by Joe Keeslar
Silver wire inlay is one of several forms of embellishment—along with scrimshaw, decorative filework, metal engraving and carving—used on knife handles. For me, none of these decorative enhancements should replace what the basic knife should be: a well-designed, functional, well-made tool using the best materials and workmanship possible. Take a knife with these criteria and add some form of embellishment and you have a piece that a collector, user or aficionado of fine cutlery would drool over and want to own.
Simply put, silver wire inlay serves no functional purpose, but it sure makes a knife look pretty if it is done well—with a good, artistic design and well-executed technical application.
My introduction to wire inlay was some years ago while building Golden Age flintlock rifles. Many rifles of the period were relief carved with silver wire accents. The transition from wirework on rifles to knives was a short step.
In this two-part series on wire inlay you will be introduced to the tools used in the process, pattern/design development, the procedure for inlaying silver wire and final finishing of the handle.
So often in undertaking a new aspect of knifemaking, a large financial outlay is required up front to get started. This is not so with silver wire inlay. You can make nearly all the basic tools you need on a modest budget.
The basic tools used in silver wire inlay are inlaying chisels. My fellow ABS master smith Jay Hendrickson has developed a well-designed, functional chisel that is easy to make.
First, acquire as many X-ACTO™ No. 1 aluminum-handle knives as needed for your kit. (The No. 1 X-ACTOs are the smaller ones with a 5/16-inch-diameter body and are available for about $2 each.) I find that three chisels are usually enough; you can always add more as needed. Each chisel comes with a blade that you will grind to the required size (more on that later). From a jewelry supply, purchase four mushroom-shaped hand-engraver handles at about $1.50 each.
Carefully remove the blades from the X-ACTO knives. Measure back 2 inches from in front of the knurled section of each aluminum handle and cut it off with a hacksaw. Using a 5/16-inch twist drill, drill a 1-inch-deep hole in the shank end of each engraver’s handle. This can be done using a three-jaw chuck and a Jacob’s chuck in the tail stock on a metal lathe. You also can do it with a drill press or drill motor. Just remember to keep the drill as close to parallel with the central axis of the engraver’s handle as possible. Epoxy an X-ACTO shank into each engraver’s handle.
Now make the inletting chisel blades from the X-ACTO blades you removed earlier. Insert the blades into the handles and grind off the point back to a half-inch in front of the widest part of the blade. Be careful not to overheat the blade and lose the temper, so you will need to cool the blade in water several times while grinding. Next, grind the blades to shape, making one each 1/16, 3/32 and 1/8 inch wide at the front end. Sharpen the blades and then strop them on a piece of leather coated with a polish (Simichrome or a similar type will do). They should be ready to go to work.
With the fourth engraver’s handle, make a push stick. Take an eighth-inch-diameter brazing rod 3 inches long and grind or file it until it looks like a small, straight screwdriver approximately 1/16-inch thick by 3/32-inch wide. Drill a 1-inch-deep hole in the end of the engraver’s handle and insert the brass rod.
You will need a small hammer, too. A typical tack hammer is adequate to start with. You may want to make a fancier hammer of your own design later.
Other tools for your kit should include a small, flat single-cut file, round needle-nose pliers, a small pin vise, a soldering iron or soldering copper, hand drill, tracing paper and pencils. You also will need a small, diagonal side cutter available through a tool store or jewelry supply and, if you do not have young eyes, an Opti-Visor.
Though you can hold your work while inletting it, it is best to mount it in a sturdy fixture. An engraver’s ball is great but pricey. You can make an excellent and secure holding fixture using an old bowling ball. Cut off about a 1-inch portion of the ball. Attach a drill press vise (from MSC Supply for $20-$30) to a 3/16-inch-thick plate the diameter of the flat spot you cut off (about 5-6 inches in diameter) using four flat-head machine screws. Mount the plate with vise to the flat area of the bowling ball with four 5/16-inch-diameter-by-2-inch lag screws. Your bowling ball vise should then sit on a rim-less rubber wheel from an old lawnmower.
To increase the holding ability of the vise, make four 3/16-inch-diameter-by-1.5-inch-long pins of cold roll steel or stainless steel, and drill three 3/16-inch holes .75-inch deep spread equally apart in the top of each of the vise jaws. You will want to cover the top half of each pin (.75 inch) with a suitable-size rubber hose to cushion your knife handle. With the bowling ball vise apparatus you will be able to securely hold your work in place while you work at any angle necessary.
The tools described above are basically all you need—not counting the silver wire—to get started. Many of the previously mentioned items you may already have in your shop, so you do not need a lot of cash outlay to begin.
Traditionally, sterling silver wire is used, but nickel silver, brass or copper wire can be a substitute. Sterling silver wire and other jewelry supplies and tools are available from T.B. Hagstoz and Son, Inc. The wire is sold by weight, not length. Two sizes I recommend are .008 by .055 and .013 by .055. I prefer the thinner of the two, but that is a personal choice. There is no right or wrong; both look great when finished.
Practice on a scrap piece of wood before working on a knife handle. My two favorite wood handle materials are curly maple and burl walnut. Many of the exotic woods are extremely hard and brittle; use them only after you have experimented on a scrap piece first and you have the end result that you want to see if wirework on them is possible.
It is obvious that the pattern or design development is what will make or break the final presentation of the wirework. Granted, the technical application of the wire is important, but no matter how good a job of inlaying is done on a poor design, it is and always will be a poor design. As Don Hastings, one of the four founders of the ABS, said, “There is no substitute for good design.” There are those people who are naturally talented when it comes to design layout and development and can draw a wirework pattern with little effort, while the rest of us have difficulty drawing a straight line using a straight edge. All I can suggest is to practice drawing proposed wire inlay patterns on paper whenever you find the time. For inspiration, consult two books by Dover Publications: Scroll Ornaments of Early Victorian Period and Florid Victorian Ornament. Both books are available from GRS.
Wirework designs can be classified into several different categories, such as, “S” and “C” scrolls, baroque, floral and rococo. You may also consider personalizing the knife by adding the owner’s initials in silver wire. For lettering designs, refer to books and websites on calligraphy. Most of my work falls into the “S” and “C” scroll motif, so this will be the style presented for this text.
Our knife for the wirework project is called a Paradox Series “Brut de Forge,” which is French for “rough and unfinished.” The knife was forged from a French double-cut file and has an integral guard. The blade is hollow ground with decorative filework added, along with engraving on the spine and pommel end of the tang. The blade was selectively heat treated, finish ground and polished. The knife has a 7-inch blade and is 11.5 inches overall. The 416 stainless steel bolsters will be engraved later. The copper-lined slab handles are curly maple affixed with copper rivets/pins. An “S” and C” scroll pattern has been laid out on the left scale. To check for design continuity, look at the reflection of the wirework design in a mirror; the reverse image will quickly show you any discrepancies in the design you may correct as needed.
It is imperative that the inletting chisel be pushed into the wood at a 90-degree angle to the surface of the handle and to a depth of at least the width of the wire (.055 inch). There should be no undercutting of the inletted groove and there is no wood removed in this procedure. The result is a continuous groove that will hold the wire without glue or epoxy. Each new inlet with the chisel should overlap the preceding cut by just enough to keep the inletting groove concentric and in line. In the case of the project knife, we will start at the first copper rivet just behind the bolster.
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