Friday, August 18, 2006

Considering a Knife

Taken from a comment posted to NORSEFOLK:

I would suggest anyone considering a knife start with looking at the
BLADE - not the handle. You are purchasing a cutting tool are you not?

Blades that are ground from a bar will have a certain look to them.
Simple straight lines and flat faces. Often machine cut groves (which
are not commonly found on any historic knives - fullers are intended to
keep the weight down on swords). Modern taste is to a highly polished
surface - which is NOT going to be found on VA blades. No high speed
belt sanders or rubber abrasive disks!

Consider the material used for the blade. A higher carbon content means
a harder and more rigid blade. It will stay sharp longer - but at the
cost of brittleness. A small fine cutting or carving knife can be
effective when made of high carbon (like 1095). Its not what you want
with a heavy hacking tool or weapon. More flexibility is required with
extreme use, so something closer to a mid carbon spring steel (like
1045) is better.

This hardness can be controlled by the tempering process. Avoid blades
that are oven tempered. Zone tempering by eye - in the hands of someone
experienced - is the absolute best method to combine some flex to a
blade while retaining edge hardness.

Anyone serious about historic accuracy should avoid any kind of modern
alloy. Nickel based 'stainless steel' is VERY modern. Remember that any kind of plain carbon steel will RUST - if not properly taken care off. Acidic foods (onions) will discolour the blade with time, this dark grey is a natural patina. The blade must be wiped clean after every use. Between events the metal should be lightly oiled to protect it. I recommend a light machine or motor oil for tool knives and a vegetable oil for food preparation blades.

Also take a look at the range and distribution of artifact samples inside your historic period of interest. What I mean here is the modern tenancy to have everyone carry a honkin huge fighting knife. Most historic (Viking Age) blades are in the size range of 4 inches.
There is a clear distinction between woman's and mens knives in the Dark
Ages (yes - a generalization!). Typical mens
knives are small seax shapes. Typical womens knives are long slender
triangles with a single cutting edge. The large fighting knives are a
separate class (and I would suggest a man with a 12" fighting knife
along his back also has a 4" small seax in a belt hung pouch scabbard at
his front - for eating!).

Early period knives all seem to have these small rat tail tangs. Considering
the softer metal most are made from - this seems to be a bad design. But
there it is, you look to the samples. Generally I suggest people look
for a wider tang construction - as this is the constriction at the tang
from the blade is the weakest part of the knife.

Most Viking Age knives use a tube shaped handle. This explains the rod tang.
Regardless of the material in the handle, the most common attachment
method is to drill a hole in a solid block of material. The tang fits
through the block - and is peened over the opposite end to hold the
handle in place. Modern construction is to either rivet or most commonly
epoxy two slabs together for the handle.

The handle material may be wood or antler. Few samples survive. Those that do often have decorative carving on the surface.

Now, there may be a butt plate that fits over the handle before the tang
is peened over. This is done to act as a washer to hold the handle
solid. This piece may be decorated - but is more likely to be a simple disk.

There will not be any kind of guard.

Generally - the small tool knives seem to be carried by everyone - age
and sex regardless. The pouch style scabbard is also typical. I'd refer
anyone to the excellent documentation that exists for York. There is
also a Knives and Scabbards' volume on Medieval London that includes a
lot of VA materials. (There is supposed to be a huge number of knives
from Viking Dublin - but this has not been published yet - grrr!)

Too much stress is placed on fighting knives by modern re-enactors, to the exclusion of what the artifact evidence shows is most common.

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