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Jason Fry

What Makes A Great Pocketknife? The Pros Weigh In

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Some lean traditional, others modern and others “whatever’s in my pocket is fine”.

There are times when a pocketknife is essential and times when it’s not pragmatic. Though I’m guessing most BLADE readers wouldn’t be the ones who’d cause a problem, have you ever had a knife confiscated by the Transportation Security Administration? Sure, it’s in the name of world peace or whatever, but if you find yourself frequently in airports the best pocketknife might be the one you leave at home.

I’m fixing to admit a heresy: As a knife writer and knifemaker with a work-from-home day job, I don’t often carry a pocketknife. I have a small imported Benchmade on my work desk, and some of my “knife collection” is in my office, but that’s all. In my house I’ve got knives everywhere I go—kitchen, bedroom, office, outdoor shop, all over the place. I rarely carry one yet rarely go without. I also fly occasionally, so even my keychain knife has become out-of-pocket.

Let’s drill down through all the “it depends” and get to the final question: What’s the perfect pocketknife? Of course, there’s no definitive answer but there are some perspectives.

Jordan Wagner of DLT Trading

Les George VECM
The Les George VECM is clean and ergonomic and checks the boxes for a high-end modern pocketknife: premium CPM MagnaCut stainless blade steel, titanium framelock and easy opening.

When it comes to the modern high-end folder, Jordan Wagner of DLT Trading said, “My favorite would be the Les George VECP. What sets it apart for me is Les’s tremendous attention to detail in both design and execution. His designs are clean and simple without being pedestrian, and they perform phenomenally in use. The VECP handle has fantastic ergonomics and is comfortable in multiple hand positions, while still feeling safe and locked in during use. The blade shape is functional and handsome, and his grinds tend to be extremely slicey. The VECP really hits all the buttons I look for in an EDC knife.”

Ben Petersen of Knafs

CIVIVI Sendy
According to the author, the CIVIVI Sendy designed by Ben Peterson combines some of the best elements of traditional and modern design, including a barlow-shaped frame, choice of a clip-point (shown here) or spey pattern blade, Nitro-V stainless blade steel, a Micarta® handle, flipper tab, linerlock and the author’s favorite: a tweezers and toothpick that slides under the scales a la a Swiss Army knife.

In addition to being co-founder of Knafs, Ben Petersen also designs knives. His latest entry is a model produced under the CIVIVI brand called the Sendy. In an innovative genius kind of way, Ben combines some of the best elements of traditional and modern design. The knife comes in Nitro-V, a stainless steel that threads the fine line between ease of sharpening and edge holding. It compares favorably to the traditional carbon steel knives of old yet sharpens much easier than the newer powder-metallurgy super steels. 

The Sendy’s overall profile resembles a traditional barlow, with straight lines and a butt end wider than the tip. The blade comes in both spey and clip-point patterns. Also thrown in are more contemporary features such as a front flipper tab, linerlock, ceramic bearings, and a deep-carry, reversible pocket clip. However, what really sends this one over the top for me is the inclusion of tweezers and a toothpick that slide under the scales in the traditional Swiss Army knife configuration. Ben successfully combined modern and traditional elements into a very versatile, user-friendly pocketknife.

Goldie Russell Of A.G. Russell

Skinny Brute from A.G. Russell Knives
A pocketknife that appeals to the author is the Skinny Brute from A.G. Russell Knives, a traditional lockback in CPM S35VN stainless blade steel. There’s a choice of carbon fiber (2.6 ounces and $135 MSRP) or green G-10 (2.9 ounces and $99 MSRP) for the “skinny”—a half-inch thick at the swell—handle. Blade and closed lengths: 3.25 and 4 1/8 inches. Country of origin: China.

I reached out to BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member Goldie Russell, who with her late husband, Cutlery Hall-of-Famer A.G. Russell, basically invented mail-order knife catalogs. Over the years the A.G. Russell Knives brand has marketed a huge variety of pocketknives and fixed blades, domestic and imported. The current catalog includes some interesting designs that blend modern and traditional sensibilities. One that appeals to me is the Skinny Brute, a traditional lockback in modern materials.

“A.G. designed the Brute in the 1970s,” Goldie began. “He and handmade knifemaker W.C. ‘Bill’ Davis perfected A.G.’s idea that by using Micarta® a folder could be made without metal liners. The result of that collaboration was the A.G. Russell Brute. At some point in the late 1970s, A.G. stopped offering them. In the early 1990s, we began to work with Bill again and for a number of years they were again made by hand in the U.S.A. For over five decades our customers have loved the profile, the deep nail mark for one-handed opening, the weight and the rest of the features of the design. Now, after many years, it is back, with a handle that is just a little thinner.”

Joe Culpepper of Culpepper & Co.

Case/Tony Bose collaboration
Joe Culpepper of Culpepper & Co. and Old School Knife Works is a fan of the Case/BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-of-Fame® member Tony Bose collaboration swayback jack, as well as other swayback patterns, in either single- or double-blade configurations. (Old School Knife Works image)

When it comes to the traditional pocketknife, Joe Culpepper of Culpepper & Co. handle material supplies and Old School Knife Works is a fan of the Case/Cutlery Hall-of-Famer Tony Bose collaboration swayback jack, as well as other swayback patterns, in either single- or double-blade configurations. “I think the design is simple, clean and elegant, and,” Joe stressed, “jigged bone is a must!”

What’s In Your Pocket?

