Using a variety of the highest quality steel, Gil grinds each of his blades freehand, using no guides, jigs or automated equipment. His knife handles are handcrafted from a wide variety of materials including stag, ivory, rams horn, walrus tusk, micarta, and exotic natural woods such as Makassar ebony.
Gil regularly makes several popular designs that are in high demand among outdoorsmen and collectors. Other times, Gil expresses his creative side by making a truly new and different one-of-a-kind design. Gil also makes custom knives based on the designs of his customers.
Here is a brief overview of the knifemaking process for a fixed blade knife so you can appreciate the many hours of skilled craftsmanship that goes into a custom handmade knife.
If you would like to see Gil Hibben demonstrate the
whole blade grinding process
up to the point of heat treating, you can purchase Gil's video tape or DVD
of "The Rough Grind".
Many of the photos here are taken directly from the video.
Click HERE for more information about the video.
Notice: This is by no means a knifemaking tutorial. Knifemaking is inherently a dangerous process and should only be attempted by those with proper training. The purpose here is simply to give you an idea of the many steps involved in making custom knives.
The knifemaking process starts with a design. Gil draws and refines his design on paper. If it is for a popular Hibben style, he may make a plastic or wooden template of the basic blade size and shape.
The design is transferred on to a piece of steel
with a scribe.
Using the scribed lines as a guide, the basic shape
of the blade is cut on a metal cutting bandsaw.
At this stage, the steel is in the "annealed" stage.
It is relatively soft and has a coating of scale and some surface pitting.
Next, the blade is "profiled" using a disc grinder
to smooth the edges and further refine the shape of the blade.
Now the blade goes to the surface grinder. This
removes the surface scale and pitting and also insures that the sides of the
blade are perfectly flat. The blade will be surface ground a second time with
finer grit belts after heat treating. The blade is held in place by a magnetized
After surface grinding the blade has become
magnetized from the magnetic table on the surface grinder. It must be
demagnetized using an electronic demagnetizer or else the metal filings from the
grinding process will stick to the blade.
Now we must scribe a center line on the blade which
will show where the cutting edge should be when the blade is ground. Gil uses a
special edge marking scribe that is adjusted according to the thickness of the
steel he is marking.
Gil coats the blade with a special
blue dye and then
scribes the grind lines on the blade. He uses these lines as a guide during
the heart of knifemaking, grinding the blade. Gil grinds all of his
blades freehand, without the aid of jigs or guides. It takes years of practice
and experience to do this and achieve straight and even precision grinds
freehand. Here, Gil is "hollow grinding" using a 137" x 2" belt grinder with a round
contact wheel. This is the "rough grind". After heat treating the blade to
harden it, Gil will grind it again with a succession of finer grit belts in the
Now the blade is ready for heat treating. Steel is
hardened by heating it to a specific temperature for a specific amount of time
and then quenching (cooling) it in a prescribed manner. Different types of
steels must each be heat treated in a specific way. After heat treating, the
blade is very hard and brittle. It must then be "draw tempered" in a lower
temperature oven to give it some flexibility and bring to it's ideal Rockwell
hardness. Proper heat treating is critical to making a good blade that is tough,
durable and holds a good sharp edge. Improper heat treating can literally ruin a
blade. Here, you see a red hot blade just after it was removed from the heat
After heat treating and tempering, the blade is
surface ground a second time and then ground again with finer grit belts for the
Gil prefers mirror polished blades. This not only
provides a beautiful finish but it makes for smoother cutting and helps to keep
the blade clean. Mirror polishing is a long, hard process using a series of
buffers equipped with cloth buffing wheels coated with various grits of
polishing compounds. Buffing takes a great deal of skill and attention as it is
one of the most hazardous parts of knifemaking. Many knifemakers will not polish
blades with buffing machines because it can be a very dangerous process. In the
blink of an eye these buffers can yank the blade from your hand and throw it
back at you at very high velocity. Here, we see Gil and one of his class
students buffing their knives.
Now we finally have a finished blade but there is
still a lot of work to do before we have a finished knife. The polished blade is
covered with tape to protect it from scratches during the rest of the finishing
Now we have to make a guard and pommel. These pieces
are typically milled from bars of brass, steel or nickel silver.
After the pieces are milled to shape and holes are
cut where necessary, final fitting is adjusted by hand using files.
The guard is silver soldered or pressed onto the
blade and the handle material is cut, drilled and shaped to the blade.
In this example, we show a hidden tang knife with a
pommel where the tang of the knife goes through the center of a one-piece
handle. The handle parts are cut, fitted and assembled using high strength epoxy
to insure that everything is secure and watertight. If we were making a full
tang knife with two-piece "slab" handles, also known as "scales", the handles
would be attached to each side of the knife using brass or steel pins pressed
through holes in the handles.
After the handle has set, it is ground to it's final
shape using belt grinders and hand sanding.
knife handles are polished on the buffing
Spacers made from sheets of brass, nickel silver or vulcanized and colored nylon
are often used to make accent lines between the handle material and the blade,
tang, guard or pommel.
On some knives, Gil embellishes the blade's spine
and tang with decorative filework. This too is done by hand using fine files and
Now the final cutting edge is ground and then
stropped on a leather strop to make it "shaving sharp".
All that is left now is to etch the makers mark on
the blade, final polish it with Renaissance wax to protect it, and make a custom
fitted sheath. Gil also makes his fine leather sheaths by hand.
some of Gil's "art" knives, many hours, sometimes days, of hand filing and
cutting is required to make all of the intricate designs.
The finished product! Now you can see why handmade
knives by skilled craftsmen are not "cheap" and the amount of time, skill and
equipment it takes to complete a handmade custom knife. There is actually more
more work involved than we were able to show in the space available here but
this should give you some idea of what goes into making a handmade custom knife.
Depending on the complexity of the knife, it can take an experienced knifemaker
several days of work to finish a single knife. As you might imagine, a folding
knife often involves even more complex and intricate precision work.
You can see more examples of Gil Hibben's handmade custom knives HERE.
Text and photos by Mike Carter © 2007