Kapatiran Suntukan Martial Arts


Monday, December 07, 2009

Journey of the Blade by Chuck Pippin

I asked Chuck to write something about knife making since I had a good time doing it myself as recounted here Put Hammer to Steel.

*sharing what you know*

Here is his story:

I am sitting on my old office chair (turned shop stool) in front of my forge. The garage is dark, outside the limit of light generated by the flame. The weather has turned cold, but I don’t mind. The heat generated by the forge is more than enough to keep me comfortable. Its deep, droning, rumble is soothing to me.

*the forge*

Presently I’m prepping a blade for heat treating; a process called “normalizing”. After I’ve pounded, ground, filed and polished the blade into the shape I want, it leaves the steel pretty “stressed out.” Normalizing is a way to help it relax prior to heat treating and tempering.

The nice thing about this process is that it serves to “normalize” me as well. I find myself somewhat mesmerized watching the steel slowly heat to a deep red-orange color. I can almost see the molecules stretching and relaxing as I bring the blade up to a non-magnetic state, to then let it slowly cool.

*Keet - a custom design for Tina*

As I am doing this it occurs to me that this particular blade is part of a commissioned set. I think to myself “I have customers! How did I come to have customers?” My thoughts drift to how this began, and what an interesting and rewarding journey it has been so far.

I listen to the forge. I watch the steel. I remember the beginning…

In January of 2005, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. That weekend of discovery began with what we believed to be a strained back muscle. Alas, it was not the back. After a trip to the ER we thought perhaps it was a kidney stone. Two more visits to ER, with multiple CAT Scans, led to them finding not only a kidney stone, but also “something else” that they wanted to run tests on. What they found, was a tumor, 19cm x 8cm, wrapped around my heart. Further testing showed more tumors on my liver and a lymph node in my neck which was slowly choking off the carotid artery on the right side. I asked one of the doctors what Stage 5 was…he said there wasn’t one.

*Zemlyi - a commission for Jay*

A week later, I “woke up” in a drugged-induced stupor as a new resident of the Oncology ward at Blodgett Hospital.

Thus began a year of chemotherapy, multiple surgeries, and radiation, as well as, strangely enough, my knife making journey.

I’ve always loved blades: knives, swords, pretty much anything with a point or edge. As long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by them. My studies in martial arts have only deepened my interest. It amazes me how different cultural influences have created such a wide variety of shapes and sizes for this most basic tool.


The chemo really kicked my ass. Essentially, the treatment uses poison to try to kill what is already trying to kill me. Since Hodgkin’s is systemic, carried thru the blood, they were trying to kill the bone marrow. It was MISERABLE. I was tired and weak all the time, couldn’t eat, couldn’t drink enough to stay hydrated, couldn’t sleep, and was nauseous all the time.

TV and movies were a distraction for a while. However, you can only watch the same reruns so many times. Books worked sometimes as well, but weren’t interactive enough. I really needed something to distract myself with…

*Revenant - a commissioned blade, 09/09*

My good friend, George, is a “jack-of-all-trades” fellow. It turns out, he’s into knives too…as is his dad. They just happened to know several prominent Blacksmiths around the Michigan area. (Surprisingly, there is quite a presence in Michigan when it comes to blacksmiths…go figure.)

*Talon - a blade for Dan’s Black belt graduation*

One of their friends is a Master Smith who lives about 45 minutes away from Grand Rapids. A group of them hold “forging parties” a couple weekends a month, which George invited me to attend with him. Their forging party consists of a bunch of blacksmiths (of all levels) getting together and basically pounding on steel for the afternoon. They might be making Damascus, forging knife billets, or actually forging blades.

*Walang - made for MG Buzz Smith*

When we got there, I was introduced around then we settled back to watch. With its constant low frequency hum and steady glow, the gas forge was hypnotic. The smiths used power hammers, hydraulic presses, and hammer & anvil, all depending on their task. It was amazing to watch a piece of round stock tool steel flatten and move into a 15 inch bowie knife. I was also introduced to the process by which Damascus steel is made. I’d seen finished Damascus blades, but watching the multiple steel plates being forge welded and pounded into one piece was nothing short of incredible.

I was so enthralled with the process that I didn’t even realize how much time had passed. Six hours, and about a thousand questions, later it was time to go home. What was an amazing first day! (And I hadn’t even felt nauseous the entire day.)

*Dad-Pick - a father/son collaboration*

I went to a couple more forging parties with George. The group was so open with sharing knowledge. I decided that I wanted to try this. I asked how to get started and was told the best place for me to start would be with stock removal. The Master Smith (and I forget his name now) said “Chuck, everything comes back to stock removal at some point, no matter how well you forge it.” He gave me my first billet of high carbon steel...O-1.

In a nutshell, stock removal is essentially taking a billet of steel (a piece of flat stock, in this case) and removing steel thru the use of cutting, grinding, filing, and polishing to shape your blade. It’s very comparable to sculpting in this respect.

*my first blade - ever*

One of the most used tools in any knife shop is the belt grinder. This marvelous piece of equipment comes in numerous sizes, shapes, and configurations ranging in price from under $20 all the way up to a couple thousand dollars. George helped me find my first grinder, a little 1x30 model, for $18 at Harbor Freight. He also recommended that I get a book by Wayne Goddard entitled “The $50 Knife Shop”. I did, and it’s an excellent book! I highly recommend it if you’re thinking about trying your hand at knife making.