Even among industry insiders, not everyone has the same preferences or shares the same opinions on what makes a perfect pocketknife. Some lean more traditional, others more modern and others more “whatever’s in my pocket is fine.”
No matter your preference, buy all the knives you can afford and carry them as often as you can. After all, you never know—the “perfect” pocketknife may just be the one you have on you when you need it most.

More On Pocketknives:

What Makes The Perfect Pocketknife?

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Decades ago in America the pocketknife was universal, with such patterns as the barlow, stockman, trapper and folding hunter well represented in the pockets of our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers. But what about today, when the most likely pocketknife task is opening an Amazon box or trimming a string off a shirt? To find out not only what folks are carrying but why, BLADE® asked several industry insiders, “What makes the perfect pocketknife?”

Pocket Knife Funtionality

Let’s begin our hunt with a look at the past. Many BLADE readers know Joe Culpepper for his and wife Kristi’s knife handle material business, Culpepper & Co. For many years the Culpeppers have provided the knife industry with quality jigged bone, Sambar stag and other exotic materials. Joe is also a student of the slip-joint/traditional pocketknife in all its variations, and sells vintage knives under the business name of Old School Knife Works.

Pocketknife fish
A Case knife in damascus is in the traditional fish knife pattern, an early folding fillet knife. (Old School Knife Works image)

“A good pocketknife first and foremost should perform and function reliably in the way it was designed,” he began. “Whether we’re talking about an electrician’s knife, fish knife, melon tester or trapper, the most important thing is that it does its job.”

Pocketknife melon tester
The melon tester pattern, here in an advertising knife configuration, almost always has a long, thin single blade. (Old School Knife Works image)

It has been a while since I used a knife to test a melon and Joe, too, was quick to acknowledge that many of the knife tasks of yesteryear have fallen by the wayside. “Frankly,” he admitted, “many of our pocketknives are simply just really nice box cutters.”

Pocket Knife Blade Size

Sticking with the nice box cutter theme, Knafs co-founder Ben Petersen added that he likes knives suited to the “dad life”—cutting apples cleanly without splitting them, opening boxes and whittling the occasional stick. “I’m not out to stab people,” he grinned. “For me, I think a 2.9-inch blade is perfect. Being under 3 inches keeps you safe from most restrictive knife laws, and it also is the perfect length for the finger test.” Ben went on to explain. “Most of the time when I cut, I put my index finger along the spine of the blade,” he noted. “I want the point of the blade right in the middle of my fingertip where it won’t cut me, but also gives me very precise control.”

Pocketknife medford
Medford Knife & Tool offers a range of titanium framelock folders, including the Praetorian T in CPM S35VN stainless blade steel. Weight: 9.3 ounces. Closed length: 4.9 inches. MSRPs start at $785.

Ben had a fun take on the perfect knife. “You know,” he reflected, “to a 12-year-old a gas station knife* is perfect. The perfect knife is totally different to everyone.” I smiled, remembering how much joy my 14-year-old son got from a rusty Bass Pro Shops framelock, missing a screw, that we found in a pasture on a dove hunt.  

Types Of Pocketknives

Most of us BLADE readers probably already have a good idea of what we like in a pocketknife. We know if we like small ones or bigger ones for everyday carry. We know the steel types we like, and whether we prefer a single or multi-blade. Joe offered some generalizations that match my experience.

Tradional

Hobo
Another older Case edition, the hobo knife features a blade and fork in a handy pocket-sized folding knife. (Old School Knife Works image)

“As we get more into knives we tend to evolve into one of two categories, and they’re often correlated with age,” he reasoned. “The older generation tends to go for the more traditional slip joints with natural materials and carbon steel like their dad or grandad carried.” 

Joe considers some “classic” patterns and brands among his favorites, particularly the knives manufactured pre-1970 by the old American firms that mostly have gone out of business. “When you hold an old Schrade, Empire, Robeson or even a vintage Case you get a certain sense of nostalgia,” he noted.

Modern

Pocketknife hinderer
Jordan Wagner said the market is strong for high-quality USA-made titanium framelocks. Among those fitting the niche is the XM-18 3.5 flipper folder from Rick Hinderer Knives. Closed length: 4.75 inches.

As for the other category, Joe finds that younger folks tend to lean toward modern conveniences like pocket clips, modern steels and the more tactical types of knives like Benchmades. Being just a bit on the older side myself, as well as a bit of a traditionalist, I reached out to Jordan Wagner at DLT Trading for some thoughts about what makes a “perfect pocketknife” from a modern point of view. 

From an online merchant’s perspective, he said the market is very strong for quality USA-made framelocks. Titanium framelocks from makers like Rick Hinderer Knives, Chris Reeve Knives, Medford Knife & Tool and custom knifemaker Les George in the $400-to-600 price range continue to be popular. 

Knives in the modern category tend to have a few common characteristics. They feature premium blade steels. They all have some kind of one-hand-opening device such as a thumb stud, blade hole, flipper tab, etc. In general, these are mid-tech production or small batch customs made in shops as often as in factories. The next level below the mid-techs are the larger-batch manufactured knives by companies like Zero Tolerance, Spyderco and Benchmade. They’re often high quality, built in factories to tight tolerances and most often made in the USA.

Often within these and other brands are quality, lower-price-point knives made overseas as well, such as the production Demko AD 20.5 made in Taiwan. There are also quality knives made by China-based companies like Reate, WE and its sister brand CIVIVI and others.  

Case remains the leader in the current production of traditional patterns. But is it because there’s a demand by knife users for a two-blade trapper? Maybe, maybe not. The folks at Case know and understand that there are two big segments of customers that they serve—users and collectors—and they make patterns to please both groups.

