HackSpace magazine

Making a Cheese Knife

By Ben Everard. Posted

Knife-making has always interested me as a hobby. I think it’s because I like the idea of tool-making and knives are probably the tool I use most, and they’re among the oldest tools around.

However, there are a few bits that have put me off going all the way into knife-making – there’s quite a bit of kit you need (including a way of heat-treating blades), and there’s also a fundamental limit on the number of knives I need or want.

It seems like a big investment in time, equipment, and material to make the four or five knives I need. I’d been looking for an easier way of getting into the hobby, when one night I was struggling to cut up a truckle of Cheddar with a tiny cheese knife. Why don’t they make decent-sized cheese knives? No matter, I’ll do it myself.

The big advantage of cheese knives is that they don’t need to hold a sharp edge. This means two things. Firstly, you don’t need to heat-treat the steel, and secondly, you can use cheaper blends of stainless steel that are easy to work with and don’t go rusty.

For my first cheese knife, I created a cleaver design with a fork for picking up the cheese, and I’ve been using this for about a year with great success. This month, I decided to create a second in a chopper design. This doesn’t have a handle in the traditional sense, but has one built into a squarish blade. Hopefully, this should make it easier to accurately guide the knife through hard cheeses, and should also be a stronger design using unhardened steel.

There are two fundamental methods for making a knife – forging, where you start with a lump of steel (often as a round bar), and heat-hammer-repeat until you’ve got a knife-shaped piece of metal. The second method is to start with a bit of metal larger than the knife you want to make, and cut it up until the bit remaining is knife-shaped. This ‘stock-removal’ method is much less efficient than forging, but it’s also far easier, and the only option if you don’t have a forge and anvil.

CUT IT OUT

I started with a 30cm square of 2mm-thick food- grade stainless steel. This was far bigger than I needed, but it was the only size available, and I’ll be able to use the offcuts in other projects. The previous cheese knife was made from 0.9 mm-thick stainless steel, and it was a little wobbly, so I opted for a thicker size this time.

I sketched out the shape of the blade with a pencil, then cut this out with an angle grinder. Angle grinders can’t cut curves (as it puts stresses on the side of the disc), so you have to cut out a rough shape around the desired shape, then use a grinding disc to work the straight edges down to curves.

This was a bit of an experiment, since I had no idea if this shape of blade would be useful, so for the sake of speed, I didn’t pin the handle in place – it’s only held in place by a generous dollop of epoxy resin. Perhaps a little too generous as it overflowed onto the blade a little. I left the 15-minute epoxy to harden for two hours, and it was still gloopy!

The British winter had evidently come a little sooner than I thought – it was below the curing temperature, so the proto-knife had to come inside to warm up before the glue would set.

Speaking of the handle, it’s just two pieces of white pine offcuts. You can get some really good-looking pieces of wood for knife handles, but since this knife is just a test, I decided to go with the cheapest option and then spend money once we were more confident of the design. That said, while it doesn’t have the luxury feel of some wood, white pine with a bit of oil (we used butcher’s block oil as it’s food-safe, and we had some left over from a previous project) does look nice.

The final process was just sanding down the wood to a comfortable handle shape – a sanding attachment on a rotary tool is a good way to very quickly shape wood. I left it quite square with a little rounding to take the edge off the corners. The blade got a similar treatment, but with a grinding rotary tool attachment to smooth the cut edges and give it a blunt blade.

That’s all there is to it. Bar the unexpected wait time on the epoxy; the knife only took a couple of hours to make. But, of course, the ultimate question for any knife is: how does it cut? I’m fairly pleased with how this came out. It feels really solid in the hand, and I like the cutting motion of pressing down. However, the sheet steel used might be a little too thick. For my next iteration of attempting to design the perfect cheese knife, I’ll try some slightly thinner sheet steel.

Stock Removal Tools

There’s no right set of tools that you need for stock-removal knife-making. I used an angle grinder and a rotary multitool, but you could use a metal saw and a file – anything that’s capable of removing stainless steel should work. For finishing the blade and handle properly, a good set of sandpaper will give you a better finish than we’ve achieved, but these are just prototypes. We’re very slowly designing our perfect set of cheese tools, and we’ll spend the time necessary to make a good-looking set once we’ve finalised the basic design.


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