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Episode 177 S5-14

Blade-Smithing Basics


Special Guest:

Dark Days in Denver Ch 14

~Phill Nehls~

Long time friends reunite in the Dark Days in Denver adventure and Erika takes Vince to find Geir. They visit his shop where he works on metal.  Here today to discuss blade-smithing basics is Phill Nehls the owner/operator of Ravens Den Bladeworks. 

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To make a blade you don't have to have a forge but it is highly recommended. Without a forge you can't heat the metal hot enough to temper it. The process of heating the metal is known as the heat treat process. Heating it to high temperatures allows the metal to be malleable so that it can be molded into whatever shape the smith desires. This same process makes the metal brittle. A knife should be strong, hard and flexible. This is achieved in the quench which will be addressed later.

Cold steel can be sharpened into a workable blade. Any sharp object that accomplished the task you have in mind is better than nothing. However, it may break and won't hold an edge long. If you hammer out a piece of metal without a forge it will be ugly. The only way to achieve functionality and beauty is through the use of a forge.

There are two ways of obtaining the shape for the blade. The first is stock removal. This is a process where the shape is drawn and cut from a piece of flat steel. Cutting the shape is most easily achieved with the use of power tools which could be an issue in a grid down scenario. The alternate method is known as hammer forging. During this process, a block of metal is heated and hammered into the desired shape.

When heating the metal in the forge the temperature of the metal should reach about one thousand four hundred twenty five degrees. Experienced smiths can tell by the color of the metal when it is ready to quench. However, even the best smiths can struggle with judging the correct color if they are working in the sun. An easier way to tell is to heat the metal until it is non-magnetic. The magnetic pull of the metal can be assessed with the use of a large magnet, like a speaker magnet. If the magnet won't stick to the metal, it is ready to quench. Do not overheat the metal! You will cause stress fractures in the metal.

Quenching is a process of cooling the metal. It is achieved by placing the metal into a vat of oil. The oil should be heated prior to quenching. A lot of things can go wrong when smithing a blade, exercise extreme caution at all steps. To heat the oil use a semi-heated piece of metal and drop it into the oil first. After the blade is quenched, wipe the oil of off it. BE CAREFUL! The oil will be hot. To finish the tempering process and make certain the blade is not brittle, it should be placed in a oven/toaster oven at four hundred and twenty five degrees for two hours. 

Phil uses a 105MM Howitzer Artillery Casing as his container to quench in but you can use any tube like item. It can be thick PVC or metal. Different smiths may vary on their opinions of the oil to use. Anything from vegetable oil to motor oil can be used in the quench. However, metal oil may be very stinky. A 1095 steel is the most forgiving steel you can use. There are metals that require an air quench. The hot metal is cooled on racks. Other metals may require a salt water brine quench. It is important to know the correct quench for the specific metal being smithed. The oil in the quench can be reused over and over. Rotate the oil about every three to four months.

The type of steel is organized into a classification by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI). The first two numbers denotes the basic alloy group and the last two number indicate the carbon count in the steel. For a more detailed explanation of the differences in the steel visit: As mentioned previously, 1095 is a great metal for a knife. It is forgiving, strong and will hold its edge for a long time. Steels like 5160 are structural steels used for things like rebar. You can mold this metal into a blade but it won't hold its edge long. Stainless steels are classified using a three number system that usually begins with a 2, 3, 4 or 5. Stainless steel needs to be heated to an even hotter temperature than 1095.

Sometimes when metal is quenched, it will warp. Certain precautions can help to ensure this doesn't happen, but sometimes it  is inevitable. To straighten the warp, heat the knife up while gripping it in a vice. A blowtorch or the forge can be used to heat it. You will have to reheat and re-quench the blade afterwards.


YouTube has lots of resource videos to learn how  make a forge. A forge can be made from a coffee can or purchased online. Propane forges are usually preferred over coal ones. Propane provides steady heat. Coal needs to be lit and kept going. It burns unevenly and finding a steady supply can be a challenge. Resources to obtain coal include: fireplace stores, rock quarries, online ordering or foraging. 

YouTube also provides a multitude of educational videos on crafting a knife. Research costs involved first. There are some tools that are absolutely essential, like tongs and a hammer. Start basic and then begin upgrading your tools. Other items to consider are a bandsaw, a drill press, epoxies, the steel itself. Phil recommends shopping at Jans for steel supplies. Jans also has knife making kits that come with all the pieces needed to construct a blade.


There are many types of material that are used to make the handles on a knife. Acrylic is the most beautiful but some of it may not hold up to abuse. For function Micarta is the tough and doesn't get slippery when wet. The classic material is wood. Wood is rugged and durable. Another option is using an animal's antler. Materials must be researched in order for the smith to determine the safety of inhaling the dust from the material. A respirator is always recommended to ensure safety.


Try to find a smith and apprentice with them.


Epoxies and pins are usually used to hold the handle on. However in a grid down scenario, access to epoxy may be limited. Alternately, paracord could be used to wrap the handle. Brass pins alone can hold the material and if desperate, using basic nuts and bolts would get the job done.


Beginners should take their time and go slow. This process can't be rushed. Series injury can happen at any step during the forging process. The oil is very hot and if spilled, creates a big fire. The fumes from the handle materials can be poisonous. Be careful and have fun!

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Dark Days in Denver Ch 14

~Phill Nehls~

Phil grew up hunting fishing and trapping in the back woods of Kentucky. He started sharing his knowledge 5 years ago, teaching how to be self reliant and making knives for ravens den bladeworks. He is always happy to share knowledge.

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