Introduction: Bow-style Bread Knife

About: I love to learn new stuff. I am, by trade, a computer geek, but my true passion is the arts... ALL the arts. I have made movies (both in front and behind the camera), photography, pencil and pen art, comic boo…

A lot of of members who read my instructable on making bread boards have asked that I write one for the bow-style bread knife that was in the photos. And since they wanted it to make for Christmas, I rushed to make another instructable.

These knives are great for cutting fresh bread. Regular knives tend to wander and you wind up with uneven slices. The bow helps keep the blade nice and tight and also act as a reference point for the thickness of the slices.

I have a fully equipped workshop and use power tools to make these. They could be made with hand tools or smaller power tools. I will try to include hand tool instructions along the way, but all the pics will depict the use of bench power tools.

Step 1: Materials and Supplies

Material you’ll need:

  • Wood of your choice (more on this in the “Wood” section)
  • Wood glue (preferably water resistant glue)
  • Mineral oil
  • Knife blade
  • #6 x ½” wood/metal screws

Tools and supplies

  • Protective eyewear
  • Protective ear-wear
  • Dust mask
  • Table saw or a circular saw and guide
  • Jointer (optional) or a planer or jack plane
  • Clamps (five)
  • Bench planer or jack plane
  • Scroll saw or band saw / jig saw / coping saw
  • Drill press or hand power drill
  • 1/16” drill bit
  • Sandpaper (80, 120, 220 grit)
  • Tape measure
  • Paper towels

I buy my knife blades from Kidder in Canada, at least 20 at a time. With taxes, the cost of each blade is a little less than CDN$4.50 delivered to my door. They ship everywhere but buying a single blade can get really expensive. Finding a local source may be better. Search the Internet for “bread knife blade”. Instructables user nhampto9 has a great suggestion: you can also explore local Salvation Army, Goodwill, garage sales, etc. for an old bow knife or any old bread knife. Cutting off the blade from an old knife and drilling a couple of holes with a metal bit should pretty straightforward.

Step 2: Wood

I make these knives of contrasting laminated hardwoods to match a bread board as I usually build these at the same time. Working with local hardwoods will make your life a lot easier, and you can get good results by mixing maple, cherry wood and walnut, but I like to make these knives “pop” a little and so try to use figured woods, or woods with lots of colour like bloodwood, purpleheart or padauk.

In this instructable, I’m making one knife out of nogal, which is a lighter-coloured walnut from Central America, as well as a laminated knife made with padauk, walnut and the last bit of a plank of beautiful ambrose maple complete with worm holes.

Step 3: Cutting the Wood and Jointing

The finished knives are nearly 16 inches long. While I will cut most of my pieces around that length, I always cut one of the species of wood longer (around 20”) to absorb the snipe from the planer. Snipe is a slightly deeper bite taken by the planer at both ends of the board. Not taking snipe into account can ruin your entire project. The snipe on my planer is about 2 inches long, so I make some leeway for this. Since I want my rough finished knife to be 16-17 inches long, I add the 2-inch snipe at each end, for a total length of 20 to 21 inches inches. Note that not all species that you laminate together need to be 20 inches, just one. Those longer pieces will absorb the snipe for the whole board.

For my laminated knife, the leftover piece of ambrose maple was about 22 inches so I used that as my longer piece. The single species knife had to be made from a single piece of nogal that was 20 inches long.

To make the patterned knife, you will need:

· 1 piece @ 3/4 inch wide (A)

· 1 piece @ ½ inch wide (B)

· 1 pieces @ ¼ inch wide (C)

Using the table saw, cut the piece (A) from one species of wood, one piece (B) from another species, and one piece (C) from yet another species. If you’re making one of these out of a single species of wood, cut one piece at 1 ½ inches wide. Note that for the laminated knife you should cut the pieces a little wider than the finished size to allow for the amount of wood that will be removed by the jointing in the next stage. Also, I’m not absolutely strict on the dimensions; we’re going to be cutting the knife pattern later on and using the tracing stage to line everything up.

If you can use a circular saw and saw guide to make this, I would recommend that you pick a single species and cut one piece 1 ½ inches wide as explained above. It’s just safer.

Carefully joint the pieces in preparation for gluing. Note that it can be very dangerous to use a full-size jointer for such thin pieces. Always use a push block. You may prefer to use the bench planer (or jack plane) to do your jointing. If using a bench planer, take very shallow cuts to mitigate snipe as much as possible. Note that a correctly set table saw virtually removes the need for jointing (which is why there are no pics of the jointing stage).

Step 4: Gluing

You’re now ready to glue the pieces together. I use a glue board for this. It’s basically a piece of particle board covered on both sides with packing tape. Glue will inevitably squeeze out of the joints when you apply pressure to the clamps. Since the glue can’t stick to plastic, the packing tape on the glue board will prevent my glue-up from sticking to my bench top.

Arrange the pieces as follows:

A – C – B

With the pieces in this order, lie all the pieces except one onto their sides. Apply wood glue to all the pieces lying on their sides. Using a finger, spread the glue evenly across the pieces, starting with the piece closest to the only piece that you didn’t lie on its side. Once the glue is spread, flip the piece back up against its neighbour. Repeat until all the pieces are glued to their neighbour.

Step 5: Clamping

Start clamping from one end of the glue-up, applying good pressure on the clamp. Note that you should clamp hard enough to have some glue squeeze out of the joint, but not much tighter. Clamping too hard results in a weak joint as too much of the glue is squeezed out of the joint.

Repeat the clamping at the other end of the board. With both ends clamped, add another clamp exactly halfway between both ends. Then insert two more clamps in the spaces in between. Five clamps is sufficient to provide a strong bond for this length and may actually be a bit of overkill.

