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This article is based on a lecture I gave at the New England Bladesmiths Guild Ashokan Seminar in 2013. It was originally focused on sword design but it also applies to functional knife design. I was originally a custom bladesmith and began making knives according to the contemporary literature and examples of American custom knife makers that I met at the knife shows. As I made and tested knives of contemporary American designs I was surprised to find that they didn’t really perform that well, handles were uncomfortable after moderate use and the blades didn’t really cut that well (compromised blade geometry). It wasn’t until I started studying historical and ethnographic knives/swords that I began to understand functional design. Ethnographic knives/swords were readily available at gun shows and were designed for a variety of functions including cutting, chopping, stabbing, etc. They were also very affordable and I could purchase them and bring them back to my shop for study and testing (this was during the mid-1980s). They were edged tools used by people who depended on them for everyday use and they needed to work well and for long periods of time. After all, what we call “bushcraft” today was normal day to day life for peoples all over the world and throughout most of our history. This has since changed with modern technology and powered cutting tools and our reliance and expertise with hand powered cutting tools has dwindled.
Since my personal focus has always been functional knife/sword design I decided that I should study knives/swords from the perspective of “Bladed Hand Tools”. Knives/swords fulfill many roles and a functional role is only one of them. Throughout history they have also been status markers, jewelry, indicators of social groups/rank/occupation, neat things that people wanted, etc. What follows is a breakdown of each aspect of functional design some of which may appear obvious and simplistic but are nevertheless important.
The first aspect of Bladed Hand Tools that I would like to discuss is knives as tools and what that entails.
Blades are subtle things- very small design changes can lead to large differences in performance
“Geometry determines how a blade cuts, steel and heat treatment determine how long a blade cuts”- Roman Landes
For functional bladed hand tool design:
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