FACTS and FANTASIES about FILE KNIVES
by Bernard Levine (c)1998; for Knives 99
In the 1840s, with a considerable effort of heating, hammering and grinding, a person could have converted an old file into a knife blade. And with a similar effort of heating, hammering, and grinding, a person could have converted a silver teapot into a doorstop. The question is: why would anyone back then have done such a wasteful and impractical thing?
A persistent popular legend, one that possibly dates back more than a hundred years, maintains that in "the old days," people made knives from old files. The strength of this legend has prompted many an amateur knifemaker to attempt making knives from old files, with varying degrees of success. It has prompted novelists, journalists, romantic knife fanciers, and other fiction writers to invent historical scenes of famous old knives, such as the bowie knife, being forged from old files. It even prompted an entrepreneur in Havana, Illinois, in 1906 to name his butcher knife firm the "Old File Cutlery Company;" this successful firm continued in business for six decades -- not once in all those years actually selling a knife made from a file.
For, if you look at the history of files, and look at the history of knives, it is quickly apparent that prior to this century, files were considerably more scarce, and considerably more valuable than plain working knives. And much like old knives, but unlike modern files, old files were routinely re-sharpened for use, until they were nearly worn away.
Both in cities and in towns, both on the farm and on the frontier, as far back as the records of history can take us, knives have been common articles of trade and commerce. Anyone, in any corner of the world, could trade a small amount of money, labor, or produce for a brand new, professionally made knife. Today you can buy a first-rate Swiss, German, Japanese, or American kitchen knife for under $5.
Equally common in commerce, and far more abundant than knives, were factory bars of tool steel. From the 1740s until 1907, the best grade was the crucible cast steel teemed, tilted, and rolled in Sheffield. Look at the earliest issues of any American frontier newspaper -- Ohio Valley, Mississippi Delta, Rocky Mountains, Pacific Coast, you name it -- the local merchants are advertising bars of Sheffield cast steel, alongside bacon, flour, crockery, and glassware. The man who wanted to make his own knife could obtain steel just as readily as gunpowder, lead shot, calico, or whiskey.
And if a man were too poor -- or too cheap -- to buy a steel bar to make his knife blade from, he could instead use scrap. And what was the common scrap steel in the 18th or 19th century? Old horseshoes, worn-out wagon tires, and parts of broken or obsolete machines. A knife made from these low-carbon products would not cut well, or stay sharp very long, but it would work better than nothing.
Does this mean that no one in the old days ever made a knife from an old file? No, of course not. A few people surely did. People have always been ignorant, foolish, wasteful, and destructive. But not most people, and not most of the time.
Today we take files for granted. They are disposable abrasive products, not much more costly than sandpaper. We'll buy a few files, or a whole box of them, use each one until it begins to get dull, then throw it away. If we are parsimonious we might hang on to our old files, or even recycle them into something else -- perhaps even a utilitarian knife blade.
But it is only in this century that files have been cheap, abundant, and disposable. Revolutions in technology transformed files, just as they transformed everything else we make and use.
First came the mass-production of high-grade tool steel in the Heroult electric furnace, introduced in 1907. Overnight, the teeming of crucible cast steel in 60 to 90 pound lots was largely replaced by the electric melt of 25 ton pours, of tool steel that was both better and more uniform than the finest cast steel. However both crucible steel and hand-made files continued to be produced in Sheffield, as cottage industries, up into the 1960s.
Mass-produced tool steel in turn spurred further development of automated file-cutting, which had been under development for more than four generations. Starting with uniform electric steel, machines could cut files even more flat and uniform than the best hand-made files, at a tiny fraction of the cost.
Furthermore, the electric furnace allowed precise control over alloy content. Specialized air-hardening file steels were introduced. These alloys are difficult or impossible to re-temper, making it impractical to re-sharpen files made from them. Old crucible steel files, when dull, could be drawn, re-flatted, and re-cut. Once again sharp as new, they could then be re-tempered by eye. The service of re-flatting and re-sharpening of old files was just as routine and just as readily available as knife-sharpening up into the 1980s in Britain and Europe, although it had died out some years earlier in the U.S.
Before 1900, file-making was a sophisticated craft, considerably more difficult than bladesmithing. One of the best surviving descriptions of this craft was published in Britain in 1844 (see the sidebar "A Day at the Fitzalan Steel and File-Works, Sheffield" -- link at end).
