Making My First Knife; An Ulu Knife.

December 23, 2014

For individuals who have spent time reading articles on this website, you have probably figured out by now that, I am not much for aesthetics.  I am a “form and function” type of person who likes and appreciates ideas and things that reflect this type of thinking. I like things that are simple and practical; not much caring for what they look like. I also like it when one object can be used for another task than what it was originally intended for. Even better is, when an object can be repurposed from its original intended use, into another completely different object of “form and function”; extending its life on Earth even farther than what was imagined for it at its creation.

Recently, I have become interested in making knives.  I am NOT interested in producing a product for sale!  Knives are incredibly important and useful tools in our lives, and I wanted to challenge my skill sets to see if I could make one.  Following my “form and function” mentality, I chose the Inuit “Ulu” knife as my first bladesmithing project. The Ulu knife is the ubiquitous “jack of all trades” blade of our northern, native cultures.  The knife design just makes sense to me!  (To learn more about Ulu knives, follow this link: The Ulu Knife Factory.)

Following is how I made my very first blade; my version of an Ulu knife.

Ulu knife designs have a curved semi-circular shape to the blade. That’s where I started with my own design.  In spying the base of my smoke detector, its diameter looked just about right for my needs.  Using a pen, I traced around the base of the smoke detector, on to a piece of heavy paper stock.

Next, I needed to create a handle for the blade.  Using a small carpenter’s square, I drew out some more lines to finish my design. Then I cut the shape out using a pair of scissors.

Before cutting into the steel that I ultimately wanted to make the Ulu knife out of, I decided to practice first on a piece of scrap 4130 chromoly sheet steel I had lying around.  I traced out the shape and cut the blank out of the sheet using my Makita grinder and a cut-off wheel, my Dremel tool with a cut-off wheel, a holesaw, and some drill bits as well.

But, as is often the case with me, once I got into the project, a different shape came to my mind.  I decided to “tweak” my original design to reflect those ideas.  In the image below, you will see the design that I came up with, and the one that I wanted to recreate for actual kitchen use.

This Ulu knife is my “practice” knife, made out of 4130 chromoly steel.

Once I had the shape finalized, I copied it to a piece of card stock paper and set it aside.

The actual working knife I wanted to fabricate out of an old, 14” diameter tablesaw blade that had been given to me by a friend.

Using my “practice knife” as a pattern, I traced around its circumference to transfer its shape to the tablesaw blade.

Next, I marked points on the design where I needed to start drilling holes to begin the cutting out process. I used a spring-loaded centerpunch to make sure that the drill bits I was planning to use, accurately started where they were suppose to, and to not wander across the surface of the sawblade.

After I had marked my starting points, using my old Shopsmith drill press, I drilled pilot holes through the sawblade at the centerpunch mark locations.

I followed the pilot holes with a “step” drill bit to increase the diameter of the pilot holes.

Then, I shifted to a one inch holesaw to remove the required material in the handhold area of the blade.

After all of the holes were drilled, I shifted back and forth between my Dremel tool, (With a reinforced cut-off wheel tightened in its chuck.), and my Makita 4” grinder, (Also with a cut-off wheel mounted to its arbor.), to cut the Ulu knife blank out of the tablesaw blade.

Once I had the knife blank cut out, I followed with fairing up the rough spots.  Again, I used my Dremel tool and my grinder to get me closer to the lines that I had drawn.  Hand files were used too!

As I was getting closer to the final blade shape, I knew that I had to think about hardening and tempering the blade.  I know nothing about this process, or even if I had to go through with it because I was using a sawblade as my stock. But, I decided to follow through with all of the usual, “normal steps” that it would take to produce a working a knife.

I sat myself in front of my computer monitor and I watched a whole host of knife making videos on YouTube and Vimeo.  I particularly focused on the ones that included the hardening and tempering process in the footage. What follows is what I came up with for my first try at this.