The Perfect Pocketknife?

I think about “perfect” in terms of pragmatism. When was the last time the average knife user needed a hobo knife with a fork? Have you ever seen a titanium framelock melon tester? Culpepper has his finger on the vintage-slip-joint market, and his take is that the rise of social media has opened up huge new audiences to the vintage knives.

“The unique patterns always have a market and a strong following,” he said. “For the unique vintage knives there’s good demand, whether they’re made in the USA or even England or Germany.”

More On Pocketknives:

How To Build A Tire Hammer

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A clutch player in the knifemaker’s shop, the tire hammer gives more control than other D.I.Y. power hammers.

Like a variable-speed hand drill, your backyard power hammer should be able to run slowly, at full speed or in between, depending on the task. The simplest way to guarantee it does this is to use a slipping clutch.

There are two main designs of slipping clutch. One uses a slack belt, a flywheel and pulleys. The drive pulley rotates within a slack belt. The foot pedal linkage pushes an idler wheel into the slack belt, increasing the belt tension to the point that the belt begins to turn the pulley on the flywheel.

spring-arm-to-pitman attachment
The author modified the spring-arm-to-pitman attachment to make it adjustable. Depending on which attachment point is used, the leverage of the stroke changes.

Another design uses a tire clutch, where the foot pedal linkage pushes a drive wheel into an automobile tire, with the hub of the tire serving as the flywheel. The most common “tire hammer” design uses a similar clutch but turned the other way and connected to a linkage. Your available parts will dictate your design. 

Why A Clutch

A function of the clutch is to reduce the RPM of the motor speed to get the hammer rate of beats per minute (BPM) into a safe and useful range. You want the hammer rate to generally end up between 150 and 250 BPM, though many variables change with each hammer. In general, a heavier tup (aka hammer head assembly) requires a slower BPM, whereas a lighter hammer can have a higher BPM. You do not want your hammer running faster than you can control it, nor so fast that the inherent forces tear it apart. My hammer uses a 24-inch tire and a 3-inch drive wheel for an 8:1 reduction of a 1750 RPM motor, yielding a calculated 218 BPM at full speed. Your hammer will run differently depending on your motor RPM, your drive and driven wheel diameters, and the hammer’s overall design. I rarely run my hammer full speed during general forging work, and the tire clutch gives good speed control. Full speed works acceptably well for drawing out damascus billets or breaking down large stock.

My tire clutch has an integral flywheel bolted to the hub. On the flywheel I welded several different nuts for attaching the pitman arm (for more on the pitman arm, see part three last issue). Each nut is a different distance from the center of the hub. This allows me to vary the length of the stroke, in my case between 6.5, 7 and 7.5 inches, based on where I connect the arm to the flywheel. Coupled with an adjustable-length pitman arm, this setup allows a degree of tuning to get the hammer hitting in a way that transfers the power directly to the workpiece with efficiency, yet in a way that doesn’t place undue stress on the hammer itself.

Choosing A Motor For Your Tire Hammer

As for motors, the size may vary a bit depending on the overall tup weight of your hammer. For most homebuilt hammer sizes, a 1 or 1.5 HP motor is plenty. My 40-pound hammer uses a 1.5 HP motor running on 110v and does not trip a standard 15-amp breaker, suggesting that 1.5 HP is more than plenty for a 40-pound head. Whether the motor runs on 110v or 220v will depend on your shop setup and what you have available, but you’d be best served either way with a motor that runs in the 1700 RPM range, not one that runs in the 3400 RPM range. There’s no need to go three phase or variable speed unless you’re already set up for either.

Doug Davis’ homemade hammer
Doug Davis’ homemade hammer uses a series of pulleys and an idler. When you step on the treadle, the idler tightens the belt and engages the hammer.

You will need an on/off switch for your motor. To run the hammer, turn the motor on, then use the foot pedal linkage to engage the clutch.

Sourcing Dies

Most power hammers have a set of dies in between the anvil and the hammer shaft. Dies may be built in a variety of shapes and sizes, depending on how you want your hammer to move the metal. Two basic die designs are flat and crowned. Flat dies move the metal somewhat equally in all four directions, while crowned dies will draw out the length of your workpiece perpendicular to the crown on the dies. Some smiths design their hammers to accommodate various top or bottom tools, or spring swages as well.

Tire Hammer Die Attachment
The die attachment on Doug Davis’ power hammer is more robust on the ram-to-die connection, but time will tell how the bottom-die direct-weld works out. (Erik Greiner image)

On my personal hammer, the dies are built out of 1.5-inch square 4140 steel bar stock, heat treated and ground essentially flat, with slightly radiused corners. Some hammers are set up with dies that are interchangeable but mine is not. Full disclosure: My die attachment is one point of weakness in my design. I ultimately welded my bottom die plate straight to the anvil, and I’ve had to reinforce the top die connection and re-weld it several times. Perhaps a more skilled welder could have done better!

Creative Necessity

I can’t emphasize enough the creativity necessary to build a functioning power hammer from scrap. It’s one thing to watch a YouTube video and think, “It must be nice to have a power hammer.” It’s another thing entirely to watch the same video and try to discern how the rocker arm connects to the center post, or how the tire clutch axle is set up.

At the time of my hammer build, there was an online gallery hosted in Czechoslovakia that had hundreds of pictures of various homebuilt and factory built hammers. I couldn’t have built mine without those examples. I don’t speak Czech but the pictures tell the story well.

Read More On Power Hammers:

How To Build An Appalachian Spring Helve Hammer

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The Appalachian spring helve hammer, including springs, hammer head/tup and more.

