A cutler’s vise…

… is used to secure a knife or other tool while a handle is fashioned.

Although I’ve said before that I dislike working with metal, that is somewhat inaccurate.  More to the point, I dislike working with metal in my shop.  My shop is a wood shop and every time I have to work with metal, I feel like I need to detox, decontaminate, or perform some sort of ritual cleansing.  I’ve also said that I like making tools, and that usually requires working with metal.  Out of this paradox I have fashioned a cutler’s vise.

This all started with carving spoons.  In order to better carve wooden spoons, I started making left handed hook knives and slöjd knives.  Now, to better make knives, I’ve made a cutler’s vise patterned after one made by D. Comeau.

The vise started with four pieces of iron pipe cut at the local pipe yard.  The bird’s mouth of the upright piece was cut with a carbide hole saw.

After some sanding, a local welder helped with the assembly (thanks Dan). The knobs on the adjustment screws are fashioned from trimmed carriage bolts and brass channel with wenge wood infills.

The wooden jaws are white oak, lined with cork.  They have magnets imbedded to hold them open and in place when the adjustment screws are backed off.  I indulged myself by having it covered by a local powder coating firm.


Although I do like making tools, I think that I’m also a bit fed up with the metallic mess for awhile. Time to start the chanting, the burning of incense, …or maybe just the vacuum cleaner.

Persistence Pays

I firmly believe that if you expect to learn anything in this life, you have to be able to rise from failures.  So in the wake of some rather humbling opportunities for growth, I can now boast of having completed a small number of left handed, hooked carving knives.


The top knife in the photo is the original Robin Wood, Woodtools™ knife that was the inspiration for the project.  The next one down is my first completed attempt.  You’ll note that the curve is slightly tighter.  The curve is also not as fair as I would prefer, it has a couple of hard spots, or kinks in it.  The handle is cherry and was a close match in size and shape to the original.

The next knife that I made is the fourth from the top, also with a similar sized cherry handle.  The curve of that knife is more fair, consistent and open; a better match to the original.  I am much happier with that knife than with the first attempt.

After I was able to reproduce my inspiration, I decided to customize a bit.  The third knife from the top is my interpretation of a decreasing radius hooked knife.  The hook gets tighter toward the tip and allows for deeper hollowing of spoon bowls.  I also enlarged the handle a bit to better fit my own hand.  The wood is black walnut.  All of the handles were burnished and finished with Kukui nut oil.

I also made leather sheaths for all the knives including the slöjd knife.


How do you sheath a curved knife blade?  The tip of the blade fits into the stitched pocket at the strap end and the top is folded over and wrapped.  Like this:


These sheaths were inspired by legendary spoon carver Willie Sundquist, in his book, “Swedish Carving Techniques”.

I am nearly finished making knives for the time being.  Although I do want to make one more slöjd knife, and perhaps a scorp for making kuksa (Sámi wooden coffee cups).  Then I need to get started on some spoons.


Oh Boogersnot!*

Okay, so not all failures are met with the same degree of equanimity.  Today, I had nearly completed the manufacture of a new hooked spoon knife when it failed.


I was inspired to try and duplicate a Robin Wood, Woodtools™ hook knife that I recently bought.  The knife is a wonderful tool and has really made carving the bowl of spoons much easier than before.  I used a recycled saw blade as I have for previous knives.  This time I made a sharpening stick jig with which to grind the bevel.  The stick is essentially a temporary handle with a square edge that provides a reference.


The problem occurred while polishing the blade following heat treating for hardness, and before tempering.  The tang of the blade was weakened because of the mounting hole drilled for attaching the blade to the sharpening stick.  Once the blade was hardened it was too brittle to withstand the pressure against the buffing wheel.

I was really looking forward to finishing and using that blade.  It was my best so far.

* an expletive once recommended by my grandmother, in place of the word my father would use in similar circumstances.

Finishing the slöjd knife

The handle of a slöjd knife should fit comfortably in your hand and should orient naturally via an oblong shape, or by facets carved onto the handle.  The handles of most slöjd knives are usually quite plain. The finish is also usually simple, an oil finish or often no finish at all.


With all that in mind, I again looked to the Swedish Morakniv™ for inspiration.  Since the  Morakniv™ handle has an oblong cross section, that’s what I strove for.  Initially, I attempted to turn an oblong handle using offset centers.  I found however, that turning such a small piece with offset centers would not work well on my bench top lathe.  A rather large and bulbous handle was the result, as seen in the photo above.  Although the handle fit okay, I don’t think that it will be comfortable over long periods of use.

On my second attempt, I added a piece of wenge to the cherry handle, separated by a thin piece of maple.  I then turned the handle cylindrical. Using the indexing feature on the lathe, I locked it in place and used the lathe as a vice while I carved facets into the handle with a rasp, scraper and sandpaper.  Once I had the shape I was looking for, I softened all the ridges, sanded and buffed the entire piece.  A coat of tung oil and I was ready to add the blade.