I also picked up some files, sandpaper, and soft firebricks. You can make a forge for small knives in about 10-15 minutes, and use a MAPP Gas cylinder and burner for a heat source. This set up works very well. (see “The $50 Knife Shop- One Brick Forge” - great stuff!)

I drew up some designs, chatted with George about how to start the process, and was off to start knife making. It was great!

*designing with Ian*

The look on my Oncologist’s face was priceless…Although he was less than thrilled with my new hobby. A side effect of chemo is a reduction in the body’s ability to clot and fight infection. Any little cut or scrape has the potential to bleed uncontrollably and get infected. Even bruises can be dangerous! (Shaving, fortunately, wasn’t an issue for me, as the hair loss is a very real side effect of chemo). His was a valid concern. I have yet to speak with a knife maker who hasn’t been “bitten” by his work at some point.

There’s something very “Zen” for me when it comes to knife making. I was able to forget, for a time, my nauseous-ness from the chemo, the general discomfort, etcetera and “lose” myself in the process of bringing a blade into being. It is incredibly rewarding for me to watch the change from stock material to functional art.


I made numerous mistakes early on, and learned from them. I created a lot of extra work for myself as well…but that actually worked to my favor at the time. (more distractions…) I learned that if you polish the blade to a beautiful 1200 grit shiny finish before you heat treat, you do all that work over again after heat treat…so only take the finish to about 300 grit before. (Just as George said…twice)

I learned that pin holes need to be drilled pre heat treating if you don’t want to burn out drill bits. If you don’t, you’re going to be annealing (softening) the piece, and then heat treating again.

I also learned that the reflex to catch something falling is NOT your friend when it comes to working in a knife shop. Let it fall, especially if it’s hot steel, or something falling close to work piece that’s clamped in a vise. Do not, under any circumstance, reach past the vise to catch that damn screwdriver that rolled off the edge! Ummmm, yeah, where was I?

I did end up with a few trips to the med center for stitches. (Any of my friends who are reading this…feel free to keep quiet. Yes, I hear you laughing.) My incredibly tolerant wife, Jeanne, now just rolls her eyes when she sees me exit the shop holding a towel or cloth to an extremity. There is usually a deep, resigned, sigh followed with “I’ll get the keys…”

George was great as my first mentor. We went back out to more forging parties, where I continued to ask questions and learn. We also had a roommate who had some experience with blacksmithing. He was very helpful with my growth as a knife maker. I had many mentors. Basically, everyone who would show up to these blacksmith gatherings taught me something; they were all willing and ready to share their experience.

*Husk - A field blade I made for Sterling*

I learned a lot that year and survived cancer. I had also found a new hobby and skill that has become very dear to me.

A couple of years ago I reacquainted myself with a former student and friend I hadn’t seen in several years. Ian had gotten into knife making about the same time I had, but from a hammering standpoint. After catching up over coffee, we decided to try collaborating on some blades. It has proved to be a very good thing.

*my forging buddy, Ian, and myself*

Ian and I slowly built up a better workshop over the last couple years. I have learned much more about the forging/hammering side of knife making, and I like to think that I’ve shared some of my knowledge and experiences with him. Together, we have turned out some beautiful and practical blades.

*Escrimadora - for Mariah Moore*

Through Ian, I met Tim Carr, another Master Blacksmith, who has his shop in Muskegon; a very easy drive for me. Tim has also helped me continue my education in the blacksmithing arts. I also joined the Michigan Artistic Blacksmiths Association (MABA) and have met many other people who love this art as much as I have grown to. They have all been so giving of their knowledge and skill; it has been an amazing experience.

*Hybrid - a work in process*

I look back at the first blades I made in the beginning, and see how far I’ve come; each knife a little better than the last, each a piece of functional art. I think about some of the knives I’ve seen since meeting some of my mentors and realize that I am still just beginning to tap my potential.

*Hybrid - the work in process, completed*

…The blade I am working on has now completed its third normalizing cycle and I have heated it back up to a non-magnetic state. I let it soak for about a minute longer. It’s a beautiful orange color throughout the entire blade. I keep it moving to keep even heating.

*another commissioned blade- 09/09*

I withdraw the blade from the forge and plunge it into the preheated quench oil, edge first, trapping the carbon molecules and cooling the steel. As I wipe the oil off, I heat the oven to 400F for the tempering. Three cycles of heat soak/cold soak usually does the trick.

*TUF-a design collaboration with the Weasel, T2*

It’s late now. The blade is ready for the finish stonework. The forge is cooling and the shop temperature is dropping. It has been a good productive evening in the shop. I give it a quick sweeping, wipe down the workbench, turn out the lights, and go inside to my wife.

Life is good, and I am still here to enjoy the rest of my journey.

*Bowrung- a design for MBG*

*The Weasel - for my good friend, Terry.*


  1. My blade is walang awa or no mercy. Thanks for turning me on to the idea of knife making- another tool in my bag of tricks.

    Chuck is getting the craft down, tho tim the tool man has been an anchor. He WILL get it right, I know it.

  2. Great article, Chuck. It's really interesting to read your thoughts on the process I have seen you going through over the years.

    I'm looking forward to many more such days of blades, blood & stitches.


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