Some people find great joy in precision and following rules and plans. For those of you who do, this is probably not your power hammer series. I enjoy the creativity of making a thing from scratch. It’s not the precision that turns my crank, it’s that eureka moment of, “It works!”

In this installment I’ll talk through the process of building a junkyard hammer in the Appalachian style. Junkyard refers to the DIY-type build made with what you can find. Appalachian refers to a common design that uses a spring helve. The most popular earlier Appalachian hammer designs were called the “Rusty” and the “Dusty.”

Rocker-Arm Springs

I used a set of leaf springs for my rocker arm. The arm is also called a helve. When it comes to selecting your springs, if you have several to choose from, choose a sufficiently stiff set. If you have the choice between sets that are more curved vs. those that are straighter, choose the straighter ones. If you have the choice between sets that are longer or shorter in overall length, either one will work, but you’ll have to consider whichever length you choose as you lay out the distance between the center post, the anvil and the drive wheel. The length of your spring pack coupled with your stroke length will impact the speed at which your hammer will safely run. The spring action and whip action of the spring set during cycling increase head speed at contact, which improves performance.

leaf springs for the rocker arm a power hammer.
The author used a set of leaf springs for the rocker arm of his power hammer. The arm is also called a helve.

Your spring set needs to swivel or rock on top of your center post. I built my hammer with the springs riding on top of the shaft, and the shaft riding in pillow block bearings. Others are built with flange bearings, and others with the shaft above the springs. Any configuration is fine provided you have the clearance you need for the springs to rock back and forth as the hammer operates. 

Your spring set will need a swivel on the end where it connects to the pitman arm (the rod that connects the spring arm to the drive wheel). Like the top pivot, there are as many different designs as there are guys building hammers.

The end of the spring set near the hammer head needs to be connected in a way where the arc of the spring travel is converted into direct linear up and down energy. Again, there are multiple ways to accomplish this. I went with a set of rollers on the hammer head, and the spring rides in and out on the rollers as it arcs up and down. I have seen designs with toggle linkage as well. 

Hammer Head And Tup

The entire assembly that makes up the hammer head is called the tup. When a smith says he has a 25-pound power hammer, he’s referring to the tup weight. You are looking for a tup weight that is roughly 1/10 of your anvil weight. I built my hammer with a piece of 2-inch-solid-square stock long enough to make a 40-pound tup. For heads that weigh less, you can use a piece of solid stock for the contact area, and tubing or pipe to make up the extra length you need. While a solid anvil is critical to the function of the hammer, the hammer head itself only needs to be solid on the striking end to properly transfer the force.

The DIY spring helve hammer built freestyle by Doug Davis
The DIY spring helve hammer built freestyle by Doug Davis of Lubbock, Texas, is shown in both instances here from the pulley side.

The tup rides up and down in a set of guides. You’re converting an arcing spring movement into a linear up-and-down hammer movement. One consideration is that your guides need to account for lateral movement in all four directions. The simplest way is for the guide to completely enclose the hammer shaft. Contact surfaces between the hammer head and guide should be lubricated, and steel on steel is not advised. Bearing surfaces should be made of UMHW (Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene) plastic or of bronze. These surfaces benefit from a degree of adjustability to make sure that the hammer head is aligned properly with the anvil. 

I used set screws and a UMHW plastic cutting board on my hammer, with lithium grease as well. My hammer runs well with fresh grease and less well without. I grease the hammer shaft at the beginning of every forging session. The vertical position and length of your guides should accommodate the various stroke lengths of your hammer. You don’t want the hammer head hitting the bottom of the guide on the upstroke, nor the spring connector hitting the top of the guide on the downstroke.

Pitman Arm

A stiff arm connects the spring pack to the rotating wheel, converting the rotary action of the flywheel to a straight up-and-down rocking motion. This arm is called a pitman arm. It is adjustable for length, as the dimension will ultimately be changed as you tune your hammer by trial and error, or as you adjust your hammer to accommodate varying thicknesses of stock, or the use of swages, or top and bottom tools. I used a toggle linkage on the top and for the bottom of the arm I used large bolts welded to a piece of plate, which I then bolted to the hub of the tire used for a clutch. This is another area where your available parts and mechanical experience will dictate your design.

Read More On Knife Steel:

D.I.Y. Power Hammer Parts: Scrapping Together Your Project

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So, you’re going to build a power hammer… now’s the time to consider where to get your parts.

The first thing you’ll have to decide is which style of power hammer you will build. There are as many designs as there are folks who build hammers, but they fall into two basic categories: helve hammers and linkage hammers.

Power Hammer Styles

Linkage Hammer

At the basic level, a helve hammer has an arm that moves up and down on a fulcrum to move the hammer head up and down. A linkage hammer uses a wheel, tire or disk that rotates and uses the rotation to move the hammer head up and down. The Little Giant power hammer design uses a linkage, as does the commonly home-built tire hammer. 

Little Giant power hammer
The Little Giant power hammer design uses a linkage, as does the commonly home-built tire hammer. ABS master smith/BLADE® field editor Joe Szilaski pounds away with his 50-pound Little Giant. (Lori Szilaski image)

Helve Hammer

I chose to build an Appalachian-style spring helve hammer because I had access to a variety of leaf springs, and because the design is more intuitive and less mechanically precise. I figured correctly that I could build a helve hammer design from scratch, but that a tire hammer had some engineering points that would be difficult for me to figure out. If you have access to uniform steel sizes or must buy your steel, I suggest a tire hammer. I had good scrap steel and didn’t want to buy much. 

