Damascus steel knife blade showing patterns

Making the jump to intermediate level knifemaking

Imagine you are a knifemaker who turns out decent monosteel knives that sell without hassle; perhaps one or two blades a month. You’re past the beginner stage but not quite in intermediate territory.

Most people in this position want to break-out and step their game up, so they’re looking to invest in a big-ticket item like a power hammer. A purchase like this improves productivity and opens up new creative opportunities that are a heap of fun.

Most of all, it helps make more money from your hobby. It won’t make you a gazillionaire, but it will enable you to invest in even more training and equipment down the track.

Let’s take a look at an example where a maker wants to get serious about Damascus steel. This is a good way to use something you find interesting and fun to finance that power hammer you’re keen on.

Knife pricing

Most makers have a formula for pricing their knives - or at the very least figuring out if the price they plucked from their head is sane.

The rule of thumb we use at Tharwa Valley Forge is:

Fixed costs + variable costs + premium costs = Price ex. GST

Let’s work out an example using a typical hidden-tang Gyuto:

  • 255mm blade of 3mm 1075 steel
  • 125mm Wa handle made from Ancient Redgum
  • Hand forged, own heat treating

Let’s use $100 for fixed costs, $1 per mm of blade as our variable costs (255mm x $1 = $255), and $100 as our premium.

$100 fixed + $255 variable + $100 premium = $455 ex GST

Getting a better price

The quickest way to get a better price is to use materials that will increase the value of your work.

In terms of handle material, you could use beautiful timber like stabilised and dyed spalted Maple burl, or perhaps something exotic and modern like carbon fibre. But unless these materials have very unique provenance, they’re not going to add much value compared to other options. For example, daggers we’ve made using timber from the MV Krait fetch a price that is between four and ten times more than if they were made from the comparable timber without the same provenance.

When it comes to blade steels, there are a wealth of options that add to aesthetics, performance, or both. You could use a higher performance steel, you can add surface finishes like Cerakote, or you could invest some money in Damasteel or spend some time forging your own Damascus steel. Out of all these options, your own forged Damascus steel is the best value. The material costs are low; it’s the time and necessary experience which are the main costs.

Getting serious about Damascus steel

Investing in training so you can make some seriously fine Damascus steel will pay for itself almost immediately. We’ve spoken to people who’ve done just that and have also done the math ourselves.

Let’s look at the numbers using our Gyuto from before. Instead of $1 per mm of blade ($255), let’s call it $2 per mm ($510) to account for our own Damascus steel.

$100 fixed + $510 variable + $100 premium = $710 ex GST

Not bad at all, especially when you consider most makers forge their Damascus billets out to around 800mm. This means the time and effort you spend turning $40 of steel billet into $1,600 of Damascus steel is spread out over three or four knives.

That value is from using a charismatic steel alone. If you’ve invested in a Damascus steel course, you’ve got the added bonus of picking up some skills that will improve your level of fit-and-finish and your efficiency. This adds the premium you can charge for your work.

Here’s another example: let’s make that Gyuto again in Mosaic Damascus ($3 per mm) and at a higher level of fit and finish with a stabilised timber handle (premium + $100).

$100 fixed + $765 variable + $200 premium = $1,065 ex GST

It’s obvious that investing in your skills pays off. It’s certainly something you can do on your own over the course of three or four years, but much like compound interest it pays to invest earlier to get a greater return.

Investing in a course that pays for itself

The best part of taking a course to learn the foundational skills of Damascus steel making is that the course not only pays for itself, it makes an immediate profit.

Let’s say you’re interested in learning basic Damascus patterns, as well as tiled Mosaics and Turkish Twists. We used a value of $2 per mm for basic Damascus earlier, so let’s say Mosaic and Turkish Twist are worth $3 per mm because they look stunning and show off the artist’s skill to a greater degree.

On a typical five-day Damascus Foundations course you make four billets of Damascus that are between 800mm and 600mm long, and around 60mm wide by 8mm thick. The total lengths come out around:

  • 1600mm of Micropatterned Damascus
  • 600mm of Mosaic Damascus
  • 600mm of Turkish Twist Damascus

Here’s how much value that can add to the knives you’re making right now:

  • 1600mm x $2 = $3,200
  • 600mm x $3 = $1,800
  • 600mm x $3 = $1,800

TOTAL = $6,800 of value

The course costs $3,000 so if you use all the Damascus from the course to make and sell knives, you’ll come out at a profit of $3,800 from doing the course.

You’ll also learnt more in five days than you would have in two years - which is now two years you can spend making knives that sell for more. This means you can invest in even cooler equipment and training faster than you would otherwise be able to.

In the meantime you’ll have developed experience using heavy power hammers and presses (this is important, as it helps other people feel comfortable letting you use their gear), and you’ll have the skills you need to keep going at home even if you don’t yet have your own power hammer or press.

What next?

Now that your hobby is making extra money, it’s best to use it to invest in some big-ticket machinery that will enable you to work more efficiently and provide you with more opportunities to grow.

Until you get your own power hammer, you might have to hand forge your Damascus for a while, borrow some time on someone else’s hammer (which is where Guild membership is a big help), or perhaps make your own Appalachian power hammer.

In any case your hobby will continue to pay for itself, with the bonus of now making enough money to invest in a decent power hammer and the confidence to explore even more fun and exciting creative techniques.

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