IN THE LITERATURE
Finding fictional tales of knives made from files is easy. But what about real accounts? This is another matter. Recently I searched the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, a year-by-year indexing of magazine articles. I fully expected to start finding references to making knives from files around 1920, just after World War I, when huge quantities of war surplus tools and other steel items flooded the market. I was wrong. The earliest reference was nearly 15 years later. It was a reply to a reader inquiry, in the October 1935 issue of Industrial Arts and Vocational Education magazine (see the sidebar, "Making Knives out of Files"). It makes clear that the process of forging a knife from an old file is both more costly and more difficult than forging one from a new steel bar. Earlier issues of this periodical had included two series of articles on knifemaking in the school forge shop. Some of the projects were quite sophisticated; however all of them called for tool steel bar stock as the raw material. Then, in the December 1939 issue of the same magazine, a how-to article showed how to make a Northwest Indian style "crooked knife" for woodcarving, out of an old mill file.
Of course only a fraction of magazines were indexed in the Reader's Guide. There may have been other earlier articles that I missed. If you ever find a "how-to" article on making knives from files older than 1935, please send me a photocopy, including source and date.
But reaching back much further in time, I found something curious and revealing. Back in the 1760s and 1770s, the French Academy of Sciences commissioned the leading practitioners of every craft and trade in France to set down all they knew in lavishly illustrated folio volumes. The cutler they tapped to take part in this project was Jean Jacques Perret of Paris. By the age of 16, Perret had served apprenticeships in every major cutlery center in France. He then attended medical school, in order to improve the quality and utility of his surgical instruments -- these occupy two of the three volumes of his 1771 work, The Art of the Cutler.
In his books, Perret devotes considerable attention to the use of the file, an important tool of the master cutler. Most of his files, like his hammers, he bought from full-time specialist makers. However he did know how to make his own, and there was one type of file that he usually did make himself, as it was not commonly offered by the file-cutters. This was a specialized thin file, toothed only along one edge, used for cutting pivot rivets flush, without scratching the bolsters or handle material. And how did he make these specialized files? I'll let him tell you himself (Perret calls this tool a saw, but its teeth have no set, which is the main differentiation between a saw and a file).
"[PLATE XI] Figure 38 shows a 'saw knife.' It is ordinarily made out of the blade of an old [straight] razor or knife. This tool is fitted with a file handle, and on its cutting edge one makes little teeth by rapping it with the edge of a scraper or a triangular file. The tool is used for quickly sawing off the ends of [pocketknife and razor] pivot pins which are too long for their joints."
It's funny how things change after two centuries. Today we sometimes make knives out of old power hacksaw blades and old files. In 1771 Perret made his hacksaw blades and sharp-edge files out of old knives. This is not especially surprising, however. When knives, saws, and files were all hand-made, saws and files were much more difficult and time-consuming to make than plain knives, and therefore they were more valuable.
And what about all the "frontier knives made from files" shown in some knife books? None of the authors of these works has been able to explain how he determines the "frontier" provenance of his knives. They might equally well be products of high school forge shops, Boy Scout merit badge projects, World War II G.I. improvisation, or calculated chicanery. Perhaps a few of these file-knives really were made prior to 1907. But in 27 years studying knives, and researching their history, I have yet to see one that could be proven that old.
*** END OF MAIN TEXT; DIALOGUE AND SIDEBARS FOLLOW ***
I'm not quite sure I agree with all of my article either -- but it sums up the state of my knowledge on the subject. I would be quite happy to find solid evidence of file knives before circa 1908 (or even before circa 1920), but I haven't yet.
I suspect that the IDEA of file knives dates earlier, and the odd experiment was no doubt tried. I am reminded of the passage in Moby Dick (published 1851) where the ultimate harpoon is forged from everyone's razors (for the cutting edges) and nails from the shoes of race horses (for the shank -- though I forget how these nails happened to be on the ship; brought for this purpose by Capt Ahab???) But this combination made sense metallurgically, plus Melville emphasized the extravagance of this, justified because at this point Ahab no longer cared if he or any of his crew lived or died, or ever shaved again.
THIS MAKES ME THINK, that the original IDEA of file knives might not have been "recycling" something worthless, but rather exactly the opposite -- extravagantly sacrificing a steel tool far more precious than a knife, in order to make a super or ultimate knife -- just as Ahab squandered his expensive and irreplaceable razors to make a magical harpoon, when harpoons were ordinarily pedestrian and expendable. Or like the stories of quenching a sword blade in the body of a slave -- sacrificing something far more valuable than an ordinary blade, in order to make an extraordinarily powerful or magical blade.
A file not only was more precious than an ordinary work knife, it had the POWER to mark or CUT a knife -- a magical form of superiority. By magical transference, this would mean that a knife made from an old file would be able to cut ordinary knives...
