Bowie knife and sheathMaker:
Material and Medium: carbon steel, brass, nickel, stag, leather
Department: Decorative Art
Accession Number: Virtual2007.567-568
This object is a custom Bowie knife with accompanying sheath. It was made by Reg Cooper and was commissioned as part of the DCF funded project, Living Metal (2006-2008). The knife has been entirely handcrafted and is of an exceptional quality; this warrants its status as a 'custom' knife.
The scales that together form the handle are made from Sambar stag. This is imported into Britain from India. Sambar stag is quite difficult to acquire, as export embargos are often put into place to preserve and protect the deer population.
The blade is made from carbon steel which, unlike stainless steel, can be ground to a very sharp cutting edge. The guard (which protects the user's hand), scale linings and the cap at the end of the handle are made from brass. The pins that hold the scales to the tang are made from nickel wire.
From start to completion, each part of the knife was made by hand. It took a total of fifteen hours to complete.
The blank blade was first marked out onto a bar of carbon steel and cut out. This created the basic shape of the blade and tang (the piece of steel onto which the scales will eventually be attached to form the handle). The blade was then ground and glazed by Brian Alcock, who works in Sheffield as a grinder. In simple terms, grinding the blade refines the blade's shape and creates the cutting edge. The glazing process gives the blade its initial, rough polish.
At this stage, Reg then begins the process of polishing the blade, which takes at least an hour. Polishing will remove any marks and blemishes from the surface of the blade and gives it a mirror-like finish.
The process requires a piece of equipment called a double headed spindle and a range of polishing discs. A hard, felt disc dressed with a fine polishing compound is used first. The disc is then changed for a much softer one made from sisal (a natural fibre often used to make rope), called a dolly mop, and the process continues. Finally, a very soft dolly made from calico is used to give a final polish.
Throughout the process of polishing the blade, Reg continually checks it for any flaws or imperfections.
The next process was to create an ornate, scalloped edge on the back of the blade (the unsharpened edge) and on the guard. Reg sees this as a trademark of his work, as every cutler does it differently.
On the blade, this pattern is called a 'fancy back'. Reg used a very small grindstone disc to create the large swags and a small rubber disc to create smaller, triangular grooves.
Reg first created the fancy back pattern on one side of the back of the blade. The pattern was then replicated on the other side to ensure that they are perfectly symmetrical. The brass handle guard was decorated in the same way. Brass gets hot very quickly when it is worked in this way and Reg has to frequently run the guard under cold water to avoid burning his fingers.
The back of the blade and guard were polished again to get rid of any marks created during this process.
The visible edges of the tang (onto which the scales will later be pinned to form the handle) were also given a decorative finish, called a 'worked back'. This was achieved using a saw to create zigzag lines and a needle file to form small, triangular marks.
Attaching the guard…
"You don't want a loose guard, or it sounds like a baby's rattle. You want it tight".
The next stage was to fit the tightly-fitting guard. The blade was covered to protect it and secured in a vice in a vertical position, with the tang pointing upwards. The guard was slotted onto the end of the tang. Long strips of brass were placed on top of the guard, one each side of the tang. The brass strips were then struck with a hammer to knock the guard into place.
Next, Reg fitted the brass scale linings to the tang. The linings are visible at the edge of the handle, which gives an attractive finish. They also help to fill in any tiny gaps that might otherwise occur between the tang and scales due to natural bends and curves in the stag.
The scales were then fitted and pinned onto the tang to hold them in place. This process requires intense concentration to ensure that they are a perfect fit. The end cap is put on last of all and the edges of the handle polished.
Reg's thoughts on the Bowie knife…
"I enjoy doing this work…It's when you've finished that you get the most enjoyment, but I'm my own worst critic".