Updated: Aug 15, 2022
It's been a while since I've made a blade. Between slinging fireworks this summer (during which time the weather was glorious), the after-season slump, and then a long spate of humid hell-heat, I've been lacking the headspace for creativity. A couple weeks ago John informed me about a competition in the ULA weapons group: German hauswehrs, bauernwehrs, and messers. I assume he did this knowing I couldn't not enter.
I am infatuated with all manner of belt knives. They're often simply made with perhaps a little file work applied by the maker or later, an owner. Hundreds have been found in the Thames, possibly dropped by dockworkers or boatmen (or even a couple murders?). What curse was uttered when the owner watched their most useful tool fade quicky into the muddy water? Was it his or her favorite? What was the last meal it was used at? I'm probably just getting old, but I find those questions far more alluring than 'at which coronations was this gaudy hanger used?'.
Right...the competition. I wasn't really sold on the whole 'German knife' thing. Nothing against German steel! I've just never had a blade from Germany grab my attention. I'll admit I wasn't really looking...I had my Thames knives. Why milk your neighbor's cow when you've got a gallon in the fridge? Something like that. Alas, John slipped in 'belt knife' and I was forced to google the funny German words: hauswehr, bauernwehr, and messer. I wasn't keen on the size nor blade shape of the messer and since the distinction between bauernwehr/hauswehr is fuzzy, and bauernwehr is harder to spell, I'm calling this a hauswehr. Onward to the process!
Propane is getting expensive, so I dusted off the coal forge. It's a work in progress thus the paper front but I prefer coal to gas. I personally feel I get far less tenacious scale built up when working in coal. Starting with 1095 steel bar I coaxed out the tip first, careful to avoid fish-mouthing. Working back from there I drew out the knife, trying to keep the distal taper (how much the blade narrows along the spine from the guard to the point) as even as possible. I also had to fight not making the blade chef's knife thin since the originals were both utilitarian and defensive.
Once the business end of the blade was shaped, I moved on to necking down the tang. This is my favorite part of a blade to forge. It's where I start to see what the blade will become.
This project allowed me to play with a new technique: drawing a peen out of a full tang. My normal forge flow is to have a general idea of blade aesthetics, forge out a really nice blade, rush through an ugly rat tail or flat tang with the intention of 'cleaning it up at the grinder', and then fight through the cleaning up phase because I forgot and heat-treated the blade before remembering. This ends up being a source of frustration plus I waste belts.
No sloppy tangs. I forced myself to slow down.
Look at me being all adulty n'stuff!
Patience paid off and I ended up with a pretty decent near forge-finished blade.
Speaking of forgetting to do stuff before heat treat, we were in the process of prepping for heat treat when I remembered to drill the pin holes. To do that I needed to figure out where to place them. That would require sitting down and coming up with an idea. There went my gold star for adulting. I traced the blade, cleaned up what I thought would need to come off in grinding, and whipped out this fairly un-German design:
I got the holes drilled and proceeded to heat treat. I let John do this because he's faster and has a better eye for straightness. I manage programming the kiln and beating it into submission when necessary.
The blade needed very little straightening during the unstable austenite phase. I can't say the same for a massive hollow ground cleaver that also got heat treated in this batch. Twice. Because I love adding terrible wrought and shear steel to everything. Working on the monosteel hauswehr has been a refreshing change from bizarre, laminated monstrosities.
Back to said knife! I cleaned it up on the belt grinder and got to working on the handle. I've had a new material called ' Alternative Ivory' sitting around for some time and I've been itching to use it. I hadn't made anything worthy yet, I suppose. I deemed this knife of sufficient quality to warrant the polyester-based material. Wrapping my head around the rest of the construction method was not as easy as I first expected. Going back to the Thames knives I like a common sensical handle. Either flat scales with aesthetically-places pins or a rat tail with a peened tang. Not both.
It was at this point I started to realize my initial design was bunk. Too Deco/Neuveux. Too kid gloves. Not enough macho German bling. I tossed the sketch aside and just started patterning the individual handle components in card stock.
I used a mix of red and yellow brass. Red for the pieces that would undergo repoussé, yellow for anything else. I've had some real heart-breaking moments attempting to push yellow brass farther than it wanted to go (admittedly more due to my own impatience), and I wanted to avoid having that fear looming at the back of brain whilst working. Sure, the color will be a little wonky after patination, but I've seen some originals with all sorts of odd mish-mashed materials. I'm just keeping it real.
The brass scales were easy. I cut out sheet and bar pieces and drilled two holes for 1/8" brass rod to fit in (an aside: why is it the O.D. of rod never matches stated bit size? Am I missing something?). Using a thin reamer, I bore out countersinks so that the pins would have something to hold to after being ground flat. Some annealing and a couple good whacks of the hammer and the scales were assembled. You might be looking at the photos above wondering why that one pin hole is so off. I, too, wondered that. The answer was 'oops'. The butt pieces were also cut at this time and drilled to get a dry-fit so I could move on to the ivory (huzzah!).
