Over the past few months I’ve been using the internet to learn how to do various things that humans have been doing for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. As I’ve done so I’ve noticed that many people who are doing these things today have gotten themselves caught up in the modern science behind what they’re doing and have lost their connection with the traditional craftsmanship behind these activities. I think there is a problem with that.
I think this phenomenon is best explained through some examples.
I recently acquired a small coal forge and have gotten my hands on the tools necessary to do some basic blacksmithing. I haven’t used it to make anything terribly complex yet, or really much at all, but I have been looking into the things that I could make with it, the coolest of those things being knives.
I haven’t attempted one yet but there are really only four simple steps to making a knife, first you shape your steel into a knife, then you heat treat it, make a handle, and finally sharpen it. Three of these steps can be done however the knifemaker wants to do it but the heat treatment has to be done with some precision.
There are multiple steps to heat treating a knife but I’m just going to focus on the quench because that is where people get the most picky.
When you quench a blade you first want to heat it up to a specific temperature, this temperature varies based on the carbon content of the steel you are working with. For the steels that most beginners will be working with this temperature will be about a hundred degrees hotter than the point where a magnet no longer sticks to the steel so most people will check the temperature with a magnet but many people want to be precise with it and use a laser thermometer.
Once the blade is evenly heated to the right temperature you want to dip it in oil, but it can’t be any old oil for it to be an ideal quench, nor can it be room temperature. Canola oil heated to 130 degrees is what you want to dip your blade in according to most folk. (Other oils can be used but they’d have to be heated to a different temperature and are not as cheap as canola oil) Lots of people will have a stove running heating their oil somewhere before taking it over to their quenching location, or even have a small stove right there exclusively for heating oil for quenching, because if your oil is the wrong temperature then your quench won’t be perfect.
It is great that modern science has given us the knowledge and tools necessary to perfectly quench a knife, but is all this precision worth stressing over? Let’s turn back the clock a couple hundred years and picture a blacksmith making knives somewhere in 1700s Massachusetts or something.
How is a blacksmith from hundreds of years ago supposed to know the carbon content of his steel? How is he supposed to measure that carbon content? How is he supposed to know the exact temperature that he is supposed to heat his specific steel to for the quench? How is he supposed to measure that temperature? Where is he supposed to get canola oil if it won’t be invented for another 200 years? How is he supposed to know the exact temperature that whatever oil he does use needs to be heated to for quenching? How is he supposed to measure that temperature?
All these people on the internet who say to never quench a blade if it is at the wrong temperature because it would ruin the knife or something are completely disconnected from history. People have been making knives far longer than the tools that measure the tings that these nerds stress over have existed. I don’t expect anyone to be able to answer any of the questions in the above paragraph, and frankly none of them matter. The only question that does matter is whether or not that blacksmith’s knives were any good and I think it is safe to assume that they were.
Why am I comfortable making this assumption? One reason is that a knifemaking nerd tested the effects of bad quenches on knives and found that a screwed up quench doesn’t have a significant impact on the final quality of a knife (outside of its ability to hold up to abuse). But a more important reason is the fact that there hasn’t been a shortage of good knives throughout history. Much of history couldn’t have happened if all the knives made up until the 20th century or so were useless due to the lack of precise tools and science required for a perfect quench. Modern precision isn’t required for traditional crafts.
I’ve been meaning to get into coyote hunting for a while now since it is fun that I can have year round where I live and valuable population control for the local environment but I also don’t know what I’d do with a dead coyote. If I had chickens or pigs I’d feed them the coyote meat, but I don’t have any farm animals at the moment so I wondered what else I could do.
I decided to see what it would take to tan and preserve the coyote hides in case that was something that I was interested in doing. Hunters are a bit more freethinking and nonconformist than the knifemaking nerds out there plus there are more ways that tanning can be done than there are to make a knife (so I won’t go over the general steps on how to do it). But you will still find a handful of people who will stress over the PH levels of pickling solutions and other things like that while they are tanning hides or making leather so that they can produce the perfect product.
But think about it, this is an activity that mankind has been doing likely since the time of Adam. The tools required to measure the PH level of a pickling solution have hardly been around for a fraction of that time. We have been tanning hides for thousands of years without stressing over those details, you can do it too.
Of course I’m not saying that knowing the exact temperature to quench your knife or the precise PH level your hide pickling solution has to be at is a bad thing. Being able to measure these things and pinpoint the ideal ways to do them has made success in these trades much more attainable and repeatable for people with little or no formal training like you and me. If you are going to do something it is important to learn how to do it right, but also to recognize that the parameters for doing something right are a lot wider than a lot of gatekeepers would lead you to believe.
When I get around to making a knife I’ll be sure to test the temperature of the steel with a magnet before I quench it to see when I’m close to my target temperature, will I know if I hit it exactly? No, but I’ll know that I’m close enough. Then when I go to quench it will I heat my oil up to precisely 130 degrees? No, but I’ll stick a hot piece of rebar in it to heat it up. Quenching in 160 degree oil won’t be as good as quenching in 130 degree oil but it will be much better than quenching in 60 degree oil which is really the point.
I haven’t quite decided if I’ll tan an animal hide but I’m glad I spent the time to learn some of the science behind it. If I ever do it I think I might take the extra time to test the PH levels of things just to make sure that I am getting the best final product that I can, since animal skins aren’t the easiest thing to come by these days. But if for whatever reason I can’t measure stuff, or something goes a bit wrong with my PH levels I’ll understand that my hide will probably still turn out fine and I won’t be mad at myself for messing up something that trappers going back to the beginning of time wouldn’t have even known to worry about.
Modern science is great, but when it comes to ancient crafts like these it should not be the focus. The satisfaction behind making your own knife does not come from a modern laser thermometer, it comes from the anvil and hammer. The satisfaction of tanning your own hides doesn’t come from a tub of perfectly proportioned chemicals, it comes from knowing you have used every part of an animal that you could. The satisfaction from making something doesn’t come from following a specific recipe, it comes from knowing you made it with your own hands.