Wait 15-30 minutes until the squeeze out in no longer liquid but is rubbery. Remove the squeeze out with a scraper or old putty knife. Leave the knife clamped overnight.

Step 6: Planing

The knife is now be ready to plane. Plane the top side flat, then flip over and plane the other side flat as well. Figured woods (such as bird’s eye maple, quilted maple or flame birch) should be planed with shallow cuts to avoid tearing.

Once both sides are flat, plane the knife down to 5/8 inch thick (or whatever thickness your blade is), alternating the face that you pass in the planer. I take 1/32” off each pass on my bench planer. The last 8 passes are finishing passes that I cut at 1/64”. This leaves very little snipe, even though I’ve compensated for any that may occur.

This step can be done with a jack plane but it will take a while. If you are planning on using a hand plane, I recommend that you start this project with pre-dimensioned ¾” think lumber as you’ll be a lot closer to the target thickness.

You should now have a raw knife glue-up that is 1 ½ inches wide by 5/8 inch thick, and around 20 inches long.

Step 7: Marking the Contour

I make a lot of these bread knives, so I made myself a template. The design is a pretty standard bow knife design, one that applies only a little tension to the blade. You will find a PDF attached to download and size. If you print the PDF to 8 ½ x 14”, all sizes should be accurate.

Line up the template with the open mouth of the bow facing the piece that is ½” wide (see photo). Holding the template in place, mark all around. Use a white pencil if you’re marking on dark woods. Usually, if your piece (B) is exactly ½” wide, the ¼” piece (C) will wind up being dead center of the handle. If piece (C) isn’t centered, move the template a bit so that it is; it’s just prettier that way.

Step 8: Cutting the Contour

I prefer to use a scroll saw for this work. I do have a band saw, but find that the blade leaves a lot of marks in the tight curves, which require a lot of sanding. A scroll saw can easily handle the 5/8 inch thick material as long as you use the right blade. I use a 7 teeth-per-inch hook point blade which cuts with ease, and usually set my speed to 750 strokes per minute. The cutting of the knife can be completed by hand with the careful use of a coping saw.

Step 9: Marking and Drilling the Holes

We’ll be drilling pilot holes for the screws for two reasons. First, a pilot hole will prevent the wood from splitting when we install the screws, second, it allows us to place the screw so that, in the end, the blade will be under tension and will cut better for it. Use your blade to make some reference marks as to the location of the hole. If you look at the photos, you will see that I have marked circles for the location of a right-handed blade. As you can see, the mark is a little off center and the back of the blade will be flush with the edge of the wood. But if you’re unsure whether you're making a right or left-handed knife, it’s best to find the centre of the knife’s width with a combination square and drill your hole there. That way, the knife blade will look the same whether right-handed or left-handed. The back of the blade won’t be exactly flush, but at least the blade can be switched at will.

I use a 5/64” bit in my drill press (because I have that bit), but a 1/16” bit will do as well. I drill down about ½”. As you can see, I didn’t drill on the centers of my marks, but rather on the outside of the mark. More on this later in the blade installation.

Step 10: Sanding

You’ve done a lot of work so far, now’s not the time to ruin this job with some shoddy sanding. Sanding really makes the difference between a finished piece and a half-finished piece.

The knife is a small enough piece that sanding by hand is the most efficient use of your time. Sure you could start with a machine sanding of sorts, but if you want a nice result, you’re going to be doing some hand-sanding anyway. It's simpler and faster to do everything by hand on such a small piece.

I like to rest one point of the knife on my bench and sand up and down while slowly rotating the knife on that point. That way, I can sand the faces and relieve the edges all at the same time. I sand through 120-grit, then 220-grit.

Step 11: Finishing

The only finish I use on anything that will be in contact with food is mineral oil. Beeswax would also be acceptable (as would a mix of mineral oil and beeswax), but I find just the straight oil easier. Mineral oil can be found at any drug store in the laxative section (go figure).

Since I make a lot of cutting boards, bread boards, trivets, etc. which all use mineral oil as a finish, I usually have a pretty saturated paper towel pad around my shop. It may look pretty bad, but it’s really just saturated with oil and with fine sawdust from all the other projects on which the pad was used. I may need to apply a touch of mineral oil to the pad, but usually, the amount that’s already in the pad is enough to do a few knives. I let the first coat sit for five minutes then apply another light coat, and let this coat sit for 15 minutes. Wipe dry with a clean rag (an old tea towel or cotton t-shirt will do).

Step 12:

The blade is installed with a couple of #6 x ½” wood/metal screws.

I use this type of screw because it has a rounded head, as opposed to wood screws which have a conical head made to sink into wood. I’m using good ol’ Robertson screws. My brethren south of the 49th parallel will need to use Philips screws; blame Henry Ford for the absence of Robertson screws in the U.S.

Now you’ll see why we drilled the holes to the outside of our marks. As you can see from the images, I screw in one end about 1/3rd of the way in, just so the screw holds solidly in that hole. At the other end, the blade will have to be lifted up on the screw’s shaft to allow me to tilt the screw toward the hole which is “too far” (see photo). I securely screw I this end, then go back to the other screw. You can see that installing the second screw has pulled the first screw sideways (photo). Tighten this screw as well. The fact that the holes were just a little too far has the effect of bowing the wood just a little and putting the blade under tension.

Step 13: Maintenance

Your knife should now provide years or reliable service. The knife is not dishwasher safe. You can clean it with dish soap and warm water, rinse and dry immediately. Every few months, give the knife an oil treatment to keep the wood from drying and cracking.

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