Introduction: Easy Knife Restoration, the Ugly Duck Becomes a Swan
First, let me say thank you for taking a look at this project!
Most people would immediately ignore this knife at their local yard sale, flea market, or antique store. Their loss can be your gain! In this lesson, I'll explain how to turn perceived junk into a knife you'll want to use again and again and again.
This is actually a very simple, beginner level project that does not look like a beginner level project in the end. In this case, I've taken a "piece of junk" and turned it into an expensive looking, razor sharp, trappers style knife. Don't be surprised when your friends want to know where to buy one for themselves!
Step 1: Ingredients
- The knife you wish to restore
- Sandpaper of various grits (details below)
- Wood finish (Your choice)
- Sharpening stone
- Damp Rag or paper towel
- Dry Rag or paper towels
Step 2: Selecting Your Knife
If you don't already have a knife you want to donate to the project, let me offer up some suggestions and advice for what to look for.
Estate sales and second hand stores are generally the best source for me and I tend to look for the knife that the salesperson is embarrassed to sell. Yard sales and flea markets are hit and miss since they tend to have the same low to medium quality sub $20.00 knives found in the major retail stores. I look for the really, really old knifes. The high end antique store where I found this knife charged me a whopping $1.00.
Things to look for:
- Quality metal (High Carbon Steel or Damascus Steel) Although stainless steel is not a deal breaker, it can be difficult to judge good quality stainless steel. Lower quality stainless steel doesn't hold an edge for very long. While stainless steel is shiny and doesn't stain, the steel can be softer and lower quality. Again, this isn't a deal breaker. Damascus steel is easy to spot, so is high carbon steel. The example in this lesson is high carbon steel. The rust and the blackened areas (patina) on the steel are dead giveaways to high carbon steel.
- Full tang or rat tail tang. Look for knives where you can see that the steel extends across the entire length of the knife handle. This style provides better leverage and stability.
- Hardwood handle. Look for a solid piece of wood that either encases the tang or two pieces of solid wood on either side of the tang. Oak, maple, walnut or even cedar are some great examples. Knife manufacturers usually have you covered here. If the wood is structurally sound, you are probably okay. At this point, it doesn't need to be pretty, it does need to be structurally sound.
Things to avoid:
- Plastic handles. Plastic handles and cheap stainless steel seem to go hand in hand. This is generally an indication of a low quality knife.
- Veneered handles. If the handle looks like plywood or you can see multiple layers, you are increasing the difficulty level of your project.
- Dry rotted or heavily damaged handles. Look for a handle that is still solidly affixed to the blade. While making a knife handle from scratch is not too difficult, it is also not a beginner level project.
- Heavy rust - Light or surface rust like what you see on my project is fine. Remember, rust on a knife is bad for the knife.
- Deep nicks, chips or cracks - At the very least, deep nicks take a great deal of sharpening time to remove the nicks. Cracks are a deal breaker, a broken knife is an unsafe knife!
Step 3: Lets Get Started
For his particular project the tasks will be the same for both the handle and the blade. If your blade is stainless steel, DO NOT sand the blade.
Step 1 - Sand out the ugly.
Step 2 - Bring it back to life
Step 3 - Finish Work
Above all else, remember that his is not hard. This is more about learning what to avoid and learning a process.
Sandpaper is available in various grits. Covering the various grits would be a class all by itself. The back side of your sandpaper will have a number printed on it as shown in the example above. That number is the grit. For the purposes of this exercise, you to need to understand that the lower the number, the more aggressive the sand paper will be. I generally do not use the same piece sandpaper on steel and wood. Once I have used it on steel (or any metal), it only sands steel.
Important Note: As a general rule, if you are going to use he same sandpaper on both the wood and the steel, do the wood first and the steel last. If you reverse this, you will be sanding steel dust into your wooden handle. That will probably not be the result you are looking for. Since wood is more porous than steel, the wood will absorb the steel dust you've embedded into your sandpaper as part of the sanding process.
If you are going to use a sander, use a vibrating sander such as a palm or mouse sander. Avoid rotary sanders; they tend to produce uneven results and remove too much material. After doing this project multiple times, even I would choose hand sanding over a rotary sander, it is just not the right tool for the job.
For this example, I gentlyused the 100 grit paper to remove the paint from the handle and the rust and unidentifiable materials on the blade. Any grit below 100 is probably too aggressive for this type of project and may likely create additional work. Any grit between 100 and 200 is a good starting point. You can even start with the 220 grit sandpaper on the metal as your initial step. In either case, avoid putting deep scratches in the metal; be gentle and let the sandpaper do the work.
So how do I know when I have completed this step? Think of this step as the "removing the ugly" step. Course grit sandpaper will likely create small scratches in your project. That is perfectly okay. Take your time and be gentle. You should focus your attention on removing things like paint and rust without removing much wood or metal.