I’m focusing on the upright, heavier, more efficient metal-moving machines. Even so, it’s worth mentioning the smaller, simpler but less efficient helve hammers. I came across a good example in the shop of Shawn Moulenbelt, a Michigan bladesmith who was on season seven of Forged in Fire. His hammer used various sizes of hollow square tubing, a sledgehammer head and a half-horsepower motor. He used a slack belt clutch and interchangeable die plates. His hammer was built by Rusty Glovebox on YouTube and is a solid DIY (do-it-yourself) design.

Bladesmith Shawn Moulenbelt’s helve hammer
Bladesmith Shawn Moulenbelt’s helve hammer uses various sizes of hollow square tubing, a sledgehammer head and a half-horsepower motor. On the upside, these hammers are quick and fairly straightforward to build. On the downside, they’re not all that great at their one job: moving metal. Even so, a similar light use-DIY power hammer is much more efficient than your arm, and much less likely to get tired.

On the upside, helve hammers are quick and fairly straightforward to build. On the downside, they’re not all that great at their one job: moving metal. Even so, a similar light use-DIY power hammer is much more efficient than your arm, and much less likely to get tired. In my mind, if you have the time and skill to build a small hammer, you can just as easily build a bigger one. Even so, the small helve hammers may be just the ticket for your shop.

Power hammer anvil
The author’s home-built hammer combines a 5-inch piece of round stock with a heavy sleeve from a “mud pump” to make an anvil that weighs around 400 pounds.

Resourcing An Anvil

There are many different things that can make a suitable anvil for a power hammer and many more things that cannot. What you are looking for in an anvil is a solid piece of steel that weighs anywhere from 150 to 600-800 pounds, which can be difficult to acquire. 

Sometimes you can find solid square or round bar steel. Some folks recommend railroad axles. Others suggest forklift tines welded together. I’ve seen sections of a 2-inch square bar welded together into a solid 6×6. I’ve seen pieces of 1-inch plate welded where the hammer strikes the ends. Whatever you can find needs to be solid or able to be welded into a solid, single, massive piece, and your welder has to have the power to stick it all together. My hammer is built on a 32-inch piece of 5-inch round bar welded inside a mud pump sleeve that has a 5-inch bore. The total weight of my anvil is around 400 pounds.

What Not To Use

Don’t be tempted to think you can get a piece of something hollow like pipe or square tubing and fill it up and make a suitable anvil. Each stroke of your hammer pounds the steel in-between the hammer head and your anvil, pushing your anvil toward the ground. If you have any movement, vibration or give in your anvil, the force is absorbed by the movement and not efficiently transferred to your workpiece.

Anvil To Hammer Head Ratio

When you finally locate this difficult-to-find thing, it won’t likely be the size or shape you want. My anvil was round, which doesn’t easily weld to square tubing, for example. I had to deal with it. As noted, my anvil was around 400 pounds total weight. Yours may be more or less. You should design your hammer with a minimum 1:10 head-to-anvil ratio. Since I had a 400-pound anvil, I built a 40-pound head. If all you can find is a 200-pound hunk of steel for your anvil, you should stick to a 20-pound head or so. Design your hammer around your anvil, as the anvil is the hardest part to find. Alternatively, find the weight you need for the anvil and use the tire hammer plans.

Another consideration is the base for your hammer. I’d recommend the thickest steel plate you can find, mounted on the firmest foundation you can muster. If I could have built on 1-inch plate and bolted it to a 24-inch-deep concrete pad set into a concrete shop floor, I’d have done it. I had to make do with what I could find in my “free” scrapyard, and deal with the limitations of my shop setting. 

Power Hammer Center Post

For any hammer you need a center post. The post should be heavy enough to withstand the extreme forces involved in rocking a spring arm or linkage with a heavy hammer on one end. I used a piece of 4-inch tubing with half-inch walls. Others have used thinner-walled but larger cross-section square or rectangular tubing, heavy walled pipe or sections of I beam. The tire hammer plans call for a 6-foot-long piece of quarter-inch wall and 5-inch square tubing.

Final Cut

Power hammer base material
Another consideration is the base for your hammer. The author scored some 2-inch-thick, 30-inch-round, 300-pound base plates out of the “drop” pile at a local steel distributor, along with several other potential anvils.

My power hammer has become an essential tool in my shop, to the point that I sometimes wonder how I ever lived without it. I have only begun to explore its full potential. I built it for my appearance on Forged in Fire, where I was fortunate to make the final. I was able to come home and use my hammer to build my final edged piece for FIF. I lost the contest but ultimately still have a power hammer, and I can still take pride in the fact I built it myself from little more than a pile of junk. 

It may take you a few months to gather all the primary parts, or you may get lucky and find them all in one place. Next month’s article will focus on building considerations for a spring helve hammer, and later we’ll discuss the Clay Spencer DIY tire hammer.

Read More On Knife Steel:

D.I.Y. Power Hammer: Do You Really Need One?

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Why a power hammer may or may not be for you.

I think almost every smith wishes at some point he or she had a power hammer. 

It’s loud, powerful and moves metal quickly. It’s also the key to improving the production speed of forging and making damascus steel, and speed without sacrificing quality quickly translates into increased revenue and more fun.

It’s under such conditions that the smith turns to the Internet and begins to look for a hammer. Quickly he or she discovers several things. 

