Ask anyone who's been involved in survival for any time, and they'll tell you that a knife is the single most important piece of survival equipment there is. If you've got to go out in the wilderness and can only bring one thing along, that's what you want to bring. With it, you can do many of the other survival tasks you need. But without it, you have a hard time doing much of anything.
That's not to say that other pieces of equipment aren't important or that going out into the woods with nothing but a knife will make survival easy. But I will say that trying to survive without a knife will be hard. For that reason, I and many others have more than one good survival knife that we own.
But what if you don't? Good knives are actually rather expensive; and while a bad knife is better than nothing, there are times when I wonder how much better. I've used bad knives before and I've got to say that they are dangerous. The chance of injury is much higher with a bad knife than it is with a good one, so don't just grab a kitchen knife and think that will take care of it, unless you don't have any other choice.
But there is another choice, one that is actually much easier to take advantage of than you would expect. That is to make your own knife. While I can't claim to be an expert in the art of knife design and making, I have made several and found it rather enjoyable and easy to do.
It All Starts with the Steel
The biggest difference between a good knife and a bad one is the steel that is used in it. Put simply, cheap steel won't hold an edge. Oh, you might be able to sharpen it and get an edge on it, but that doesn't mean that the edge will survive cutting through one potato, let alone anything harder. So you want to be sure that you start out with some good steel.
The question then, is where to find that good steel. It's not like you can go down to the local hardware store and pick up a steel knife blank... or can you? The steel straps and rods that are sold at the hardware store are actually what's known as "cold rolled steel" which is a soft steel that's easy to work with and easy to weld, but it's probably the absolute worst steel to try and make a knife out of.
But that's not the only steel in the hardware store. One of the best sources of knife steel they have is the common file. Files are made of high-carbon steel, which is ideal for holding an edge. That's because files, like knives need to hold their edge. So, if you have an old flat file at home, you can use that. If you don't, you can pick one up at your local hardware store. I went to Harbor Freight and found one for $3.49 for the knife in the pictures in this article.
Unfortunately, those flat files limit your design, as they aren't very wide. You can make a knife that's about 3/4" wide and 8" long; that's about it. To make something bigger, you'd need a bigger piece of high carbon steel. But you can find that in a horse-showing rasp.
My dad was a blacksmith and farrier, so he went through a lot of rasps. I don't remember exactly, but it seemed to me that a horseshoeing rasp was only good for about a dozen horses; then it had to be replaced. He always kept a box in his truck, for just that reason and had a few extra boxes in the workshop. That's how I first started making my own knives, using his old rasps.
You can find both new and used horseshoeing rasps on eBay. New ones go for $25 to $30, but used ones will go as low as a couple bucks a piece, if you buy several at a time. You'll also have to pay shipping, but it will make for the cheapest knife steel you can buy.
There's one other source of steel that I want to mention. That's car springs. The leaf springs off the back of the car are also fairly good steel, which will work to make knives. It doesn't have as high a carbon content as a rasp or file does, but it's a good hard steel, which will hold a fairly good edge. Being already formed in long straps, it's fairly easy to work with for knives or even for making a sword.
Designing Your Knife
Knives come in a variety of shapes and sizes. So before heading off to make your knife, you might want to take a moment to decide what you want it to look like. If we leave fantasy designs or anything else you might have seen in a movie out of the question, it really comes down to a few basic styles.
These are all fairly good, general purpose knives, except the dagger, which is really intended as a fighting knife. However, the dagger shown has a serrated edge, which indicates that it was designed for more than just fighting. You can find other variations on these designs and even unusual knifes, but these are the most common. But even within these six basic styles, you'll find a world of variation. Size, material, thickness, actual curvature of the blade, finish and whether or not the blade has a serrated section can all modify the design of the knife.
One thing you want to keep in mind for your knife, is that the sharper the point, the more trouble you're going to have with it becoming damaged by heat when you make it and the more likely that the point will break off in extreme use. Some designs, such as the spear point, have been developed for the express idea of adding more metal to the point to make it stronger. While the dagger and spear point can both be considered fighting blades, the spear point is clearly much stronger.
For any knives that you and I make, the biggest limiting factor to our designs will be the material that we're going to work with. I'm going to assume that you don't have a blacksmith shop to work in, nor have the capability of heat-treating metal. Therefore we can't make anything bigger than the material that we have available to us.
A Moment on Tooling
For this project, I'm going to assume that you have a rather average workshop; no furnaces, no special tools, a like I said, no blacksmith's forge and anvil. The main tool that you'll need is either a bench grinder or a belt sander. I actually use both, although in the past I've made entire knives with only one or the other. The other thing you might find handy is a drill press, although you could use just an electric drill, if that's all you have.
You'll also need a wood block to use with the belt sander or grinder. I just use whatever scrap I have around. I cut one side of the scrap at a 12 degree angle on my table saw, but I could accomplish the same thing, by changing the angle of the table on my belt saner.