Step 4: Breathing New Life Into Your Knife, Sanding the Handle
So here is where your knife will really start to come back to life.
Using the 220 sandpaper, I started sanding my handle smooth. Your sanding motion should follow the direction of the grain. Sanding perpendicular to the grain will scratch the wood. It is important the let the sandpaper do the work, heavy pressure sanding is not a good thing and will likely increase the amount of time spent sanding. In this step, you'll really see the grain of the wood show its true self.
The color of the wood will likely be several shapes lighter than when you started. That is to be expected and don't worry about it. I've seen very old, very dry wood turn almost completely white at this step. It is a good thing. You will also notice that your sandpaper is losing its' abrasive properties the more you use it. That is also good. Wear it down to the paper backing!
The butt of the handle is the end of the handle at the opposite end of the blade. This usually side takes the most time to get smooth. The end grain tends to be the most porous part of the wood. Keep working at it, it will become as smooth as glass.
In this project, the wood had expanded above the brass pins that connect the handle to the blade. I sanded of enough wood on the sides of the handle so that the pins and the handle were even as shown in the picture. Be a bit careful here if you have soft metal pins such as brass or copper. If you see that you are smearing the wood handle with metal dust, stop removing wood around that area, you'll weaken the integrity of connection to the blade if get aggressive here.
A Note about metallic pin stains in wood handles: If your metal pins have stained the wood around the pin, that stain is very likely not limited to the surface of the handle. You have a few choices here. You can accept it as patina, to can attempt to cover it with a dark wood stain or you can replace the handle.
When you have the handle smooth, it will feel like it is a smooth as glass. You are almost done.
Rinse of your hands and wipe down the handle with a damp rag. Grumble bad words and continue gently sanding until it is a smooth as glass again. So what happened? While the wood handle did feel smooth at first, the pores in the wood (and your hands) were also covered in sawdust. That sawdust created a false impression. The damp rag also raised the grain slightly. If you do this step a couple of times, you'll be much happier.
Step 5: Final Sanding and Finshing Your Handle
Now here is the special sauce that will make your project stand out from the crowd! While you can skip to the next step and get good results, this step is well worth the extra effort.
This works for any wood, you get the best results on harder woods. Wipe down your handle with a damp cloth and grumble unflattering words in my direction. Now, gently sand the handle again like you did in the previous step.
After a few minutes, you should see that your handle has transformed from a nice smooth handle into a highly polished incredibly smooth handle. While you can see the grain in the wood, you won't be able to actually feel the grain at all. It will also start to shine like a freshly waxed car!
In the first picture above, you clearly see the grain in the wood, but it feels as smooth as the polished granite it's resting on. There is no finish or polish on this wood. That is what you are going for. When you have reached this point, your are done sanding your handle.
How you choose to finish your handle is entirely up to you. For my knife, I chose a more traditional Tung Oil finish. As you can see from the image above, the darker appearance returned to the wood. I was quite pleased with how the grain is clearly visible. This is your knife, choose the finish you want!
Step 6: Cleaning Up the Blade.
Cleaning up the blade
Let me put on my safety vest here. This is one of the only cases where a blunt knife is actually safer than sharp knife. If your knife is at all sharp, please take care not to cut yourself!
Important note - Heat and knife blades are bad, bad, bad! If you damage the temper of the knife, the result will be a fragile knife. If you are hand sanding, this is probably not going to be a problem. If you are using a sander, place close attention to the amount of heat you are creating. The blade should not be allowed to get very warm and a hot blade is definitely bad
If you started with a stainless steel knife, stick to metal polish and maybe a buffing wheel to clean up the blade (the heat rule still applies).
For my project knife, here is where I focused on the using the 1200 grit sandpaper. Now, repeat after me, "let the sandpaper do the work, let the sandpaper do the work, let the sandpaper do the work". As you are working on this step, please remember that the scratches you sand into the blade are scratches that you'll probably want to sand off the blade. Deep scratches can and will be painful to remove.
I chose a dull shine in my project because I wanted the knife to retain some of its original character. Even though a wore out a couple of sheets, 1200 Grit sandpaper was just right for this task.
You can continue the process by using metal polish and a buffing wheel if you want more of a mirror finish.
Don't forget to oil and clean your blade before you put it away!
Sharpening your knife
Once you have gotten the blade finished to your satisfaction, it is time to sharpen it and keep it sharp! For this particular knife, the angle between the sharpening stone and the blade should be between 17 and 20 degrees. At 17 degrees, the knife gets razor sharp. 20 degrees will still give you a very, very sharp knife and the edge will last a bit longer.
How sharp is my new knife? In the picture above, the leather is as thick as heavy boot leather. The knife cut through the leather as quickly and cleanly as a new razor blade.