First are stories of people who got incredible deals on a hammer stored in a barn somewhere. These are like hunting stories of novices killing giant whitetail bucks, or fishing stories of a kid catching a 12-pound largemouth bass. The stories are true but it’s not likely to happen to you that way. If you’re one of the lucky ones who find a running Little Giant 50-pound power hammer for $200 at a garage sale, I don’t like you and I don’t want to hear your story. LOL!

Jason Fry and Travis Fry
According to the author—at left with his brother/fellow maker Travis Fry at BLADE Show Texas—a good power hammer improves forging production speed without sacrificing quality. His sub-hilt fighter features “Trashcan” canister damascus. (SharpByCoop knife image)

The next thing the smith discovers is there are running hammers to be had in the world, and they’re expensive. Along with just about everything else, the prices of hammers have increased the past few years. The odds of finding a working used hammer in your area are slim, even if you are willing to pay retail.

Whether you’re looking at the new production hammers or rebuilt old ones the price tag is steep, sometimes even $5,000 or $10,000. That’s a lot of knives and for many folks, there’s no way to justify the cost. On the other hand, if you can swing it, there are many high-quality production hammers on the market that will serve you well.

Meanwhile, desperate for a tool that seems just out of reach, the smith turns again to the Internet and searches “how to build a power hammer.”  

Little Giant was manufactured in 1917
This 50-pound Little Giant was manufactured in 1917 and is a clean-running example of what’s available on the used hammer market. (James Rodriguez image)

My D.I.Y. Power Hammer

I competed on the History Channel’s Forged in Fire in May 2018 (season five, episode 26, Qinglong Ji). I thought about several ways to prepare for the show. 

One was to practice various smithing techniques. I forged quite a few blades and practiced my forge welding. Another way to prepare is to work on equipment. I built a new forge out of castable refractory suitable for forge welding. I also decided to build a power hammer. 

I figured that if I made the final round on the show, I’d sure like to have a power hammer to use in the final build. If I were eliminated in the first two rounds I’d be disappointed, but in the end, I’d still have a tool that few smiths get to have.

Consequently, I spent five weekends in April and May building a spring helve power hammer, a style often called an Appalachian or Rusty hammer. Because I had a friend with an epic scrapyard, I was able to build the hammer for under $250. I did end up trading a few knives to my friend for the metal as well.

I spent about 50 hours of work building my hammer over the course of a month. I could have built roughly $2,000 worth of knives during that time, maybe more. Between the time I spent and the knives I traded, I estimate I have roughly $3,500 in my hammer. For that price, I could have purchased a running and functional hammer. The reason for me to take the DIY path was cash outlay—I had more time than money. 

D.I.Y. Power Hammer Considerations

I believe strongly that in order to successfully build a power hammer, you need several things. 

Piotr Delega DIY power hammer
Poland’s Piotr Delega, who goes by SteelCraft on YouTube, built his own hammer. He’s a great fabricator with engineering skills and a completely stocked machine shop. He started with a fully functioning LEGO model, created a 3D software model, and then built this fine functioning hammer.

Mechanical Inclination

The first is to be mechanically inclined. Building a hammer from scrap is exactly like building a racecar from a tub of LEGOs, and nothing at all like building the same from a boxed LEGO set. In a set, there are step-by-step instructions with pictures and perfectly shaped pieces that fit together. If you build a hammer from scrap, there are no plans, instructions or pictures. You’ll have to sort through materials looking for a piece that fits or that will serve the purpose you need, just like when you dig through the LEGO tub looking for four matching wheels. 

If you don’t have the necessary experience in mechanical design and fabrication, if you can’t visualize and then build, if you can’t anticipate future problems before you weld everything together, you may be better with a tire hammer or purchasing a complete hammer.

Welding Ability

Second, you need to be able to weld, and you need a welding machine with high enough amperage to weld thick steel. An import 110v wire feed doesn’t have the power to weld the sizes of steel that you’ll need to build a hammer. I used a 220v 180-amp class wire feed, and it was underpowered for some of the heaviest welds on my hammer, requiring multiple passes to get adequate penetration. It’s not what I’d recommend, but it’s what I had.

Regarding your welding method, stick or MIG or flux core wire feed is up to you, as all can do the job if the machine is powerful enough and you have the skills. SPECIAL NOTE: If you don’t have confidence you can weld steel well enough for the weld to hold up under extreme stresses, then you should buy a hammer.

LEGO power hammer
This is the fully operational LEGO toy power hammer made by Piotr Delega. He built a 3D software model based on it and used the model as the game plan from which to construct the full-size functioning hammer shown above.

The Right Shop

Next, you’re thinking of building a machine that is loud and heavy.  If you work out of a one-car garage or live in an apartment, it just won’t work.  If you are a member of a homeowner’s association (HOA) or live in a city with zealous code enforcement officers, good luck. 

If you have employees and need OSHA approval or insurance for your shop, you should buy a hammer instead of trying to make one. If you have touchy neighbors who already don’t like the fact that you forge in the backyard because they’re irritated by your two-hour hand-hammer-and-anvil sessions on Saturday afternoons, good luck. I’m fortunate enough to have neighbors who think my hobby is cool, a city with weak code enforcement, and I have a shop in my backyard. 

With a proper base plate and a heavy anvil, you’re building a tool that could easily weigh 1,500 pounds. If you work in sales, oilfield, church or some other vocation where you move every few years, you need to think about how you’re going to move your hammer should the need arise. I built mine with several bolt-together joints so I can break it down into parts of a few hundred pounds each that can be lifted with an engine hoist.

Materials Source

Finally, a good source of scrap metal is a must if you want to build your hammer economically.  If you have to go buy steel at retail, you’ll end up spending as much as a new hammer costs. If you can score your steel for cheap to free, you’re good to build.

