When working in US some twenty years ago I borrowed from the local library in Ketchum (ID) the Ed Fowler’s book Knife Talk: The Art & Science Of Knifemaking. Unfortunately I did not have time to read the whole book so I basically just skimmed most of it and therefore I do not remember all. I can recommend the book with good conscience though, because I did read one chapter in full and remember its title and contents well – “Knifesharpenophobia”. I consider that a sign of good and persuasive writing.

I have remembered about this book and this particular chapter recently when I was obsessing over properly hardening a blade for a knife that in all likelihood will never be used to cut anything harder than a mushroom or perhaps some soft wood during a walk in the forests. And maybe not even that.

In the past I have made knives from improperly hardened steel. Not that I wanted to, I did not have much choice. I did not have high-quality knife steel available just a few mouse clicks away, and even if I had I was so poor I could not afford it. And I lacked a lot of the knowledge I have now so I could not improve the steel I had.

Two of those knives are occasionally still in use (by me) whenever I go to the forest.

A knife

©Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size

A knife

©Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size

I let you in on a little secret: They cut perfectly well. With the second one, made from low-carbon structural steel, I was able to do even quite a lot of wood carvings and heavy cutting/chopping when I was camping in the past.The first one is made from some unknown martensitic stainless steel that I was not able to harden for unknown reasons.

However the softer than normal blade did not impede work in the slightest. All that was needed to do was to sharpen the blade a bit more often than is perhaps usual and it was much quicker to sharpen than other blades. Just like Ed Fowler says in his book:

…Granted, edge holding is a fine attribute for a knife. The problem is, knives that seldom need sharpening generally are usually too hard to sharpen when the time comes to sharpen them…

I could not agree more.

I think that for anyone who starts to learn the knife making trade it is vitally important to keep in mind the fact that for thousands of years people were perfectly capable of hunting, cooking and fighting with blades made from soft metals like copper, bronze and wrought iron. Sure, steel was the ideal material of choice once discovered, but untill the invention of blast furnaces it was hard to come by in larger amounts and it rarely had consistent properties.

I hate it when I come across some smug knife maker who berates some young beginner for forging or making knives out of the steel they can get their hands on. Some people even feel the need to hurl derogatory epithets at knives made from rail spikes or structural steel. I wish they stopped doing that, because it accomplishes nothing except maybe discouraging a future master from pursuing further the hobby they enjoy. Obsessing about the frequency of sharpening and edge retention is not necessary for a beginner, I would even argue the opposite. And why the aversion to knives that need sharpening? Well, I let Ed Fowler have a say again:

…What is knifesharpenophobia? …I define it as an irrational, excessive and unnecessary fear of sharpening knives. This is a malady that strikes fear in the hearts of all too many knife lovers and users.

And to make the point even finer you can watch this video where it is demonstrated that properly sharpened flat bar from 5,-€ low-carbon structural steel can cut just as well as 100,-€ katana:



  1. rq says

    My grandma, too, had a knife that couldn’t be inherited. The thing was barely a blade by the time inheritance at all came up. But it was an awesome knife, I believe it was the first kitchen knife they bought when they got to Canada.

  2. kestrel says

    I love this point, that we have not always had specially hardened steel for knives. Although… I DO love my hardened steel knife an awful lot, because I can cut open bales of hay etc. and yet it’s always sharp. Still! It could be sharpened more often, I am just lazy.

    I keep a knife sharpening dealie right on the counter and try to sharpen fairly often. I love sharp knives… but even so, I completely understand a fear of doing it. I get scared too especially when it’s a really nice knife; I worry I’ll distort the angle etc. I probably wouldn’t, but it still scares me. I’ll try and remember not to be so afraid, now that I know I have company.

  3. says

    The point of the samurai sword is not what the sword cost, but the training of the wielder. That guy is using the swords like they are baseball bats -- so what if they cut a bunch of mats, but as Bruce Lee once said “boards -- don’t hit back.”

    They are right that the sharpness or quality of the blade is not particularly relevant. That’s why maces and war-hammers have been popular ever since the monolith came to earth and taught the proto-humans how hammers work.

  4. says

    Marcus, I have no training with swords and I do not know about yours, but from what I gather cutting tatami mats is not all that easy. Get your edge alignment wrong and you will not cut it all the way through because the blade twists in the mats. That is why cutting mats is used in competitins as a test of skill with the blade.

    Also “That guy” is Stefan Roth, a german blade smith licenced for katana forging the traditional japanese way. He has trained fencing with japanese swords from the age of five and now is a trainer. Also he trains HEMA from German and Italian fencing schools for quite a few years by now.

    I would not dare to acuse him of “using the swords like they are baseball bats” and unless you are confident you are much, much better than he is, neither should you.

  5. says


    That guy is using the swords like they are baseball bats — so what if they cut a bunch of mats,

    I take it you haven’t been to many Kendo tournaments, let alone the training classes.

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