By this hypothesis, making a knife from a file was more the realm of alchemy than of blacksmithing. It eventually left the realm of the magical and entered the realm of the practical, but only AFTER machine-made files had rather suddenly become cheap and expendable -- and after hand-made OLD files had become more of a curiosity than a treasure -- sort of like the perception of hand-made old bowie knives in the 1950s, when only a fool would pay as much as $5 for one of these quaint un-streamlined old relics. Or like old swords being recycled into combat knives during WWII. But since old files had by
1920 (or 1908) lost their great value (as had swords), there was no longer any magic in the process of making a knife from a file (or from a sword).
[In the 1860s Samuel White Baker made a big deal of having his first London hunting knife made from an old Andreas Ferrara sword -- but his later knife was made from newly teemed crucible cast steel, and was a lot better -- I supect the original one broke in use.]
[There is a world of difference between making a knife out of a spring from a junked Studebaker truck, and making one out of a spring from a brand-new Mercedes. Well, maybe not a WORLD, but around $50,000.]
[In the 1860s, aluminum was far rarer and more expensive than platinum. But it would have been a lousy long-term investment -- as would have hand-made files.]
I was tickled to find Perret's 1771 passage on turning an old knife into a "file." I have yet to find any old passage that goes the other way. I would like to...
I have been promised a photocopy of this title, but have not received it yet:
Date:Wed, 30 Dec 1998 17:08:36 -0600
Re your article in Knives 99.
Check out the booklet Knives: How to Make them in the School Shop Forge, by JF Knowlton, Bruce Pub, 1928.
"Making Knives out of Files" by Jay F. Knowlton, Industrial Arts and Vocational Education, October 1935, pages 319-320. [Reprinted for historical interest. This method not recommended.]
"994. Q.: Can you give me any information on the manner in which ordinary mill files should be treated and retempered to make hunting knives? Our efforts so far have not been satisfactory, but I believe knives with a uniform edge neither too soft nor too brittle can be made from a mill file.--W.W.W.
"A.: Yes! File steel will make a very satisfactory knife if properly worked and treated. I have made a great many knives of all descriptions from this 'old file steel.' I have also made springs of all descriptions from this material with fine results. The finest cutting knife of my experience was made, so the owner said, from an old file.
"From the start let me say that the operation of preparing an old knife [he meant to say file] for forging will make it cost more than a piece of cutlery steel of proper size, yet, for one knife, an old file is a very satisfactory way out.
"First: Select an old of file of standard make in a fine cut if possible. A smooth or dead smooth file is best, because it causes less work when preparing for forging.
"Second: Heat the file to a cherry red and place in a slow cooling furnace or put it into a box of slaked lime and allow to remain there until cold. This operation anneals the steel.
"Third: Remove all traces of cuts in the file on an emery wheel. Finish this grinding on a fine wheel. The steel should now be a smooth bar free from any signs of file cuts. If the steel is forged while the cuts are present, you are sure to have cracks in the finished product if the steel is improperly forged. It is true that some may have forged knives from old files without removing the cuts, but in these cases the cuts were removed by burning while the steel was improperly worked.
"Fourth: Forge the steel to its proper shape. To do this, heat to a cherry red and forge with heavy blows until the steel nears its proper shape. Forge only until a dull red appears, then reheat. At no time should the steel be heated above a cherry red (1550 deg. F.) and then always in a slow carbonizing fire. Fast high heats may remove the carbon from the outside surfaces of the steel leaving, in thin stock, common iron which no one can temper. When the knife is nearly shaped, heat it to a cherry red, and forge with light fast blows until a dull red color is reached. Repeat this operation four times. Now normalize the steel by heating to a dull red, and allowing it to cool slowly.
"Fifth: Grind and file the knife to shape. Leave very little to be done later to produce a sharp edge. Now polish by hand, with emery cloth, or on a power buffer, until a fine finished has been obtained. The desired cutting edge should be secured while polishing.
"Sixth: Harden the knife by heating to a dark cherry (1500 deg. F.) and quench in oil, edge down. Leave it in the oil until cold. Do not use an open fire for heating. Use a closed furnace, or an arched forge fire, or heat in a piece of gas pipe placed in an open fire. If the finest results are desired, use charcoal. For quenching oil, the best, of course, is a fine fish oil. This is expensive, however, and boiled linseed oil may be used instead, with satisfactory results. Next polish the knife once more, using caution while working as the knife is very brittle.
"Seventh: Draw the temper to a blue color (550 to 560 deg. F.) and give the knife its final polish, proceeding as follows: Draw to a dark blue if a thin section, or a light blue if a heavy section, depending upon the hardness desired and the use for which the knife is intended. Draw in tempering oil is possible, or in a lead-tin bath, the temperature of which you know to be correct. If these are not available, use a coal gas flame or an oxyacetylene flame. Heat slowly, the thicker sections of the steel first, and watch the colors form until an even blue color is obtained. To draw an even color requires practice, and if you fail, harden the steel and try again.
