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What's the point?
© Frank Ford, 11/20/99; Photos by FF, 1/1/99

I have a lot of tools. Way too many tools. In fact, for the 30-odd years (some of them a bit too odd) of my career, I've spent a goodly portion of my dough on tools of all kinds. Power tools, pneumatic tools, big tools, small tools, elegant tools, you name it.

But, when you get right down to it, I do most of my real work with some rather modest tools. Being a repair guy, I spend a lot of time with hand tools. I'd like to share some of my observations about knives, and a bit of technique, too.

First, here's a very popular knife:

It's the X-acto hobby knife #ll. As a kid, I made my share of wood models, and did lots of other projects with these little fellows. So, having grown up with this knife, it took me quite a while before I decided to put it down. Quite a few years ago, I noticed that I had abandoned the old X-acto completely. In fact, I don't use this knife for anything at all any more. Later, I'll talk about exactly why I've given up on hobby knives.

This is the knife I really use a lot:

It's my favorite. This knife is sold as a "violin maker knife" and is made in Germany. It comes in various sizes, and I use two of them. The big one pictured above has a blade 15mm wide by 2mm thick. That translates to about 5/8" x .080"

It's pretty hard steel, and the blade is sharpened on both sides with wide flat bevels which yield a low cutting angle, and a long sharp point. I try to keep from breaking off the slender point. . .

This is the smaller knife I like, the 8mm wide version of the German violin maker knife:

On this one, I've cut back the handle for a bit more clearance and a closer grip.

Most instrument maker knives have full length blades that are mounted in handles. That means they have a potentially long life because you can cut back the handle as the blade wears and is reground.

This is a part of my collection of knife blades I've tried and abandoned, or have yet to try:

The upper two are high quality American blades which are essentially the same as my German violin knife. The lower two are Japanese laminated steel, which is legendary for its keen, hard edge.

Just look at the cool brand, and the layers of folded, hammered, laminated steel:

It's the stuff of samurai swords!

Check out the cutting edge:

The multi-layered heavy part of the blade is a softer steel, but still quite hard. The actual cutting edge is super hard. The idea is that the softer laminated backing supports the brittle hard cutting portion so that it doesn't simply break off in use. Most Japanese knives are sharpened on one side only, and are flat on the other. They come in left and right handed versions.

In recent years the Japanese style chisels and planes have also become popular among fine woodworkers in the West.

The Japanese knife is another kind I've tried and abandoned. Why? Well, it's that damn hard edge. Sure, I suppose it should keep an edge much longer because it's harder, but for me that's just not how it works out. I can use one of the Japanese knives for only a few days before I make a curving cut into hard wood that causes the fine edge to shatter and crumble. Now, the blade doesn't really break off, but the very edge crumbles away, almost microscopically, resulting in a seriously dull and rough edge.



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