have on this topic. So let the debate begin.


    Jul 14, 2000
    A friend of mine, forumite MaxTheKnife etches all of his blades. I asked why he did it while I was visiting once,and his reply was about the same that you posted. It helps the smith learn more about the structure of the steel.

    I will let him respond,though,as he knows a lot more about this than I do.

  3. Keith Montgomery

    Keith Montgomery

    May 9, 2000
    Come on guys. I know there has to be some opinions on this out there and I really do think that this is an important enough issue that it deserves to be discussed.
  4. R.W.Clark


    Apr 30, 2001
    When I start forging, I most likely will etch the blades. It just makes too much sense. It is also a quick and easy thing to do, so why not. With the new O1 Aikuchis I am doing the etch (while also a decorative feature) lets me know whether or not I screwed up. And believe me, on my last batch of Mini Aikuchi I blew about 60% of them. If they were not etched, I most likely would not have noticed. Now I have identified the problem, and hope not to have the same thing happen in the future.:rolleyes:
  5. NickWheeler


    Dec 3, 1999
    For the purposes that you stated, it makes sense.

    On the other hand, you have to be careful with this kind of thing, as it's easy for people to start looking at knives that aren't etched (or what have you) and thinking that they're junk.

    I've got a couple blades that I etched after I heat-treated them, and then hand-sanded everything back out. I saw what I wanted to, and was confident in the blades....but the stiff minded buyer might say they're junk since they can't see the etch.

    On some blades, I think an etch adds aesthetic appeal, but on others, it detracts from the overall look of the knife...

    Different strokes :)

  6. Keith Montgomery

    Keith Montgomery

    May 9, 2000
    Ron, that is why I think it is so important to etch the blade. That way the errors made when making a blade are easier to find and correct.

    Nick, though I think it is nice as a customer to be able to see the etch, as long as I knew the maker was doing it himself before sending me the knife that would be enough for me. I have found that all the makers that I have dealt with to this point have been honest to a fault and would have no trouble believing that they were doing this if that is what they said they were doing.

    Personally, I think it looks great, but I can see that some people want a polished blade. That is up to them. I do not see any advantage to a polished blade other than looks and when a knife gets used, that polish seems to get scratced up pretty quickly.

    I can say that I will personally be asking makers if they etch their blades to see if they have some obvious problems. It seems like such an easy thing to do. I know that it may mean that more blades end up in the scrap pile, but if the blade has problems, that is where it should be.

    Thanks for the replies so far. Keep them coming.
  7. Ed Fowler

    Ed Fowler

    Jul 21, 2001
    RW: Thanks for your comment. You have found out what I found out when I started etching my blades. Errors are immediately obvious, after I learned how to read the tale told by the etch in my blades I began to learn about hardening my blades. Too many errors are not readily aparent. Last month in Blade Magazine there was a point to point article between BR Hughes and Williamson. Williamson stated that the benefits of the forged and differentially hardened blade .... were not always achieved. This may be true with some blades, but when they are etched, there is no question. Etching blades is of most benefit to the knifemaker.
  8. Fox Creek

    Fox Creek

    Oct 26, 1999
    Ed, would you care to briefly say just what it is you are seeing, or looking for in a well forged and heat treated blade? I mean what exactly is it supposed to look like? or vice versa, what do you NOT want to see? Many thanks.
  9. Ed Fowler

    Ed Fowler

    Jul 21, 2001
    Fox Creek: Reading the etch is not a simple matter, but I will try some introductory comments. Knives 2002, page 53 has photos of two properly etched blades. The top blade is deeper (top to bottom) than the second blade. In the top blade you can see the hardened portion from cutting edge up, then three major bands as you move toward the top of the blade. These represent a true visual statement of the structure of the steel. The edge will rockwell 60, the spine around 34. The bands represent (more or less) hardening zones. The blade was immersed in the oil to the exact same level each time, therefore what you see is honest. The second blade is more shallow, therefore you cannnot see the intricate representation of the hardening bands, there was not enough steel to allow the individual bands to develop to provide a visual representation, the bands are there however. The indivudual bands would be more visable if the blade had enough 'heat cushion' or mass to reveal more of them. My comments are based on reading the tell tail etch and verified by photomicrographs.

    Both blades would be truly high performance blades, the temperline continues through the riccasso area, again representing what I believe is the ideal.

    Take some time and look at photos of other blades that are etched and see if you can read what you see. Many of the Damascus blades were etched solely to reveal the pattern, still on some of them you will see an actual temperline. With practice and time you will form questions in your mind that should be asked of the makers when you view their blades.