"To have a perfect color depends partly on the polishing. Have a fine clean finish free from fingermarks, as these marks tend to change the colors or make them less distinct. It may be thought that these directions are a little extreme, but anything worth doing is worth doing well. If these directions are followed, a very fine cutting knife should result. It is understood that these directions are for the making of butcher knives, hunting knives, and general kitchen knives. Should one wish to make tools of greater fineness, such as razors, these directions would necessarily change."
The above tutorial, from 1935, does not apply to modern air-hardened files.
That prompted this email June 16, 2005:
Thanks for the most interesting info on files/knives I've seen on the net. I am interested in making a knife from a file and still have not found a simple yet detailed document on just how to do this. Could you shed some light on this or at least point me in the right direction? I am really looking for a tutorial on converting a new store bought file into a hunting knife. Any help you can give me will be greatly appreciated! Thanks.
Modern store-bought files are made of air-hardening tool steel. Once they have been hardened, that's it. They cannot be drawn to be forged. The only way to convert one into a knife is to grind it to shape, being careful not to overheat it -- which could decarburize the overheated areas, making them permanently soft.
There are a couple of "knifemakers" who do exactly this, and sell their wares at shows. Probably the best known is Anza Knives.
Nicholson File Co. was founded by William T. Nicholson in 1858, and grew rapidly as it met the demand of the Northern armaments and machine tool industries during the Civil War. In 1864 it moved from downtown Providence to larger quarters in the Woonasquatucket Valley, at the junction of Kinsley and Acorn Streets. This plant soon grew to be the largest file factory in the world. In the latter part of the 19th century, the firm published an educational booklet called "Nicholson File-Osophy," which went through many editions as the technology of files and file-making changed.
Nicholson File Co. remained in Providence until 1959. Since 1972 this old brand (like
many others, including Wiss, Crescent, Lufkin, Porter, Diamond, Plumb, Xcelite, Weller,
etc.) has been owned by Cooper Industries, and is now used on bin tools made in Asia.
In 18th century Sheffield, filesmiths were of equal status to cutlers and steel refiners, and they all belonged to the same guild. Indeed most of the surnames in this list will be familiar to fanciers of antique English knives. Several filesmiths, including Samuel Bates (1764) and Joseph Hawksley (1782), were elected Master of the Sheffield cutlers' guild. Contrast this to, for example, the nail-makers (mainly women) who were not deemed important enough to record; only the factors (merchants) who employed the nail-makers were listed in early directories.
A Directory of Sheffield
Including the Manufacturers
of the adjacent Villages:
With the several Marks of the
Cutlers, Scissor & Filesmiths,
Edgetool, & Sickle Makers...
Manufacturers in Sheffield
Samuel and George Bates, Spring-street
Thomas Blake, Green-lane
John Brammall, Westbar-green
Benjamin Cadman, Lambert Croft
James Cam, Norfolk-street
John Corker, Furnace-hill
James Creswick, Ponds
John Crooks, Colston Croft
William Cutler & Sons, Fargate
Daniel Doncaster, Copper-street
Widow Ellis and Sons
Jonathan France, Blind Lane
Samuel Genn, Smithfield
George Greaves, Westbar-green
Francis Hawke & Son, Allen Lane
Joseph Hawksley, Castle-fold
Joshua Hawksley, Westbar
Nicholas Jackson, Wicker
John Jessop, Smithfield
John Kenyon, Holles Croft
Joseph Law, Gibralter
William Lindley, Fargate
Joseph Peace, Scotland-street
George Pearce, Pea Croft
Henry Smith, Scotland-street
Matthias Spencer, Scotland-street
Matthias Spencer, Pea Croft
Enoch and James Trickett, Coalpit-lane
Nicholas Turner, Lambert Croft
Samuel White, Bailey Field
Manufacturers in the NEIGHBOURHOOD
John Abdy, Ecclesfield
Thomas Belk, Hirst
Thomas Brammall and Sons, Whitehouse
Benj. and Joseph Burdekin, Bridgehouses
Robert Cauwood, Ecclesfield
Thomas Dale, Hanging-water
Joseph Grayson, Gate
Heppinstall and Kay, Attercliff
Joshua Hinchcliffe, Garle Green
John Hoyland, Sandygate
Locksley and Lockwood, Butterthwaite
John Machon, Hirst
Charles Revel, Heeley
Stringer and Greaves, Ecclesfield
Matthew Turner, Gate
Joseph Whittles, Sandygate
John Whittles, Stannington
Excerpts from "A Day at the Fitzalan Steel and File-Works, Sheffield," The Penny Magazine Supplement, Volume XIII, March 1844, pages 121-128.
Click here to read the text.