Ragnar's Knife Page

"A knifeless man is a lifeless man"
-old Nordic proverb

In Viking times everyone was expected to need and have a knife at all times. Not as a weapon, but as an everyday tool. By law, even slaves were guaranteed the right to keep knives.

The knife is a basic tool, possibly the basic tool. While weapons are a subset of tools, this page will focus on knives used for more general purposes.

I'm a bladesmith and member of The American Bladesmith Society. I forge knives in both regular and pattern welded steel, mostly in historical styles. I wasn't able to keep up with demand, and not everyone could afford a hand-made knife. So I started looking for quality knives I could sell along with my own. I wanted useful, traditional patterns, that would hold an edge and still be affordable.

I decided that the Scandinavian knives were just what I needed. Most of the patterns are historically accurate. They're not intentional reproductions, but after a few thousand years of refinement, they've reached a level of simplicity, elegance and functionality that is hard to improve upon. They are very reasonably priced (sheath knives start at $9!). Most importantly, NOTHING from a factory holds a better edge.

I went to Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway looking for suppliers. I now import knives from Sweden, Norway and Finland. You may want to check out my catalog.

What makes a good knife

Steel

Most knives have blades made of steel. Steel is a blend of iron and carbon. The carbon allows the iron to be hardened. Other elements may be added for additional properties. There are many kinds of steel, and makers add to the confusion by using different names for some of the same kinds. One major division is between “carbon steel” and “stainless steel”. Stainless knife steel does have carbon, or it wouldn’t be suitable for knives, but it also has other elements to reduce the tendency to rust. Stainless should really be called “stain resistant”, since most kinds will rust or tarnish under severe conditions.

Stainless steel is easy to care for, but it has a bad reputation among many knife users because the early stainless was almost impossible to sharpen. If you did manage to get it sharp, it wouldn’t stay that way very long. Stainless has come a long way since then, and the best of the modern stainless will hold an excellent edge. But it’s still somewhat more difficult to sharpen.

The Scandinavians are often on and around salt water, so they’ve learned to make stainless steel that works. I’ve had a number of folks over there tell me that their stainless steel holds an even better edge than their carbon steel, but none of them tell me it’s as easy to sharpen. Still, most of the upscale Scandinavian knives are made in stainless. If you live around salt water, or in a damp climate, stainless may be a good choice for you.

Carbon steel is often better for those who need a really sharp edge. Those who use a knife hard, like wood carvers, and need a really sharp edge, spend a lot of time going back and forth between the work and the sharpeners. Here easier sharpening is more important than rust resistance. Most choose carbon steel for this kind of work because it’s so much quicker and easier to bring back to a razor edge.

The difficulty of caring for carbon steel is often greatly exaggerated. Unless you put it away wet you shouldn’t have any real problem. I’ve got carbon steel knives that are still bright and shiny after decades of use. At most, the blade will sometimes tarnish to a gray or gray-black. This is an oxide which will actually help prevent further rusting. If you want to keep them bright an occasional wipe with cooking oil or mineral oil will help. On my working knives a bit of tarnish bothers me not at all. I personally prefer carbon steel, partly because it’s traditional, and partly because it is so much easier to sharpen. I have to admit however that the new diamond plate sharpeners have made sharpening stainless a lot easier than it was in the past.

Another reason I prefer carbon steel is that it’s much easier to work if you want to make your own knife. Many types of carbon steel are easy to forge to shape, and can be heat treated without expensive equipment. Stainless steel is very difficult to forge without ruining it, so stainless blades are almost always made by grinding them to shape. The proper heat treat of stainless is quite complicated and requires special ovens and measuring devices.

