Forging is a hot topic among knife experts and collectors. It’s safe to say that there isn’t a single person in the knife industry who hasn’t formed their own opinion on “forged knives.” There’s a reason I’m putting that in quotes – and that’s because what people mean when they say “forged knives” and what the actual definition of a forged knife is almost different. But we’ll get to that. In fact we’ll get into everything we can think of related to proper forged knives. So let’s start.
What Is Knife Forging?
Knife forging is a step in the knife-making process whereby an ingot, cast, or poured mold of steel, that will eventually become a knife, is beaten into shape, either by hammers or by a machine’s rollers, to improve tensile and fatigue strength.
Is this different from what people usually mean when they talk about knife forging?
While all knives are technically forged (and yes, that means the branded EDC knife you’ve got in your pack also technically has forged steel), when people speak of “forged knives” they mean knives where a blacksmith has physically beaten the blade into shape with a hammer or power hammer as opposed to ground away excess materials using abrasives or a CNC machine in a production process. Smithing is pretty much what people often mean when they say “knife forging.”
So all knives are forged?
Yes. All modern knives are in the basic term forged.
When steel is manufactured, it is forged from the ingot after it is cast.
When steel is poured into a mold, it needs to be formed into a shape, afterwards the end result will be manipulated to create a sense of homogeneity which, as we’ve explained, is what in basic terms, forging is. When forging a knife, you redistribute the metal around to improve it’s properties. Without going through the specifics of this process, basically, if you take steel, cast it, and then don’t forge it into a shape using hammers, rollers or whatever process you like to use, then the tensile and fatigue strength of the blade will be reduced greatly. You’d end up with a very weak knife.
So knives that are not forged are really weak?
Yes. Which is why production knives etc. – basically everything you can buy on the market – all feature steel that was forged by rollers at the foundry. We’ll get into more of this later, after you read over the process of knife making.
The Process of Knife Making & Why Bother Forging
The biggest thing is, people generally don’t realize that steel as we use it does not occur in nature. For steel to be considered good for working, it needs to be as pure of impurities as possible, and that is not how steels come out of the ground. Steel as we know it doesn’t come out of the ground at all- its produced from iron ore.
Once there’s a pure-ish steel to work with, that is taken and made into something usable – whether that’s an ingot, a sheet, or a bar – which you can then make a knife out of.
Simple steels like 10XX series carbon steels are cast using a conventional method and then forged so that the grain (and by grain, I don’t mean a literal grain in terms of structure, but rather the directional properties, much like wood) ends up with superior properties for knife-making purposes.
The process of forging rearranges the atoms in steel so that they’re different from how they were arranged before the forging. It’s the very same atoms, but now they are formed up much denser and there’s no question that after the forging process has taken place, the slab of steel is much more superior for its intended purpose: to be turned into a high performing knife.
So, we’ve discussed that all of the steels found in our knives are forged. Even PM (powder metallurgy steel) is technically forged by taking teensy ingots and mushing them together into one big ingot. This is a huge over-simplification, but this is the best I can do.
“Forged Knives” (i.e. Bladesmithed knives) VS Production Knives
This following response is going to piss off a lot of people (though I’m sure I’ve done that already), but frankly, the major difference between “forged”/smithed knives and production knives is that the production blade (assuming it’s from a reputable manufacturer) will have tighter tolerances, predictable reactions when dealing with lateral force, and superior properties as a result of a machine deciding when the blade is done as opposed to one man eyeballing it and mulling over the fact that the knife is probably finished.
This is a simple reality and the knife industry is swamped with people who try to sell magic processes regurgitated into some bizzare pseudo-science, but we need to be objective when looking at the issue at hand.
How “Forged”/Smithed Knives Are Made
- Take the steel ingot (that was already forged in the true sense of the word when they received it!)
- Heat it
- Beat it
- Repeat until desired shape is achieved
- Grind a rough edge
- Heat treat
- Grind, clean up, and affix the trim (handle, hilt etc.)
- Sell for a substantial markup because you beat on it for hours on end and that takes work
How Production/Stock Removal Knives Are Made
- Take sheet of steel (stock) which is again, already “forged”.
- Cut, stamp, or laser the shape of the blade out (depending on the steel- some steels don’t like being stamped out).
- Grind the bevels out using high powered grinders (wheels or belts)
- Heat treat
- Grind, clean up, and affix the trim (handle, hilt etc.)
- Sell for whatever price the market is willing to bare; dependent on the branding, designer, and where it’s made.
As you can see, the difference in the two processes of creating knives isn’t substantial.
Smithing knives, or “forging” as a bladesmith would advertise, only adds unpredictable elements into the mix, with no real benefits to knife making.
How We Got Here: The “Forged”/Smithed Knife Superiority Myth
The core issue at hand is that bladesmiths who forge their knives have a vested interest in saying that there is a performance bonus to their knives. Even companies who make kitchen knives babble on endlessly about how their German cold forged knives are better than x because of y. It’s all nonsense designed to justify a higher markup due to increased labour, and in the case of those kitchen knives (looking at you Henckels), it’s not even a person “forging” the knife, it’s a machine that mushes the blade into shape in a dozen or so strikes. Hardly the romantic image we have from their glossy brochures, aye?
No, “forged”/smithed knives are not stronger, sharper, or in any shape or form better than knives made using the stock removal method.
As a matter of fact, custom knives in general are not stronger, sharper, or in any shape or form better than knives made using the stock removal method. Custom knives are simply rarer, and consequently command a higher price. And there is nothing wrong with that.
What’s interesting about this whole situation is that we as a society have evolved to respect high quality and precision manufacturing, but when it comes to our hobbies, we do tend to take the emotional route. A blade has no soul, a bloke hammering on it for hours on end will not impart magical properties to a knife, and yet for some reason, so many of us fall for it. I understand the sentiment that there is something very comforting about owning something that was built uniquely, especially in these times of mass manufactured goods from China. But hiding behind thoroughly debunked arguments of superior performance is silly and misses the point entirely.
This is not a situation that is unique to the knife world. I think it impacts all fringe hobbies. A mechanical watch hand assembled in Switzerland will have inferior timekeeping performance to a cheap quartz Timex. That is a fact, but because we can observe this fact by measuring it, the watch industry instead talks about craftsmanship and unique design rather than performance.
When it comes to knives, if I hand you a knife that is forged and say it’s better, you kind of have to take my word for it. You can’t measure the objective performance in the same way you can with accurate timekeeping, and this is how we get into these tricky myths perpetuated by knife-makers that have a vested (financial) interest in keeping the myth going.
In 2005, CNC machines began to be utilized by all manner of budding knife makers, and people on the forums freaked out. The definition of custom became blurred to the point that arguments broke out, friendships were burned, and new words were created to explain differences in knife creation (midtech, for instance).
It’s utterly silly in my opinion. If you want a knife with nostalgic, old world appeal and charm, or hand made craftsmanship, buy a custom knife that has been hammered into shape.
Don’t pretend it’s for “performance” reasons. That would be patently untrue, and all it does as add more myths to an industry already rife with them.
I hope you found this informative.