Replica Edgetools
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Replica Edgetools

Someone who wants a knife or axe suitable for 479 BCE has three basic approaches:

  • You can buy it finished. Reproduction metalworkers often focus on fighting, hunting, and tableware, but Ebay can be your friend for old craft tools!
  • You can buy the blade and mount it yourself.
  • You can make both blade and handle.

If you want to make the blade, you have two basic approaches: forging (where you take a piece of steel of the right weight and hit it until it has the right shape) and stock removal (where you cut outline of your blade out of a sheet of steel, then grind it until it has the right cross-section). Like Matthew Amt says, you can do more than you think with an angle grinder and some mild steel scraps from your local metal supermarket. Check out your local college, blacksmith’s society, or historical site to see if there is someone who can teach you!

If you buy the blade, watch out for:

  • thin spines! Most small medieval knives have blades 2-3 mm thick at the back.
  • slab-sides! If you can tell they stamped a ‘knife shape’ out of a flat sheet of steel, and passed a grinder along the edges just enough that they could sharpen it, you can tell they made it with 20th century technology not ancient technology.
  • decorations and metal fittings! If they are more complicated than rivets in the hilt, or some lines and circles on the handle, they probably are not appropriate to the culture you are representing.
  • too big! Makers today often add 10-20% to length and width so their knives will look more impressive.
  • too heavy! Especially in big knives and swords, makers often make blades too thick and don’t taper enough from the back of the blade to the edge or from the tang to the point.

It is a good idea not to trust anything you hear from a dealer or read on their website about original objects unless you can look at the site report or academic book they are citing and see that it agrees. If you don’t know anything about traditional edgetools, a good place to start is:

  • J. Cowgill, M. de Neergaard, and P. Wilthew, Knives and Scabbards. Medieval Finds from Excavations in London: 1. Boydell Press: Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2000

But in the end, any simple knife with a carbon-steel blade and a wooden, horn, bone, or antler grip is much better than nothing!

If you chose a whittle tang (aka. Griffdorn and hidden tang), you could use cutler’s resin from tree resin, wax, and a filler like charcoal or sawdust or dried dung to glue the tang into the handle (check Tutankhamun’s tools and Ötzi’s axe?), or you could try Theophilius’ method using frankincense powder or sulphur powder (book 3, chapter 93). Theophilius shapes the tang to be a good fit for the hole in the handle, then wraps the blade in a damp linen cloth to protect the blade from overheating and losing its temper while he heats the tang to melt the frankincense; a friend prefers to quickly drill the hole and burn it to shape by inserting the red hot tang again and again until it fits, so wraps the blade with a folded copper sheet so the repeated heatings don’t soften the blade. There are some 19th century recipes for cutler’s resin on Bladesmith’s Forum.

  • John G. Hawthorne and Cyril Stanley Smith (tr.), Theophilius on Divers Arts: The Foremost Medieval Treatise on Painting, Glassmaking and Metalwork. Dover Publications Inc: New York, 1979.

Custom Cutlers

Firms like Arma Bohemia (CZ), Tod’s Workshop (UK), Paul Binns (UK) and Davis Reproductions (USA) will take a drawing and set of measurements and give you a knife for somewhere in the $50 to $200 range. I am too poor to commission custom knives, so I can’t speak to any of these firms from experience!

Don’t overlook the possibility that there are cutlers in your area without a web presence.

Reproductions of Medieval Through 18th Century Knives

Firms like Phil Fraser (UK), Tod Cutler (UK), and Jas. Townsend (USA) sell off-the-rack copies of medieval through 18th century knives. All of these will be different from ancient Greek and Persian knives in many ways, and its your responsibility to do the research and decide whether this is a problem!

Distributors of Bare Blades

A number of people sell excellent knife blades made to modern taste for $15-60 each. The blades and tangs have modern shapes and are made from modern steels (so they will be sharper and more resilient than the best knife in the world in 479 BCE). Some of the least modern-looking blades come from brands like Lauri Carbon, Puronvarsi, Green River/Russel Camping, Brostrom, Yakutian, and Kuikka but in the end these are modern knives made to hit modern price points and please modern tastes!

Nothing made today will be perfect: even if you smelt the iron and cut the wood yourself, you are a modern person not an ancient Greek or Persian. But if you do some research, then make or buy the best knife you can, that is something to be proud of!

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