Secrets to Career Longevity as a Knifemaker (Part 2 – Machines)

 

In Part 1 you discovered the two important steps to ensuring career longevity as a knifemaker. We looked at some basic injuries and how to avoid them. Now let’s look at some specific machines and what damage they can inflict unless properly handled!

The green shaded area is the safe zone for buffing

The green shaded area is the safe zone for buffing. Always stay below the centerline of the buffing wheel.

Potentially one of the most hazardous machines to operate is the buffer. Virtually every part a knifemaker produces has to see the buffer at least once. If you’re sitting at your 8-inch buffer and it’s turning at 3,450 rpm, you’d better stay focused. You cannot afford to let your mind wander and let the buffer snatch the work from your hands. An 8-inch wheel spinning at 3,450 rpm can snatch a blade from your hands and throw it 10 feet in about 0.08 seconds. That’s 8/100 of one second. Don’t worry about ducking out of the way, because before you can realize what has happened, it’s all over. Once the part is gone from your hands, you are at the mercy of your own carelessness.

This type of accident doesn’t spare the experienced. Knifemakers’ Guild president, Gil Hibben, had a buffer catch a blade and threw it through his thigh, barely missing a major artery.

Focused attention and good lighting go a long way toward keeping the buffing operation eventless. Keep the part cool while buffing so you can maintain a good grip. And remember, the buffing operation generates a lot of fine dust, so a dust-collection system and respirator are essential.

 

THE BANDSAW

Always use a push stick when cutting on the band saw.

Always use a push stick when cutting on the band saw.

Focus and concentration play the biggest part in keeping all of your fingers securely attached to your hands. But, so do the use of aids, such as push sticks.

First, don’t get in a hurry. You’re least likely to use a push stick when you are in a hurry. You’re most likely to push too hard against the blade when you’re in a hurry. If you’re pushing too hard and not using a push stick just because you want to save a few seconds, ask yourself this: How much time will it cost you to go to the first-aid cabinet to tape your hand back together or, worse yet, to go to the emergency room with one or more of your fingers carried separately in a towel?

We rationalize our careless actions by thinking that we’ve done it 100 times before and nothing bad happened. Those are the famous last words of a lot of people—many of them nicknamed Lefty, Stumpy and One-Eyed Jack.

 

THE GRINDER

The gap between any grinding wheel or belt and tool rest should never exceed 1/8 inch.

The gap between any grinding wheel or belt and tool rest should never exceed 1/8 inch.

A lot of time is spent standing in front of the belt grinder. It is truly the workhorse of the shop. It is also often one of the most powerful tools in the shop, with motors ranging up to 3 horsepower or more. Coarse belts running at 4,000 sfpm (surface feet per minute) or so can remove large portions of your hand in a very short time. Bumping your hand or finger against the edge of a running belt results in a combination of a cut and burn. You’ll be reminded of it constantly for the next few days because it will hurt every time you move your hand. The hazards associated with the belt grinder include, but aren’t limited to:

1. Abrasion from bumping against the belt

2. Cuts from bumping into the edge of the running belt

3. Burns from holding onto hot steel

4. Eye injury from flying steel dust and abrasive dust

5. Lung damage from dust

 

Gloves can remedy some of the abrasion and cut possibilities, but many times, gloves just don’t give us the dexterity we need. Your only defense in this case is caution. Again, keep the part you are grinding cool so you can hang onto it.

Always wear eye protection. One of the best investments you can make is a good pair of safety glasses, even if you have to have prescription lenses made. You only get two eyes, and there is no excuse in the world that will ease the burden of having to go through life fully or partially blind. And once again, the need for dust collection and/or a respirator is essential.

In the days of the old Sheffield forgers, the number one cause of death was grinder’s consumption caused by breathing grinding dust. The average age of death of a Sheffield cutler in the 19th century?  40.

 

THE FORGE

I’m not an anvil banger, but I’ve been around enough of them to know that the forging process brings with it a whole bunch of opportunities for injury. Every hazard previously mentioned is present in the forging shop, plus hot metal sparks being sprayed around. Power hammers are powerful, noisy beasts, and must be given the proper respect.

Double up on the hearing protection when using a power hammer by wearing earplugs under earmuffs. Forging also presents the danger of setting yourself and/or your shop on fire. Shop cleanliness and attention to your surroundings play a big part in minimizing the risk of fire.

Every shop should have a fire extinguisher at a handy location. I really do admire the abilities of the hammer boys and girls. I don’t know that I would ever have the skill or patience to learn the craft, but I’m thankful that they share their talents with us stock removers by making beautiful Damascus steel for us to use.

This article doesn’t cover every machine that may be in your shop. Almost all shops have a drill press. Your shop may also have a welder, plasma cutter or milling machine. Each machine can present its own set of hazards. The underlying theme here is to always think ahead about what could happen and what you can do to prevent the wrong thing from happening.

While we’re in the mood to remind ourselves to work safely, there are other points to remember. Don’t wear gloves while using rotating machinery such as the drill press. If you wear jewelry, take it off before starting your work. If you have a ring that won’t come off, at least put a wrap of tape over it to make sure nothing catches it and drags your hand into a machine. Keep loose clothing away from machinery, being especially mindful of loose, long sleeves.

Again, for most of you, this article is old news. But we all need to be reminded daily to work safely. We need to take the time to wear our protective gear and not take shortcuts. Using the proper protective equipment also helps us produce better knives, because we are not altering our technique in an effort to protect ourselves. And most of all, we need to keep our minds focused on the task at hand. If we do so, we stand a much better chance at that long life as a knifemaker. And remember, every injury you get doesn’t stay in the shop when you close up at night. It affects every moment of your life. Take care.

About the author: Allen Strickland has been making knives in Longview, Texas for over 25 years. He enjoys making both fixed blades and locking-liner folders. His knives are currently in use on at least four continents.

 

By Allen Strickland