Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Looping back...

... to an earlier post. This isn't about food... directly. But a good sharp knife is essential to a good sharp cook.

A few weeks ago, my son and I attended a knife making class hosted by Tom McGinnis, owner of
Ozark Knife Makers just outside Springfield, Missouri.

Tom and crew are world class craftsmen who put on one heckuva two day class. The class itself is oriented to the novice who thinks knifemaking is some mystical art. As the following post will reveal, even a computer geek like me can do it... with a little help from someone who knows the ropes.

The following photos were taken when my son and I attended a knife making workshop at the
Ozark Knifemakers Shop in Ozark, Missouri, March 21 and 22.During this class, the students were all given a typical drop point knife pattern, made of Damascus Steel. If you've never seen a Damascus Steel blade, you're in for a treat.

These first few were taken with my cell phone, which explains the odd size and lower resolution. Apologies for some of the photos... the camera was having some issues focusing close up, and I had better things to do (like make my own knife) to really take the time to do good photos. I tried to get these more or less in order, but there's no guarantees....

Here's my son and Tom working on his knife.

Here's my son adjusting the blade blank in the knife vise. This knife vise is a very handy gadget made by one of Tom's crew and available for sale.

Here Ethan is doing some initial sanding on the rough blade.

Here's the blade after being shaped and rough polished.

Here's Tim McGinnis providing some help and oversight to Ethan as he works on the scrollwork on the spine of his knife. For this class, we used a scroll pattern called a 'thorn and vine'.

Here's some shots of the thorn and vine filework.

Here's a better shot with the digital camera, although the lens was a little fogged over. It was about 45 degrees outside, and we'd left the camera in the truck.

Here's my blade. I screwed up my filework... can you tell?
I actually did my 'thorns' bassackwards, but the final result still looks pretty awesome, for a first timer.

Still more detail. You can clearly see the 'vine' and the 'thorns'

Here's Ethan's blade with the bolsters dry fitted. The bolsters are pre-made to make the class flow a little easier.

Here's the cleaned and shaped blade, stamped with Ethan's initials, and the polished bolsters. The bolsters undergo a lot more shaping and polishing before we're finished. At this point, we're pretty much finished with day one.

The instructors then heat treat the blades in a furnace to 1550 degrees F, and oil quench to harden. Then, they drop the blade temperature to below freezing in a deep freeze.

Once the temp is cold enough, they get a bath in liquid nitrogen for about an hour. This drops the steel temp to about -300 degrees F.

Next, the blades are removed from the nitrogen and allowed to 'warm up' in a freezer, then warm up again to room temp.

Last, the blades go in an oven for a trip back up to 350 degrees for an hour or so, to temper the steel. Last step is to acid etch the blades. This is the step that really brings out the grain pattern that Damascus steel is so famous for.
Since this is all potentially dangerous stuff, the instructors do this after class on the first day. With the exception of the liquid nitrogen, all of this can be done in your own shop with nothing more high tech than an acetylene torch setup.

Tom takes care to point out that once the steel reaches 1550 degrees, the carbon molecules realign to form carbide, which is non-magnetic. So, if you don't have a furnace or kiln, just keep a magnet close to hand when you're raising the temperature of the blade. Once it's non-magnetic, you're there.

Day two starts with oohing and aahing over our freshly etched Damascus blades. The bolsters are given a preliminary shaping.

In the picture below, Ethan's knife has had the scales rough cut on a bandsaw and the mosaic pins installed (you'll see those in a few pictures too). The holes were drilled through the scales on a drill press, and the scales set with a 5 minute epoxy compound, with a black coloring added. The scale materials we selected were African Water Buffalo Horn, purchased from Jantz Supply before class, hence the black epoxy. One guy in class used ivory scales, so his epoxy was tinted white. Not only does the epoxy hide any imperfections or misalignments, but it forms an incredibly strong bond between the scale and the tang.

Here is John Fulks (one of the instructors) and Ethan mixing the tinted epoxy to secure Ethan's scales to the blade. That super awesome blade just in front of John is the one I made. John pretty much took us under his wing and made sure we had a great weekend, and a couple of beautiful knives to take home. I can't say enough good about John or the rest of the instructors.

Here, John is checking Ethan's blade to make sure the epoxy has properly cured and is ready for shaping.

Using a pair of vise grips to pressurize the epoxy during the curing process. Everything still gets shaped and polished, so no worry about scratches from the vise grips.

A closer, if not blurrier picture of the curing blade. You can make out the two mosaic pins in the handle.

Here's Ethan's blade all ready for the sharpening. At this point, everything is done except the sharpening of the blade edge. Note the details of the mosaic pins. This is a design called a 'Dogwood Blossom', due to it resembling the five petaled flower of the Dogwood Tree.
The masking tape around the blade was to keep it from being scratched by the sandpaper used in shaping the handle and bolsters.

Here's some detail on the pins. Not as much as I'd like though. I used the flash, and it overexposed. However you can see the undercut on the bolster, and the corresponding angle on the handle material. It doesn't really do anything to add strength to the knife or handle, but it really adds a degree of aesthetic that's hard to beat.
It makes the knife look tremendously more complex to build, when in fact, there really wasn't a lot more effort involved in the undercut than there would have been a straight butt joint. Cool, huh?

The other side of Ethan's blade.

Here is Ethan's blade, along with the one I made (on bottom). Due to the fact that I'm such a wonderful person, Tom let me make one a little different from the rest of the class. Note that my blade isn't the true 'drop point' design, and it's about an inch longer.

Here's a good shot of the mosaic pin. The pins were handmade in class as well.

