How I Became a Knife Steel Metallurgist

By Larrin

Thanks to Jon Broida of Japanese Knife Imports and Anton Kudris for becoming Knife Steel Nerds Patreon supporters!

When I was 16 I went with my father to the Las Vegas Custom Knife show. My interest in custom knives up to that point had been pretty limited. My father, Devin, has run a Damascus steel business for as far back as my memory goes. I remember looking at the A.G. Russell catalog and seeing some of the cool knives. I remember wanting a pocket knife, but I don’t remember being any more interested in knives than I was in, say, Vans shoes. At the knife show, however, my perspective changed. There was table after table of custom knives and custom knifemakers all with different styles and stories to sell their knives. Knifemakers come in all different types from the aw-shucks cowboy to the intense self-defense salesmen. I was most interested in the knifemakers that were making claims about the superior performance of their knives. From the lockup, to edge geometry, to steel, etc. there were barkers promoting it all. I spoke to a man who claimed that he had a proprietary steel for his fillet knives that was better than any other available. He flexed the knives 90° to demonstrate the superiority of the steel. Another knifemaker boasted about his extensive heat treatment protocol that would lead to the best performing hunting knives available.

This image is of the Oregon Knife Show and was taken from [1]

I began asking my father questions about steel and heat treatment, a subject that he also has a lot of interest in. While he was best known for his damascus, he enjoyed making hunting knives for local hunters and chef’s knives for our kitchen. He would get reports back from the hunters on how the knife held an edge, or how it survived going through bone, etc. He is/was opinionated about optimal edge geometry (thin flat grind or shallow convex grind) and steel selection (AEB-L or various tool steels). Dr. John Verhoeven’s book on Metallurgy for Bladesmiths was in the draft stage and my father had been sent copies of early chapters to provide feedback. I read that book and others that my father had and joined a couple knife forums online. Within a year or so I was arguing about steel properties online. I’m not sure exactly why I was drawn to steel and metallurgy specifically. I am a nerd and I think the engineering aspects of knife design drew me in. To this day, it is the metallurgy of steel that interests me the most about knives. I probably like the metallurgy more than the knives themselves. Sharpening knives and cutting up some vegetables for a good stew are very enjoyable activities, but studying the metallurgy of steel is my favorite aspect of knives.

Moving to Rural Nevada

We moved to Panaca, Nevada when I was 8 so that my dad could escape the heat of Las Vegas when running the forge. Panaca is a town of under 1000 people about 2.5 hours north of Las Vegas. We had a newly built house in suburban Las Vegas and it felt like a big step backward to move to Panaca. There were no fast food restaurants or even traffic lights; and only a single grocery store. I struggled in school at Panaca Elementary and I had a hard time fitting in. It seemed like the small-town kids already had well-entrenched friendships and my introverted personality was ineffective at breaking in. I missed my friends from Las Vegas and we couldn’t even get good TV reception in Panaca. It was frequently boring. Attending small schools had pros and cons. The class sizes were small. It was easy to make the sports teams, the band, the high school plays, etc. On the flip side, the quality of those programs was also reduced because of lack of both funding and competition among students. While every high school boy dreamed to be the football star, the number of kids practicing their singing skills to get the lead of the musical was very small.

In my high school there were few teachers, so if you didn’t connect with one, you were going to have a hard time. I had the same math teacher from 8th grade until I graduated and I struggled to “get it.” I passed with a series of B’s and C’s, but it was not connecting. I had no dreams of a career in science or engineering. I had no dreams of really anything. Neither of my parents graduated from college and they had little advice to provide. I am the oldest of six children and I think my parents were still learning. High school graduation came sooner than I realized it would and I wasn’t ready for college. I had missed the ACT my Junior year when I was supposed to take it and instead did it the summer before my senior year 80 miles away in Cedar City, Utah. I think I had taken a single practice test out of the book they sent me in the mail. As part of taking the test you mark down a couple schools to send the scores to so I randomly chose a couple, including Dixie State, a junior college in southern Utah. I asked my uncle if I could live with him and his family while I attended Dixie State and he agreed. I signed up for math, English, and biology because that was what I had taken in high school. None of this was particularly thought through.

Junior College

In my pre-calculus class I was taught by Mr. Bowler, who was a lawyer that enjoyed teaching math on the side. Mr. Bowler taught for the love of math, and that was obvious in his teaching. He was enthusiastic and frequently used humor to illustrate concepts and keep students interested. Math suddenly clicked for me in that class. Everything Mr. Bowler said made perfect sense to me. I could breeze through the homework assignments and ace all the exams. I couldn’t believe how simple it all was. I also took an Intro to Computer Science class and enjoyed it as well. My time at Dixie State was pivotal in building my confidence to pursue anything that I wanted.