While the belt sander or grinder is the main tool used for forming the blade, you'll also need a way to cut off the metal. This can theoretically be done with the bench grinder, but it's much easier with some sort of abrasive cutoff saw. Don't try using a hack saw, as you'll just ruin the blade.
Finally, you need a fine-point permanent marker, such as a Sharpie. I like to use one with a fine tip, so that I have a line with better definition.
Preparing the Knife Blank
Now that we've discussed all that; let's talk about how we can make the knife. To start with, you need to draw out a pattern and cut off your material. I actually do that backwards, cutting off the material first, on a 6" abrasive cutting saw for metalworking, that I bought at Harbor Freight. While I do a fair amount of metalworking, I really don't do enough to justify a larger saw, although I'd love to have a horizontal bandsaw to work with.
Since I'm working with a file as my material of choice, I need to cut off the handle. Typically, files are not full tang (the tang being the part of the metal that goes into the handle to hold the two together), so what you see is what you get. There's only a thin piece of metal sticking into the handle; nothing that's wide enough to make it usable as part of your design. I recommend against trying to use this part of the file to attach a handle to your knife, as you're really better off with a full tang knife, especially considering we're talking a survival knife here.
For your pattern, you can either make one out of cardboard or draw it out directly on the metal. I prefer doing this, as my designs tend to be a bit free-form. However, if I wanted to do an accurate spear point or dagger, I'd probably make a pattern first, to ensure that my sides were even.
Normally, you don't need to draw the pattern on both sides of your blade. But you may find that you drew it on the side of the blade which causes the blade to hit some part of your tool, when you're working on it. If that happens, you'll be better off transferring the pattern to the other side.
For this project, I'm making a simple straight back knife out of a 3/4" wide flat file. While the flat file is excellent material to work with, it doesn't give me much freedom of design as a horseshoeing rasp would, simply because of its size. But I've added a bit of originality to the design, by the way I've shaped the butt of the handle.
Keep in mind that you will want your knife to be comfortable in your hand. So, make sure that the profile of your handle fists your hand well. In the case of this knife, the butt of the handle actually helps with that, as the knife handle is rather short. If I have to push on the handle any, the curve at the butt will fit my hand nicely, relieving the stress point that I squared or even rounded end would produce.
I've also put indentations into the knife on both sides, where the knife and blade come together. This provides a nice place for the thump and the side of the forefinger to grab, giving a very secure grip on the knife. While it can be used without this, I prefer the security this gives me, especially in helping prevent my finger from sliding onto the sharpened portion of the blade.
Making the Knife's Profile
With the pattern drawn onto the knife blank, it's ready to cut out the profile. Actually, it isn't so much cut out, as it is ground out. This is where a bench grinder is extremely useful. It would be difficult to do this part of the process on a belt sander, although it wouldn't be impossible.
If you are using a bench grinder to profile your knife, make sure that the tool rest is set at 90 degrees to the wheel. Check this by taking a straight edge and placing it on the rest, parallel to the side of the wheel, it should cross the center of the wheel, not above or below the center.
All we're trying to do at this point is to make the shape of the knife blank match the pattern we drew on the file. We're not to the point of creating the edge yet. So, you can cut rather quickly. But there are a couple of things you want to be sure that you do, while grinding the profile, to ensure that you don't create a problem for yourself.
The first of these is to always keep the knife blank moving across the edge of the wheel. Don't just let it sit in one place. You want a smooth curvature to your blade, which is most easily formed by keeping it moving. If you hold it in one place, you will probably end up with a flat or indentation that will be hard to get rid of.
The second thing you want to watch out for is heat. You'll actually need to watch out for this throughout the process. If the knife blade gets red, you've killed the temper in the steel. But it doesn't even have to glow red to do that; if it discolors (usually turning a shade of blue) you've got the same problem.
To avoid overheating the knife blank, keep a container of cool water at hand. After every few seconds of grinding, dip the knife blank into the water and allow it to cool. Check it with your hand, after this, to ensure that it really is cool.
Continue grinding, until your knife blank matches the profile you have drawn on it. If you have a cardboard pattern, use it to check that you have reached the final shape that you want. Check all edges for smoothness, looking for anyplace where you have a dip, indentation, high point or sharp corner where you go from one curve to the next.
Grinding the Edge
This next step is the tedious part of the process. You may want to do it in stages, just to avoid getting sloppy from impatience. Of course, if you're the type that can sand a piece of wood all day, without digging out the power sander, like my dad was, this won't be a problem.
What we need to do is to grind the sides of the file to create an edge. We will be tapering the metal, which is really slow to be going. But it needs to be done smoothly, or the knife won't come out very well.
I use a block to hold my blade against the belt sander for this. As I mentioned earlier, I ran the block through my belt sander, to make one side have a 12 degree angle. This is the side that I place the blade against. I use double-sided masking tape to hold it there, although it doesn't take long for the tape to go bad. Once that happens, it's finger strength holding the blade in place.