I drove to my local Goodwill store and I paid a grand total of $4.00 for a small crockpot.  As I watched videos online, I noticed that knifemakers pre-heated the quenching oil of their choice, (Which usually seemed to be a vegetable oil of some kind.), before dunking the blade blank into the bath.  I thought what better use of a crockpot then!  I could preheat the oil a little bit, and when I was finished with it, I could cover the oil in the crockpot with the lid, and slide everything underneath my workbench.

Because I am a 30 year veteran yacht carpenter, I have access to scrap woods like teak, cherry, mahogany, maple, and poplar.  I chose to make scales for my knife out of teak and poplar, (Which is the ubiquitous combination of woods used for cabinsoles in yachts.)

I glued up a blank of teak and poplar that I could mill the scales out of.

Then I trimmed the blank down and drilled the scales for brass pins, (Actually, brass welding rod!).

I used the drilled scales to lay out the pin holes that needed to be drilled through the knife handle area.

For the hardening process, I piled up some fire brick I have to create a crude forge of sorts.  I heated the blade up to “cherry red” using a MAPP gas torch.

When the blade was to (rough!) temperature, I quenched it in the bath of canola oil.

Once the blade had cooled back down, I placed it in my toaster oven, set at 400° F for 2 hours.

From here, I went through a lot of sandpaper to get the cutting edge where I wanted it! And, it IS wicked sharp!

Next, I epoxied the scales to the knife and shaped them to what felt good in my hand.

I added several coats of tung oil to the handle.

I also decided to glue up a “knife block” for the Ulu knife to sit at home in, when not in use. Again, I chose teak and poplar for the species of wood.

Finally, I wanted to add a “Maker’s Mark” to the blade.  I thought about this for quite a bit, and settled on a copy of a paw print of my dog, Reuben. For those that know the history of Reuben and me, they will understand and smile at the fact that Reuben has appeared, yet again, in another project of mine!

At 10 years old, I had to have Reuben “put down” the day after Thanksgiving this year.  We had a wonderful, full life together, but significant health issues had manifested themselves within Reuben’s body.  Reuben’s quality of life was affected by this.  It was time for him to move on to a healthier place, so I let him go……

A few days after I had Reuben put down, a card arrived in the mail from the vet clinic that Reuben had frequented.  It was a card of condolences, and in it was a paw print the doctor had taken from Reuben.  PERFECT!

Here is a photo of that print.

I transferred the image to my computer.

In Photoshop, I created “layers”; each of which was an outline of the pads of Reuben’s paw.

Then, I removed the background and printed out the image on to a piece of printer paper.

Next, I masked off the knife with some vinyl tape I had lying around.

On the backside of the paper that Reuben’s paw print was printed on, I heavily “scribbled” with a pencil.  Then, I cut out the little square with a pair of scissors.

I then taped the “paper paw” to the vinyl tape protecting the knife blade.

Working through a magnifying glass and using a pen, I traced the outline of each paw pad, then I removed the original drawing to reveal what would ultimately become my stencil for etching into the blade.

I am ready to “burn”!

For my electrical power source, I chose to use the rechargeable Lithium Ion battery from my 18 volt Bosch drill.

The “+ “ and “- “ signs are clearly marked on the battery which made it easy for me to figure out which lead needed to go where while etching.

To create convenient “posts” for me to connect the electrical leads to the battery, I “flattened” the ends of two short pieces of welding rod.  With this done, the welding rod “posts” clicked securely into place on the Bosch battery.

I purchased a package of four “alligator clips” from my local ACE Hardware store and made up two short electrical leads; one for “positive” and one for “negative”.  I connected the “positive” lead to the blade. The “negative” lead led to my electrode; which was a drill bit.

Next, I ripped off some “strips” of paper towel and folded them up into small square pads.  I dipped the “pad” into a solution of saltwater that I had mixed up, and then placed the saturated pad over Reuben’s paw print stencil on the blade.

Pressing down with the “negative electrode” I etched my “Maker’s Mark” into the Ulu knife.  When the pad turned black, I wiped off the debris from the blade and went at it again with a fresh pad.  I did this three times before I was satisfied with the depth of the etching.

And, the blade all cleaned up.

Here it is sitting at home in its block.

