The basic do-it-yourself process to make a loop carving tool or a hook trimming tool is to sharpen the middle of a length of flat steel to an edge, heat it, bend it into shape, fit it into a wood handle, and finally secure them together with string or wire. A piece of flat steel can also be used to make a knife blade. It’s heated and hammered to harden the metal, filed to sharpen it, and hammered again to harden the cutting edge.
Sharpen and Shape
There are two ways to sharpen the edge of a metal strip, one is using pliers to hold it and a grinder to sharpen it. The second is to place it in a vise and sharpen it with a fine-tooth file or a hand grinder, such as a rotary tool, fitted with a fine-grit grinding stone.
To shape the sharpened metal strip use a square or round nose pliers to bend it into shape. Larger, simple loop shapes can be easily bent without breaking (1). Note: Metal is brittle, so it’s necessary to bend it slowly. For bending more radical shapes, such as one with a curve on one side and a straight edge on the opposite side, heat the metal strip with a propane torch before bending and shaping it with pliers.
To make a knife blade, heat the end of a 1½-inch length of flat steel until it glows red, then immediately hammer it to further flatten the blade. Heating and hammering is continued until the edge is thin, even, and flat. The heating softens or anneals the metal, making it easier to thin the edge. The hammering thins and work-hardens the metal so the blade keeps its edge. Use a fine-grain grinding stone or file to shape one end into a knife point or chisel shape.
To make a trimming tool, the blade is heated, then using square-end piers (lineman’s), the end of the blade is bent creating a right angle or L shape or further bent making a V shape.
For a thin loop carving tool, the blade is heated then bent over a nail held secured in a vise. Use round-nosed pliers to make small U shapes. It may take several heatings and bendings to achieve the desired shape for very a specific carving tool. Additional filing is done as needed.
While holding the metal loop tool with flat-nose pliers, heat it with a propane torch, then bend it into a U shape.
5-inch-long wood rods with slits and holes cut into them and metal carving/trimming loops ready to be attached.
Detail of different loop carving tools fitted and glued into drilled holes and cut slots.
Cut ½-inch diameter wooden rods into 5-inch lengths for the tool handles. Sand the ends to slightly round and soften the edges. The way that the metal loop is mounted to the handle determines whether the end is cut or drilled (2 and 3). For knives, chisels, and very small carving tools, sand the slotted end of the wooden handle, where the tang will fit into, to a taper (4).
Fitting Tangs and Wrapping Handles
For small cutting blade tools, drill a 1-inch-long hole into a handle with a tapered end using a drill bit that is slightly smaller than the width of the metal tool’s tangs. Clamp the wooden handle into a vise, add a drop of glue into the hole, then use pliers to fit the loop tool’s tangs into the hole. If the loop tool is too long, it will wobble when using it and may need to be reshaped or cut smaller.
For scoop-shaped and V-shaped tools, drill two holes in the handle that are slightly smaller than the metal tool about ¼ inch apart and 3⁄4 inch deep. Clamp the wooden handle into a vise, add a drop of glue into the hole, then use pliers to fit the tangs into the holes.
For larger U-shaped scoop tools, use a hand saw to cut two grooves into the wooden handle opposite each other and just deep enough to hold the thin metal tangs. Wrap the handle with string or carpet thread to bind the metal tangs in place (5). Coat the entire string surface with wood glue to prevent the metal strips from shifting (6).
Detail of carving/trimming tools: a bent L shape and a small rounded curve.
Vise holding a wood rod fitted with a metal tip while string is wrapped around and glued to hold the string in place.
Detail of finished carving/trimming tools with various wraps applied, including: string, fishing line, and copper wire.
For a flat shaver tool, cut or shave one end of the handle flat just wide enough to hold the tang in place. Wrap fishing line around the handle and coat it with epoxy (see figure 6). Fishing line and epoxy are the strongest method to bind the metal tool to the wooded handle.
For angled shaver tools, use a thin saw blade to make a one-inch-deep cut dividing the end in two. Fit the tool ends into the cut, then bind the end with copper wire to hold the tool in place (see figure 6).
Tools with two tangs pressed against or fitted into the handle are sturdier, stronger and can be larger in size compared to single tang tools.
To sharpen the blade after repeated use, place it in a vise and use a fine-tooth file or rotary-tool grinding bit to sharpen the edge.
Caution: Always wear protective clothing and eye wear when using saws and grinders. Wear appropriate light-sensitive goggles and have a fire extinguisher nearby when using a propane torch. Wear a dust mask when working with saw dust and when grinding metals.
John W. Conrad writes technical ceramic books and articles for ceramic magazines. He is a retired ceramics professor and now a guest professor at Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts in China. He lives in Encinitas, California, where he also maintains a studio practice. To see more of his work, visit johnconradceramics.net.