Time to Get Hot and Dirty!

I can’t quite remember if I was eleven or twelve when the teachers at my school and my parents agreed that metal work and woodwork were not for me. Sure, my mum appreciated the meat tenderising hammer I had made and it might even have smashed a schnitzel or two but it is unlikely it lasted much longer than that.

I first heard about Joel Black though a Facebook link. Joel makes some incredible pattern welded steel knives at his forge in Hereford and I was fortunate to visit him at the end of last year. It was intriguing to see how he was making knives with the distinctive pattern some of us have come to know as Modern Damascus steel during the great fake Damascus debate on the BBQ Forums over the last year or so.

In January, Joel’s Facebook page announced he was offering a two-day knife-making course. The interest of the Chemist in me was piqued – perhaps I could at last unleash the alchemist in me….. or at least put the horrors of metalwork in class 1B behind me.

It was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation then that I presented myself at Joel’s  forge for a two-day knife-making course in the Herefordshire outback.  He had instructed us that Legges of Bromyard were the purveyors of the best bacon sandwiches in England so I dropped in on my way and my day was off to a good start at least. As a keen BBQer harnessing heat and flame in a different way was a key goal.

After a quick safety briefing and the donning of safety goggles and ear defenders we were off. We started off with a stack of 10 layers of steel of alternating nickel content that had been tacked together and a handle welded on. Or first job was to weld these together by heating the block in a gas powered forge and hammering the sheets together in a power hammer.

It all sounds simple but the heat, noise, sparks and flames involved transported the three students to another world. We were soon heating, bashing and stretching our block of steel into a bar shape, hammering the 4 sides of the block to form an ingot of layered steel. It was hot and dirty. The power hammer was a foot operated beast smashing orange hot steel with occasional drips of oil from the hammer bursting into flames that danced along the bar and mixed with the erupting showers of steel as it was forced to comply with the intense beating the hammer was dishing out.

With the steel shaped into a thin, layered bar, we cut it into short lengths using a plasma cutter and, taking care to keep them in the same orientation, we restacked the steel and tack welded it together to form a piece of steel that when re –hammered, would form a piece of steel of seventy layers and eventually form the patterned blade we were after.

Time for lunch. The camembert box itself quickly burst into flames when we slipped it into the forge despite being protected by a square section of thick box girder. Delicious!

The process of hammering, stretching and heating started again and we worked our pieces of steel into a flat, oblong piece that would form the blade. The next stage was to sketch the blade shape and using a combination of plasma cutters and angle grinders we cut out the rough shape in the piece of steel.

Next we needed to start to hammer the bevel in the power hammer. First though we had to hand hammer a curve into the knife blade blank. Hammering the bevel will cause the blade to bend so we put a curve into the metal so that the power hammer would straighten the blade out as the bevel formed.

Our first day ended with a rudimentary knife shape with a rough bevel. We heated the blade gradually until the steel became non-magnetic at its so called critical temperature – holding our red hot blades against a magnet to check – and then covered the blade in ash to allow it to cool slowly overnight.

Holes drilled for the handles, the metal was gently reheated to critical temperature and plunged into a quenching oil. This rapid cooling locks the steel fine grained structure and ensures that the carbon is distributed in an unstable state within the metal. The quenching process can cause the blade to warp so we had to quickly hammer the bends back out whilst the steel remained malleable.

You could now see traces of the pattern in the layers of steel emerging on the blade. A short dip in an acid bath enhanced the patterns.

It was fascinating to feel how the metal had changed during the process – from the shiny sheets we started with, through a dull grey to a black piece that felt like it was made from coal to a springy blade.

After annealing the steel in an oven the next stage was to grind and polish the blade – first removing metal from the knife on a grinding belt. Sparks flew as the metal slowly surrendered to the intense action of a high speed grinding belt. Then it was onto various grades of polishing belt that polished the surfaces to a mirror finish and enhanced the pattern weld still further.

The handles were glued and riveted on next – I chose ancient bog oak to continue my alchemist theme. These were then sanded and polished down using the now familiar grinding belts. The process was complete after the knives were sharpened on a combination of grinding belts and sharpening stones.

Two days later, dirty, covered in metal and wood dust but no burn marks on my body and still with all of my fingers it was done. I had made a pattern welded knife! What an experience!

Joel Black – https://www.joelblackknives.com/
A chef for 17 years, and a blacksmith for 5. Joel has been head chef at a number of establishments in the UK, as well as working in kitchens in Italy and France.
After a cycle trip which took him to India, Joel decided to follow his passion and undertake a Ba Hons Degree in Artist Blacksmithing, to get to know everything he could about forging the perfect chef’s knife.
He now lives that dream, working full time in the forge in Hereford, creating hand made custom blades for chefs all over the world.

Andy Williams


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