This image of Dixie State in St. George, Utah taken from [2]

However, my life then took a detour from school. My father was diagnosed with Type II diabetes when I was still young and that disease was catching up to him while I was at Dixie. He was getting foot sores and due to complications with those he was more or less unable to work for several months. I worked in his shop for the next twelve months after my year at Dixie State. While I was happy to help the family where I could, I felt trapped in Panaca. I wasn’t continuing my education, people my own age were all far away going to college, and there was obviously nothing to do in Panaca. The year in Panaca did give me time to think about what it was I wanted to do, however. With my newfound confidence, the idea of pursuing a degree in Materials Science seemed more and more of a realistic possibility. Crucible steel had been developing products like S30V to the knife steel industry and I was in frequent contact with Crucible metallurgists pestering them with questions. It was exciting to learn about metallurgy and the process of designing a new steel. I realized that my dream was to develop new steels as well. I also made a couple kitchen knives in that year which taught me a lot about how knives are designed and constructed.

Engineering School

I applied for a transfer to the University of Nevada-Reno. Fortunately, it was a very inexpensive in-state school that had a Materials Science and Engineering program. I was able to use scholarships and grants to pay for school, as my parents didn’t have the money to pay for me to go. I soon learned that Dixie State had made me a bit too confident in my abilities. I was thrown into the deep end in Engineering school. My fellow students had attended suburban high schools with AP programs and they seemed to understand much more about what was going on than I did. My Physics professor began her first lecture by stating that she was going to skip the first three chapters because we had already covered that in AP Physics in high school. My Calculus teacher was not nearly as charismatic as Mr. Bowler. I was in trouble. I learned what “weed out” classes are and I had to study hard to avoid being weeded. I had a roommate that didn’t make it past his second semester of Electrical Engineering. Materials Science and Engineering was a small program, only three of us started as freshman. The other two switched to the business program after the first year. It was occasionally overwhelming, and I often felt out of place in Engineering school with other students who seemed much smarter than me, the son of a blacksmith from Nowhere, Nevada. Perhaps the others were struggling with insecurities as well, but we all kept them to ourselves.

My wife and me while we were still living in Reno

Around my Junior year I had to start thinking about what my future career opportunities might be. I finally looked at my GPA and realized that it was much higher than I thought. I knew I had a couple C’s in my transcript, but due to other high grades the overall GPA was actually pretty good. I also knew that to design steel and to do research I would likely need to go to graduate school. I emailed Dr. Verhoeven and asked him where I should go for graduate school. He recommended Colorado School of Mines for its excellent steel program. I emailed the head of the steel research center at Colorado School of Mines and told him that I wanted to study steel. He told me to study for the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), a test I had never heard of that is the ACT/SAT for graduate school. I studied for months for that test and got a good score. I applied to Colorado School of Mines and got in. In retrospect I think I could have gotten in with worse scores and GPA because I had called and told them that I wanted to go there. Enthusiasm can cover up a multitude of sins.

Golden Children

Shortly after I moved to Reno to go to the University of Nevada I started dating Jessica. We dated for a couple years and were married between my sophomore and junior years. That helped because as a married, poor, couple financial aid was calculated based on our income rather than our parents. We worked at a call center job where we called people for surveys about random topics like health and the condition of Nevada roads. Although it was conveniently on campus and flexible with our schedule, it was also frequently boring calling random phone numbers and listening to answering machine messages. Jessica was on board with my going to graduate school and encouraged me to pursue my dream career. After being married a couple years we decided to have a baby. Jessica was fully pregnant while we were moving to Golden, Colorado. Golden is home to Coors, Colorado School of Mines, and Spyderco. We had our son in December just a few months after I started graduate school, because apparently I thought graduate school wouldn’t be time consuming enough by itself. I struggled to stay awake in 8am classes for the next several months. I was paid a small stipend while in grad school which meant I didn’t have to take out crushing loans. It also meant we lived on very little since I had only the small stipend and my wife was taking care of our son. We loved Golden and our lives there despite being poor. We had our second child, a girl, right before I wrote my thesis because I apparently thought I needed to be a little more busy.