Read More On Knife Steel:

M.A.C.K.: What Are Machine Assisted Custom Knives?

Learn what the latest BLADE Show custom knife award is all about.

Some people are familiar with “Mack Daddy,” the 1992 Sir Mix-a-lot album with the smash hit “Baby Got Back.” On the other end of the cultural spectrum is the Mack truck, the reliable American long-haul vehicle revered by truckers and country songs. Knife enthusiasts may also be familiar with the Bobby Darin’s classic Mack the Knife: “O the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear …” Just now coming into the knife culture is the idea of a “M.A.C.K” knife, which stands for “machine assisted custom knife.”

Custom, Production And M.A.CKnives

Savvy BLADE® readers know the difference between a “custom” and a “production” knife. A custom knife is made by a craftsman using a combination of skill, experience and tools. The maker grinds the blade, polishes it, installs a handle and fittings, and so forth. Custom knives are often made one at a time or in small batches. Sometimes portions of the process are outsourced, such as waterjetting blade profiles or using a professional heat treater. In general, the maker’s name is prominently featured on the blade, such as Tom Overeynder, Gary Langley, etc. The price of custom knives can be quite high, particularly as the complexity of the knife and the magnitude of the maker’s reputation increases.

By contrast, a production knife is made in bulk using modern or traditional manufacturing techniques. Blades are made by the hundreds or thousands, ground and polished by machines, and assembled in a factory or large production shop. In general, the name of the company is prominently featured, like Case, Benchmade, White River Knife & Tool, etc. Sometimes a production knife will feature the name of the designer, such as the various CRKT production knives that have BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member Ken Onion’s name. Production knives may be expensive but are generally more affordable than custom knives of similar materials and construction.

Princteon Wong award-winning knife
Princeton Wong has a five-axis waterjet in his machine shop, so he makes everything but the screws. An example of his work is this award-winning knife from the 2021 International Custom Cutlery Exposition, now known as BLADE Show Texas. (Caleb Royer image)

In between custom and production is a vast world described by the umbrella term mid-tech. It describes knives that use both production and custom techniques or methods in varying proportions. Some would say that any knife that has production techniques like waterjet is a mid-tech, while others would argue that as long as a person does the final assembly and fit up, a knife can be called a custom.

It takes talent, practice, education and skill to make a knife by hand. Many makers of such knives have no problem with using machines like a band saw, 2×72 belt grinder, manual mill or pantograph. At some level, almost every modern handmade, aka custom, knife is “machine assisted.” At the same time, the industry recognizes that when it’s primarily the maker’s dexterity and artistic vision that makes the knife, the label of custom or even “handmade” applies.

It also takes talent, practice, education and skill to program a series of CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) waterjets, grinders and mills to make a knife by machine. Custom guys often make “polished turds” and “boat anchors” at the beginning. Beginner machine guys break tooling and crash expensive machines. In neither case does a person wake up one Tuesday and immediately become a competent knifemaker.

Think about the amount of variability in custom/handmade knifemaking. Each steel, each belt, each grinder speed, each brand of sandpaper, and every variable changes the process. If you heat treat your own steel, you must master temperature control, soak time, quench speed, decarb, warpage and tempering, and must use a different formula for each steel. After dealing with all that, is making a knife by machine any easier?

Princeton Wong operates the CNC mill. It can cut complex 3D
Princeton Wong operates the CNC mill. It can cut complex 3D shapes in metal and handle material.

Not according to M.A.C.K. knifemaker Princeton Wong. In CNC you deal with the geometry and composition of various cutting tools, plus the speeds and feeds at which you apply them. You must figure out fixturing to hold your workpiece, and how to work the tool in a way that leaves the desired surface finish. “It’s the same idea as using different belts or different files for each task,” Princeton explains, “but the variables are infinitely more complex. And then on top of that, you still have to learn and master all of the different hand-finishing techniques.”

So how does the knife industry show respect to the skills and talent of the makers who artfully combine programming with handwork? How do you showcase the ability of a maker who can run both a HAAS CNC mill and a belt grinder?

Defining M.A.C.K. Knives

BLADE Show 2023 included for the first time an award category for M.A.C.K. knives. According to the category rules:

The knife must be of the folding/locking, non-slip-joint, EDC variety that is first and foremost a cutting tool. It must be functional, beautiful and have great ergonomics, yet still have practical applications and uses. It must consist of both at least one handmade feature—such as hand-ground blades, hand-contoured scales, manually machined parts, etc.—and of automated features such as waterjet-cut liners/scales, CNC’d handles, etc. The judges will assume that the knife’s parts that are not handmade are made through a machine-aided process.

What background education and experience does it take to make a quality M.A.C.K. knife? Just like with any other skill set, the path is quite diverse. Take Princeton for example. Knifemaking for him growing up was a passion.

“As an Asian kid into martial arts, I’ve always had a love for bladed implements,” he notes.

A waterjet machine uses a high-pressure stream of water and abrasives to cut profiles in flat stock.
A waterjet machine uses a high-pressure stream of water and abrasives to cut profiles in flat stock. Princeton Wong uses his waterjet here to cut Timascus™ for folder handles.

He bought a Sherline mill after high school that had been converted to CNC, and learned by trial and error from there.

“After years of fiddling with stuff, breaking endmills and crappy software, I finally started figuring it out,” he observes. But for Princeton, learning wasn’t all trial and error. He studied mechanical engineering and graphic design in college. He had jobs in print, web, graphics and fabrication. Eventually, he started his own machine shop serving automotive and architectural clients. In 2018 he decided to use his machining skills to make knives.