The edge of your blade is probably going to be longer than the width of your belt sander. I used to use a 2" sander for this and I've used an 8" bench grinder, which left me with only an inch of width. Now I have a 4" bench-mounted belt sander, but that's still narrower than the length of most of my blades.
The key here, as it was with grinding the profile, is to keep the blade moving. I mark the block of wood at the point where I want the edge to start (the haft end). Then, when I place the block of wood on the belt sander table, to push the blade up against the belt, I align this mark with one edge of my belt. As I am applying pressure, I slowly slide the blade across the belt, so that the entire length of the blade is being ground in one continuous movement.
It takes several hundred or maybe even a couple of thousand such passes to turn a blade blank into a blade. Only a miniscule amount of metal is removed on each pass, especially once you're working on a larger surface area, as the grind cuts deeper into the metal. Patience will be required, to keep from pushing the process too much and burning the metal.
Although you want to make a series of seemingly even passes, so that the grind of your blade is smooth, you also need to put more work into the point of the knife, than you do in the rest of the blade. You have to grind off enough material there, so as to make the blade taper down to a point. The rest of the blade doesn't need to taper down like that, and can in fact, stay the thickness of the file you started out with.
To accomplish that, add pressure and dwell as you get towards the tip of the blade. If you do that on every pass, you'll find that you gradually taper the blade down to a point. However, if you find that you aren't tapering it enough, you'll need to alternate strokes like I just mentioned, with spending time just working on the tip. By alternating the two, rather than just concentrating on the tip, you should still be able to maintain a smooth grind.
It is extremely important to take the blank off of the block and douse it in water to cool it off every couple of passes. Remember what I said before about overheating. That's a more serious problem at the tip of your knife, than it is for any other part of the blade. Since the tip tapers both in height and in thickness, there isn't much material for the heat to dissipate through, so it will overheat faster.
Of course, water doesn't stick to tape well, so I end up dousing it in water and then drying the blade off, before attaching it back to my block. But as I said before, the tape only works for so long. Once it goes bad, it's either necessary to replace it, or hold the knife blade in place by hand strength.
The ground blade should come out looking something like this. Notice that the width of the ground area is even, throughout the length of the blade. That's what you're looking for. You also want to have a continuous grind, which you can tell that this blade has, because the light is reflecting off it evenly. If I had several separate surfaces, you'd be able to tell by the change in color.
Please note that you really don't grind the edge to the point of sharpening it. Sharpening is another separate operation. The grinding we are doing now is shaping the blade and bringing it down to a taper. With a 12 degree tapered block, that gives us a 24 degree blade angle. You can adjust that as you desire, for your knife. But when you actually sharpen it, you'll be doing so at about a 30 degree angle.
Sharpening is done by hand, and is just like sharpening any other knife. The only real difference is that you spend a whole lot more time on your coarse stone, than you normally would when sharpening a commercial blade. The first time through, you're creating the edge, which takes time.
Putting a Handle on It
Handles can vary extensively. You could actually leave the knife as it is, with only a metal handle. If you choose to do this, you'd want to grind the edges slightly, so that they are not sharp. The knife is supposed to cut other things, not your hand.
Another favorite option for survival knives is to wrap it with Paracord, giving you a length of cord that you could use in a survival situation. However, if you were to do this, you'd want to shape the handle differently, so that it would accommodate the cord and keep it from slipping off. Something where the part of the handle that is to hold the cord is narrower, with a wider haft and butt would be ideal.
What I'm going to do with this knife is make a wood handle. That's a personal favorite of mine and quite easy to do. To make the wood handle, I glue Thin pieces of wood to both sides, with epoxy. For this knife, pieces that are about 3/16" thick would be ideal. However, you could go with just about any thickness, depending on the shape you want your handle to have.
The pieces I use are cut slightly oversize, rather than the exact profile of the knife blank. That allows me to shape it and make it fit perfectly. If I tried to make it the exact size and made an error, then there would be a ridge. By making it oversize and then shaping it on the knife, I end up with all the surfaces of the handle smooth.
The handle is shaped back on the belt sander, mostly working freeform, holding the knife in my hands. In the case of this particular knife, the dip in the shape of the handle, at the butt end of it, requires using a drum sander to make the contour of the dip. Between the two sanders, it's easy to shape the blade exactly how you want, including making finger grooves, if you choose to do so.
One last little detail you might want to do to finish off the handle; adding brass pins. This is mostly decorative at this point, but it also helps to hold the handle sides to the knife. Both sides are adhered to the knife with epoxy, with the teeth of the file providing a rough surface for the epoxy to bond to. So they are not likely to come off. Even so, the pins add extra security.
This handle is actually for a different knife I made. I used 1/8" thick red oak for it. To get oak that thin, I took an oak 1"x 2" piece and ripped in on my table saw. As you can see, even on this rough knife, the contour of the wood part of the handle and the metal part are exactly in alignment with each other, making the blade comfortable to hold. Although it is not pinned, I've used this knife quite a bit and the handle has not come off.