The heat treat is at least as important as the type of steel. In heat treating the blade is heated to a high temperature then suddenly cooled (quenched) to harden it. This leaves it very hard but brittle. Then it is heated slowly to “temper” the hardness to the desired level. If the blade is left too hard it will be brittle and likely to break. If it is too soft it won’t hold an edge well. Of course all of this is relative. A knife that is going to be used for chopping like a machete needs to be tougher and softer than a knife that is going to be used for wood carving. Hardness is usually measured on the Rockwell “C” scale. Most good knives are between 56 and 62. The intended purpose, and preferences of the users determine the optimum hardness. Norwegians like the edges to be about 58. Swedes seem to like harder edges, with stainless blades hardened to 58, but carbon steel blades hardened to 60 or 62. It’s important to remember that an average steel with a good heat treat is much better than any steel with a poor heat treat. Many commercial makers will temper the blades on the soft side, if only because it’s easier on the production equipment. Heat treat is often given insufficient consideration. It’s difficult for the average user to know if the heat treat is properly without extensive testing of the blade. Here you almost have to go on faith, hopefully based on knowledge of the maker’s reputation. Some of the better suppliers will tell you the Rockwell rating of the blade, and this is a real help if the information is accurate.

Some blades are made of laminated steel, in which a layer of harder steel is sandwiched between softer and tougher layers. This can be done with both stainless and carbon blades. It results in a blade that can be sharpened to a very fine razor edge, and yet is not brittle. It is also somewhat easier to sharpen, because much of the steel being removed is softer than it would be if the entire blade was hard. One disadvantage of laminated blades is that they will not resist bending as well as a solid blade of the same thickness. On the other hand, if they do bend they are far less likely to break.

Grinds

Believe it or not, this is a controversial subject, at least among knife nerds. There are at least three opinions of what is the best grind, concave, flat, or convex.

General Patterns

Pattern refers to shape and size. The best have been use for hundreds, or thousands, of years. If you see a style that's really new and has no historical examples, it probably doesn't work very well. I'm mostly interested in traditional European knife patterns.

Daggers

Daggers are double edged, symmetrical stabbers. They're weapons. They need to have at least five or six inches of blade to reach vitals. A sharp point and strength are more important than a sharp edge. The elements that make for a good stabber make for a poor utility tool. They're too long to apply leverage and control to the point. The thick, narrow blade results in a blunt bevel at the edge, which cuts poorly. They usually have a double guard, which gets in the way for general use.

The style is very old. I've seen some really lovely daggers worked from Danish flint many thousands of years ago. There are also some very nice bronze daggers. Apparently people have felt the need for personal weapons for a long time.

I don't do much with daggers. As stated, they're mostly weapons. Today, if you need a weapon, you should get a gun.

Single Edged Straight Knives

The simple straight knife is the most common pattern, for good reason. It works well for many kinds of work. By straight knife I mean one with a single edge, with a basically straight back and edge. Often the back slants or curves down a bit near the point, so the point is closer to the center line of the blade.

In the classic Nordic pattern, the edge curves up to meet the back at the tip. The back may drop a bit, but not much. Blades are fairly narrow and usually 3-5 inches long. There may or may not be a single guard at the hilt. This is an excellent all-purpose pattern. The straight edge slices well, the curved portion allows skinning cuts. The narrow blade will penetrate if necessary. The lack of an upper guard and reasonable length allow improved leverage and control. It's a refined, deceptively simple tool developed over centuries.

In other patterns the back drops to meet the straight edge. This provides good chopping or slicing, and a straight edge useful in some types of work. Smaller versions are called a sheepsfoot if blunt at the tip, and Wharncliff if sharp at the tip. A larger version is the historical saex or scramasax. It's also quite common in the Far East.

Another variation pecular to the Far East uses a straight edge that angles from the lower part of the blade to the upper part, like a large skew chisel. I find these awkward for anything but wood working.

There are many other variations on this theme. I'll probably get into them when I have time. Again, the page is under construction.

The Curved Knife

Curved knives, sharpened on the outer edge, provide improved slicing for jobs such as skinning. They work well with a cutting board. Most people find an extreme curve more difficult to control for general use. They do not stab as well. These are also very old. The earliest flint knives were of this pattern, and small sharply curved knives are found in the graves of Danish Viking age women.

Curved knives sharpened on the inside of the curve were also common in many traditional cultures. In larger sizes they became sickles and scythes. In smaller sizes they became pruning knives and baeleins.

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