“I didn’t know the knife industry or knife people but had a machine shop, so I gave it a shot,” he recalls. “I didn’t own a ‘real’ belt grinder until I was two years into making knives. I had a 4×36 from Lowe’s but was able to do very close work on the CNCs. By focusing on an intentionally machined look, I was able to get by.”

Princeton has a five-axis waterjet in his machine shop, so he makes “everything but the screws.” Earlier in his progress, he would bandsaw blanks and then fixture them in his CNC mill.

“I never had a need to outsource, but most people don’t have 70 amps of 480-volt three-phase electricity to run a $100,000 waterjet,” he says.

A waterjet cuts steel and other plates into shapes, “but it doesn’t make knives.” It’s a highly efficient profile-cutting tool.

Bridging The Gap Between Custom And Production

Most people don’t take Wong’s path and start out as fully equipped and capable machinists when they begin making knives.

Consider the precise fitting and complex geometry of the joints on Jared Oeser’s “Tachi” folder.
Consider the precise fitting and complex geometry of the joints on Jared Oeser’s “Tachi” folder. Integral bolsters and Westinghouse Micarta® come together quite well.

M.A.C.K. knifemaker Jared Oeser started like many makers, with a mentor, a few tools and a new hobby. As a homebuilder, his business took a hit in the 2011 recession. Faced with spare time, he took up knifemaking. After a few fixed blades he moved fairly quickly into slip joints, merging modern materials into traditional designs at a time when that was a new thing. He continues to push the limits and bridge the gap between traditional designs and the “modern” folding knives.

About five years ago a friend needed a place to store a CNC mill. Oeser agreed to store it in exchange for lessons and use of the machine in the meantime. By the time the friend needed the machine back Oeser was hooked and bought his machine shortly thereafter.

After five years, he considers himself not good enough to make a knife completely on the machine. Coding for CNC is quite a different skill set, far beyond traditional knifemaking.

“I don’t want to go 100 percent machine,” Jared says. “I like the hand work, and I’ve gone about as far as I want toward machine-made. Everybody kind of finds their ‘spot,’ but the key is to disclose it, to say it. Don’t say ‘mine’s handmade’ if you’re afraid to say how you did it. At the end of the day, you’ve got to be good at hand work and have a skill set to make a quality knife.”

Handmade Vs Machine Assisted Knives

So what’s the difference between a “custom/handmade” and a “machine assisted” knife?

Wong suggested that a machine assisted knife should have a bit more precision than the typical custom knife. Because you can machine to exact tolerances and fit, there’s less room for error. He also suggested that the maker should try to push the boundaries of the machine’s capabilities. Just like there are a few knifemaking operations that can only be done by hand, such as Wolfgang Loerchner’s amazing hand-filed creations, there are also machinable features that people wouldn’t realistically try by hand. Creativity isn’t limited to hand tools.

Jared Oeser’s “Eagle” is a four-blade slip joint
Jared Oeser’s “Eagle” is a four-blade slip joint. This one has mammoth ivory handles and a 14k-gold shield, combining modern techniques with traditional materials.

According to Oeser, “Among the makers and collectors I know, we’re OK with whatever a knife is, as long as you honestly disclose how you built the knife.”

He considers his knives machine assisted. On a slip joint, he uses a HAAS CNC mill to cut out the shapes of the liners, the shield inlay pocket, and to profile the blade and spring. Even though he uses a CNC mill that is squarely in the “machine assisted” category, using it primarily to cut profiles is pretty much the same thing as a waterjet.

Taking The Plunge Into M.A.C.K.

As a mostly one-off knifemaker myself, I was curious what it takes to build a knife that falls squarely into the M.A.C.K. category.

After talking with some M.A.C.K. makers, I found the process seems to typically begin with waterjet cutting. Either the maker has used a waterjet before and has his or her own CAD (Computer Aided Design) files, or the contracted machine shop will have a CAD expert on staff. Experienced CAD folks can work from a drawing or PDF for things as simple as profiles, and may use modeling software for contours and handles.

Princeton Wong checks the tooling on a CNC lathe.
Princeton Wong checks the tooling on a CNC lathe. The lathe cuts precise round stock, such as screws and folder pivots.

Typically the liners are cut and the holes spotted, or are occasionally fully drilled and tapped. Pocket clips and backspacers come pre-cut. Handle profiles and contours are cut with a ball end mill, leaving a fairly clean finish. Sometimes this finish by itself is sufficient, while other times more hand polishing is necessary to achieve the final effect. Blades are typically delivered cut to contour, and the maker often does the bevel grinding by jig or by hand on a traditional belt grinder. Other times the blades come with machined bevels at varying degrees of surface finish. Once again, it’s up to the maker to decide if the machined finish is sufficient or if further hand work is necessary.

If you’ve ever used waterjet or milled parts, you know that the edge finishes are not precise. If you’ve had holes spotted but not drilled, you still have to drill and tap the holes. All in all, even in a knife that comes to you in a bag from a machine shop, there’s more to a cleanly finished M.A.C.K. knife than just assembly. If you want to be a winner in the M.A.C.K. category, you’ve got to have the hand finishing techniques down pat.

If you want a firsthand look at a quality M.A.C.K. knife, check out the applicable tables at a BLADE Show. Whether you prefer the events in Atlanta, Texas or Utah, there’s no doubt that “M.A.C.K. is back in town.”

More On Knife Handles:

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