Dry-fitting the brass scales with attached bolsters using kitchen skewers. Two holes have skewers glued with CA. Cyanoacrylate glue debonds at a temperature lower than steel temper. This lets me flash parts with a torch to release them.
I now needed to make channels for the ivory to sit under. I could have used my Fordom but for something this small and fiddly I reached for my gravers. Rotary tools make work easier and faster, but they also make screw-ups worse. I attached the bolster scales to scrap wood using CA glue, and then locked them in the vise. For the pommel parts I pinned them together using kitchen skewers (my poor-woman's Clecos) and sunk them into hot pitch.
My pitch bowl is simple: an old bowling ball with 1/3 sliced off. This sits on an old mower wheel and allows for free rotation. The pitch, which gets mounded on the flat face of the bowling ball, I made myself with the following recipe, give or take:
1 Kg finely ground fire clay or Plaster of Paris
750 grams of Pine Rosin
50 ml of vegetable oil
1 teaspoon of charcoal powder.
There's tons of recipes online, all with varying attributes. I worked off a recipe for Japanese Matsu Yani pitch I found on The Carving Path. The first pitch I ever used was just a smidge too brittle for my liking. Matsu Yani allows for more working time before the piece pops off. I like it, your mileage may vary.
Bolster and pommel pieces held in place by glue and pitch for engraving
I tried to cheat with the faux ivory using a heat gun to shape the bits where the scales would fit under the brass hardware and learned that Alternative Ivory is not thermoformable. Instead, it becomes brittle when heated. If allowed to cool without disturbing the material, it seemed to return to its original state. Heating also produced a more accurate aged ivory color which I may exploit in future projects. Weird stuff. With thermoforming no longer an option I grabbed my files and got to work. It took roughly two minutes to get a clean fit. Glad I wasted time trying to melt the stuff.
I now had the bones of the piece, on to the bling. Many German blades have wonderful woodsy hunting themes. A macho subject elegantly executed: quillons shaped like deer feet (wrapped in spiraling boughs of oak leaves), acorns and hounds, terrifying boar and god-like stags. I like my bling more understated so I defaulted to acanthus leaves. Why's that the default? Blame fine art school and a stint as an apprentice tattoo artist. Both love their acanthus leaves. I love acanthus leaves! They're great artistic filler and can be pretty poorly executed yet still look 'fancy'.
Starting with scrap red brass for the nagel (small finger guard on the hand-side of the hilt), I dished a random, sort of curled leaf shape in the pitch pot. This one piece went incredibly slow as I was still worried about the brass forming cracks. There were easily 20 anneals for this one tiny little thing. Eventually I learned the material and grew bolder. Since I still wasn't sure how the piece would end up, I left the nagel fairly basic.
Again, I used a thin reamer to create a counter-sunk recess on the back of the right-hand scale. Peening the rivet over on the nagel side was made easier with the mighty pitch pot and chasing chisels. There were a couple oopsies but we'll just call those witness marks. I MacGuyvered a raising stake and peened the underside pin face flush to the back/inside of the scale.
Wooo boy I had no idea where this thing was going. It didn't feel right yet so I held off on carving the ivory scales, instead taking them down to 'almost' finished. This allowed me to continue with the rest of the hardware.
I started on the butt cap bit. After getting used to the red brass and the new pitch, this part went fairly quickly. With the scales taped to protect the surface and the pommel pieces sorta right, I formed a freehand cap, alternating between creating the overall u-shape and the overhang. It was at this point I started to see the knife. The excitement returned and I forged ahead (pun intended).
Now that I had a goal I took fewer photos (sorry, I was in the zone!). All processes going forward were similar to those already presented here: pitch pot, chasing and light repousse, annealing, same finger smashed, and filing. I started working all the brass fancy bits together, trying to make them look like they belong together. Engraving entered the game as a means to pull in a little graphical interest via hatching and contour accentuation. Oh, and I added a nut to fluff out the backside.
During final assembly is when I discovered that Newtonian property inherent in the faux ivory. I of course dropped the thing while trying to get a pin in, and one scale shattered. No worries, I used this scale for testing dyes. Alcohols seem to work well enough, though I would suggest getting your work all finished before applying as they don't penetrate very deep. I settled on just trying to create the effect of weathered ivory and mixed a drop or two of Fiebing's Pro chocolate brown and a dash of turmeric in denatured alcohol until it was 'kidney punch'* yellow/brown. This got me to that tobacco tar color I've seen on some contemporary ivories. To create the effect of crazing, I scratched in random 'imperfections', trying to give the idea of a grain. Several rounds of scratching and then buffing back with steel wool gave me what I feel is decent antiquing. Over that I used another quick and easy Fiebing's product, their antique finish which is essentially all the dirt, grime, and grease objects collect over time in one handy little tub of poo-colored paste.
Currently the gaudy velveteen I order for the sheath is held up in Salt Lake City so the knife is going on the back burner. In the meantime, I'll be deciding if I want to etch the blade, etch and guild it, or leave it plain. Until then!