On our way to our holiday destination in the south of Slovakia, my girlfriend an I visited Dictum last summer. I think it’s the largest store for traditional tools and supplies, located in southern Bavaria. Judging by the prestige and fame of this shop, I was hoping for a massive store to wander through for hours, picking stuff off the shelves and stacking them in my cart. Sadly, it’s more of a small showroom where you can see and try many of their products. The store is clearly more internet-oriented. Half the stuff I was interested in was not at the actual showroom, but in the warehouse nearby. This was especially so for the materials, such as leather and wood. These I was most hoping to see and pick out myself. Next time I’ll order online.
So, even though the visit was a bit disappointing, I did buy some nice things. One of those things was a little, cheap Japanese blade. The blade itself is 80 mm (slightly over 3″) long and laminated, with a center layer of what they call “white paper steel”. You often see borderline magical properties assigned to certain types of steel, and I had a feeling that “white paper steel” might not be more than a marketing trick. As far as I have been able to find out, white paper steel is called that because it comes wrapped in white paper. There is also blue paper steel that, guess what, comes in blue paper. No really. Some say it’s harder than other steel. Who knows. It might just be hype.
However, this knife was quite cheap, and I saw no reason not to having a go. I decided to make something inspired by both Japanese knives and Scandinavian/Finnish Puukko’s. Puukko’s are the traditional “everyday” knife in Finland and northern Scandinavia. The Japanese thing was kind of obvious: the blade is Japanese. Other than that, I think those horn ferrules look awesome. I used some buffalo horn I had laying around to make a ferrule and some mystery wood I cut down in Germany for the handle. I roughly carved the shape and then sanded it smooth.
After drilling the hole for the tang with my tiny dremel drill and filing it to size, it was time to glue in the knife. I’ve seen people do this with epoxy, but I wanted to keep this thing all natural. My brother, who has some experience with blacksmithing and making knives, tought me how to make cutler’s resin. This is a really simple, really strong glue made from ingredients you could theoretically gather in a local forest. Here’s the recipe we used:
-4 parts resin (also called colophony, rosin, Greek pitch or pix Graeca)
-1 part beeswax
-1 part powdered charcoal
It’s dead simple to make. you just melt the resin and the beeswax together and stir in charcoal. Stir while letting it cool, forming it into a ball of sorts.
To put the handle on the knife, heat the tang with a torch or over the gas stove. You might even get away with a heat gun. It doesn’t need to be glowing red or anything, just hot enought to melt the resin. If the tang is too hot, you will instantly burn the resin (which is not a problem either. Colophony is the main ingredient of church incense. Your house will smell lovely). Melt a thin layer of the resin on the tang. While still hot, push the tang in the handle and whipe away the excess. Some people recommend clamping the knife, but I just held the thing firmly. Do put something around the blade to prevent cutting yourself. I used some masking tape. After 10 minutes or so, the resin has probably cooled sufficiently and you can let go of the knife. It’s probably best to let it cool over knight before using it.
The colophony acts as the actual “glue”, bonding the metal to the wood. By itself it would be too brittle, however. That’s why the beeswax is added. It adds elasticity. The charcoal acts as a filler and gives the glue a homogenous consistency. It also fills up any imperfections from the filing. If you don’t use a ferrule or for any other reason black would not be a good color glue for you, you could use another filler such as ash or wood dust. I’ve even heard stories of people using hair or elk dung. Who knows.
In line with the theme, I made a traditional Puukko sheath for the knife. This is a sheath made of veg tanned leather that is wet formed to fit the knife. Typically, it only has one seam that is on the side of the knife. This has the advantage that the knife cannot cut the seam. While the sheath itself is made from veg tanned cow’s leather, the belt loop is made from reindeer leather, also bought at Dictum. The reindeer leather is soft and supple but exceptionally strong. I doubled it on itself and glued the flesh sides together. Then I sewed it between the seem of the sheeth. The sheeth is hand stitched using a saddle stitch. This is a traditional leatherworking stitch that requires the use of two needles, each attached to one side of the thread. This allows for a much stronger seam than most other stitches, including machine lock stitches.
To make the sheath, start by wrapping the knife in some cling film. This will protect it from the damp leather it will shortly come in contact with. Then wrap the knife in the leather and mark out a shape. Cut the shape. I put a groove around the edge to sink the stitches in but that’s not essential. Then punch the holes. Most people use an awl to punch the hole, but I chose to use my lacing chisel. Since I don’t use my stitching pony to hold the piece while stitching since I don’t want to squish the sheath, an awl would be awkward to use.
Start stitching the fourth hole or so from the top. Stitch towards the top, fastening the belt loop to the sheath. double up the four top holes and stitch down to the very bottom of the sheath. Double up the bottom four holes and push the needles between the seam. Make a knot between the two layers of leather. Now your sheath is more or less done.
After stitching I wet the leather once again. With my bone folder I shaped the sheath to the knife. After the sheath dried I beveled the edges with a knife (i really need a beveler) and sanded the sides smooth with some sandpaper. Then I burnished the sides with some linen and saddle soap. After this I oiled the sheath with some leather oil and finished the thing with my furniture wax. This was an experiment that worked out quite well. It seems that the wax hardly darkens the leather but really does a great job at waterproofing it. So far I have only tried it on this project, which is quite stiff, thick veg tanned leather, so I can only recommend it for waterproofing things like that. I will try it on other things as soon as I can, and let you know. If you do, please let me know too!