In the image below, you don’t have to look too long, or too closely, to see that the etching is off center.  I can tell you that I was very frustrated with myself for that!!!

However, my smart and lovely sister-in-law, (, commented on the issue by mentioning the following fact. She said, “You know Barry, Reuben was a little “off center” himself.  He only had three legs which made him walk a little off center. I think this is a fitting tribute to Reuben!”  What can I say to that! Perfect!

Here is a photo of Reuben taken this past summer. He was beginning to feel his age and had begun to wind down his life here on Earth.

In this image, Reuben had been in my life for just a short period of time.  He has four legs in the photo too!

This is my favorite photograph of Reuben!  It captures all that he was! This was back in the spring of 2006.

Finally, here is the last photograph I took of Reuben, the day before he left my life.

Thanks for reading!


Barry Buchanan

“Black Lab”

PS: I want to thank all of the expert knife makers who have taken the time to shoot, edit, and post their “How To” knife making videos on to the internet.  There are two knife makers I would like to specifically acknowledge, because I think their workmanship in both knife making and with a video camera are outstanding.  The first is “Trollskyy” and here is a link to his YouTube channel: Trollskyy.  The second is, Aaron Gough of Gough Custom knives.  Here is a link to Aaron’s YouTube channel: Gough Custom Knives.

Categories: Recent Posts | 19 Comments

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19 thoughts on “Making My First Knife; An Ulu Knife.

  1. Bob Vergeer

    Outstanding work. I’m impressed! BobbyVstrom

  2. Brad Wright

    So sorry to hear of Reuben’s passing Barry and beautiful work (as always).


  3. Jasmin

    I also am very sorry to hear of the passing Of Reuben. I know how it feels, terrible. This knife you made came out absolutely gorgeous and just the way it should be. Thank You for posting the step-by-step! Great job Barry! You’ve outdone yourself. Can’t wait to see the next challenge!~Jasmin

    • Hi Jasmin! Thanks for taking the time to read the story. Also thank you for your thoughts about Reuben and for the compliments too! The next challenge? Well, right now I am working on my second knife….. But, I really need to get back to working on my sailboat!

      Happy New Year!

  4. Hi Barry, I’m so sorry to read about Reuben. It would have been an agonising decision for you to make, but it sounds like he is in a better place. I think the makers mark is a fitting tribute, and I’m sure there will be many more projects to show his mark.
    I’ll probably never make a knife, but if I do I’ll come here first. Thanks for taking the time to post.

    Don “v-chops” Lamb

  5. Ok Barry, Parabéns pelo belo trabalho na faca. Esteja certo de que Reuben estará esperando nas portas do céu quando chegar tua hora, creia nisso irmão. Obrigado.

    • Thank you for your very kind words, Marcelo!

      (Ok Barry, Congratulations for the perfection work in the knife. Be certain from which Reuben it will be waiting in the doors of the sky when your hour arrives, believe in that brother. Thank you.)

  6. Chris

    Hey barry that was awesome and inspiring! What type of torch did you use?

  7. Chris

    also did you use straight iodized salt?

  8. philippe fougasse

    merci , pour votre site qui est un vrai régal. bonjour depuis le sud de la France

  9. David Harris

    Thank you for an interesting read, I have an old stinky Roti called Flint I dread the day coming, so I understand your sentiments all the best from a Scottish Buchanan

  10. I am Alaskan Inupiaq, living above the Arctic Circle. Ulus are a necessity up here, mainly used by women but the task of making an ulu usually goes to the man. I have made many ulus and I usually use old sawblades. They work good but you can get only 2 or 3 good sized blades out of one because the sawblade is tapered. I am wondering if you know where I can get some good steel the thickness of an ulu (sawblade), 6″ high and the length can be a few feet and I would cut out my own patterns as you do. If I can find an outfit that supplies such steel that would speed up production for me.

    • My suggestion would be to find a sawmill, or cabinet shop that is local to you. At least more local than my home state of Maine is! Hopefully, they would be able to guide you to a supply of sawblades, or better, supply you with what you would need. Thank you for adding some of your “backstory” to your post!

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