Me and my newborn son shortly after we moved to Golden

Graduate school was the next step up in school difficulty. From high school, to junior college, to the university, to graduate school, each meant that the classes were harder and the people were smarter. Apart from the classes, however, there was research. I spent at least half my time doing experiments for my eventual thesis. It was through doing this research that I knew that I had chosen the right path. I loved reading the scientific literature for the background information on my project, designing experiments to further our understanding, and presenting my findings. We had a very good program at the steel research center where we wrote reports about our experiments twice a year and presented them to metallurgist representatives of corporate sponsors that supported the steel center. That was highly beneficial for learning how to write and how to present research. We were asked questions by the sponsors which was occasionally terrifying, but a very good exercise in learning to think on your feet. The PhD qualifying exam was the most difficult thing I have ever done. It included an 8 hour written exam on all metallurgy topics, a 4 hour written exam on a specific area (I chose phase transformations and kinetics), and an oral exam. I studied for several months and have never stressed out over anything more in my life. The thesis defense at the end was nerve-wracking, sure, but not nearly as bad as that qualifying exam. I wrote a 160 page thesis, re-wrote it several times when my advisor didn’t like it, and finished my time at graduate school.

Pittsburgh Steel(ers)

While my initial dream was to work in knife steels, my thesis research was all on automotive sheet steel. I learned to love sheet steel as well, as it is an area of active development with the ever-increasing safety and gas mileage requirements of vehicles. We are working on the “3rd generation” of advanced high strength steels and it is an exciting type of steel to develop for right now. I applied to work at a few steel companies and took a job in Pittsburgh. It seemed like a nice city and a good job, and I was right about both. My family has been doing well. My wife has a birth photography business that she excels at. My son is doing well in first grade and my daughter well in preschool. My son likes to brag to his friends that his dad is a scientist. My daughter is most interested in princesses and ponies right now but she also likes to play in the dirt. We bought a house in the “south hills” of Pittsburgh and we are living the suburban life.

While I enjoy my job developing automotive sheet steel, the nagging voice in the back of my head kept bringing me back to knife steel. I had participated less and less on the knife forums while in graduate school. In part because I was busy, but I think in a way I was trying to convince myself that I needed to focus on sheet steel because there were more development opportunities there. However, I began to realize that I didn’t need to ignore one to do the other. I decided to start participating on the forums more regularly and rekindle my love for tool steel and martensitic stainless steels. They really are quite different than sheet steels. It almost feels like a completely different type of material in some ways. Anyone who has spent any time on forums knows that the same questions come up over and over again in a loop. It doesn’t bother me, particularly, but I knew I could save some time by writing up information on steel and metallurgy rather than re-writing every couple months. I experimented with writing some short articles for the forums, but it wasn’t quite working. Forums are designed for discussion and so posting a long write-up didn’t really fit. Also, it’s not really kosher to post the same thing to multiple places so I had to pick and choose what forum I would post to. After 2 or 3 days of discussing whatever I had written up, the post was several pages back in the past and was more or less lost to anyone who wanted to find it again. I decided to make a website where I could write articles and link to them so whoever is interested can find them.

Making the website was not purely altruistic. I do want to provide good information to those that are looking for it. But I also wanted an excuse to research things that I never found good answers to. Is bainite really tougher than martensite? Why or why not? What steels actually cut longer in a knife? Which steels are the toughest? Does toughness directly correlate to chipping resistance? How do you design a knife steel from beginning to end? I try to strike a balance between my interests and what will be interesting to others. The articles have evolved somewhat as I have gotten feedback from readers. It is difficult sometimes to make the articles in depth but also understandable. Some subjects I can keep things simple and I think most anyone can read them. Some are relatively complex and even if I do my best to put things in the simplest terms I still get occasional complaints that they are hard to understand. I can’t just blame them for not reading more carefully, so I have tried to make them as understandable as possible.

This image of my family taken from my wife’s Facebook page

The Future of Knife Steel Nerds

With support through Patreon I have also expanded from just writing articles to also doing new research. We have done a couple impact toughness studies with heat treatments of different steels like CruForgeV and CruWear. I have purchased a small impact tester for testing of knife edges to correlate steel properties and edge geometry with resistance to chipping and rolling. I plan on buying more equipment to speed up this kind of research. The website has connected me to many more people than ever before and knife steel research as a hobby might even be better than having it as a job. I have more exciting articles coming on different topics and various projects going on with others that I hope will come to fruition. The outlook for knife steel research is bright.

Thank you Mom, Dad, my wife Jessica, John Verhoeven, and Mr. Bowler for making Knife Steel Nerds possible.