    I have been waiting to answer these kind of questions for years. thanks for the opportunity!
  10. Mike Hull

    Mike Hull

    Nov 25, 2000
    I'm sure that there are many who etch for scientific reasons, but I believe RW hit the nail on the head, as to why a lot of makers etch,ie;"it's a quick and easy thing to do". What I find alarming is, there are a whole bunch of new makers who dont know how to put a good finish on steel,just sand blast it or throw it in the acid, which is why I found Nick Wheelers reply most refreshing.:D
  11. primos


    Jan 27, 2000
    It seems to me that the etching would more useful with respect to "telling the tale" on blades which have a differential heat treat as opposed to those fully hardened. I'm not sure I understand the benefit to etching those done with a full quench. I'm not debating here however. Perhaps there's a point that I'm overlooking.

    I'm going to go out on a limb here and post some pics strictly to show what I'm talking about. I hope that it doesn't get me in trouble with the powers that be.

    Differentially Heat Treated Blade
    There was a definite benefit on this one, other than the fact that it looks interesting. Etching allowed me to see that my temper line ran behind the start of the clip. I wanted the whole clip to be in hardened steel, because it's a sharpened clip. So here, it was more than just mere aesthetics. The etch really did serve as a visual inspection.

    Full Quench Blade
    This one was done with a full quench. It's in this case that I don't completely understand the benefit of an etch.

    I guess I'm saying that I partially agree with the etching idea. Actually, I prefer an etch on differentially heat treated blades. I think it looks good. And I agree that with etching, you can "read" what has occurred. But is does get a bit fuzzy for me on what I'd look for when etching a full quenched blade. I have no qualms with adding a step in my pursuit of excellence. Perhaps you can shed some light on this for me.

    And be assured, this is a sincere interest, and is in no way meant to serve as an argument against the validity of your opinion. To grow, we have to be open to new ideas and varying opinions.

    One last comment, if I may. When I etch blades, it is not a quick and easy step to cover up a poor finish. Before etching, I bring my blades up to a nice final hand-rubbed finish. So etching does nothing to speed up the completion of the knife. Instead, it adds more time to the overall process. There are two things that I would not want the general public to think. One is that a non-etched blade would be inferior in some way. Nor would I want them to think that an etched blade was some sort of coverup for a shoddy finish, or a way to speed up production.
  12. Keith Montgomery

    Keith Montgomery

    May 9, 2000
    Well it took awhile, but this is getting to be very interesting. I think what Terry has brought up is a question that many would like to have answered. By the way, those are a couple of beautiful knives. Thanks for the pictures.
  13. R.W.Clark


    Apr 30, 2001
    There does seem to be a trend of quick and dirty production. This is truely sad. There is a VERY popular company that produces production handmades. They grind, heat treat, bead blast, and paracord wrap the handles. This company is praised for producing "some of the best knives out there". I just don't get it. But they seem to get it, the big bucks that is.

    Seems that many many makers are taking advantage of the "tactical knife" hype to produce as many blades as they can as quickly as they can. So are they knifemakers or just machinests?
  14. Kit Carson

    Kit Carson KnifeMaker / Craftsman / Service Provider Knifemaker / Craftsman / Service Provider

    Oct 6, 1998
    Let me make sure I am understanding all this. Knifemaking is so new to me:)

    Are you guys talking All steels need to be etched whether they are forged or ground from bar stock? Simple carbon steels to CPM steels?
    If you guys aren't, I think it needs to be clarified. I took this thread to be aimed mostly at the forged knife but as I read it again, I'm not sure. This is a good thread but the object isn't to confuse.

    I'll be back after it is clarified.
  15. Jose Reyes

    Jose Reyes

    Nov 14, 2001

    If I understand the term correctly, a fully quenched blade is hardened over it's entire surface and not just the cutting edge? Is this something that's done only to specific types of knives, such as a kitchen knife, that won't be put under any undue stress? In that case I would imagine the entire blade would etch the same way.

    As a buyer I'm interested in performance blades, and a differentially heat treated blade would seem to offer more strength and versatility. I don't necessarily find an etched blade more attractive, but it does allow me to judge the quality of the heat treat the blade was subjected to.

    My take on Ed's etching process is that it enables him to approach his knife making in a scientific manner. He can alter his techniques, and to a degree, the etch will show him the effect the change had on his blades. It can help guide his process and ensure each knife with his name on it will perform to his standards.