And here's a great shot of the Damascus grain in the steel. This particular bar of steel had around 200 layers of steel. Damascus is made by layering multiple types of steel, with different carbon, nickel, etc. percentages. The sandwich of steels is heated, hammered flat and folded.

This process is repeated as many times as the forger wants to achieve the desired result. If the forger starts with 10 layers of steel, once it's heated and folded, he then has a bar with 20 layers. On the next fold, this is doubled, for 40 layers. The next folding gets 80 layers, and so on. Obviously, the more layers in a bar, the more work the forger put into process, and the more expensive, and potentially intricate the blade will be.

Here's some finished touches of my blade. I'd take some of Ethan's but I can't get it away from him.....

And lastly, a profound word of thanks and appreciation to Tom McGinnis and his instructors, John Fulks, Tim McGinnis and Mike McGinnis.

These gentlemen are not only craftsmen and artisans, but 'good people' in every sense. They took every effort and went well beyond the 'extra mile' to make sure every student walked away with a knife that they could be proud of and consider a family heirloom.

If you have the slightest interest in learning the steps that go into making a really fine high quality knife, and you're in the region, I highly recommend giving
Tom a shout. I won't quote rates or anything like that, since it's Tom's company, not mine.

But he made us the guarantee that if you weren't satisfied with your knife, you could leave it on the workbench when you left and he'd refund your money.

He has yet to issue any refunds.............

So... what's all this got to do with food?

Well, nothin' really... and everything.

Besides the fact that it was a darn cool weekend that I felt like sharing, I learned a heckuva lot about knives, caring for them, and how to sharpen them myself, which does relate to food. If you don't believe me, try carving up a cured pork belly with a dull knife.

However... Jantz Supply has a lot of kitchen cutlery blades in their catalog... all they need is finishing off by someone who knows what they're doing....

Chef's Knife on Foodista

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Jerkin Around...

In an earlier post (okay, okay... a couple of days ago) I snuck in a shot of some beef jerky I was making with my new handy dandy electric meat slicer.

Not only was slicing the meat an absolute breeze, but the ability to carefully dial in the thickness was pretty dang cool.

I love jerky. No, I mean I LOVE jerky. I can eat this stuff for breakfast. In fact I sometimes snag a piece out of the jerky jug before I hit the road in the morning.

The only thing I don't like about jerky is the sore jaw. You know what I'm talking about... after 4 or 5 hours of not stop jerky noshing, your jaws feel like you've gone ten rounds with Ali. I'm sure there's some theraputic benefit to my teeth and gums, but it's still a pain.

A few months back, I was making some jerky, and I noticed that the last few pieces I sliced up were almost paper thin (okay, not really, but they were really, really thin) when they went onto the dehydrator.

Next day, I snagged one and started to chow down when I noticed the texture was almost like a potato chip. Literally. It was crispy, crumbly, yet still beefy and flavorful. It was like eating a jerky chip.

SO.... that got me thinking... if I could get the meat sliced down thin, say about 1/16 of an inch, would I get it to dry to the chip-like consistency?

Enter the electric meat slicer. Thanks to modern technology, I was able to get nearly wafer thin slices. A quick bath in the marinade, and onto the dehydrator.

Another side benefit was about a 12 hour dry time instead of the usual 18 to 24.

Was it good? oh yeah baby.... goooood.

Here's some on a plate.

Here's a jerky 'chip'. Kinda hard to see just how thin this is, but when it hits your mouth and you bite down, it just crumbles apart and all that beefy flavor hits you.

I did some slices with the thicker cuts as well, but this wafer thin style is definitely a keeper in my book.

And here's my marinade, just in case anyone cares.

1 cup soy sauce
tsp black pepper
2 tsp garlic powder
2 tsp onion powder
6 tbs molasses
2 tbs liquid smoke
1 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tbs fajita marinade
2 tbs Head Country dry rub (if you don't have this, no sweat)

Mix it up and marinate for 5-10 minutes.

Only problem is.... if you're not a jerky jerk yet... this stuff is worse than crack.
So begin at your own risk!!!!!

Monday, March 23, 2009

The newest addition to the tool cabinet...

... is my new Chef's Choice Model 610 electric meat slicer.

Got this little gem last week on the day we departed for knifemaking school, so it sat all weekend... boxed up and waiting... until tonight.

Stopped by the store tonight to lay in provisions for the hungry horde, and while I was there I snagged a couple of rump roasts that looked pretty nice. I had jerky on my mind... especially since I didn't have to slice that crap by hand anymore.

But, I digress, and this post isn't about the jerky. That might come in a day or so, depending on how it turns out.

The slicer performed extremely well. For a device in the 100 buck price range, I was very impressed. It sliced through the roasts equally well, whether they were near frozen, or just cold. Thickness control is really nice, with a clearly labeled knob that go as far as 7/8" thick. And let's face it... if you want it thicker than that, then you need to get a knife.

Here's the blade set to shaved thickness....

And here it is maxed out....

Cord storage is kinda cool... it just pushes up into the base, except for the plug...

The throw distance on the slide tray is pretty nice too... almost a foot with the slide locked on the transport, which should for for most anything, except bacon.

But I'm betting that if you get the bacon good and chilled, you could slice it without the slide tray...

Internal gears are plastic, but this unit got a lot of good reviews on Amazon, so we'll see how it goes. Cleanup is pretty fast and the unit breaks down and reassembles pretty quickly.

All in all, I'm pretty happy for the first use. Like anything, time will tell... but so far, it's looking good.

Oh... and here's the jerky drying out...

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Knife Making Class....

... more to come. Just got back home a little while ago, and dead tired.

Top one is my son's... bottom one is mine. Handmade (from scratch) Damascus Steel Knives.