I used a 3/32″ drill on center, then worked it side to side along the wide axis of the handle to create the initial slot.  For the final fit, I heated the tip of the tang to cherry red (keeping my fingers on the blade to ensue that it didn’t overheat), then I plunged it into the slot in the end of the handle.  I had to press the tip of the blade against the bench and repeat the process three times before the blade finally seated.  Sixty minute epoxy finished the job.

I gave the blade a quick honing and it’s ready to go to work.  I haven’t decided yet whether or not to buff off the straw colored coating left by tempering.   I’m generally pleased with it, but I’m pretty sure that my 7th grade metal shop instructor, Mr. Gillespie, would have handed it back, without a grade, and said go back and remove those scratches and I’ll grade it.

Next up, a well fitted sheath will complete the piece.

Wherein, I make a slöjd knife

Good carving knives are surprisingly simple items.  They only require sharp, well tempered blades with uncomplicated handles.  Undoubtedly the world’s most popular folk craft knives (slöjd knives) are mass produced in Sweden and are surprisingly inexpensive.  While I cannot replicate the laminated steel blade of one of these knives, I can however do my best using a reclaimed saw blade.


Thanks to the kindness of a very unselfish neighbor, I came into possession of a half dozen used saw blades, suitable for conversion into knife blades.  Saw blade steel makes a good choice because it is tough, easily annealed, hardened, and tempered.


I started by annealing the blades, heating them on a propane burner and a 1/4″ plate of mild steel.  I then used a Mapp™ gas torch to get them to a bright red temperature.  Once up to temperature, I folded the blades and the plate into a ceramic insulation blanket.  The plate helps to ensure that the blades will cool slowly thus insuring that they will be as soft as possible the next morning.


The next step is (for a wood worker) probably the least pleasant task.  The teeth are ground off the blades, they are cut to length and shaped by laborious grinding, filing and sanding.  Personally, I find metal to be dirty, smelly and nasty stuff, but at the same time possessing intriguing properties.  I’ll spare you any photos of my mess and suffering and instead share this one of the finished shape.


Once the blade is the correct shape, the next step is heat treating to hardness.  The blade is again heated with a combination of propane and Mapp™ gas to the cherry red temperature, then plunged into warm oil to quench.  The blade is then brittle and hard as it can be.  The oil should be warm to about body temperature, so I used coconut oil which melts at about 75ºF; close enough for our purposes.  This makes it easy to tell when the oil is warm enough without a thermometer, and makes it easier to store (when solid).


After the hardening, the blades were brittle as glass and somewhat harder.  I again polished the blades to prepare them for tempering.

Tempering modifies the hardness to the extent that the steel is no longer brittle, but will still hold an edge.  To temper, I employed our household oven set to 460ºF.  I heated the blades for roughly ten minutes until they were a medium straw color, then quenched them in room temperature water. I also tempered the tang of the blades to a softer (blue) point to ensure that they wouldn’t snap off at the handle when pressed.


Next up, fashioning the handle, assembly and final sharpening.

Oh well

Sometimes things just don’t go as planned.  Today, I was just finishing off a new spoon that I was carving when the end of the bowl popped off.  I had been carving the spoon for a couple of hours, following a couple of hours work the day before.  It was nearly finished, so I was pretty near to the maximum time invested in it when it failed.


When it failed, I surprised myself by not unleashing the torrent of curse words and emphatics that usually accompany a failure of this sort.  In fact, it was kind of an “oh well” moment.


I said that I was surprised, but on second thought perhaps I should not have been.  Spoon carving is green woodworking and, as such, uses hand tools exclusively.  It is methodical, nearly silent, and above all tactile.  The piece is turned over and over in my hands before and after each cut.  And with each cut I can see, hear, and feel the blade slicing through the wood and removing the shaving.  It is very satisfying work, and creates a zen like feeling wherein the process becomes all consuming. I have no doubt that it lowers my blood pressure and calms my nerves.

That’s why I probably shouldn’t have been too surprised at my calm acceptance of the failure, when the spoon was so nearly finished.  Perhaps the spoon was my mandala; doomed to be destroyed at the moment of its completion.



I like making tools

For some reason, I like making tools.  They can be tools for my own use, or for someone else, it doesn’t matter as long as they are useful and made with enough craft to be admired, …at least a little.


One of the more useful tools in my shop is a small brass mallet which I purchased many years ago.  I like it because its heft and size allow me to apply considerable force with only finger tip control.  It is my go-to mallet for anything to do with chisels, short of a large mortising chisel.

So I contrived to replicate my old favorite, with perhaps a small evolution toward a more ergonomic handle.  The manufacture was simple enough, as brass is easily turned on a wood lathe with modern carbide tools.  A short piece of 3/8″ threaded “ready rod” holds the two parts together.  The handles are cherry, the heads are 1 5/8″ hardened naval brass.

Hopefully, they will be as useful as their inspiration has been.