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A mark of antiquity

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I lost my marking knife. Don’t know where, or even when (which might have helped with where). I reached for it one day, and it was gone. That was months ago.

Checking catalogs, I found several I liked but was hesitant to send away for one. I’m the same with hand tools as I am with shoes – gotta try them on for size before buying – but I live far from a large city so there’s no decent place locally that carries specialty tools.

So why not make one? I’ve made other tools, like the bow saw I made last winter that not only sees use both in and out of my shop, but also became a project chapter in my Civil War book. Related to that, the task should be no more difficult than making new handles for some battered old silverware – a table knife and fork – that I use with my Civil War reenacting. (As an aside, in the parlance of the day a soldier’s eating utensils were known as “mess furniture.” So if anyone asked what I was up to in the shop, I could honestly say I was in the middle of a furniture project.)

Looking around the shop for materials, though, I came up short. No end of great wood for the handle as my scrap bin has loads of ebony, rosewood and cocobolo perfectly sized for knife handles, but I lacked a decent piece of metal for a blade.

Then it occurred to me to check my other scrap bin. This is a box where I collect odds and ends I find at flea markets and antique shops. As it happens, I have several pieces of 19th-century mess furniture in it – when I see ’em, I buy ’em – so I pulled out a table knife that looked like a good candidate. The blade had almost no pitting, the handle was intact and in good shape. Even better, the handle is ebony, with attractive lead inlays that attach the handle halves to the tang. The steel in the blade is good; maybe not as good as what’s in a commercially made marking knife, but nice and hard.

It took little effort to shorten the blade and grind it to shape. I restored the handle next, cleaning, smoothing and polishing the lead inlays and wood surfaces, followed by giving the business end a sharp right-hand beveled edge. It ended up looking beautiful, and working as good as it looks.

A lot of win-win factors here: It cost about $1 to make (the cost of the old knife). It’s exactly what I needed, and styled exactly the way I wanted. It’s an antique with a lot of history which, as I noted last week, I like having in my life. It’s certainly unique – nobody else has a marking knife quite like this one. And, oh yeah; I made it myself.

Till next time,


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