Occasionally friends, acquaintances, former customers, and total strangers will ask me questions about getting started at making knives. I applaud and encourage any effort that serious, thoughtful folks want to make toward engaging themselves in the knife making craft. In fact, I really try to applaud and encourage serious and thoughtful folks in general. Anyway, here is a summary of what I think someone really needs to get started making knives:
The first thing to say is that it depends entirely on how much money you want to spend. I started with about $500 for some tools and supplies (if I’d really have known what I was doing it’d have been more like $350) and paid for them with the proceeds of my first 4 or 5 knives. As I sold more knives I got more equipment and supplies. I made a few good trades here and there. Anyway, I mention that because it doesn’t necessarily take much to get started, and you can build an awesome shop slowly if you’re patient and smart with your money. You can even make a knife without a grinder, it just takes a long time.
There are 2 tools you really can’t do without, whatever people may say. A grinder is the most important tool in the knife shop, in my opinion, and you can spend as little as $100 or as much as $5000. I made my first 95 knives with a Craftsman 2×42 grinder from Sears that I got on sale for $95. I moved up to a used 2×72 grinder, and then acquired a new one with variable speed. I’ll add accessories with time (and more money…). Generally folks suggest getting the best you can afford, though I’d add the caveat that if you aren’t sure you’ll really get into knife making, start with a realistic budget. Or, if you have tons of cash, buy the really nice one, and if you decide you don’t like making knives after all you can sell it to me for a song! You’ll also need good belts, and I get mine from www.trugrit.com and www.supergrit.com. When you get to that point I can tell you what I like, but it’s really just a matter of experimentation.
A grinder is the most important tool, but you also need a drill press. If you’re handy at all you probably already have one. If not, you don’t need anything fancy. Mine first was a Delta that I got when I was about 14. Good drill bits are essential, as is using the drill press at the right speed for the size of the bit and the hardness of the metal. I burned through dozens before getting it right, and it just takes practice (or you can read the directions with your drill press). I like Norseman bits that are available online or at Fastenal.
You’ll need something for heat treating your blades, or you can send them to one of several professionals that can do it for you for a relatively reasonable fee ($8-12 each, last time I checked, with price breaks for volume). I did maybe my first 45 in a charcoal forge that I built from a bunch of fire bricks that my brother stumbled across (literally I mean; they were buried in his back yard). I eventually upgraded to a temperature controlled kiln that gives me much greater precision. Good tongs should go along with either option. There are whole books about heat treating, and I’m far from expert. There’s TONS of good information out there about heat treating and every other aspect of the craft at places like www.knifedogs.com and www.bladeforums.com. KD is my favorite because of the type of folks that go there, BF gets the most traffic and thus quicker answers usually.
You need some stuff to grind on. Some like to suggest getting some cheap mild steel bars at Home Depot and practicing your grinding skills (you can’t make a blade from it because it won’t harden). That’s a good idea for some, depends on personality and cash flow, I think. I didn’t do it because I don’t have a lot of spare time and wanted to learn the whole process. For ease of heat treating and because it’s relatively cheap, I bought some 1080 carbon steel bars in various sizes from a guy named Kelly Cupples (you can Google his contact info and price list) and started making sparks. I tossed the first 2 or 3, but they started getting better fast enough to keep me interested.
You need a vise, and lots of those little cheap spring clamps are helpful too. I was a woodworker long before I made knives, and I’m of the opinion that one can never have too many clamps. Steven King might come up with some twisted clamp-attack story that would convince me otherwise, but I’m gonna stick with that idea for now.
For handle material there are as many options as you can imagine. Wood is easy to come by, but it needs to be flat and preferably hard. I saw down mesquite logs or weird burls I find all the time, and until recently used free wood that I acquired in this way almost exclusively. You can also buy nice stuff from lots of places (another list for another time). You need something to pin the handles on. I use a lot of stainless rod that you can get at Fastenal or any of the knife supply places online (that’s a different list for yet another time). I also use brass rod from Lowe’s, and sometimes even copper ground wire from Home Depot. I once used a piece of stainless hydraulic line from a deepwater oil well downhole assembly. Like I said, there’s lots of options
There you have it: a seriously bare bones list of things to get started. There are myriad accessories and doodads that can make things easier, and some of them are actually worth it. For the first 8 or so years I was making knives, I never spent any money on the hobby that I didn’t make from my hobby except at the first. That’s changed a bit as I’ve progressed in my career and make more money but have less time. Still it’s one of the things that keeps me going—the knowledge that my hobby is self-sustaining. In that way knife making is kinda the opposite of golf.