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A Spike Knife Tutorial

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This tutor will explain how I go about creating a knife from a railroad spike. My way is not the only way. It’s just what works for me. If you attempt to make a knife using these directions, please remember to protect yourself and use common sense as you work.

Here is a photograph of a barrel of spikes that I spotted one day while walking on the The Silver Comet Trail near my home. Over the course of several months, I saw two additional barrels. A word of caution, never take something like this without permission. Due to their locations, it’s obvious that the barrels rolled down the steep hills and the workers decided it was too much trouble to go after them.
Spikes
I have found a supply of spikes for sale at a salvage yard near my home (Taylor’s Junk Yard in Cartersville). I have never tried to buy any direct from the R/R but I understand that they do sell used spikes as salvage. Not only is it unsafe but in my home state of Georgia it’s illegal to walk active railroad lines and pick up abandoned spikes (trespassing and theft). I have bought mine spikes from Keystone Spike in Pa.

The first step in the process is to clean the spike. Sometimes that means nothing more that brushing with a stiff wire brush. But for the ones that are in worse shape, I put them in a bucket containing a solution of 50/50 hydrochloric acid (muriatic acid) and water. The spikes will remain in the bucket for up to a week to help loosen up years of rust and grime. Then I remove the residue with a wire brush. Next, I use a solution of TSP and water to neutralize the acid. I have heard of some people using Windex to do the same thing. Don’t forget this step before you put the spike in the forge. I found out the hard way and ended up having to re-line my forge. The hydrochloric acid ate a hole not only through the Satinlite and Inswool but also the fire brick.

Next, I preheat my forge. Don’t ask me for a temperature because I couldn’t tell you. Once the lining starts to glow, the spike is placed in the forge and heated until a magnet will no longer stick. Now the metal is ready to be shaped. I like to form the blade first. Here is a hint that I found on anvilfire.com – http://anvilfire.com/iForge/index.htm #97 - start hammering on the Bias or diamond, not one of the four flat sides. This gives a bit more spread. As the metal cools, return the spike to the forge for re-heating. During this blade forming process, I think about the handle design. If I want a 180 degree twist in the handle, I’ll form the blade’s edge 180 degrees opposite from how the handle will be held. If I’m going to use a 360 degree twist, I form the edge in line with the handle.
Anvil
Scale tends to form on the spike rather easily. If you wet the head of your hammer with water during the forging process most of the scale will literally exploded off. When I say explode, I mean it - be ready for a loud bang when you hit the hot spike.

Once the blade is forged as close to final shape as possible on the anvil, it’s time to put the twist in the handle. The spike is again heated to non-magnetic and the blade is placed in a vise. I use a tool that I made from two pipe wrenches to clamp down on the head of the spike. Now it just a matter of deciding whether I want to put a left or right hand twist on this particular spike. The head of the spike is rotated until it aligns with the cutting edge of the blade.

Now that the spike has been forged into the rough shape of the knife, it is annealed. I heat it up in the forge to just past non-magnetic and hold it there for appx. 1 minute. The spike is then removed from the forge and placed in a container of vermiculite to cool slowly overnight. Most of the left-over scale can be removed by soaking the spike in a container of white vinegar for a few hours followed by a scrubbing with the wire brush.

Next, the blade is taken down to “near” the final shape on a belt grinder. I use the Reeder Products 2 x 72 grinder. I start with a 60 grit belt and work up to a 220. The raised areas of the handle are smoothed down on the grinder using a 320 grit belt.
Now it’s time to harden the cutting edge. Low carbon steel will harden but not to the degree of spring or tool steels. To harden a spike I heat it in the forge to just past the point where a magnet will stick and then I quench it in the oil until it cools. My oil is kept at room temperature rather that pre-heated (based on the recommendations of Dr. Jim Hrisoulas).

Tempering is done immediately after the quench. I clean the spike off as much as I can with rags and a wire brush before placing it into a toaster oven which has been pre-heated to 375 degrees. The knife will remain in the oven for 1 ½ hours. This reduces the brittleness of the steel and increase the toughness.
Heat
                                          Treat
The final grinding is done using a 400 grit j-weight belt. A well-used 220 grit belt is employed to sharpen the edge. I clean up the handle with a wire brush wheel mounted on a buffer. A ‘brushed’ finish is sometimes put on the blade using different weight Scotch-Brite belts.

The last step is to add my name. I use an electro-etching machine that I build based on plans from Chris Crawford’s website. I buy my stencils and etching fluid from International Marking Group in New York. A coat of Renaissance Wax not only shines everything up, but it help protect from rust formation.
Stencil

A knife made from a Railroad spike is more of a novelty than a serious tool. That does not mean that it can’t actually be used to cut, it’s just that the blade will need to be re-sharpened more often than a blade made from high carbon steel.

Click HERE To View The Chapter On Railroad Spikes From The American Railroad Engineering Association Manual.

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Spike Knife Quench


CU Spike
'CU' Head Stamp Meaning Copper Has Been
Added To This Spike And The '$' Which Is The Brand Symbol For Gerdau Ameristeel

MC Spike
Another Gerdau Ameristeel Spike Of Medium Carbon - 'MC'

HC Spike
The Markings Here Are 'HC', '894', and 'V'

RHC Spike
This One Is Marked With An 'R' and 'HC'

V2HC Spike
This One Is Marked 'V2' and 'HC'

VHC Spike
This One Is Marked 'V3' and 'HC'