  16. Keith Montgomery

    Keith Montgomery

    May 9, 2000
    Kit, I am not sure as to the advantages that etching might provide for the stock removal blade. I do know that I think it is a tremendous aid in learning more about the forged blade. It can also show faults in the blade and I am not sure if this would also be the case with stock removal blades. What are your thoughts on this.

    Ed, maybe you could tell us if you think it would be an aid to the stock removal blade or not, and why.
  17. R.W.Clark


    Apr 30, 2001
    Kit, lets not be silly now.

    Of course we are just talking about carbon steel blades. Not much to show on stainless, unless the maker is getting really tricky with zone hardened stainless (yes, I know its possible).

    The comments on makers using etching or beadblasting as quick and dirty coverups was just a side bar.

    But, an etch is not only for forged blades. If a maker is heat treating his own carbon steel, I feel etching is important. As in my case it clearly showed that I had messed up heat treating on ground blades. Regardless of what finish the blade ends up with it should be etched at some time in its production.
  18. primos


    Jan 27, 2000
    Yes, when I was speaking of full quench I was talking about a fully hardened blade. Of course even one done with a full quench can have the back drawn back. There's many ways to handle zone treating. I probably need to be using another term. Perhaps I should say a non-zone hardened blade.

    I understand what Ed is talking about regarding reading the bands, etc. on his zone treated blades.

    Regarding the fully hardened blade, a properly heat treated "non-zone hardened" blade can stand up to a tremendous amount of stress. It is not restricted to things like kitchen knives. I doubt that there are a great number of smiths who only zone treat their carbon steel blades.

    Also, you have to take into account all the large hard use blades made from modern high alloy air-hardening steels. Jerry Hossom's blades for example, have been put through some pretty tough tests and have come out with flying colors.

    Like everything else, I think we have to be careful about putting too much emphasis on differentially heat treated blades. We run into the possibility of the general public assuming that a knife which has not been heat treated this way is inferior. It's not.

    That's also why I made the statements above about etching not necessarily being a way speed up production, or hide a shoddy finishing job. I'm sure that it is sometimes done for those reasons, but I'd like to believe that it's the exception rather than the rule. The whole thing is that too many people take all the things they read as being absolute and across the board, period. There just aren't too many things in life that are absolute.

    Notice how carefully I'm trying to choose my words? :) I hope I'm choosing them well. It seems like no matter what I say, I'll be stepping on someone's toes.
  19. Kit Carson

    Kit Carson KnifeMaker / Craftsman / Service Provider Knifemaker / Craftsman / Service Provider

    Oct 6, 1998
    Wasn't trying to be silly. Read the thread. All it talked about was blades. We need to keep stuff like that defined or it may confuse people.

    I see no purpose in etching a stainless steel, stock removal blade. It can be done but it takes a while to etch it, unless it is Stellite or Talonite. I would hazard a guess that the ceramic bead I blast with serves the same purpose as an etch. I have to bring a blade to a 400+ finish before I blast and it shows every flaw.

    But, FWIW, etching a carbon steel blade is a good practice, whether forged or heat treated in an oven.
  20. Ed Fowler

    Ed Fowler

    Jul 21, 2001
    Thanks for the questions and comments, be assured, to me this is a discussion and hopefully not an arguement.

    The tale of the etch is most beneficial in reading the differentially hardened blade. In these blades, the full spectrum of the hardening process can be read.

    The greatest benefit of etching blades is that it can be acompolished by the bladesmith very soon after the hardening process in his shop while he can still remember what he did. Immediate feedback is essential to learning. If I had to wait for a metalurgical autopsy on the blade, I would loose the blade and would probably forget what I did by the time I received the results.

    For example: One can influence the crystaline structure by varying the geometry of the blade before hardening, then grind to another geometry while maintaining the desired effects produced by the nature of the first geometry. When you etch the blade, and read what happened you gain insight to what you acieved. This is a very complex process and immediat feedback is essential. This is part of the process we utilized to achieve the test blade you will see in the April Issue of "Blade Magazine". No it isn't an April fool story, but actual test results.

    Differentially hardened stock removal blades respond in a similiar manner. We plan to do some investigation into pushing the performance levels of stock removal blades in the future. We will most deffinately etch our blades as an essential aspect of these experiments.

    In order to achieve the maximum benefits of the etch, the blade has to be flawlessly finished to a mirror polish. Any scratches or defects are magnified. It is not a quick fix for a sloppy blade.

    Thanks for the questions and comments, keep them comming!

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